This summer, I challenged myself to read 30 books. Between the making and the biking, I was ready to do what I challenge my students to do – practice, work toward becoming a better reader, and find the joy in discovering a new story.
The challenge was important to me on multiple levels. After a school year, I can feel frustrated and tired, and forget the reason that I wanted to become a librarian in the first place. After ten months of squeezing in a chapter or two between staff meetings and dinner with my husband, I was eager to spend time immersed in literature again. And this year, I am faced with a brand new challenge: serving as the librarian for a K-8 school, a far cry from the pre-k -4 patrons that I have grown accustomed to. I had a lot to learn and not much time to do it.
Its easy, in the world of assignments and standardized testing, to lose sight of what really matters. Educators have so much to teach and so little time to do it – it seems like a bonus when students are actually engaged and excited in what they are reading. I wanted this challenge to not only make me a stronger reader, but to also give me an opportunity to walk in the tiny, glittery shoes of my patrons. When I developed this challenge for myself, I added some details – half of the books could come from recommendations, curated lists from sources like GoodReads, and my own personal interest; the other half would have to come from assigned reading lists that outline what a middle school reader “should” read. I wanted to experience the summer like a student, reading from a mandatory list and then being able to read for pleasure when I was finished.
My results probably won’t shock you. What I found has been proven, time and time again. But as a teacher, this summer was a priceless reminder of what motivates my readers. It reminded me what can help to stir that passion inside of them; that passion that makes them stay up holding a flashlight beneath the covers far after bedtime. It also reminded me what can drive a student to say the phrase that breaks the heart of teachers everywhere: “I hate reading.”
Many of the books on my summer reading list were fantastic. They made me laugh, made me cry, and blew my mind. They hurt my heart, healed it, and broke it again. I found myself shocked to suddenly have finished the last sentence on the last page swinging in the hammock in my backyard and wiping away audiobook-inspired tears between sets at the gym. I had the kinds of experiences that ushered me gently from the burnout and frustration that pile up by June back to the invigorated, passionate reader of my past. These were wonderful moments.
But other titles felt like toiling away at hard labor. I’d plant myself on the couch next to a cup of tea, and make myself a deal: 150 pages and I can go do something fun. When you love a book, 150 pages can go by in a flash. When you’re not interested, it can feel like days. What was that noise? I should probably go check it out. Is the cat breathing funny? He definitely needs me to take a break and spend some time with him. Uh oh, my tea’s cold. Better go reheat it…for an hour. As an avid reader who has always considered reading an escape, I was shocked. Do I hate reading? What is happening here? Is this what we are doing to our students?
And, if I’m being totally honest… I cheated. I am an adult that doesn’t have to answer to a teacher or a grade, and I took advantage of that. There were about 15 books that I started and then quit because I didn’t enjoy them. Sometimes the plot didn’t grab me, sometimes I didn’t enjoy the writing style, sometimes the audiobook narrator made me want to pull my hair out. Whatever the reason, I gave myself the luxury of respecting my tastes and putting down a book that I didn’t enjoy to get another one that I thought I might like better. This simple act – the ability to trust my own judgement and made decisions based on what I do and do not like – made a huge difference. And yet, so many of us do not give this to the children that we serve.
I am a librarian. I have a strong bias here – I have built a career and a life around my belief that children should love what they read and read what they love. But the importance of student choice has been proven hundreds of times by impartial sources: you can read about it here, here, here, or 549,000 other places on the internet. I especially love this article from the National Council of Teachers of English, which cites the top five reasons to give students choice in their reading materials:
Choice empowers students.
Valuing student choices values the student.
Choice leads to real and meaningful conversations.
Choice helps establish and deepen relationships.
Choice leads to independence.
Bonus: Choice changes the reading life of the teacher.
As a skilled and inherently driven adult reader, I struggled to make it through a list of required texts. I often felt discouraged, bored, or resentful of the “assignment”. Step into those aforementioned tiny, glittery shoes and imagine a still learning, sometimes frustrated or challenged reader, attempting to squeeze these hours in after basketball practice or a full day of kindergarten without a nap. Assigned texts should and will always be required by your school – reading together in class is a rich and important experience. But giving your student a choice in what they read during independent reading or outside of the classroom can be the small difference between “Can I go read?” and “I hate reading” as a child; and that creates a myriad of difference as that child grows into an adult.
Below, find the reviews on all of the books that I read this summer (minus a few still in the works). You can follow along with me in real-time as I read, review, and do all things library on my Instagram: fitzbetweentheshelves.