Karen Yingling is a middle-school librarian at Blendon Middle School in Ohio. She is also the creator of the website Ms. Yingling Reads, where she has been reading and reviewing books for kids for over a decade.
If you ever need a quick snapshot of a middle grade novel, you will most likely find it among the thousands of reviews she has written. The incredible breadth and depth of her site is staggering, making it a go-to resource for librarians and teachers across the country.
We sat down with Yingling for a wide-ranging discussion about books, literacy, what kids are reading these days, and how the publishing industry could better serve young readers.
Your father was a school principal. Were you a student at his school? How did his work as an educator influence your life?
We were in the same district, but not the same school. My mother was a 5th grade math teacher. Both of them told me repeatedly that I should NOT go into education!
My father wanted me to be a Latin professor, and I attended the University of Cincinnati on a Latin scholarship and even taught middle school Latin for a few years. When there were no jobs, I got my MLIS, volunteered for five years at the library where I am now, and was hired.
Were you a reader as a child? What kind of books did you enjoy reading?
I read everything as a child, but particularly enjoyed realistic fiction about a variety of children whose lives were different from mine. My local library was fairly small, so I read just about anything. The titles were older, and that’s how I became interested in Anne of Green Gables and the mid century work of Lenora Mattingly Weber.
When did you realize you wanted to be a librarian? Did you always see yourself as a middle school librarian?
It never occurred to me to be a middle school librarian. Since I had taught middle school, I thought about picking up language arts certification, but that would have taken much longer. Once I became a librarian, I threw myself into doing the best job I could.
When I first worked in middle schools, I was surprised to learn that most educators don’t like MS students. Everyone wants to work with high school or elementary kids. But I loved them, their energy and their refreshing attitude. What is it that draws you to middle school students?
I started in high school, and the students were so boring. Elementary school students are too needy and damp. Middle schoolers are just figuring out the world, and they have so much misplaced enthusiasm. It’s never dull.
What is the literary scene like in Ohio? Is there a thriving literary community in the Buckeye State?
There is an extensive literary community in Ohio, and I’ve enjoyed Cincinnati’s Books by the Banks conference, as well as the Ohioana Book Festival. I missed the Ohio Nerdy Book Camp this year. Since the pandemic, it’s been hard to find events, but I hope to get back to connecting with librarians and authors in real life soon.
Do you consider yourself a fast reader? How many hours a day do you read?
I am a fast reader. A 200 page middle grade fiction book takes me about an hour, because I want to know a little bit about a LOT Of books, and not minute details about a few. Of course, I also read about four hours every school day and more on the weekend, which helps.
Aside from middle school books, what authors do you enjoy?
I find myself reading a lot of nonfiction books about popular culture, cozy mysteries and historical fiction. I’d love to find more books like Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax, about unassuming middle aged women who become SPIES!
You mentioned in a previous interview that you felt there was a disconnect between what the publishing industry produces and what kids actually want to read. This disconnect was something we set out to address in regards to reluctant readers. Do you think the publishing industry addresses the needs of reluctant readers?
I think there are plenty of books out there that can be purchased for reluctant readers; HiLo books like Orca Sports and Saddleback, but I think that teachers and librarians have been heralding graphic novels as the great new thing for reluctant readers instead of purchasing these titles. Graphic novels often have complex vocabulary, and the pictures can be very distracting for readers struggling with print.
I would like to see more sports books, though -– a lot of my readers who have good skills but don’t want to sit still long enough to read are very interested in sports.
What other gaps do you see in publishing for MG? Are there particular genres or topics that kids are interested in that publishers are simply missing?
I feel in general that publishing targets librarians and teachers, and publishes what THEY want to read. To be fair, they are the ones often buying the books, but it would be nice to see more input from the actual demographic. There would be a LOT more murder mysteries for ten year olds, that’s for sure!
You’ve been writing about middle school literature for over a decade and worked with young readers since 1997. What changes in MG literature surprised you over that time?
When I started working with the CYBILS book awards in 2010, we were all kind of amazed at the lack of diversity in middle grade literature. 2014 saw the creation of WeNeedDiverseBooks, and there has been incremental progress. I wasn’t at all surprised at that.
I guess the only thing that surprised me was the current insistence that there are no “boy” books and “girl” books. In an ideal world, I absolutely support that. In reality, just try to hand Hamster Princess to an unprepared 6th grade boy.
Students come preconditioned, and if you go down any toy aisle in any store, you’ll see the glaring dichotomy of boy and girl toys. It definitely affects perceptions of books.
If you could bring back any type of book that has gone out of style over the years, what would you bring back?
I rather miss the 1950s and 1960s Young Adult career romances. There’s nothing in them that even ten year olds couldn’t read, but they showed young women in a variety of different careers. Hobart’s Katie and Her Camera (1955) showed a young woman taking over a photography studio. What fun!
What are your Top 10 Books for Reluctant Readers?
These are not in any particular order. Series are great for reluctant readers
- Costner, Arianna. My Life as a Potato (2020)
- Falatko, Julie. Two Dogs in a Trenchcoat Go to School (2018)
- Maddox, Jake. Sports Books
- Fred Bowen Sports Books
- Michael Spradlin’s Pararescue Corps books
- Rose, Nancy. The Secret Life of Squirrels (2016)
- Watson, Tom. Stick Dog (2013)
- Coco Simon’s doughnut, cupcake, and sundae books
- Ellen Miles’ Puppy Place books
- Schreiber, Joe. Game Over, Pete Watson
What are your Top 10 Middle Grade Novels?
These are personal favorites. I don’t buy many books for myself, but I own many of these.
