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Surviving Middle School

Navigating the Halls, Riding the Social Roller Coaster, and Unmasking the Real You


About The Book

In this hilarious guide full of honest, real-life experiences, veteran teacher Luke Reynolds skillfully and humorously shows kids how to not only survive, but thrive and even enjoy the wild adventure that is middle school.

Middle grade series like The Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries bring an authentic voice and vision to fiction about middle schoolers. Now, for the first time a nonfiction guide to middle school offers that same funny and relatable voice, while skillfully teaching life lessons to not just help kids find their footing during the tough years between elementary and high school, but to find the joy in their new adventures and challenges.

Author and teacher Luke Reynolds uses irreverent humor, genuine affection for middle schoolers, and authenticity that bubbles over as he ties real-life experiences from his own time in middle school to the experiences he has from his many years as a teacher.

Covering topics like bullying, peer pressure, grades, dealing with difficult parents, and love and romance, this rare book reaches kids at a deeper level during an age when they are often considered too young to appreciate it. Readers will learn to find their own voice, begin to explore their genuine identity, and definitely laugh out loud along the way.


Surviving Middle School
Here’s where you see what a secret agent of the space gnomes, the colors purple and pink, President Teddy Roosevelt, and talking to yourself (out loud) all have in common. Hint: the answer is not that you can dip them all in chocolate sauce and then put them on your ice cream as a topping.
One of my seventh-grade students arrived early to class one day. Let’s call him Perspicacious so that we can hide his real name (which was Henry). Perspicacious wanted more than anything to be popular. Perspicacious tried to make sure he wore the right clothes with all the right brand names on them; he tried to laugh at the right times; he tried to get his biceps to be just the right size. So this one day, Perspicacious walked into my classroom wearing a purple shirt. I thought it looked awesome. It had buttons right down the front, a collar so sharp you could slice a finger on it, and the sleeves rolled up like he was ready to build a house.

Perspicacious: Do you like my new shirt, Mr. Reynolds?

Me: Yeah, it’s awesome, man. I need to get one too, because I bet my wife, Jennifer, will love me in a shirt that looks as good as that one.

Perspicacious smiled and then started to open up his backpack and pull out some books and his binder. The sun was shining in full force even though it was winter in New England. Soon, other students began to trickle into the classroom. One of the first guys in the door (we’ll call him Foggy Foggerson), brought his hand up to cover his mouth and started laughing as he pointed at Perspicacious’s purple shirt.

Foggy Foggerson: Man, are you pretending to be Barney or something? Are you a purple dinosaur?

Perspicacious’s just-beaming face grew red and shot downward like he was inspecting the floor for ants. Foggy Foggerson continued to laugh, and as other students walked into the classroom, they followed Foggy Foggerson’s example and laughed at Perspicacious’s purple shirt.

I stood up from my desk and asked Foggy Foggerson to come out into the hallway with me. The laughter died down immediately. Foggy Foggerson got an earful in the hall from me, but the silence that ensued inside the classroom was crushing Perspicacious. When I came back into the classroom with Foggy Foggerson in tow, Perspicacious asked me if he could use the bathroom. He came back wearing a white T-shirt—his undershirt—instead of the purple shirt he’d thought was so dang suave only a few minutes before.

So what happened? The purple shirt didn’t suddenly, all by itself, become something Perspicacious hated. Foggy Foggerson used the potent words of comparison to convince Perspicacious that his wardrobe was severely lacking. Ugly. Laughable.

Comparing can help us in some ways—say, for instance, when we are comparing how much butter is on one slice of garlic bread versus another, and we need to consider how buttery we’re feeling. But in middle school, comparison means thinking about how you measure up against someone else. And often, it sure feels like you don’t. Something you absolutely love and swear by is fodder for someone else to laugh at and totally mock. The music you listen to, the way you wear your hair, the grades you get, the people you’re friends with, the movies you like—heck, even the color of your eyes. Everything is up for comparison, and if you don’t learn to let yourself love what you actually love (instead of what everyone else tells you to love), comparison is going to rob you of everything you enjoy and so much of who you are, the way it did to Perspicacious that morning.

