Social media might be a popular way to unplug and waste time, but if you know where to look, it’s filled with nerds and educators sharing ideas and swapping favorite titles. My favorite social media platform, Instagram, delivers a feed full of colorful book covers and succinct reviews right to my fingertips. What is library superstar Mr. Schu reading today? How about that awesome librarian in Minnesota? Oh, teachers in Japan loved this story? Maybe I’ll pick up a copy for my library. The community of educators available on these platforms are nothing short of amazing. We all have such incredible opportunities to create, collaborate, and share our literate lives.
And yet, there’s a drawback. Parents, you’ve probably read article upon article about the stylized social media feeds that your little ones are absorbing. Perfect hair, expensive clothes, impeccable decor. Experts and parents ask the same questions again and again – are these platforms teaching children the wrong values? Are we making perfection the new “normal”? Does social media push young people to strive for unattainable perfection?
These questions were in the back of my mind as I scrolled through my feed the other day, jotting down notes about new releases and book club favorites. Man, I am glad that my newsfeed isn’t like that, I thought. Luckily, my feed is focused on reading and literature and that I don’t have to worry about only seeing the very best and brightest and being blinded by perfection. And then, in a forehead-slapping moment, I realized something.
There were no negative reviews.
I scrolled and scrolled, finding four stars, five stars, exclamation points galore. Read this now! Best book ever! This book is a must-have for your classroom! It’s lovely, to see a stream of posts so positive and constructive. But…it’s not real.
When you sign on to be an educator, especially in the areas of reading and writing, you unofficially pledge to share your reading life with the students that you serve. We’ve learned again and again that the best way to inspire a community of readers is to lead by example – to share what you’re reading, to discuss the books that have shaped you, to read along with your students and share your thoughts and feelings on the books that are currently shaping them. Reading, when done correctly, is at once both immensely personal and social. Different texts touch readers in different ways, and it can be hard to share the impact of a book when you don’t know what’s right and what’s wrong (you might remember that my out-of-the-box take on literary classics nearly pushed me away from reading altogether); but these experiences can also create powerful bonds within a community. We share our reading journeys with our students because we want them to see that the adults in their lives value literature, that they make reading a priority, and that the skills that they work so hard to master will be used in the real world both for work and for pleasure. We practice what we preach, and we do it publicly.
Except it seems as though many of us are censoring our reading lives. Here’s the ugly truth – not every book is a good fit. Some books just won’t get five stars. And by only sharing the creme de la creme, we are communicating that every book that we read is a winner – and that’s just not true. Many of my young readers come to me, shamefully mumbling to their sneakers, “I’m so sorry, Ms. Fitz. I tried, I really did. I can finish it if you want me to. It’s just…” That guilt, that shame that they’ve learned comes along with setting aside a book that isn’t a good fit; it wrenches my heart every time. If we teach our readers, by direct instruction or example, that they are expected to love every single book that they read, then they will get discouraged when they inevitably reach a book that doesn’t fit the bill. A middle schooler admitted to me once that she knows that must not be a “real reader” because she didn’t like the Harry Potter series. You can imagine my small heart attack in response. Real readers don’t aim to love every book they read -they aim to read every book they love.
An incredibly important part of being a reader is understanding what you like and what you don’t like. Books should fill you up, sweep you away, make time stand still – they shouldn’t be an obligation or a struggle. It’s why every single one of the thousands of students I have taught over the years has been pushed to choose their own books. It’s why I repeat over and over again, “Do you think this one looks interesting, or would you like to keep looking? You won’t hurt my feelings if you don’t like it.” It’s why I never shame my students for returning a book unfinished because they just didn’t enjoy it.
In their library, my students have the power and privilege to create an identity as a reader. There is a sovereignty in closing a book and saying, “This is not the right book for me. I’m going to pick up another one that I will enjoy more.” Just like what they eat or what they wear, what people read is a matter of personal taste – and it’s okay to be discerning. You don’t have to love everything you read, and you don’t have to finish every book you start. Learn what you like by learning what you don’t like. Get to know yourself as a pleasure reader – learn your “type” and choose books that you are likely to enjoy. By all means, branch out – even this tried and true fiction fan will enjoy a non-fiction text every now and again – but don’t be afraid to assert your tastes.
When you scroll through my Instagram feed, you’ll find a wide range of reviews. I share my reading life blow by blow – the good, the bad, and the ugly. I try to be kind and respectful with the books that I don’t enjoy, but more importantly, I try to be honest: “I didn’t enjoy this book, and here’s why. Remember, just because a book didn’t work for me doesn’t mean it won’t for you.” Books don’t write themselves – they require hard work, patience, and teamwork, and that process demands respect. But just because they wrote it doesn’t mean you have to love it. And if you didn’t love it, you don’t have to hide it under the bed and pretend that you never tried.
I hope that in their lifetimes, my readers will experience many books that will change them. Books that will captivate and delight them and find permanent homes in their hearts and on their bookshelves. But I also hope that they will experience books that disappoint and frustrate them, that gather dust and leave much to be desired. Because being a reader is a rich, three-dimensional, real experience. It’s not all sunsets and perfect Instagram filters. Some books will change your life. Other books will not. It’s all a part of the messy and complicated and beautifully real life of a reader.