- Horowitz, Anthony. Stormbreaker (2001)
- Juster, Norton. The Phantom Tollbooth
- Sonnenblick, Jordan. Notes from the Midnight Driver
- Richards, Dan. Stu Truly (2018)
- Johnson, Maureen. 13 Little Blue Envelopes
- Heldring, Thatcher. The Football Girl
- Carter, Ally. I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You
- Korman, Gordon. Born to Rock
- Key, Watt. Fourmile
- Edwards, Julie. Mandy
Given how much the MG field has grown and changed in recent decades, how are classic authors like Roald Dahl, Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary doing these days?
Not well at all. Dahl’s work is rather quirky and British, which doesn’t resonate, at least with my students. Blume is badly dated, and by current standards, not well written. Cleary’s teen novels do okay as period pieces, but that’s about it.
You mentioned that historical fiction is gaining traction with young readers. I heard this same thing from another school librarian who said her students are in love with stories about World War II and the Titanic. Why do you think there is a newfound interest in historical fiction?
Student interest comes and goes. World War II has always been hugely popular, but perhaps television shows like Enola Holmes and the various Anne of Green Gables reboots are driving the trend. On a microcosmic scale, it can be one teacher. Bradley’s The War That Saved My Life was frequently requested a couple of years ago because an elementary teacher had read it to her class.
In your experience, are middle schoolers reading up and tackling more YA and adult titles? Or are they reading primarily books from the MG field?
My middle school students have been reading progressively younger books over the last twenty years. I’m not quite sure why.
The pandemic definitely had an impact; I have students now who want nothing but graphic novels and who really struggle with connected text. There are always some readers who are told repeatedly that they are “advanced” and start reading Harry Potter in 3rd grade. That’s fine, but they miss so many good middle grade books if they go straight to young adult titles.
Many parents struggle with getting their kids interested in reading. What is your advice for raising readers at home?
It’s been said before, but parents who spend all of their time scrolling through social media on their phones should not be surprised if their children don’t want to read.
Read, have books in the house, and make going to the library a treat. Don’t make reading punishment. Money was tight when my children were young, but we would go to the thrift store and they could buy books for a quarter. They got a brand new book for Christmas. They knew that reading had value.
As someone who has written hundreds of book reviews, do you read literary criticism yourself? Are there any authors whose book reviews you admire?
I don’t. I don’t really write good, critical reviews. I write reviews for panicked librarians who need to know all the books but also try to have a life. My blog also serves as my auxiliary memory. I just need to remember enough to know which student will like a book!
Are there MG books that you read but don’t review?
Oh, so many. There are a lot of times when I wonder just why people wrote some of the things that have been published. Do they think any of their target demographic will be interested? However, if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.
What are some of the books you think deserve far more attention than they’ve received?
Actually, a lot of my choices for reluctant readers. I have FIVE copies of Arianne Costner’s My Life as a Potato which are always checked out, and there’s not another library in my district that has a single copy.
I have male friends who want to read humorous, realistic fiction with adult male protagonists, and my public library couldn’t give me any recommendations that weren’t memoirs. I started my blog to help find books for boys; while I know this is no longer something we acknowledge, but so many teachers and librarians are women, and I do think there is a distinct lack of funny books for boys.
Do you think middle grade literature is undervalued? The media, for example, likes to anoint particular authors as the Great American Novelist or the best 30 Under 30 writers, but MG authors are never included in such praise.
I’ve never really thought about it, but is there anything about the 11-14 age group that is even acknowledged in our society? Middle grade is gaining ground, I think.
Recent years have seen increased attention paid to book banning around the country. Are your students generally aware of book banning? Do they feel affected by it as much as the media makes out?
My students remain blissfully unaware of so many things that people in the publishing industry get very het up about. They just want a good story. They don’t care about who said what to whom at a conference, or what an author ill-advisedly tweeted.
There is a lot of hand wringing in the media around the belief that kids simply don’t read anymore. Do you find this to be the case? Are today’s youth as illiterate as many people believe?
I don’t think that’s true. I think that phones have had a very negative impact on many aspects of children’s lives, and it’s harder for them to focus, but once they find books they like, most of them will read. There’s always hand wringing about children not reading.
How has the work of a middle school librarian changed in the last 20 years?
I do a LOT more tech support since we have Chromebooks. During the pandemic, I was the Grandparent Whisperer when it came to doing remote support. I can Powerwash a Chromebook and fix most of the problems. When I started, it was all desktop devices. The books and reading are all about the same.
What aspects or misconceptions of your work as a school librarian do you wish the public better understood?
I am on my feet all day, dealing with students 90% of the time. Classes, helping students find books, dealing with tech issues, working with teachers to support the curriculum. I don’t get lunch, I don’t get planning, and any reading I do is at home.
There is a lot of working just maintaining a library and collection of books, and that work usually occurs outside of school hours. Public perception (and the perception of some people even in my school) is that I have time to cover a class for a teacher who is out because I’ve been assigned a planning period by administration. Are there quiet moments? Yes. But only for about three minutes at a time!
I’ve heard you’re a pretty good singer. What led to you singing during school announcements?
It’s a sure fire attention getter. Think about Schoolhouse Rock. If I can get stuck in students’ heads, they’ll retain the information!
You’re known for your unique sartorial style. Where does your love of sweaters come from?
I’m always cold. Most of my fashion sense comes straight from the pages of the 1982 Seventeen Magazine August Back to School issue. I’m like one of those old ladies in the 1950s still wearing button boots and floor length dresses. Some of us just love the fashions of our youth.
Chocolate or vanilla?
Beatles or Stones?
* Beatles, especially George!
* The editor would like to note that the only correct answer to this question is the Stones.
If you could have President Biden read one middle grade novel during his tenure in office, what book would you choose and why?
I’d have him read Horowitz’s Stormbreaker. I think he would enjoy it, and he might learn some things to help national security!