Category Archives: reading life

Fallow Fields

It is still 80 degrees in Texas, but summer is over. Hay bails dot fields beside the road. It’s chilly in the mornings. Time to start carrying a jacket. Five months of gray skies and brown grass ahead. I don’t enjoy fall and winter weather, but I understand its value. The world can’t grow all of the time. A fallow field rests to restore its nutrients and prevent exhaustion. Mother Nature needs a break.

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Fall in Texas–brown grass and one leaf in my yard.

Our reading and writing lives cycle through productive and restive periods, too. We scribble notes and start drafts that don’t go anywhere. We linger in our last book—unready to leave it behind. Reading and writing help us understand and navigate our lives, but readers and writers need time to experience reading and writing without producing all of the time. The connection between our literacy and our lives travels between periods of growth, harvest, and dormancy. We must learn to appreciate and navigate these stages if we are to remain readers and writers throughout our lives.

I take breaks from reading, but they don’t last long. If I go without picking up a book for a few days, my bookshelves Siren call me back to them. My mind splinters when I don’t read and I feel it. I’m off-kilter and out of sorts. I don’t always finish the books I start, though. I dip into parts and fall back out for long stretches. I have several books on pause at the moment. Some books blind me to all others. Some books take longer to warm my interest.

I go longer periods not writing. My blog goes dormant. I lose my notebook for a few days and don’t miss it. I beat myself up about not writing, but Don doesn’t think I should, “You’re always mulling over ideas, reading articles, talking with your friends. You’re always writing. You’re just not always writing it down.” He’s right. Being a writer has a lot to do with looking at the world as a writer. Writing demands observing. Writing demands time to think. Writing demands time to wallow.

We don’t commit to reading and writing once in our lives. We recommit to reading and writing again and again. We travel between seasons of dedication and neglect. Seasons of interest and apathy. Seasons of high productivity and low. We wander through fallow seasons and benefit long term from the rest. When reading and writing call to us again, we return.

In my early years of teaching, I failed to recognize my students’ needs to linger in books they loved, to pause between books, to go days without reading much. I didn’t reflect on my students’ need to percolate ideas, to revisit their writing, or to write without finishing anything. I do these things. A lot of readers and writers do. Some readers and writers need incubation. We need reflection. It makes our reading and writing better in the end.

Prescribed charts defining THE writing process crowd out the necessity for every writer (and reader) to find a process that works for them. There’s no lock step progression through a reading and writing life. We amble and wander and stop in various stages, as needed. We each must find our own way.

When we limit young readers and writers time to think about what they read and write, time to reflect on their reading and writing experiences, time to plan for future reading and writing, or permission to step away from reading and writing at times, we miss opportunities to model and teach our students strategies that enrich their literate lives and help them find their way back into reading and writing again when they stray.

Not all who wander are lost.

Examining the seasons of our own reading and writing lives provides insights that improve our ability to mentor young readers and writers. How do we see ourselves as readers and writers? Are there temporary or long term obstacles limiting our reading and writing lives? If so, what are we going to do about it? Which books lure us into reading binges and which books take dedication on our part? How do we handle these reading experiences differently? What do we do when our writing is stuck? How do we unstick it? How do we maintain and sustain a reading and writing life? We must give ourselves grace when we read and write less. Embrace time to dawdle and wallow, and value our students’ need to do the same.

Writers write. Readers read. We cannot wear these identities unless we actively read and write. That’s true. But writing and reading aren’t solely productive acts, they’re creative acts that require feeding to flourish and bloom. Readers who push from book to book leave themselves little room to savor a book’s meaning. Writers pressured to write on demand at all times miss opportunities to follow threads to where they lead. To every thing there is a season. Writing and reading have seasons, too.

Without this time, it’s difficult to find personal relevance in our reading and writing lives. If we want reading and writing to matter to our students, we must value the non-productive aspects of reading and writing that foster long term ownership and growth. We must recognize the difference between resting and floundering—providing encouragement and gentle pressure when required and backing off when necessary.

Fields in constant production deplete their resources and lose the ability to sustain life, but fallow fields lead to rich harvests in the end.

Comic Book Girl

While I was out of town last month, our 16-year old daughter, Sarah, had a reading emergency. She told me the story over dinner when I came home, “Mom, my English teacher assigned us an independent reading project.”

