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The Reading Quilt: Realistic fiction can be tricky in the middle school classroom

This month's recommendation: A historical novel by Charles Fuller that is set in pre-Civil War New York City.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Realistic fiction mimics real life, making the genre an attractive choice for educators. Young people have a strong curiosity about human nature and how to maneuver in this complicated world, and they have made realistic fiction a popular choice. But with topics that range from police brutality to mail-order brides, realistic fiction marketed for adolescent readers can be a tricky choice for the middle school classroom.

The ideal realistic fiction for middle school students is promoted for grades 6-8, which generally includes ages 11-13 years. If the selection addresses high school, the topics may be too mature for middle school students. To offer selections that are age-appropriate, teachers can check sources like Book Wizard, powered by Scholastic, which helps you check the reading level of a selected book. Other resources offer reading lists and details about common themes that the books address.

Reading realistic fiction offers a lot of perks. Studies show that it’s perfect for inspiring reluctant readers to consider reading as a fun way to pass the time. Young readers are fascinated by the imaginative way an author spins a story with realistic features. Curiosity about how the protagonist will deal with a problem that the reader could experience makes realistic fiction engrossing. Themes like “coming of age,” “good and evil,” “racism” and “survival” make the genre a great conversation-starter, lending itself well to lesson plans for many subjects.

The Reading Quilt selection

Each month, The Reading Quilt provides a short review of a book that teachers may use to spark conversations about culture and race. In addition, it includes a learning activity that may help students understand the complexity of the human experience. We examine the book using the acronym QUILT as a framework: Quality of writing, Universal theme, Imaginative plot, mini Lesson plan, and Talking points.

This month, the Reading Quilt selection is a realistic fiction novel. Snatch: The Adventures of David and Me in Old New York is a novella written by Charles Fuller (David and Me Publishing Inc., 2010).

Fuller, a native of North Philadelphia, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of A Soldier’s Play. He also wrote plays like One Night, The Brownsville Raid, and Zooman and the Sign, which won the Obie Award in 1980.

Born in Philly in 1939, Fuller attended Roman Catholic High School, Villanova University, and LaSalle University. In fact, it was at Roman Catholic High School that Fuller discovered his passion to become a writer. Dismayed by the lack of books by African American authors in his high school’s library, he vowed to become an author who could represent his culture.

Quality: In Snatch: The Adventures of David and Me in Old New York, Fuller introduces his young readers to two brothers, David and Charles, “free” black kids who live in the Five Points neighborhood of antebellum New York City in 1838. Five Points, which was located in Lower Manhattan, included a five-point intersection that is named as “the principal stop on the Underground Railroad in New York.” Now, Five Points neighborhood is in Chinatown. With New York as the backdrop, David and Charles, always on the hunt for adventure, meet a fugitive slave named Freddie Johnson and they help him “elude a gang of slave catchers led by a mysterious man called Snatch.” Over 36 hours, the boys face turmoil in the tunnels of Old New York, witches, a gang fight, and a big reveal.

Universal theme: Fuller, skilled at bringing history alive, captures the spirit of the two brothers and their quest to protect a fugitive slave. Told from a first-person point of view, Snatch features characters with cool nicknames and historical icons that young people can research as part of a history lesson. A discussion of “Ole’-Hit-You-With-A-Switch Moses Bowman,” the boys’ teacher in the Colored Free School, could spark a classroom conversation about racially segregated schools and African American families’ desire to educate their children before, during, and after slavery. Complete with a teacher’s guide written by Marguerite Tiggs Birt, the story is the perfect addition to a middle school history curriculum.

Imaginative plot: Snatch will take a young reader on a romp that may postpone his social media engagement for a day or two. Through clues, a rousing chase, and near-death experiences, the book underscores the theme of “freedom.” Fuller is gifted in creating believable characters like Charles and David. They protect each other through thick and thin, while teasing each other at the same time. Their bond and brotherly affection will endear the brothers to the reader.

Lesson plan: This book highlights elements of realistic fiction such as iconic images, historical figures, and facts that can lead a student into a great research project. Fuller’s historical novel includes the Underground Railroad, fugitive slaves, and the milieu of antebellum New York.

Talking points: Fuller’s novel can provide the platform to discuss some complex ideas about the institution of slavery. These resources provide teachers with possible talking or writing prompts to help students think critically about slavery.

Rachel Slaughter, a doctoral candidate at Widener University, is working on her dissertation about multicultural literacy. The books she has written include one for fathers and sons that provides fun activities to promote reading: “Daddy, REAd to Me (DREAM): The Virtual Trophy Abecedarium and Journal for Fathers and Sons.” To contact her, email For other multicultural literary suggestions, follow her on Google Plus or go to

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