Reading in the Wild by Donalyn Miller – Reviewed by Katherine Sokolowski
When you think of the term “wild reader”, what images come forth? For me, I think of people. I think of my friends John Schu and Donna Kouri, off on their summer road trips to celebrate children’s literature. I think of my friend, Colby Sharp, jumping on desks and yelling to his class, “I love reading!” I think of my friend, Teri Lesesne, and her vast knowledge of everything to do with children’s literature. I think of my parents and how they read every night before bed, books piling up on their bedside tables like twin towers of knowledge. I think of my own family and our summer vacations with stops in small bookstores. How badly we wanted to visit IVAN one summer, just to see him. How we drove an hour out of our way just to stop at a bookstore I had heard about. I think of how books are part of our daily conversation – at the dinner table, when driving in our car, going to bed, waking up. My friends and I – my family and I – live reading lives. We devour stories. We are wild readers.
In her new book, Reading in the Wild, Donalyn Miller and her colleague, Susan Kelly, surveyed over 900 “wild readers” on their reading lives and uncovered what habits they had in common. These, along with classroom observations, form the habits shared in this wonderful new book. The funny thing is, before Donalyn started talking about teaching these habits to our students, I’m ashamed to say I had never thought about it. But why not? I teach comprehension strategies to them. We learn to infer, question, connect, summarize, and more. I teach my students how to write about what they’re reading, what genres are, how to pick a book, when to abandon a book, but never had I taught them specifically the habits I possessed as a reader. I think it is so much of my nature that I never really thought about them.
I remember when I first read The Book Whisperer the part I was most drawn to was Donalyn’s voice. I felt like it was a love letter to teachers, students, and readers. I wanted to curl up and read the book on a rainy day. I felt like I had know Donalyn all of my life and had a strong desire to have her over for coffee, even though we hadn’t even met yet. Now that I know her, I know my belief was correct – she is a champion for teachers. Watching her give a presentation confirms that. Teachers feel immediately at ease listening to her rallying cry to let her people read. Choice matters. Time to read matters. Access matters. She weaves a plethora of research into her presentations in such a subtle manner you barely realize it. Wicked smart, she obviously knows her stuff – but not to the extent that you feel as if you are being beaten over the head with it.
Finishing The Book Whisperer, I wiped away tears. The final chapter is entitled “Letting Go.” In it she writes of her students moving on and being worried whether they will still be the readers they have become without the benefit of the classroom environment of books and a teacher who reads. To say I identified with this chapter would be a colossal understatement. This is where Reading in the Wild begins.
Teri Lesesne writes in the forward that Reading in the Wild is “ultimately about making connections.” I couldn’t agree more. The connections we make with our students are the backbone of our classrooms. Donalyn wants you to take those connections with your students, match them with books and, in turn, match the students with their peers so that when they do leave you, they will still be living in a reading community. Brilliant.
What I love about Donalyn’s approach is that she gets it. She has been in the classroom, she knows how swamped we are, she knows we don’t have time for one more thing. But helping students to become readers, helping them to become wild readers, is something we cannot skip. Donalyn boils the habits down into five simple ideals. For example, the first habit is: Wild readers dedicate time to read. You know this right? I sure did. But I don’t think I’ve been frank with my students about this. My fifth graders can get this. As a result of Donalyn’s book, this year we’ve discussed our reading lives more than ever before. I’ve used Donalyn’s suggestions. We’ve examined where and when we read. We’ve discussed our habits as readers, the time we dedicate to reading and what that says about us. Just the other day I had a student share with the class that they’ve read more in the past month than ever before because their friends were reading with them and sharing book titles. These kids are reading wildly and becoming the readers they were meant to be.
Today I spent my day as I spend so many – teaching reading to fifth graders. At one point during my morning I found myself wedged on the ground next to my student, Leah. We talked about the book she is currently reading, The Real Boy. As I glanced through her records of her reading and listened to her tell me how “everything is coming together,” I had to pause. Glancing up I could see twenty-six kids in various states of ease, curled up with books of their choosing. Leah was still talking – now about her preferences for fantasy and whom she was recommending this book to at lunch. Looking over at one table I saw my son, Luke, and his friends trying to coerce another friend into reading The Hunger Games. Another child indicated to me that he wanted to confer with me next. Finally, I saw Leslie moving to a table with a stack of books in her arms to preview, balancing the tall stack with her head. Reflecting on our first few months together, I can see the habits I am helping – with Donalyn’s assistance – to instill in my students. We’re talking about books, dedicating time to read, self-selecting our reading material, sharing our reading with each other, creating plans, showing preferences. These are the habits that Donalyn breaks down in Reading in the Wild. These habits were not ones I had explicitly taught my students in the past. Now, with the knowledge of reading habits, they are well on their way into becoming wild readers.
My room – my teaching – changed dramatically with The Book Whisperer. I’ve been fortunate enough to have read Reading in the Wild multiple times already, and I see evidence of my “wild readers” everywhere I turn. I have watched this book go from an idea, to a wild reader survey, to pages mailed to my inbox while I begged her to hurry up and send me more. I have lived and breathed this book for the better part of two years. When the advanced copies arrived at Donalyn’s house, I was on the phone as she opened the box and listened to her exclaim over the book with her husband, Don. And when one arrived in my mailbox a few days later, I cried. I know what a labor of love this has been for her. I also know it is absolutely worth it. There are some professional books I read and think they are good. There are a few that I feel are great. And then there are the ones that make a lasting impact. This is one of those books. Reading in the Wild is a book you will want. This is a book you will need. This is one to treasure.
Katherine Sokolowski has taught for fifteen years and currently teaches fifth grade in Monticello, Illinois. She is passionate about reading both in her classroom and also with her two sons. You can find her online at http://readwriteandreflect.blogspot.com/ and on Twitter as @katsok.