I leaned in, whole body listening, “Hmm. What are the guidelines for the project?”

Once a teacher, always a teacher. I can’t help it. I wanted to know how “independent” this independent reading project was.

Sarah ticked off the requirements, “It has to be a book we haven’t read…”

We’re good so far. That’s a reasonable expectation.

She continues, “The book has to be 200 pages long.”

Whew, The Catcher in the Rye just makes the cut at 224 pages. Sorry, Of Mice and Men, you’re too short. Arbitrary rules like this one communicate to kids that teachers think students are lazy and hate to read, and they go for the shortest books they can find. What about students’ personal desires or prior reading experiences?

True, some kids might pick the shortest books they can because they hate to read. You’re their English teacher. Help them. High school isn’t too late to discover reading. Ask Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher.

locke and key cover

“And no graphic novels. She looked right at me when she said that, Mom.”

I sighed. Seriously, we’re still fighting this battle? Maus won a PULITZER in 1992. The only people who still believe that graphic novels aren’t “real” or “rigorous” reading reveal their own lack of reading experiences. Stephen Krashen and Terry Thompson put this misunderstood notion to rest long ago. Graphic novels provide reading gateways for many young readers. We’ve damaged a lot of boy readers over the years by scorning their comic book and magazine reading. Girls read comics, too. According to Market Beat, 47% percent of girls read comics. Sarah offers her idiosyncratic list of the following graphic novels and comics for your reading education:

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

Anya’s Ghost By Vera Brosgol

Babymouse and Squish by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm

The Complete Maus, 25th Anniversary Edition by Art Spiegelman

El Deafo by CeCe Bell

Friends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks

In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang

Locke and Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez

The Olympians by George O’Connor

Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O’Malley

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir by Liz Prince

The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore

sisters telgemeier

“Everything Raina Telgemeier has written.”

Catch up on these:




The Babysitters Club

“I read those because of RAINA, Mom. I never read those books.”

“What about Doug TenNapel? I know that you read Ghostopolis.”

“I read all of his stuff. Put him on there, too.”


Bad Island


Tommysaurus Rex


Sarah chose Libba Bray’s The Diviners for her independent reading project. All 608 glorious pages of it. Challenge accepted. Sarah’s a curious girl. She has strong opinions about things. She’s a sixteen-year-old. Don’t disdain her choices or attempt to define her. Reading or otherwise.

Yes, Sarah reads a lot of graphic novels. Sarah’s also read A Midsummer Night’s DreamThe Great GatsbyWuthering Heights, The Odyssey–all the canon fodder. I think she reads every book her teachers assign her to read. Sometimes, Sarah discovers that she appreciates these books. Other times, she reads an assigned book because she respects her teachers and does what she’s told. Engagement ratings? Mixed.

Sarah gave her boyfriend a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird for Christmas because he somehow, “dodged reading it in 9th grade.” For some reason, Sarah isn’t willing to let him slide on Mockingbird. I get it. Her father wouldn’t let me slide on Sandman or Watchmen, either.

to kill a mockingbird

Reading shapes and transforms who we become–both as readers and as human beings. Encouragement and opportunities to choose what they read have lasting benefits for kids. **Self-selected reading:

  • Allows children to value their decision-making ability.
  • Fosters their capacity to choose appropriate reading material.
  • Builds confidence and a feeling of ownership.
  • Improves reading achievement.
  • Encourages lifelong readers.

I understand the role that reading classic literary works plays in Sarah’s education. She’s building a social and cultural identity, but she’s developing her personal identity, too. She feeds all of her identities with the books she reads–the ones she’s assigned to read and the ones she chooses on her own. Not all of her reading influences come from school. She’s building her own canon.

Sarah is a student. She’s also a singer. A gamer. A cheese Danish and cat lover.

She’s our comic book girl.

And she’s her own girl. It’s a marvelous thing to see.

*(Johnson, D., & Blair, A., 2003)

Open a World of Possible

This week, Scholastic announced its new global reading initiative, Open a World of Possible. Through education programs, print and online resources, and literacy events, the Open a World of Possible campaign promotes the importance of independent reading for children and provides tools to support and sustain independent reading initiatives in our home and school communities.