Every student I have ever taught in middle school has always carried around in his or her head a little voice that whispered things like: You’re not as good as her. You’re not as tough as him. You didn’t get grades as high as she did. You’re not as hot as he is. You’re not as funny as she is. You’re not as popular as he is. Your clothes don’t look as cool or cute or tough or sexy as his or hers or theirs . . .

So what can be done? How could Perspicacious find the same joy in his purple shirt that he’d had when he first entered class that morning, before comparison (which was speaking through Foggy Foggerson) stole that joy away?
A very close friend of mine once shared with me the big secret of how comparison works. Once we know the secret of how something works, it’s a lot easier to beat it. Consider your favorite video game, a softball match, a swimming competition, an upcoming test, or any other challenge you face: as soon as you know how the game really works, everything makes a lot more sense. Once you get the rules and see how to practice, you can make it to the next level or win the game or ace the test. The problem is that most of us don’t ever learn the real truth about comparison. Instead, we keep thinking that comparison is good, that it’s somehow right to see how we measure up against everyone else—from test scores to styles to biceps to breasts. It’s not.

So if comparison is definitely not good, then what exactly is it? And how do we know for sure? The real scoop about comparison is that it is actually an elite secret agent of the space gnomes. Its job? Yup: stealing. Comparison is out for one thing and one thing alone: to steal joy. Imagine this: You are sitting at your dinner table when out comes a whole plate of warm, buttery goodness in the shape of garlic bread. It is soft. It is squishy. It positively makes your mouth salivate and your skin get goose bumps while your tongue falls out of your mouth and you actually start panting and—

Bam! An elite agent of the space gnomes busts into your dining room and swipes the garlic bread. The whole loaf.



And who was that elite space-gnomey secret agent? That agent was Comparison, who is nothing more than a garlic bread bandit, a thief of your almost-joy.

But don’t just take my word for it. I’ve got an actual quote to prove it to you. Shrouded in mystery—no one knows for sure who said it—this single line tells us the truth about who Comparison really is. And even though no one really knows who first said the line, some people think a dead president said it (before he died, of course). And I happen to agree.

So here’s the real scoop about Comparison. Are you ready?

Are you sure?

Then let’s scoop it up. President Teddy Roosevelt (we think, but aren’t certain) said: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

My brother-in-law, Paul, shared those powerful words with me a long time ago, back before cell phones could take pictures. (By the way, that thieving Comparison absolutely loves to steal your joy by having you look at other kids’ cell phone pictures. Comparison robs by saying: You need to look/act/think more like her and him and this clip and that image and everything except who you really are!)

In middle school, you’re going to find (or you’ve already found, if you’re a student now) that a thousand times a day, a small voice inside your head is going to ask you to compare yourself with everyone else around you. And even if you’re able to quiet down that voice a little—say, when you’re laughing and having fun and relaxed and learning and excited—then it often seems like another student (or sometimes even a teacher) is right there ready to compare you to something or someone else and tell you why you’re not measuring up.

Comparison is the thief of joy.

—Attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States (and who was a big softie)

The problem with giving in to that voice is that it only makes you feel a whole lot crappier. The other problem is that you can never see what’s inside another student’s head or heart. So while on the outside some people look like they’ve got it all—good looks, a sense of humor, high grades, popularity, the right kinds of clothes—what you don’t know is that there’s a likely chance these people are crying themselves to sleep every night. Why? Because even they feel like they’re not good enough in comparison with other people.

As a student, I often walked around the hallways of my middle school just seeing things in other people that made me look bad. And at night, I would go home and try to change myself so I could be cooler, or more popular, or better looking, or anything else. But it never worked, because I was always trying to change from something that I was into something that I wasn’t. I was trying to force myself to like different things, think different things, and become different things. And that’s an endlessly losing battle.

