Department meetings and informal conversations about how best to teach students always circled back to the same topics: What should teens read? What will most develop their reading skills? A typical exchange of ideas could get a bit testy. This is a rerun of a typical conversation about reading lists:
Everyone must read Shakespeare or they’re culturally illiterate.
Wait a minute. What’s the purpose of reading? Is it to carve out identical thinking, minds that we’ve crafted into whatever it is we believe is in their best interests?
It’s not developing reading skills for kids to require them to read something that we must interpret for them just to get at meaning.
I believe we must stop, sit back and think logically about what it means to read and how to help students become critical thinkers.
But, we’re doing them a grave disservice if they haven’t read the classics!
Why worry? They should just read, regardless.
What about free choice? Can’t we open the door to more selections, especially the free reading time in the summer?
And so it went, on and on and on with no resolution.
With everyone and their uncle writing columns about summer reading, I thought I’d throw in my two cents on this idea of reading lists, and the concept of “right” reading choices, based on my experiences in a high school classroom (I retired a couple of years ago).
A student I always think of when I hear about what young people should and should not be reading (I’m looking at you, New York Times) is Kristen.* Kristen, an always friendly girl, would sashay into class chatting, laughing and using language in ways that made me wish she would write fiction. Clever and articulate, she was nonetheless flunking English.
She shared her thoughts about reading with me saying,
I’ve never read a whole book, not a chapter book anyway, since I was in oh, I think it was fourth or fifth grade. Don’t remember what it was, but it was dumb. Reading’s a dumb way to spend your time, you know.
I liked Kristen. She would come to my desk just to ask me how I was and would even show interest in my books I would leave lying on my desk.
“You read all those books,” she queried.
“ Yes,” I responded. “I love reading.”
“ Good for you.”
Kristen nodded with a friendly smile, her eyes meeting mine, sparkled with humor.
I couldn’t figure out what was up with her. Her testing proved she was bright, could read and understand. She simply chose not to read.
I thought about myself at her age. I too was a bit of a renegade choosing to read what I wanted, not necessarily what teachers thought I should read. I remembered a book I picked up when I wasn’t much older than Kristen and thought it was the best story ever. I felt like a participant in the story, not just a reader peeking into the lives of others. Love Story. Now that was one she might like.
Eric Segal’s Love Story has never received high acclaim by the critics (okay, it was The Notebook of its time), but it holds all the elements to beguile the young, romantic and imaginative. Love leads to dedication and commitment and finally success only to end in the tragic death of its heroine at a young age. So, I purchased a copy of Love Story and left it on my desk with my other books and waited.
Sure enough. It worked.
Kristen couldn’t resist asking,
What’s that one about?
With an oh-so-innocent smile I responded,
I brought it in for you. I read it when I was your age and loved it, so thought you might like it too.
Without hesitation, she picked it up, smiled her thank you and tucked it in her backpack. This was a Friday morning. On Monday, Kristen was back at my desk with Love Story in hand.
I love this book. I cried. I finished it in one day. Do you have other books I’d like?
Love Story was her gateway back into reading. Together we talked about books and spent time whenever possible looking for books she’d enjoy. I tailored her reading and writing assignments to align with her reading choices.
Kristen passed English. Her imagination caught fire with selections that meant something to her. She could bring her experiences into the book to mesh with and give more depth to the reading.
Kristen’s experience emphasizes that there is no one “required reading” list nor one book nor one writer that’s a “must-read” for the young (or not-so-young). The experience of reading is as diverse as the individuals who pick up a book. Think of it as a Venn Diagram. Imagine three overlapping circles. In one is Your Knowledge or Education, in the next Your Experiences and in the last The Text. Grey in the center where the circles connect and label that Your Understanding or Your Truth.
Understanding and truth varies from one person to the next depending on knowledge and experiences which are brought into the reading.
For example, background knowledge helps when reading A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah, which has been referenced in several pieces as important reading for young people. This autobiographical account of how wars are fought by children stolen from their homes who’ve often witnessed the horrific deaths of their families and friends, and are now trained to handle an AK-47 is a chillingly graphic account. Ishmael who is now an adult living in the U.S. escaped attacking rebel soldiers. He wandered war ravaged Sierra Leone and at thirteen was grabbed by the government army and finds that he too under their tutelage and domination can do horrible deeds.
For anyone reading this book, adolescent or adult, another person to talk with about Ishmael’s account would be of great value. Knowing that child warriors have been forced into combat makes for difficult emotions. At the center of the reading is the personal understanding that flows from the text. Mesmerizing and heart wrenching, for me best describe the experience of reading A Long Way Gone. Yet, it left me with a sense of hope and faith that in the most harrowing of situations the human spirit can overcome oppression. However, not everyone would be able to handle reading this book, as excellent as it may be. For some young people, especially those who’ve experienced violence or loss in their own lives, this could be a triggering book.