On the Open a World of Possible website, you can:

Watch the inspiring literacy campaign video written by National Student Poet, Sojourner Ahebee, and narrated by actress and mom, Sarah Jessica Parker and videos from kids, parents, and teachers celebrating their love for reading.

Register for the November 6th Bigger Than Words webcast with Usher.

Access Scholastic’s comprehensive reading research summary, The Joy and Power of Reading, and practical, research-based resources for parents and teachers.

Read Open a World of Possible: Read Stories About the Joy and Power of Reading, which includes over 100 essays from literacy thought leaders, researchers, teachers, and authors like Katherine Paterson, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Walter Dean Myers, Alfred Tatum, Penny Kittle, Franki Sibberson, and Colby Sharp. Share these essays at staff meetings, education classes, and parent programs. Children will adore reading and discussing author Kwame Alexander’s poem, “How to Read a Book.” The e-book is available as a free download.

I’m honored to participate in the Open a World of Possible initiative, which advocates for young readers and their families, and inspires us all to promote and encourage independent reading in our homes, classrooms, and communities.

As a sneak peek, enjoy my essay “Reading Sent Me to the Principal’s Office,” which appears in the Open a World of Possible anthology. My beloved elementary school librarian, Mrs. Potter, changed my reading life forever—a reminder of the power we have to influence children’s reading lives each day.

open a world of possible

Reading Sent Me to the Principal’s Office

(excerpted from Open a World of Possible: Real Stories About the Joy and Power of Reading. Scholastic, 2014)

The only time I went to the principal’s office was because of reading. My mother claims this isn’t precisely true, but it’s my story, so I get to tell it how I want.

A precocious reader, I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read. Knowing how to read by first grade didn’t seem like a problem to my mother and me, but my teachers thought differently. Initially enthusiastic about school, I was bored with the phonics worksheets and bland textbook stories that made up our school’s reading program. In third grade, my teacher, Mrs. Shugart introduced us to a new reading activity—SRA cards. Stored inside a large box, each color-coded card included a reading selection on one side and comprehension questions on the back. Mrs. Shugart tested each of us—determining where we should start in the SRA program, and for an hour every day, my classmates and I read SRA cards and answered questions.

I didn’t mind reading SRA cards. I knew I was a good reader and also a little bit of a show-off. I don’t remember where I started in Mrs. Shugart’s box, but I burned through those cards. Every day, when I turned in my questions, Mrs. Shugart clucked her tongue and scrutinized my work, “Three cards today? Are you sure you’re really reading them?” I stood at her desk while she checked my answers against the key. If I missed even one question, she would send me back to my desk to repeat a card—insisting that I read too quickly.

Eventually, I finished the last card in the box. Mrs. Shugart didn’t know what to do with me during SRA time, so she made me sit with other kids and help them read their cards. I hated it. One day, Mrs. Shugart returned from the office to find me standing at the chalkboard, chalk in hand, writing the answers to SRA cards on the board. With a gasp, she snatched me by the arm and marched me down to the principal’s office. The secretary called my mother.

No-nonsense about behavior and grades, my mother was unhappy about getting a call from school. Waiting for Mrs. Shugart, Mom asked me what happened, “You were cheating? What were you thinking, Donalyn?” While she talked with Mrs. Shugart and our principal, I sat outside the office in agony—imagining increasingly horrific punishments.

After an eternity, my mother emerged from the principal’s office and escorted me to the car. I kept my head down and my mouth shut. As we pulled out of the school parking lot, my mother sighed, “Did you know that Mrs. Shugart was standing there for three minutes before you noticed her? She says that you gave out at least ten answers and she has to skip those assignments with the other kids now.”

“Mom, I don’t think the other kids will mind skipping those cards,” I said, “What’s going to happen to me?”

“Well, I asked if you could move to the 4th grade reading class, but everyone nixed that suggestion. We came up with a different plan. Every day during reading time, you will go down to the library and help Mrs. Potter.”

And that’s what I did. Every day during SRA time, for the rest of third grade and into fourth grade, I worked as Mrs. Potter’s library aide. Looking back, I recognize that spending an hour a day with Mrs. Potter permanently influenced my reading life.