So what’s the real battle—and how do you even try to win it in middle school? The real battle is learning to protect the real you from the shoplifting work of Comparison—not in finding the “right” stuff to think, do, believe, and wear. And you start fighting the real battle when you truly believe this line: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

Say you get an essay back, and you receive a B on it, and you’ve worked your butt off (and have found a way to reattach your butt after working it off), and you did your best. Then a B is a gold medal on this essay for you, the best possible cheesecake at the best possible restaurant on the best possible plate served by the best possible server. Bs are awesome. Getting a B rocks. Smile to yourself and reach around to pat yourself on the back (after making sure your butt has successfully been reattached after all that work).

But if your friend then gets his or her essay back, and there’s a big bloated A on that piece of paper—and that piece of paper is most definitely not your essay—beware, because Comparison is getting ready to swoop in and steal that joy from you. Comparison says, Proud of your B? Really? It’s nothing like that A! I mean, come on, that A is basically a rocket blasting off to the moon! It’s shaped that way. See its point there? Blasting toward the moon with that point leading the way! Does your B happen to have a point? No? Just a bunch of curves and a straight line? Oh. You’ll never see the stars that way! All you’ll see are those obnoxious space gnomes flying around with their jet packs and threatening to rob you. So there. And that means your friend’s essay was awesome while yours was just okay. I guess you’re an okay student. Nothing great. Nothing worthy of the moon or stars.

Or say you run the mile during gym class, and you do it in nine minutes flat, and you worked your butt off (but, yes, of course, you reattach it afterward), then nine minutes is freaking awesome. Gold medal. Marvelous. But maybe your friend—you notice—did it in seven minutes flat, and the space gnomes’ elite secret agent, Comparison, swoops in again. He says, Whoa! That’s two whole minutes faster than you. Your nine minutes is awful! What? I don’t care that you can barely breathe; you’re nothing compared to your gifted runner friend. And did you even happen to notice that the gym teacher was talking to your friend about going out for track? Did you notice that the gym teacher NEVER mentioned track to you? And did you also notice how everyone else was watching your friend and definitely NOT watching you?

Or say you come into class one morning wearing a purple shirt that you think is pretty cool, and you feel good in it, and you’re smiling, then you’re being yourself. You chose that shirt at the store, brought it home, put it on this morning. You didn’t choose it because the label was the “right” label. You didn’t pick it because you saw everyone else wearing it and then begged, pleaded, and threatened your mom or dad until they forked over a hundred bucks for you to get it too. No. You just liked it. It felt natural for you to put it on. But then someone named Foggy Foggerson didn’t think so. And he compared you to a big purple dinosaur, and it made you realize that your stupid, stupid, stupid purple shirt is definitely NOT in style. So you go to the bathroom, cry a little, and take the stupid, stupid, stupid shirt off.

In all of these cases, remember that the real battle is not about a grade or running or clothes. No. The real battle is all about comparison and the theft of who you really are. By giving in to that dangerous voice—the voice telling you that you’re not as good as, not as fast as, not as fashionable as—you allow comparison to steal the real you. And you are too important, too essential to this world, too irreplaceable to allow a measly agent of the space gnomes to steal your contribution to life.
When Perspicacious came back into my classroom that day wearing his white T-shirt, I knew something inside him had broken. Foggy Foggerson was employing that stealthy thief, Comparison—Bam, baby! Your shirt is hideous, not as cool as anything my friends or I wear!—and Perspicacious had no protection. At the end of the school day, I asked Perspicacious to stay after with me, and I told him about that line: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” He nodded glumly. We moved on to work on some homework, and then he got on the late bus and went home.

The next day, Perspicacious was wearing a name-brand, normal, fit-in shirt. But he asked if he could stay after school. And we talked some more about that line: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” I told Perspicacious what you’ve already heard—that I went through my own middle school years constantly changing from something I was into something I wasn’t. Perspicacious nodded glumly. And then we repeated yesterday’s pattern: homework, followed by the late bus.

