- Flowers in the Attic
- A Wrinkle in Time
- As I Lay Dying
- Mists of Avalon
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
- The Hobbit
- Little Women
- Anne of Avonlea
- the Bible
- Cold Mountain
- Angela’s Ashes
- The Celestine Prophecy
- The Hot Zone
A list of books you can find at garage sales or friends of the library sales? Probably. But the above-named books are also just some of the books I chose to read in high school. They weren’t assigned books but instead were books that friends and I passed around. Of course we read Hemingway, Salinger, Achebe, and Shakespeare in school. Well, we “read” those. I can tell you exactly which assigned books I read and which ones I “read”. But the books I picked on my own and the ones my friends were all talking about? Those I didn’t put down until I turned that last page.
I was a voracious reader in middle school but in high school I just didn’t have as much time to read. The books we were reading in school, inevitably written by dead white men, didn’t interest me most of the time. But a friend handed me Sarah Dessen’s Dreamland and another couldn’t stop talking about this kid named Harry Potter after a trip to the UK. Another friend was reading Mists of Avalon so a few of us picked it up at the library. My aunt, a middle school English teacher, gave me a copy of Speak. I was reading even if the books weren’t those that most adults would choose.
I was lucky, because no one in my life judged me or the books I chose to read. (I’m not sure my mom knew I was reading Flowers in the Attic!). But not all kids are that lucky. This week The New Yorker published a column by Rebecca Mead entitled “The Percy Jackson Problem”. In the column, Ms. Mead warns that while gateway books like Riordan’s best-selling myth adventures might lead children to the classics they can also pull them away from great literature.
Discussing Rick Riordan’s newest book, Ms. Mead laments “What if the strenuous accessibility of “Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods” proves so alluring to young readers that it seduces them…away from an engagement with more immediately difficult incarnations of the classics, Greek and otherwise? What if instead of urging them on to more challenging adventures on other, potentially perilous literary shores, it makes young readers hungry only for more of the palatable same?”
But what if it doesn’t? What if those middle school students who pick up Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods also pick up D’Aulaires famous mythology classic? What if they read The Hunger Games after finishing the Percy Jackson series and then that leads to reading 1984? They might find their way to The Handmaid’s Tale a few years after that, just as some of my students have. Reading begets reading, no matter where you start. Forced reading begets fake reading or no reading at all in most cases.
You know what? Ms. Mead might even be right in her assertion that gateway books don’t always lead to reading more rigorous texts on the same topic. Maybe some of those readers will never pick up another mythology-based book again after finishing Riordan’s books. But if we allow students to choose their own reading and we model a culture of literacy in our schools and homes they will pick up other books. Maybe one of those students will decide to read more science fiction. Another might read every informational or nonfiction book about primates that they can get their hands on. Still another might move through their favorite poetry anthology. Readers read, and we create readers when we allow them to choose their reading outside of class.
Right now I am reading Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewcz and Kalahari by Jessica Khoury. I am enjoying both but they are wildly different books. Over the summer I read The Goldfinch and The King in Yellow. Like most readers, I read rigorous books and less rigorous books. I have beach reads, quick reads, and fun reads. I also have professional reads, longer reads, and intense reads. There’s nothing wrong with that. Most of my colleagues and friends fall into similar patterns. We read, but certainly not just classics or rigorous literature!
Earlier this year the Pew Research Foundation released its reading survey for 2014 and they found that the typical American adult read five books in the previous twelve months. Looking at my students’ current reading record I can see that most of mine have read between 3-5 books since September. Some have read 10-20 books. They are already way ahead of most adults! So here’s my proposal- leave the decisions about independent reading to teachers and parents. If you promise not to judge children and teens for their book choices I promise not to judge most American adults for the five or fewer books they read in the last year. Readers read, and we won’t create readers if we don’t allow them to read what they want to read on their own time.
As the always brilliant Donalyn Miller reminds us, “Reading belongs to readers, not to teachers. If we want children to see reading as anything more than a school job, we must give them the chance to choose their own books and develop personal connections to reading, or they never will.” I’d add that reading also doesn’t belong to parents, adult relatives, or journalists. If you provide the books and the time to read, students will read. Stop spending money on CCSS initiatives, textbooks, and standardized tests. Take that money and spend it on books, librarians, and author visits. Bringing Rick Riordan or John Green or any author into a school is going to create a lot more readers than any of Pearson’s tests. And those readers will move on to more books.