Monday, May 25, 2015

Let Them Read

Saturday afternoons you can often find me and my two sons at the public library.  This past Saturday was no exception.  After dropping our books and videos in the return slot outside, we headed through the doors to once again fill our bag to overflowing.  Jared immediately took off on his own, heading to the teen section, while Jack and I moved in silent synchronicity to the new books section.  Jack scanned the shelves quickly, deposited Food Trucks! in the bag, and, as I continued to browse at a decidedly slower pace, promptly disappeared.  I wasn't worried.  I had a fairly good idea of where he had gone.  Sure enough, he reappeared moments later, accompanied by Captain Underpants, which he proudly held out for my inspection.

"Is this one that you haven't read before?"  I asked.

"No, I've read it.  But not for a long time."  And with that, he was gone again, seeking out a quiet corner with a comfortable chair in which he could get lost in the comic misadventures of George and Harold.

I know there are some parents who turn up their noses when they hear the name Captain Underpants.  They probably would be equally appalled at the Babymouse books that also found their way into our bag on the way to the check-out counter.  Personally, I think they're missing the point of children's books.

Not too long ago I was sitting in a meeting with some parents regarding their son's behavior when the step-dad suddenly asked what books their son shouldn't read.  Yes, you read that correctly.  He wasn't interested in knowing what books I would recommend next for their Percy Jackson-reading son, but which books I would ban.  I was stunned.  In 20 years, no one had ever asked me that particular question before.  He went on to give SpongeBob SquarePants as an example of the type of material he felt was inappropriate.  I didn't mention that we have a few SpongeBob books floating around our house.  Fortunately, I was saved from having to respond by the mother who stated that they were perfectly capable of making those types of decisions themselves.  It wasn't too long after this that I saw a tweet from John Schumacher (@mrschureads) in which he shared witnessing a parent at a bookstore telling their child to get a "real" book when they selected a graphic novel.  And while incidents such as these make my heart hurt, I get it.  I was almost one of those parents myself.

My book snobbery actually predates my becoming a parent.  I remember as a new teacher declaring my distaste for Goosebumps books.  I found the plots simplistic and the writing even more so.  The excessive use of one sentence paragraphs drove me crazy.  This was not the quality of writing I wanted my students experiencing.  Of course, it was exactly what my students wanted to read.  In my defense, I was new to the profession, knew very little of actual children, and had spent four years in college reading and analyzing classic literature.  It didn't occur to me that simple plots and short, simple paragraphs might have been just what my students, many of whom were ELL, needed.  Sadly, I was still years away from understanding the importance of interest and motivation in the development of readers. 

Some years later I was forced to confront my book snobbery with my firstborn son.  Somewhere along the way he developed a love of anime.  When he discovered manga at the library (I'll confess right now that he was the one to teach me the difference between anime and manga), there was no stopping him.  Okay, I guess I could have stopped him.  I honestly couldn't see the appeal.  For one thing, they begin at the back of the book.  I have to admit, too, that I was never one to read comic books as a kid, and the format is one of visual overload for me.  Give me words and I will create my own visuals, thank you.  So, like I said, I could have told my son he couldn't read those, that he needed to check out "real" books.  But something stopped me.  Now I am so glad I didn't deny him his choice of book.

Since those days of manga, graphic novels have become increasingly popular.  Being a third grade teacher, I realized that I should at least familiarize myself with them.  The first graphic novel I read was Giants Beware by Jorge Aguirre and  Rafael Rosado.  Much to my surprise, I really enjoyed it.  It had a story I could follow and understand, and the illustrations enhanced the plot rather than overtook it.  In fact, it had all the elements of a "real" book!  Next, I read Lunch Lady and the Cyborg Substitute by Jarrett Krosoczka.  I loved it!  Even more importantly, I immediately thought of a student in my class at the time.  He loved superheroes, but he was a struggling reader who would do whatever he could to avoid reading.  I brought the book in to school and handed it to him, telling him I thought he might enjoy it.  I can't tell you how many times he read that book.  The only way I could get him to give it up was to bring in more books in the series.  I even convinced our school librarian to order them.  It was the perfect fit for him.  It had the superheroes he loved and illustrations to support his comprehension when he struggled to decode the words.  I realized what was visual overload for me was visual support for my struggling readers.  It occurred to me, as well, that while I may form pictures in my head as I read, not all students do.  Graphic novels fill that gap and perhaps provide a model for creating visuals to go along with text.

Undeniably, we live in a time of standards, of pushing kids to read more "rigorous" text, to analyze those texts, and dissect them to examine their most basic parts.  There is definitely a time and a place for that.  However, we run the risk of turning kids off even more to reading if our emphasis is solely on rigor and analysis.  We must first show our students the inherent pleasure in reading.  Analysis can be interesting, but only to someone who has already discovered the magic of reading.  Otherwise, it is simply more drudgery to be endured and makes reading just another unpleasant task that is foisted on our students.  I have been a reader all my life, which is why I decided on majoring in English when I went to college. I have to say, though, four years of being told what to read and what to think about those books, was a turn-off even for me.  There was a time after I graduated that I didn't read much.  Books simply had lost their appeal.

Perhaps that is why I am so passionate about letting students have choice in what they read.  Yes, some books are silly and don't require any deep thinking, but so what?  If a child enjoys them, he should be able to read them.  Those books teach children that reading is a pleasurable endeavor.  He is also still developing fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension skills along the way.  (You don't have to tell him that, though.)  After all, no one ever said that you can't laugh and learn at the same time.

I think one of my biggest fears when my older son was younger was that he would always read the same type of books.  I realize now, of course, that that was utter nonsense.  I have since watched Jared devour series after series of books, moving naturally along an invisible continuum as his tastes have changed and matured.  Sure, he still occasionally reads manga, but it is only a part of a well-rounded reading diet.  A diet that he has developed for himself.  I can see Jack following in his footsteps, trying out different genres and formats, finding the ones that he enjoys most and devouring them.  Both of my sons love to read and can often be found with book in hand when we are in the car or waiting for some event to start.  They are fluent readers, have a rich vocabulary, and do well in school.  I can't help but view this as evidence that allowing children to read what interests them rather than restricting them to what we perceive to be "real" books provides a long-lasting benefit.  Just the other night, Jack asked for some paper so he could write a comic book.  What?  My son voluntarily writing?  He then informed me that he had been writing comics in his writing journal at school.  When I thought about what he had been reading, a steady stream of Babymouse and Captain Underpants, it all made sense.  Those books had made it possible for him to see himself as being able to create his own comics, envisioning himself and his friends as superheroes who save the day.  Not only had they fed his imagination, they had bolstered his confidence.  Now, not only is he reading, but he is writing, too.  That seems like a real win to me.

So, parents and teachers, let them read.  Let them choose the books they want to read.  Let them feed their imaginations.  Let them laugh and be silly.  Let them discover the joy and magic of reading.