To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, writer from the 1800’s who hugged a lot of trees

Day after day, Perspicacious stayed after school, and we talked about that single line—one line!—over and over and over again. Until finally, about a month later, Perspicacious walked into class one day. And he was wearing . . .

A pink shirt. It had buttons right down the front, a collar so sharp you could slice a finger on it, and the sleeves rolled up like he was ready to build a house.

And the next day, he wore his purple shirt.

For about a week, he went back and forth: pink shirt, purple shirt, pink shirt, purple shirt, pink shirt.

Now, I wish I could lie a little here and tell you that on the first day that Perspicacious proudly wore his pink shirt, everyone else in the middle school stood and applauded his bravery (because that’s what bravery is). They didn’t. Foggy Foggerson still laughed. Other students still made fun of him. But when Perspicacious wore his purple shirt the day after, Foggy Foggerson was a little quieter. So were the other students. And on the third day, when Perspicacious went back to his pink shirt, a girl in the class even told Perspicacious that she thought he looked pretty “hot.”

By the end of the week, Perspicacious wore his pink shirt with a massive smile across his face. And because he wore it with such pride and fearlessness and bravery, it kind of made other people stop sending Comparison after his joy. They gave up. They saw Perspicacious wasn’t going to change, so they stopped trying to get him to change.
Here’s what you have to do: Stop listening to the voice of Comparison. Stop letting the space gnomes steal all your garlic bread, because they will eat all that buttery, garlicky goodness if you just sit there and let them.

Stop. And I don’t mean stop as in the way your mom or dad rolls through a stop sign, pretending to hit the brakes.

I mean, STOP!!!!

The more you pay attention to that voice of Comparison in your head, the crappier you’re going to feel about who you are. Because the thing is, there are always going to be people around you who look like they can do whatever you can do, but better. And they are always going to be very sure to tell you they think they do it (dress, think, act, play sports) better. You are going to drive yourself crazy in middle school if you compare your grades, your looks, your popularity, your friends, your boyfriend or girlfriend, the color of your shirt, or anything else with others.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”

Instead of comparing, and caving in to that voice, you can start by thinking about what you enjoy, what you do well, and what makes your heart skip a beat. What makes you feel really excited and alive and happy? For each of us, it’s something different that gets our heart beating fast. It’s big things and little things. For Perspicacious, it started with a purple shirt. He loved it, and it felt good on him. What is it for you? What are the things that you naturally like—things you enjoy doing, ways you enjoy talking, clothes you enjoy wearing?

Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

—Howard Thurman, author and civil rights leader who wore boldness like armor


Your Security System: Make a List but DON’T Check It Twice

Grab a piece of paper (or use your journal if you keep one, or a doc on your computer, or any writing-capable gadget you possess!) and make a list of everything you enjoy that comes to your mind. Don’t second-guess yourself. Just as soon as something pops into your head, write it down. It could be clothes, activities, things you find funny, movies you like, colors you’re drawn to, books you love, and so on. And if you don’t want to write, doodle. And if you don’t want to doodle, create a secret code that only you know and create a whole new alphabet that records that secret code, and then use that secret code to record things on your list. (However, it may be a whole lot easier to just choose the writing or doodling option.) On your paper (or whatever you’re using to journal) you can call your list:

My List of Stuff I Enjoy

All right. Good. You’ve now got a whole list of things that you enjoy, not because other people in middle school told you that you should enjoy them but simply because they bring delight to you—they are the styles, ideas, things, and activities you love doing simply because they’re a part of what make you yourself.

But let’s go for one more list. Let’s be crazy. Let’s pretend we’re on a mission to catch those space gnomes and take back our joy! But the only way to find our way back to Planet Earth is for us to make one more list—right now—about who we really are. The stuff we know to be true about who we are.

On this list, write down (or doodle, or, yup, make a secret code of) everything you know to be true about yourself and everything you really love about yourself—whether big or small or important or not. Not stuff you want to try to become, not things you want to change, but what’s true about you right now and what you want to appreciate about the super-awesome you. For instance, if you love laughing—bam!—“I love laughing” goes on the list. If you know you are a kind person—bam!—“I am kind to others” goes on the list.

