What books like Beloved are appropriate for 6th graders?
April 16, 2019 6:10 AM   Subscribe

I'm getting ready for a literature group with my 6th graders, and I would love to introduce them to Toni Morrison. But is it age-appropriate?

I believe Beloved could be a profound experience for them, but even with parental permission I fear it might be a little too adult for them. It's been a while since I read some of Morrison's earlier books, so can someone suggest one that might be appropriate for mature 6th graders? I think A Mercy would be too difficult narratively for them, and Home I myself found a bit slow. I have not yet read God Help the Child.

Alternatively, I'm open to other suggestions for a non-white audience of readers.My kids have already read most of the YA books like Chains by Laurie Hale Anderson, so I am looking for more for them outside of the teen genre. They are advanced readers for their age. Also open to nonfiction books that explore questions of identity in general and race.
posted by archimago to Education (30 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Maya Angelou's "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings," maybe a bit less intense?
posted by johngoren at 6:12 AM on April 16 [4 favorites]

At that age our teacher read The Outsiders to us, stopping regularly for discussion.
posted by Riverine at 6:44 AM on April 16 [1 favorite]

I think I was around that age when we read both The Bluest Eye (for Morrison) and I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. I can't say that I remember getting every nuance, but at least someone shoved good books in my head at an early age.
I think I was a bit older when I read Cisneros' The House on Mango Street, but that could be another good one. There are intense bits, but none as much as Beloved.
posted by kalimac at 7:51 AM on April 16 [3 favorites]

The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates
A Good Country by Laleh Khadivi

If graphic novels are okay, The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui
posted by carrioncomfort at 7:55 AM on April 16 [1 favorite]

I love Maya Angelou's autobiographies, but I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings describes her rape at age 8. I read it in 9th grade and we had to get parental permission.

I know you said no YA, but The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (recommended to me here!) is phenomenal.

Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) might also be a good choice, though I haven't read it in a few years. Purple Hibiscus (also by her) has a 15-year-old narrator, but is definitely not YA -- it's like a modern response to Things Fall Apart, set in post-colonial Nigeria.

Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake is very much about identity and race, from the perspective of a first-generation American of Indian origin. There is also a movie, which I found disappointing, but it could be a good way to talk about differences/challenges in adapting a book to screen.
posted by basalganglia at 8:03 AM on April 16 [5 favorites]

There is no way 6th graders should be taught Beloved. It is not only too disturbing for elementary school age kids, it is way too difficult. The prose is intensely imagistic and they won't get it. They also won't be able to really understand how haunting and ghosts are about historical trauma in this book. Why give children the perhaps most important modern American novel at an age when they can't get it -- thus perhaps coloring their chance to really be impacted by this book later -- plus no one at home, ie a parent, is going to want to make them feel the depths of anguish that led to Seethe killing her child, including the disturbing assaults involving her breast milk. Please do not do this. Toni Morrison is in my opinion the best living American writer, and she is for adults.
I actually do not think The Bluest Eye is good for elementary school either. They can't get the allusions and references. And the rape of a child - do you want to deal with that? I'd even be ok with the prostitution, but the rape is unbelievably traumatic. We are in an age of trigger warnings for 21 year olds. Don't go there with 12 year olds.
And The Namesake -- for 6th graders? Really I don't see why. Kids won't relate to the issues of becoming an independent adult in America. I don't agree with giving kids books they can't really have the emotional or experiential ability to connect with. Let them get books made for adults in high school - not just go through the motions.
There are so many wonderful books with race as a theme that are great for young adult readers without being condescending. What about Jaqueline Woodson?
ps I've taught Toni Morrison to undergrads. Please believe me.
posted by nantucket at 8:17 AM on April 16 [43 favorites]

College students have difficulty with Morrison, both in content and form. I don't see why she'd be considered a good fit for 6th-graders when there are YA books that are far more appropriate for them. I teach college-age students, but my recollection from middle school (and knowing my friends' kids) is that while some 6th graders are mature, some can still be very young, even if they are advanced readers. Give them books that are aimed toward that age group that meets them where they are. What is it you want them to get out of the reading experience? How about the Binti books by Nnendi Okorafor? Or her Akata Witch series? Both feature juvenile/YA protagonists and touch upon race, nationality, and identity.
posted by TwoStride at 8:27 AM on April 16 [5 favorites]

Americanah is incredibly long, and again it's dealing mostly with adult ambitions and issues. I love Adichie's writing but I don't think that 6th-graders would be into it.
posted by TwoStride at 8:34 AM on April 16 [5 favorites]

Also, one more note about Morrison: She is a virtuouso of non-realist prose (and her books are long -- would take 6th graders months to read Beloved.) Just in terms of her prose style alone, the kids would just read cliff notes to get the plot. Basically: Don't ever teach a book to a group who is literally guaranteed to need cliffs notes to understand even the manifest content.
posted by nantucket at 8:48 AM on April 16

Thanks for the recommendations so far, and please keep them coming. I actually like the idea od Caged Bird as it blends genres.

