Sparking Readers by Sara Kajder

Together, books and readers create “sparks” – the moments of possibility that open when a reader and the words on a page connect in such a way as to require a new way of seeing, enacting, and carrying forward.  This is the story of one such “sparking,” one built out of a towering TBR pile, an author’s generosity of spirit, a courageous reader, and three special bonobos.

In early December, my TBR pile was staggering, spilling from my single “dedicated” bookshelf where it had started in July and now was snaking up the space between furniture and the wall.  (Moment of teacher-reader confession – so, it didn’t “start” in July.  It simply was “restarted” as I literally moved the previous tower into a closet.  I needed the shelf to feel possible and pray that the book-Gods will forgive…) In a moment of dedication, I swore to read my way through that shelf as things were clearly getting a bit out of hand.  I started with that first book from July – Eliot Schrefer’s Endangered.   (Since I’m in a teacher-reader confessional space, I think it is important to note that books don’t sit in my pile as long as this one had.  I’d been dragging my reader-heels.  No matter the accolades the book had received, I was resisting it for fear that it would reduce the realities of the Congo and round the corners on issues that are hard and pointed.) I curled up with the book, instantly gripped by the first line, “Concrete can rot.”   The book and I “sparked.”  I was transported, wrestling with ethical issues, hiding from danger, and entranced by the relationships between the bonobos and the people who entered, challenged and supported their lives.

When readers “spark,” the world melts away, replaced by the story.  When teacher-readers “spark,” we slow to experience the last pages of a book and, when the spell breaks, we move into action.  I paged through unit plans, looking for ways to conserve space in a tightly-planned year that would allow my eighth graders to enter this book-space that I had just inhabited.   I emailed my department chair, requesting that we find a way to fund the purchase of at least a class set of books.  And, in a moment of what felt like insane courage muted only by the reality that I was still “sparking,” I emailed Eliot Schrefer.

And, he replied.  Ten minutes later, he was in my inbox, and offering not just to possibly skype with students but to actually come to our school.   His generosity leapt off of the screen and the moment exploded with possibility.

Fast-forward to February.

“Sparks” abounded.  Endangered was shared as a school-wide book in January, including students, faculty, staff and parents across grades six through eight.  Students initiated a fundraiser with the goal of adopting a bonobo from Friends of Bonobos, the charity with whom Eliot Schrefer partnered while writing the book.  Discussions broke out in English, Social Studies, and Science, filling classrooms and hallways with readers’ talk and “sparks.”

At the end of the month, Eliot spent an entire day with us, speaking for over an hour with each grade level and spending an elongated lunch for a few students who self-identified as writers eager to learn lessons of craft, of process and of even starting.  And, as happens when teacher-readers get caught up in the planning of these kinds of incredible days, I was drowning in scheduling, details and real-time “emergencies” (as in how to get an outdated, limping-along laptop to step up to the demands of a multimedia-rich Prezi just moments before the day began).   And, as often happens to teacher-readers, I was immediately reminded of the energy and unique possibility of the day when I was slowed (and schooled) by a student.

During my eighth grade’s hour with Eliot, I noticed that “Erin” (pseudonym) was quietly writing in her journal while he spoke.  Erin, an unusually hungry reader, maintained a quiet, almost-not-there presence in my English classroom.   Her writing would be rich with connections and thoughtful ideas, but it was regularly late or something I’d find on scattered scraps of paper left by her seat after class.  I had yet to see her bring a book to class. Her focused attention caught my eye as I scanned the room through my camera lens, fixated on capturing photos of our day (and not seeing that I was failing to actually experience any of it).  Out of respect for her quiet, I lowered my camera and slowly navigated to her corner of the table.  Looking over her shoulder, I caught glimpse not of written notes but of an immaculately drawn bonobo.

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  She looked up, eyes-wide, and whispered, “do you think [Eliott] will be angry?  I think in pictures.  Maybe, he’d like this?  Words don’t fit this book.”  I almost wanted to take a photo of her bedraggled hardback book, newly-taped together with pages turned, marked, and, in many cases, falling out of the binding.   I instantly recognized it as the beloved book of a reader… the kind that speaks out to those of us who have loved books into very similar states in similar brief lengths of time… the kind that outwardly shows the kinds of “sparks” it inspired.  I nodded to her in agreement, but, more importantly, I put down the camera and picked up my own reader’s writer’s notebook.    I lowered myself into a seat, started hearing (not just listening) and allowed myself to be a learner alongside my students – the stance I most comfortably inhabit.

We read together – with Eliot.  We wrote together, creating found poems merging lines from the book with our own ideas – again with Eliot as our guide.  And, in her own act of courage, fueled by her readerly “sparks,” Erin surprised us all by approaching Eliot, sharing her picture, and engaging him in discussion about where he finds his inspiration.  She held onto four words, “from readers like you.”

In that moment, I learned what might be the most important lesson of all.  Yes, books and readers come together to create “sparks,” but nothing is like the light generated when books and readers AND authors come together.  That light is magic that helps students to find voice, to find untapped courage, and to stretch into new roles. “Sparks” seek out other “sparks.”  And, when they do, within magic moments where communities that grow from glimmers of courage and possibility, we can do things that matter.  Erin lead our schoolwide effort to adopt three Bonobos from the sanctuary. Bigger, her voice has found a way to make itself heard in our English class.  And, she has already started her own list of books she recommends we take on as a school next year.  There is such magic in what we do.

Sara Kajder is, among other things, a writer, a reader, a runner, a teacher educator, and mother to two growing boys. Currently she is teaching middle school at Shadyside Academy where she gets to experience the joy of creating “sparks” for her student readers. You can find Sara on Twitter as @skajder.