Ready? No second-guessing. No telling yourself that a certain quality or characteristic isn’t worthy of recording here. (By the way, on my own list, I’ve recorded the fact that I know I am weird, including my obsession with space gnomes.) Okay, go.

Things I Know to Be True about Myself—and Why I Rock

Great stuff. These two lists are now evidence for you. Every time you go to middle school and come home feeling like that thief Comparison has been robbing you, look at these lists. Remember what you love. Remember who you are. And trust that person instead of Comparison. After all, you’ve lived with yourself for a whole bunch of years by now. Comparison hasn’t had you on his radar all that long. Who knows you better? You or Comparison? And no matter how stealthy Comparison is, you can be like Perspicacious. You can choose—again and again and again—to wear what you like, to act naturally, to love what you love, and to keep choosing it.

Comparison is a hard thief to stop, but it can be stopped. It takes practice. It takes work. (But remember, you’re used to working your butt off and then reattaching it again.) In the beginning, you may even have to say out loud to yourself (either alone or in public, the latter if you don’t care about people asking, “Did you know that person has imaginary friends?”): “I am not going to let you rob me, Comparison! I am not going to compare myself to others! No, I am not going to let you and your space gnome commanders steal all my garlic bread!”

You may have to tell yourself things like that a lot. (Out loud.) You may have to read and re-read your lists a lot. (Out loud.) Hey, I still need to say that to myself and re-read my lists. And you may have to write the line COMPARISON IS THE THIEF OF JOY in big, bold letters and put it somewhere you’ll see it often.

But the good news is, the more you start to realize when that little thief Comparison is attacking you, the more you’ll be able to stop this and replace it with thoughts that actually help you. And the more you stop that thief, the more joy you’ll feel inside.

You can fight Comparison. And you can win. I believe in you. You’re stronger than it is. I know because I watch my own students fight it, and when they beat it, beautiful things begin to happen in their lives and inside their hearts.

And if you desperately feel the need to compare something, the next time you’re sitting down to a meal of pasta loaded with saucy sauce, glance over toward that fresh, buttery garlic bread and compare the melted butter across the loaf: Where are the deepest pockets of buttery goodness? In what order should you eat them? That’s about the only comparison worth your time and energy in middle school.

About The Author

Photograph by David Le

Luke Reynolds taught in public schools for many years before becoming an assistant professor of education at Endicott College. He is the author of the Fantastic Failures books, Surviving Middle SchoolThe Looney ExperimentBraver Than I Thought, and the picture books If My Love Were a Fire Truck and Bedtime Blastoff!. He and his wife, Jennifer, have four sons, and they live in Massachusetts, where they endeavor to be outside and exploring as much as possible.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Aladdin/Beyond Words (July 5, 2016)
  • Length: 192 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781582705545
  • Grades: 5 - 9
  • Ages: 10 - 14
  • Lexile ® 920L The Lexile reading levels have been certified by the Lexile developer, MetaMetrics®

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Raves and Reviews

With age-appropriate humor and insight, veteran teacher Reynolds offers advice aimed at assisting young people as they trek through the minefield that is middle school. Honest in tone but with an acute sense of the ridiculous (the trope of garlic-bread-stealing space gnomes is overused), the short chapters contain stories from the author's own middle school experience or his imagination, a narrative approach that will appeal to fans of books such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Short chapters on bullying, peer pressure, grades, dealing with parents and teachers, and more are sprinkled with accessible and pertinent quotes and end with exercises to try. The topic of sex is excluded, gearing the book to younger readers—especially those who enjoy scatological goofiness. Reynolds takes on the media, imagining a fictitious Mr. Buttmuncher at its head, to encourage kids to think for themselves. While playful black-and-white cartoon illustrations and doodles add to the zaniness, the messages are worthy and clear: be yourself; practice empathy; work hard; hug your parents. A list of recommended books and movies is appended. For those approaching or in the scrum of middle school, a positive reminder that the perfect middle school experience does not exist. (Nonfiction. 10-14)