I don’t remember what Mrs. Potter looked like, but I can still hear her voice in my head, “Horses? You like horses? Have you met Marguerite Henry? Let’s start with King of the Wind.” After King of the Wind, I read every Marguerite Henry book in the library—Misty of Chincoteague, Brighty of Grand Canyon, and White Stallion of Lipizza. I read Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, too.

When I ran out of horse books, Mrs. Potter steered me toward other animal books like Old Yeller by Frank Gipson, Rascal by Sterling North, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling. Every book Mrs. Potter gave me launched another adventure.

Each time I returned a book, Mrs. Potter spent a few minutes chatting with me about the story, asking what I learned from the book and what parts I liked. Under her guidance, I read a staggering pile of books—Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, The Borrowers by Mary Norton, most of the Newbery winners, and selections from the Childhood of Famous Americans series. In my opinion, Mrs. Potter was a magician—able to find a book that matched any random interest of mine.

I took reading for granted before my two years with Mrs. Potter. I enjoyed reading, but I didn’t grasp the power of reading until she showed me. From then on, my education belonged to me because I loved to read. I can learn about anything, travel anywhere, ask my own questions and seek my own answers because I read. Thanks to Mrs. Potter’s wisdom and guidance, my life has been one long reading adventure—rich and exciting and mine.

No More Language Arts and Crafts

I’ll admit that I hold my children’s teachers to a higher than reasonable standard. Would you want my kid in your English class? As a parent, I could be a burr in your saddle. I get that.

I’m not a harassing parent, I promise. Most of my children’s teachers have no idea who I am, other than Celeste and Sarah’s mom. That’s how it should be.

On the other hand, my children’s teachers don’t know who Penny Kittle is. They don’t know who Kristin Ziemke is. They don’t know who Kelly Gallagher is.

Heck, my children’s teachers don’t know who Nancie Atwell and Lucy Calkins are. It doesn’t matter if they’ve read my books about teaching reading, but it does matter when my children’s teachers haven’t read a book or article about teaching reading in 20 years.

A line divides parents who know a lot about reading and their children’s less-knowledgeable teachers. What can we teacher-parents do when our children have poor reading instruction at school? I may not have my own classroom this year, but this reading war front line cuts across my lawn. It stretches across my dining room table—limiting and defining my children’s reading lives.

My oldest granddaughter, Emma, spends an hour and a half at our house every morning and afternoon. My husband walks Emma to first grade. We help her with homework. Celeste, my older daughter, joked with us last week, “Andrew and I don’t think we’re are going to have to worry about Emma’s reading log all year. It’s always filled out when we pick her up.”

Of course, I’m going to read with her. You can bet your tail feathers that I will monitor my grand baby’s reading homework.

Emma has a reading log. Each day, she’s supposed to read for 20 minutes. We record the book titles for what she reads and sign Emma’s log. Kids with unsigned reading logs receive consequences at school. Emma’s vague on what happens because her log is always signed.

the troublemakerLast week, Emma and I re-read three outstanding wordless picture books, Flashlight by Lizi Boyd, The Troublemaker by Lauren Castillo, and Molly Idle’s Flora and the Flamingo, a 2014 Caldecott Honor Book. Filling out her reading log, Emma said, “We can’t write those books down, Mimi. We didn’t read any words.”

These books are standouts—amazing pieces of storytelling. Award-deserving. Emma recommends them, too.

Sadly, they’re not reading log worthy.

Somewhere in Texas, on a first grade teacher’s desk, sits a reading log with my signature on it. I have publicly denounced reading logs for a decade, but I still sign one every night for my granddaughter. I feel the injustice every time I hold the pen.

And the world spins madly on.

Our younger daughter, Sarah, is a high school sophomore this year. Sarah is a reader. Well, Sarah was a reader. Her dad and I hope she will be a reader in the future. She doesn’t read much any more. Burdened with pointless assignments for English class, Sarah doesn’t have time to read or write at home. Her English teacher doesn’t give Sarah and her classmates time to read or write at school, either.

Sarah is in the gifted and talented program. She’s an International Baccalaureate student. She takes an advanced English course. Sarah’s first project this year? Make a collage about The Beast from The Lord of the Flies. Her second project? On the corners of a tissue box, share your hopes, dreams, fears, and personal creed. I guess Sarah’s teacher needed Kleenex.

