The Year I Read 100 Books By Mike Jung

I’ve held down my spot on the planet for a solid 43 revolutions around the sun, which is long enough to have read a fair number of books, but the only single year in which I consumed a triple-digit tally of books was during elementary school. My fourth grade class had a year-long reading competition, which I won by reading an even 100 books. It remains one of the proudest accomplishments of my childhood.

I suppose it’s not a surprise that I haven’t reached that plateau since, since research shows that reading contests and incentives ultimately have a negative long-term effect on reading habits. To further the inappropriateness of the whole situation, the entire class was feted with lollipops, chocolate bars, and other dentally apocalyptic treats at the contest’s conclusion. I can still nostalgically evoke the sensation a Tootsie Pop distorting the shape of my cheek as our teacher announced that I’d won, surpassing my nearest competitor by some 40 books.

Putting aside the demonstrably questionable nature of such competitions, I was thrilled when the contest was announced at the start of the year, and it only got better when my friend Jimmy got equally fired up. We made a joint trip to the library to rampage through the children’s shelves, and there was even some mild, nerdy trash-talking when we both flipped open our first books before we’d even left the building.

Some of my most vivid, immersive reading experiences took place that year, and their effect on me extended beyond the page, as will happen with a good book. My mother, a classical music aficionado, was both surprised and impressed that the Donizetti opera Lucia de Lammermoor played such an important role in George Seldin’s THE CRICKET IN TIMES SQUARE. I spent more than a few moments pondering the state of Los Angeles Dodger catcher Steve Yeager’s psyche after reading Matt Christopher’s CATCHER WITH A GLASS ARM. The scene in Kenneth Grahame’s THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS when Mole rediscovers his forlorn, abandoned home at Christmas time just clobbered me over the head with wistful longing for a friend as kind, generous, and devoted as Ratty. I also spent a very satisfying month or two devouring books about sharks – the lightning-fast shortfin Mako shark remains my favorite species.

The small classroom rituals involved in the contest have stayed fresh in my mind over the years, too. For each finished book we’d receive a balloon cut out of construction paper (color of the student’s choice), upon which we’d write the book title, author, our name, the date, and the current number of completed books. We’d then march ceremoniously to the wall of lockers at the back of the room, and tape the balloon to our lockers. It was great fun to have such a colorfully visible measure of our reading progress there in the room, and I found it highly gratifying to see my locker gradually disappear beneath those layers of construction paper circles.

The characters in those books wormed their way into my heart, and many of them are there still. Madeleine L’Engle’s A WRINKLE IN TIME conjures memories of Meg Murry and her brother Charles Wallace for most people, but I was thunderstruck by the unexpectedly sweet Calvin O’Keefe, who emphatically upended my preconceived notions about kids who were popular and athletic. I raged against the dishonorable tactics Alan and Joe resorted to as Billy doggedly consumed his way to victory in Thomas Rockwell’s HOW TO EAT FRIED WORMS, but also breathed a sigh of relief when the boys continued their friendship after the worm war came to a merciful end. I sympathized deeply with Peter Hatcher’s resentment of his brother Fudge, and for a long time after reading Judy Blume’s TALES OF A FOURTH GRADE NOTHING, I shared Fudge’s predilection for the phrase “eat it or wear it!”

You could say that the years between 1st and 6th grade were the salad days of my youth. The adolescent years to come would prove to be terribly painful, but in fourth grade I felt as good about myself as any other kid like me might have felt. However, I’d also known for quite some time that I was not destined for glory as an athlete – I was (and remain) abysmally lacking in athleticism – which meant that an inordinately large number of the most obvious competitive activities were beyond my grasp.

I was competitive academically, but that always seemed like such a different kettle of fish to me, and academic achievement wasn’t completely devoid of enjoyment, but reading books? Whatever books I wanted to read, not just those assigned in class? Pure, candy-coated, pie-in-the-sky fun. The contest was also entirely self-contained – one year, one winner, and as it turned out, one hundred books. It felt like the bookish equivalent of crossing the goal line and spiking the football.

I don’t dispute the evidence that these contests are ultimately deleterious – I’m no literacy expert, and I put a lot of stock in the work of those admirable folks who are. Their work is invaluable. However, I’ve never had another year of school-based reading so thoroughly and intensely enjoyable.

Reading became more complex in ensuing years – intellectually, but also psychologically. Parental expectations grew in intensity; social perceptions grew in perceived importance; and as I mentioned earlier, I struggled badly while navigating the psychological minefields of adolescence. There’s plenty of good in those more complex reading experiences, of course, and that inexorable growth in complexity is part of what it means to be human.  But I’m so grateful for that fourth grade reading contest. In retrospect, it feels very much like the last truly innocent year of my life as a reader.

Mike Jung is a father, husband, author, library professional, public speaker, blogger, amateur musician, former art student, and geek, but his preferred title is “Internet Despot.” GEEKS, GIRLS, AND SECRET IDENTITIES (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic) is his first novel.