– Kirkus Reviews, 4/15/16

Adopting a jokey but understanding tone, Reynolds uses his own past experiences and those of the students he currently teaches to commiserate with readers who are dealing with insecurity, the pressure to conform, grade stresses, and other difficulties; throughout, he urges them to maintain their individuality and accept that there will be good days and bad. While some of Reynolds’s metaphors can be goofy to the point of nonsensical (he compares negative external pressures to “space gnomes who are only after one thing: garlic bread,” and hard-to-scrub-away “caked dirt” represents inner determination), his compassion for those in the trenches is never in question, and readers in need will find plenty of encouragement in these pages. Ages 10–14.

– Publishers Weekly, June 6, 2016

Middle School was a nightmare for Luke Reynolds. He recounts the experience at the beginning of this book. Eventually, he decided to go back and face his demonic Middle School memories, this time with ammunition. He had become a teacher. So he went back to Middle School and worked to apply what he had learned to make Middle School a little bit easier for his students. He told them to believe in themselves and to stop trying to look like a poster in the mall. He told them to ask crazy questions and remember that they’re teachers were human. He told them to risk being themselves. Now he’s sharing the insight that he gained from all of it in this book, written—not about—but to Middle Schoolers. He explains about refrigerated brains and the lies of love, and asks them to hug their parents. His words are humorous, compassionate, and dense with authentic wisdom (comparison is an elite secret weapon of the space gnomes). He laces his guidance with dynamic spot illustrations, his exceptional love of garlic bread, and quotes from the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ernest Hemingway, Helen Keller, Pablo Picasso, Arthur Ashe, and Eleanor Roosevelt. Each lesson begins with a narrative about one of his students as an example of the problem he’s discussing and ends with a simple yet effective exercise to get the reader in touch with the solutions he is suggesting. When you point it out to customers, suggest that instead of reading it themselves, they let their child read it and tell them what it says.

– Retailing Insight

Reynolds uses humor and oddball metaphors to make the advice he delivers to new, beleaguered, or confused middle-schoolers palatable. The point of school, he explains to his young audience, “is to learn how to use your voice to share your ideas, to solve problems, and to work with other[s].” One’s inner joy and potential for personal growth he sees as a loaf of yummy garlic bread, which is continually under threat from an army of voracious “space gnomes” (i.e., “bullies, grades, competitions, insecurity, and fear”). Everyone also has dense stores of empathy and determination to draw on when challenges arise. As a middle-school teacher, he offers plenty of classroom anecdotes, but his focus is on broadly encouraging self-knowledge and self-confidence, rather than tackling specific issues or scenarios. Typical of such guides, though, he does include lists, writing exercises, and inspirational quotes as well as selected films, websites, and novels. Silly stock cartoons further lighten the already positive message and overall tone. — John Peters

– Booklist, June 1, 2016

Gr 5-8–Former middle school teacher Reynolds has turned his love of garlic bread into an excellent and engaging treatise on life aimed at the “Wimpy Kid” generation. He begins with a hilariously rose-colored recounting of his own first day at middle school. Traitorously truthful members of his family chime in with the real story and allow readers to sympathize and relate. Each chapter is dedicated to a serious issue facing middle school students. Reynolds uses age-appropriate metaphors to get his message across, including space gnomes (forces fighting against kids) and garlic bread (adolescents’ true inner selves). The author covers issues such as insecurity and self-confidence and provides a simple list of “stuff” to help navigate life successfully. Sprinkled throughout the book are pertinent quotes by famous people designed to inspire. Goofy black-and-white illustrations add to the kid-appeal. VERDICT Thoughtful, humorous, and filled with practical advice and insight, this book is recommended for all libraries.

– Cindy Wall, Southington Library & Museum, CT, School LIbrary Journal, April 2016

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