Sarah told us that the kids didn’t even share their boxes with each other. They just stacked their boxes on a table. That’s where kids’ hopes and dreams belong—in the back of the room.

Two weeks into school, and Sarah still hasn’t read a book or visited the school library with her class. The Lord of the Flies was assigned for summer reading.

Last week, Sarah’s teacher launched a discussion about “why reading matters” and “what makes a book worthy.” She lectured the class for an hour about literary merit. She never asked students to contribute their opinions about the importance of reading and the value of books. What could Sarah and her classmates possibly know about reading? She’s the teacher. She knows why reading matters.

It’s clear that my children’s teachers value school-based definitions of reading. Reading matters outside of school, too. I’m glad Emma and Sarah learned this at home, but what about the kids who don’t?

On Facebook this weekend, I invited friends to share the worst reading assignments they’ve seen as students, parents, and teachers. In many cases, our children complete the same boring, teacher-directed reading assignments we did 30 years ago. Putting low-level comprehension questions on iPads doesn’t improve the questions.

My Facebook query opened a floodgate. Dioramas, book reports, paragraph and chapter summaries, Accelerated Reader quizzes—teachers confessed to assigning landslides of pointless busy work to their students. Parents bemoaned burdensome reading logs and worksheets. Librarians complained about teachers’ restrictive book selection criteria that prevent children from self-selecting books—unreasonable page limits, reading level boundaries, and narrow genre requirements.

What are children really learning from us about reading?

I’m not a perfect teacher. I’ve assigned some crummy, waste-of-time, language arts and crafts projects to my students over the years. Cereal Box Biographies, novel unit packets, and vocabulary crossword puzzles—my students churned out a lot of mindless work. It finally occurred to me that if I hated grading 98 cereal boxes, my students hated making them.

I’m still learning how to be a better teacher. I’ve missed a lot of chances to connect my students with reading. I’ve created negative reading experiences in my classroom. I didn’t know what I know now. I learned. I grew. I evolved. I improved. I was a novice teacher once, but I’m not new any more. When you know better, you do better. No excuses.

Celebrating Dr. Seuss’s birthday on March 2nd can’t offset a year of reading logs and book reports. Our children must spend more time reading than they spend completing reading-related activities. Generating grades shouldn’t drive teaching decisions. Our children must develop positive reading identities. Worksheets don’t value readers or reading. Children should not become readers in spite of school.

At some point, ignorance becomes a choice. When teachers reject evidence-based teaching practices in favor of outdated traditions, it’s a choice. When parents endure the disrespectful, useless reading work our children bring home, it’s a choice.

Share what you know. Learn as much as you can. Build relationships. When we remain silent—afraid to rock the boat, offend a teacher, or question an administrator, it’s a choice. What choices do our children have?

We must advocate for children’s reading lives, or they won’t have reading lives.

If we don’t speak up, too many children will make the only reading choice they have left. They will choose not to read.

*** Note added on September 14, 2014.**

The response to this post has been overwhelming. While most of the comments I have received in person, through Twitter and Facebook, and here on the blog have been positive, a few have been hateful and derisive–including curse words, cruel remarks about my children, and personal attacks–which I have chosen not to approve on the blog or respond to elsewhere. I cannot possibly restate everything that I have written and spoken over the years about meaningful reading instruction in a single blog post. I cannot summarize decades of reading research, either. What I can do is respond to specific questions or remarks.

Yes, I know that reading wordless books doesn’t provide my granddaughter the same skill development that decoding words does. What wordless books offer is practice generating stories by inferring visual cues from the illustrations. This is higher-level thinking–valuable for young readers to practice.

It bothers me that my granddaughter is learning in first grade that some types of reading “count” and some don’t.

Reading logs do not hold children and parents accountable for reading home. Reading logs hold children and parents accountable for filling out reading logs.

I am not against the arts. I am not against artistic expression in language arts class. I believe that inviting children to choose how they want to respond to a text is better than assigning the same project to everyone. Students should spend the majority of language arts class reading, writing, and discussing reading and writing. I believe writing is art and reading is art appreciation. We must be critical of activities that crowd the Ianguage arts out of language arts classes.

