It's not just the writing or plot of books that makes them appealing or anathema to middle school students. Sometimes it's covers, although I can sell past those. Tiny print can be a killer. Overly precious turns of phrase. Lack of humor. Huge length can cause the vast majority of students to put it down. Even the best middle school students can be a bit unfocused and impulsive, and even the most avid readers aren't willing to flog through a book that takes five chapters to get going. (Although one of my most reluctant readers loved DuBois Twenty-one Ballooons.)
I can't claim to know all 600 of my students and what they like, but I do try. When I put together lists to purchase, I go through a final time and put a student's name with each book. Yesterday, wanting to order Thirsty but not quite sure about the audience, I tried to do that, and did come up with names. Michael needed it yesterday. Hunter will like it in two years.
There are wonderful books that would see to so few students that I can't use my scant resources to buy them. Sure, if someone wants to send me Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, I'll put it in the collection. I was really enjoying it until I realized "Hmm. This is really beautiful, descriptive writing, but not much is going on. It's too philosophical." Admittedly, I didn't finish. The same is true of Collins' The Traitor Game. Aside from the small print and lack of white space on the page, it starts with boys hanging out, smoking, and casting homophobic aspersions on another boy's character. No. I cried at Willie Morris's My Dog Skip, but it recalls too specific a time and place for any but the most ardent dog lovers to be pulled into. Myers' Amiri and Odette is a picture book, and middle school students don't like to be seen with those, unless it's The Cat in the Hat and they are being silly.
I buy books for the students in my school. The money is limited, so I have to stick to books that either will appeal to a huge number of children or, quite honestly, are so appealing to ME that I will recommend them enthusiastically. My reviews are slanted accordingly.
There are some books about which everyone raves, but I dislike them. Then I feel a bit bad. One of these was Ingrid Law's Savvy. It hit several of my instant dislike buttons: quirky and vaguely Southern. The language was beautiful but odd (pg. 17 "She smelled like Lysol and butterscotch and had her own matching set of rights and wrongs..."), and I finally stopped and thought to myself "Who will read this?" Couldn't come up with anyone. This book will stay in my mind all day, and if I come up with a couple of readers, I may purchase it. But probably not. Here are some people with NICE things to say about the book.
Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Maw Books Blog
Kinnelon Teen Library Blog