And also please don't pander to my kids and their families. I've been teaching some 25+ years now, and I can assure you the group I am talking about can read imagistic prose and confounding narrative storylines. They also have lives that would scare the bejeezus out of you.
posted by archimago at 8:50 AM on April 16 [1 favorite]

Oh please. It's not pandering to point out that Morrison's work can be difficult even for adults whose lives would scare the bejeezus out of someone. Another rec for you: Edwidge Danticat's Untwine
posted by TwoStride at 8:57 AM on April 16 [13 favorites]

Please know it is not "pandering" to believe that having had a difficult life or being smart/able to understand imagistic prose does not make you an adult reader. There are many imagistic books that smart kids with hardcore lives can get; Beloved is not one of them. I've taught in the Ivy League, at community college, and for years at a program for advanced underprivileged 6th graders in NYC. Of course you'll make the choice you want, but that's where my advice is coming from, just so you can take it or leave it with that knowledge.
posted by nantucket at 8:58 AM on April 16 [18 favorites]

I read Beloved as a smart, bookwormy 9th-grader and I didn't get very much out of it. Frankly, I didn't understand it well enough to be disturbed/grieved by it (in a positive way) the way I was when I read it again twenty years later. I think there are better choices for sixth grade.
posted by Jeanne at 9:05 AM on April 16 [8 favorites]

I believe we read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor at that age, but that might be too young or too out of date?

I do not think Beloved will be a good fit for them. I struggled with it in 11th grade and I was a pretty advanced reader compared to my class. I’ve gotten significantly more out of it as an adult, and actually wonder if I would have picked it up again sooner as an adult if I hadn’t struggled with it so much in high school.
posted by sallybrown at 9:06 AM on April 16 [8 favorites]

One more rec: His Own Where by June Jordan.
posted by TwoStride at 9:16 AM on April 16 [1 favorite]

I read Kindred a couple of years ago and it struck me as being perfect for 8th graders or thereabouts. 6th grade may be a little on the young side but you could check it out; it's a very quick read so it won't take you long to assess the suitability.
posted by phoenixy at 9:20 AM on April 16 [3 favorites]

The House on Mango Street isn't quite a readalike, but it deals with identity and I think a well-read 12-year-old would enjoy it.

For nonfiction, Proud Shoes by Pauli Murray is the best thing I read in 2018 and opens up a conversation about family history as American history.
posted by toastedcheese at 9:31 AM on April 16 [2 favorites]

TwoStride -- I was actually thinking about Breath, Eyes, Memory by Danticat. Would you go with Untwine instead?
posted by archimago at 9:51 AM on April 16

Has anyone mentioned Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian? That's a wonderful book I would teach to smart 6th graders, (and have taught to smart college students, and smart adults) --deals brilliantly with race and identity, contains realistic trauma and historical injury, addiction, death, but also themes of coming of age, belonging, family, friendship, and the question of how individuals must deal with America's guilty history ...
posted by nantucket at 9:52 AM on April 16 [5 favorites]

nantucket -- I apologize for my knee-jerk reaction to your response. I love my kids fiercely and have to deal every day with people lowering the bar for them. You are not doing that, and my reaction was not justified, Please keep the recs coming!
posted by archimago at 9:54 AM on April 16 [7 favorites]

BEM's focus on sexual abuse has sometimes been triggering for my college students; Untwine, her YA book, opens up really productive ground, I think, for younger students to talk about how they establish their identities within their families and communities, and how they deal with loss and grief...
posted by TwoStride at 9:58 AM on April 16 [3 favorites]

At roughly that age, we read Black Boy, which is still a traumatic read but as a tale primarily of childhood was reasonably comprehensible to kids our age.
posted by praemunire at 10:28 AM on April 16

Another novel that deals with the construction of race and family during/post-slavery is Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. The narrative structure is complex enough that it would be a challenge, but not too tricky, once they get the hang of it. And despite the chilling themes of slavery, there isn't any rape or infanticide.