Another one that’s been listed several times is Sold by Patricia McCormick. While fiction, it also is full of raw realism, made more intense through its free verse-like vignette format. McCormick travelled through both India and Nepal interviewing women of Calcutta’s red-light district as well as girls who were rescued from the sex trade. She listened to and gathered their stories and experiences to create the fictionalized child Lakshmi. For Lakshmi, life is sweet but hard in her simple home in the mountains of Nepal. Monsoons sweep their land washing away the crops they depend on for sustenance. Knowing that what follows takes place daily makes the reading of this book both important and like A Long Way Gone, difficult and nearly unbelievable.
Lakshmi’s stepfather meets a beautiful, cultured woman who promises that she will take his thirteen-year-old stepdaughter with her to work for a wealthy friend in Calcutta. It’s the perfect solution to the family’s dire situation. One less mouth to feed and there’s a promise of money coming back to the family for Lakshmi’s service. Sold is written in clean simple language while it tells a story of the atrocities that beset a sweet and gentle child sold into prostitution. Again, this is an excellent book that some teens would glean much from, while others may find it too much to handle.
A book I often recommended to my reluctant readers (especially boys) was Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, another true story with a breathless and harrowing insight into the adventurous spirit that led Krakauer to make the dangerous climb of Mt. Everest, appeals to the adventurous spirit and love of a challenge. During the climb the 70 knot winds and blinding snow caught the climbers in Krakauer’s party. Fourteen of the group of twenty made it to the relative safety of camp. Six others did not. Five of them died in a frantic struggle to survive with one surviving. He suffered frostbite that required amputation of his right hand.
Into Thin Air is an amazing account with photographs and first-person narration. It’s been lauded as a modern classic of nonfiction writing.
I remember another student of mine, Hal. Hal never quit reading. He lost himself in epic battles among knights and their adversaries and futuristic aliens. He read anything that led to an escape from his current reality. And, these books were of epic length to match the battles.
I wish I had discovered books like Into Thin Air when I had Hal as a student.
Hal’s problem wasn’t reading. It was escaping with reading. He failed class after class in all of his subjects. He simply chose to avoid anything that dealt with reality—which meant all of his school books.
I can’t state exactly what any one person could have done to change his trajectory from failure to success. But, I do believe that if Into Thin Air had been published at that time and I’d given him a copy to read, he might have found himself with a broadened interest, realizing that non-fiction, the books that he found in his English and History classes could bring as much action and adventure as the fantasy books he devoured. Into Thin Air is about adventure, loss and triumph–not too different from some of the books Hal lost himself in.
Perhaps Hal would have found himself wanting to know more about Mt. Everest and other adventures in the pages of his history or geography textbooks.
With reading, a concept that I’ve employed is to push a reluctant reader in small increments, to stretch the mind so there’s excitement and newly-minted understanding. As an analogy, if I were to decide it’s time to run a marathon, trust me, it would lead to defeat. If I were to push my two mile walk to two and a half, it would lead to success. Therefore, the next stretch of three miles would be on the horizon. It’s the same with reading. Kristen discovered a rich world by reaching just a bit. Hal, I hope, somehow found that stretch.
Personal experience may be placed as a third increment of the Venn diagram but I see it as often the deciding factor in relating to and thus feeling connected to a book.
French poet and playwright Jean Cocteau said,
The poet is a liar who always speaks the truth.
His words stayed with me as I taught reading and literature.
What’s the individual truth gleaned from a poem, a novel or a piece of nonfiction?
That’s the core of reading—finding one’s own truth through the words and stories of others.
Cara Chow’s Bitter Melon developed her shared truth in the story of Francis, a Chinese-American girl whose mother saw her as an end to their financial struggles and her sense of not measuring up to other more prestigious families. Cultural considerations aside, the truth of this story intersects with every ethnicity and social stratum. Bitter Melon as an independent read can stand alone. The cultural focus is Chinese-American but the issues are alive and well in many families. Teens ready to leave home, to begin college, to take steps toward building their own lives face the same troubling sinkholes along the way. Fighting to climb out of them and gain footing on their own terms isn’t unique to one ethnicity while it may manifest itself in different ways.
Bitter Melon is fiction, the lie, that speaks truth.
Finding truth, your own truth embedded in the words and experiences found in books, makes for a broader, wider world where a person doesn’t have to do something to experience it. Therein lies the greatness of the printed word.
My message to young people or adults working with young people is simple. Find books that stretch the imagination, increase understanding of others or give great joy in the beauty of language. There’s no one answer for what to read. Explore the tomes.
There’s so much to discover.
And you never know what might ignite the reading spark.
*Names have been changed.