Dear Steve, Margie, and Elizabeth,
Here is a list of books that I would recommend you guys consider for book clubs and possibly for whole class read aloud sets:
Shooting the Moon, by Frances O'Roark Dowell.
This book got a lot of buzz but I didn't read it for a while after it came out cuz it didn't look that fabulous. It's about a girl who gets pictures in the mail from her brother who is fighting in Vietnam. It's about her relationships with some soldiers and her father, The Colnel. Pretty short book and easy text, but quite rich---lots of inferring and some background knowledge required. Content is fine for fifth graders or sixth graders. I really enjoyed it and think it would be a great pick for book clubs.
Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie, by Jordan Sonnenblick
This is a story told in first person, rather like a diary, of an eighth-grade boy with a kindergarten little brother who gets diagnosed with leukemia. Funny, sad, honest. I read this out loud this year and my sixth grade class LOVED it. It's more sixth-grade-ish, cuz the main character talks about the "hot" girl he likes looking at and there's some serious adolescent angst with his parents. But at the heart of the whole thing is his love for his little brother and there is nothing inappropriate for any kid to read. If you don't get this for a whole class book, at least get a guided reading set for sixth graders.
Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper
Melody, the main character and narrator of this book, has a photographic memory and is super smart, but she also has cerebral palsy and cannot speak. She has spent most of her schooling in a self-contained special ed class, but she gets a speech computer, like Stephen Hawking has, and starts interacting with some of the "normal" kids at her school. There are a few cruel girls, which kept the book very real, but Melody is STRONG, and sometimes very funny. I read this out loud to my class this year and many kids listed it as their favorite book of the whole year. Melody is such an incredible and believable character and there are excellent themes about understanding disabilities and not judging people and having the courage to get to know people who look and act "weird". The paperback for this doesn't come out until January of 2012, but I'd say it's definitely worth saving some money for.
Diamond Willow, Helen Frost
A novel told in poems, a lot like Out of the Dust, although a little bit easier. The main character and narrator is a twelve-year-old girl who loves being around her sled dogs more than her peers. Her dad is Anglo and her mom is American Indian. The setting is contemporary, in a remote part of Alaska. When one of her dogs is seriously injured and she doesn't think her parents will save him, she takes her one best friend and sets out on a perilous trip to her grandparents' home. There is also an interesting mystery about her own birth. This would be excellent for fifth or sixth graders and the dogs and survival stuff would probably get the boys drawn into the story as well.
Elvis and Olive, by Stephanie Watson
Perfect for fifth grade girls--about two girls who become friends and have a secret hide-out and who go around spying on people. In the end their friendship is tested by their own reckless choices, but they learn to respect people's privacy and to mend their friendship. Really true to the girls' ages and it reminded me (in good ways) of Harriet the Spy.
The Outlandish Adventures of Liberty Aimes, by Kelly Easton
I blogged about this one here. Super fun, great for fifth or sixth graders, and it just came out in paperback.
Touch Blue, by Cynthia Lord
Here is what I wrote about this one, by the same author as Rules. Similar level and complexity, but it isn't out in paperback yet.
Have fun spending your money and make sure to read as many of the books as you can before assigning your students to read them. :) And please let me know your favorite picture and early chapter book choices!