Someone earlier mentioned Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus, which is another excellent choice. The text doesn't deal with race, but the narrator is only a little bit older than your students and faces both structural and physical violence with her angry father enacting his understanding of gender roles and religion with his children.

Some of my students have also really liked Children of the Blood and Bones by Tomi Adeyemi. It's the first book in a YA fantasy trilogy set in West Africa and deals with a lot of issues of discrimination and dictatorial leadership. Its one potential drawback is being relatively long.
posted by orangesky4 at 10:32 AM on April 16

Bone Black by bell hooks? While it's not my favorite book of hers, I think it could hold some appeal for sixth graders since it's a memoir of girlhood, and maybe it would get them interested in reading more bell hooks.
posted by xylothek at 10:34 AM on April 16

Came in to also recommend Sherman Alexie for a Native American point of view. Also recommend Black Boy and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.
posted by hydra77 at 12:45 PM on April 16

A lot of YA is really excelling at exploring issues like identity and race these days, and the genre’s become challenging enough to attract tons of adult readers. Even if your students have read the major books, there are tons of quieter/lesser known titles, and new examples come out weekly, and even the ones set in others eras or other universes tackle issues young readers are dealing with right now. Like I’m sure they’ve read The Hate U Give, who hasn’t, but what about Angie Thomas’s newest, On the Come Up? Other ideas:

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland - biracial protagonist, Civil War-era politics and race-based issues, and zombies

Dear Martin by Nic Stone - modern-day race relations and police brutality examined through the teachings of MLK

Internment by Samira Ahmed - race and resistance in a near-future America where Muslim-Americans are placed in internment camps (Ahmed also wrote last year’s Love Hate and Other Filters, which also deals with Islamophobia)

The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton - examinations of class and beauty in a fantasy society

A Spark of White Fire by Sangu Mandanna - the Mahabrahata! In space!
posted by QuickedWeen at 7:48 AM on April 17 [1 favorite]

Here to recommend the Pura Belpré Award Winners for narrative.

Us, in Progress by Lulu Delacre is not a Pura Belpré winner but is an excellent read.

I think you're right that Beloved, while a wonderful work of literature, might be a little intense. It seems like your kids have been through a lot so it may be worth asking them their level of interest in delving deep into literature that tackles difficult topics for every meeting of the book group. Some teens (and adults) can reasonably get overwhelmed when topics covered in literature mirrors their own or the world's hardships, so it may be helpful to give them agency or choice in their book picks. Voting between a few different options each meeting can help facilitate this.
posted by donut_princess at 10:39 AM on April 17 [1 favorite]

Have you considered lesser renowned works by Morrison, like Jazz and Paradise? I apologize that I'm speaking from some ignorance here, because these are two I've not read, but it's possible they could be considered more age-appropriate? If your primary goal is to introduce them to Morrison, maybe a positive experience reading one of her novels' with more age-appropriate content would instill a curiosity that would lead them to books like Beloved, Bluest Eye, and Sula as they grow older.
posted by kensington314 at 11:05 AM on April 17

Also, wanted to second Kindred by Octavia Butler. When I finished that book, one of my main feelings was I wished that I'd been introduced to something like it as a younger person. It really crystalized aspects of this nation's history for me in a way that is perhaps unique to speculative / science fiction.
posted by kensington314 at 11:08 AM on April 17 [2 favorites]

A book I read recently just occurred to me: The Moor's Account by Laila Lalami. It's an historical novel, written for an adult audience, about the first African explorer on this continent, Estevanico, a Moroccan slave who was part of Cabeza de Vaca's Narvaez Expedition. Basically it takes this real historical figure from a footnote of the Spanish conquistadors to a fully realized historical figure who traveled more or less from Florida to Mexico.

The book is written in a fairly straightforward and direct prose, and it explores the big questions of identity and race in a narrative context that I would have loved to have learned at that age; as it was, I went through all of my schooling, from grade school through college, without learning about this entire route of exploration and colonization.

I can think of two trigger-warning type scenes: an account of fairly brutal violence against indigenous people early in the novel, and a gang-rape of multiple indigenous people by the Spanish. The latter is not recounted in great detail, but still, it is there and it was difficult to read. With that said, I don't know that it's less age appropriate than some of the content in, say, Johnny Tremaine or My Brother Sam is Dead, neither of which my school asked permission to have us read.
posted by kensington314 at 11:24 AM on April 17 [1 favorite]

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