I do not think I am better than other teachers. I admit in this post that I have made mistakes and continue to learn. Reading professional books and articles, attending conferences, joining Twitter chats. attending PLC meetings, talking with colleagues, enrolling in courses–I invest substantial time learning from OTHER teachers. I am grateful for the vast learning community of colleagues who teach me every day. Like many of you, I know that being a good teacher demands investment in my personal learning.

I appreciate the many parents and professional colleagues who have engaged in meaningful discourse about this post over the past week. I look forward to learning more from you.

I’m a Reader, Not a Writer

My six-month journey with a broken tooth ended today when my dentist installed a permanent crown. Chatting with the dental hygienist, she asked me what I did, “I’m a teacher and a writer.” As we left the office, my husband told me he was proud of me, “I’ve never heard you tell a stranger that you’re a writer before. That’s new.”

Last Saturday, my friend and colleague, Gretchen Bernabei, led professional development in our school district. Her area of expertise? Teaching writing. Sitting with Gretchen and our district ELA coordinators, Gretchen and I joked about how hard it is to see ourselves as writers.

“I write technical writing. It’s not like real writing,” Gretchen said.

“Writing is hard. The only way I get any writing done is waking up at four a.m. and writing. Otherwise, I would talk myself out of it most days,” I admitted.

One of my district friends shook her head, “If the two of you—both published authors—feel insecure and struggle with writing, that makes me feel better about my own writing!” We spent lunch chatting about writing, teaching writing, and fostering students’ ownership for their writing, too.

I know it’s absurd, but I have only recently seen myself as a writer. I wrote two books, and I’m working on another. I write for Nerdy Book Club and this blog on a regular basis. I’ve published journal and magazine articles. I’ve been a professional writer for seven years. I was a writer long before I published anything, but I define myself as a reader, not a writer.

For me, writing is one long response to my ongoing affair with reading and books. Love letters, memoir, manifesto. I write about reading to extend my reading life. I’m an artist’s patron, not her equal. I write about reading because reading doesn’t matter to enough people. I want more people to care.

If I stopped writing about reading, I would stop writing. That’s the truth. Fortunately, I can connect almost anything in my life back to reading. Reading frames my life already. No surprise that reading would frame my writing life, too. I have finally realized that if I value reading so much, I must value writing about reading more. Even though I still see myself as a reader who writes, I can own the writer label honestly now.

My dearest friends are writers, too, but all wear their “writer” badges uneasily. Why is it so hard to take ownership of our writing? Here’s what I need to remind myself and share with you.

Just this:

  • If you write, you are a writer.
  • If you don’t write, you are not a writer.
  • If you want to be a writer, you must write.
  • The only writers who struggle with writing are ALL of them.
  • Write about what matters to you and make the rest of us care about it.
  • Anyone who tells you she’s a writer must believe it herself before she can admit it to you.


Of course, I could give you the exact same advice about reading.

But you knew that already.

Bless It All

My students and I launched our second semester by celebrating our reading accomplishments (so far) and looking ahead to new reading experiences. I created an online survey where students could reflect on their reading habits, recommend books to each other, and set reading goals.

I decided to model answering the questions by taking the survey in front of my students.  Working through the survey while projecting it on a screen, my fifth graders tried to guess my answers.

We write and talk together a lot, and the kids know me well. They know that I love coffee, green (except neon green), and owls. They know that I have a scar on my ear from a dog bite. Of course, they know I love to read and I want them to love reading, too. It amused me when they couldn’t answer questions about my reading preferences that well.

Reading out loud question #4, I asked, “What is my favorite genre and why?”

Alex called out, “I know this one! You like books about animals. You give me snake books all of the time.”

“Yeah, you give me dog books, too, and you brought that animal poetry book. I know you like reading about animals,” Destiny agreed.

“I think Mrs. Miller likes historical fiction. She recommended Number the Stars to me,” Ryleigh said.

“You always read us sad books like Wonder and The Little Match Girl,” Sam said, “but that’s not a genre, is it?”

My students began bickering, each one claiming that my favorite genre was their favorite genre.

Hailey chimed in, “I think Mrs. Miller likes to read anything, as long as it’s good.”

