I started my thinking by charting the reading and interest levels of all of the texts we teach from 5th grade to 12th. I used Follet's Titlewave site, which gives both their own ratings as well as Accelerated Reader's ratings. I had talked with our librarian, so I knew to take it all with a grain of salt. But she said that if the ratings came close, we could count on them being pretty true to the reading skills and interests of a certain grade.
So what did I find? Our 8th grade problem was actually a 7th grade problem. The 7th grade curriculum has been in flux as we try to pin down what we really want it to be, and what has happened in this is that we unknowingly retained only the "easiest" reads. Our students are jumping from 5th/6th grade reading levels to 8th/upper grade levels -- so I sympathize with our 8th graders now, and I am spending some of my reading time this summer looking for the magic bullet work to add to 7th grade. One that is not too mature for a 7th grader content-wise, but one that does challenge them for reading. I have read some great books -- The Trial by Jen Bryant, The Legend of the Wandering King by Laura Gallego Garcia, and Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. But I have not found the right book just yet ... any ideas to share with me?
Let me end with my own class, AP English Literature. This exercise in studying our progression of texts was great for me personally beyond the good work we did as a department. I am now working to find a way to add William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying to my course to add one work that pushes my students to their reading limits. I know some of my students will work hard and yet stay a bit perplexed by a text of this level, but I know other students will find skills beyond anything they knew they had. I know I will have to work hard to teach this novel because I am no Faulkner expert in any way, and he is a tough nut to crack even for the experts. This novel will be a great challenge, and what a gift I can give my students and myself. Let's see the heights we can reach together.
My next book on my summer reading list is Faulkner's. So, from award-winning YA to Pulitzer-Prize-winning southern literature, I am having a great time.