You and I have that in common, Hailey, I thought. I laughed and agreed, “That’s true, Hailey. I read a little bit of everything. When I was your age, I read Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Greek mythology.”

Neil and Jeremy, diehard Lightning Thief fans, gave a little, “Woot!”

As much as I have influenced my students’ reading habits over the years, they have influenced mine. Some time ago, I realized that I gravitated towards the students who loved the same books I did, like fantasy epics and books about animals. Was I missing an opportunity to connect with some of my students or connect them with books? I couldn’t let my book preferences favor certain kids over others in my class.

Since that time, I have pushed myself to read more widely than twelve-year old Donalyn did. Reading out of my personal tastes benefits my students and me:

  • Trying a little bit of everything keeps my reading life fresh and exposes me to books that I might not have tried.
  • I can recommend books to my students that match their tastes, not mine.
  • My students appreciate each other as readers and don’t feel pressure to like the same books.
  • I communicate to my students that whatever we are reading, and whoever we are as readers—it’s all good.

Linda Gambrell often says, “Kids read what we bless.” If we want kids to find themselves as readers, value each other, and take risks–both in reading and in life, we must bless their books–and them.

The Grasshopper and the Ant

grasshopper jungle

My husband Don and I read a lot, but we don’t read the same books often. Our tastes overlap on occasion, but we read parallel more than perpendicular.

Don doesn’t have a reading agenda that requires reading for anyone’s motives but his own. His job doesn’t require him to read certain text and he doesn’t feel the need to impress anyone with what he’s reading.

OK, that’s not completely true. He reads for me, sometimes. Every once in a while, I find an author or a book that I want to share with another reader, and I know that Don’s the best choice. Don is not a teacher or a librarian, but he likes to keep up on what’s good in the book world. He knows that young adult literature has some of the best writing around these days.

Don only reads a few children’s or young adult books each year, which makes me careful about what I recommend to him. Recognizing that he reads YA selectively, I don’t waste his time. Last year, I threw him Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell and Daniel Kraus’s Scowler.  The year before, Don and I shared John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater.

You could probably guess my favorites each year by identifying the five or six YA books that Don reads. Call it The Best in Disturbing YA. Looking back through Goodreads at 2012 reveals an ongoing pattern of dark, trippy titles swapped between us. Don read Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls, Stupid Fast by Geoff Herbach, and Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens. Talking with him tonight, I asked, “Did you read Everybody Sees the Ants?”

Don squinted, “I don’t thinks so.”

I gasped, “What? I have wronged you if I haven’t introduced you to Amy King. We have to fix that.”

Don said, “I did read Scorpio Races that year, though.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t like it,” I reminded him, “You said it was too horsey.”

Don said, “I totally saw what you loved in it, but it wasn’t for me. I wasn’t a big fan of Misty of Chincoteague, either.”

Every once in a while, Don reads a promising YA book before I do. He reminds me occasionally that he was the first one to finish The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. Last week, a copy of Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle arrived at our house. There’s lots of buzz about this book and I know Andrew Smith is an intriguing, talented writer. Don and I chatted about the book when it arrived, but I couldn’t get to it right away because I was reading a few other things.

Don took Grasshopper Jungle and burned through it in three days. He’s been raving about it around the house and on Facebook. I haven’t seen him this jazzed about a book since E & P last fall.

I find it interesting that Don and I have a separate fondness for Andrew Smith’s work without sharing a single book in common. Don read Stick. I read Winger. We both abandoned The Marbury Lens (sorry, Andrew) because we found it too strange—even by our high-tolerance standards.  We made a pact to reread it soon.

But I am reading Grasshopper Jungle this weekend. You should probably read it soon, too.

I am actually a little frightened, but that’s what Andrew Smith’s books do to readers.

Don expressed interest in reading and rereading all of Andrew’s books now, but I urged him to take his time, “Look, I have met Andrew and he’s a nice, well-adjusted guy, but even Andrew spread out his experiences writing those books. His books are weird—they bend your brain. When you know that every book is going to affect you like that, you should probably space them out.”

Don, “How about Everybody Sees the Ants?”

I laughed, “Yeah, that’s going to bend your brain, too. In all the best ways, of course.”

Don, “Sounds perfect!”

everybody sees the ants