Canon Fodder by Donalyn Miller

Since the beginning of the year, Don and I have been sorting and culling our book collection. Our thirteen bookcases groan under double-stacked rows in the best of times, but life events last year worsened the situation. Changing schools and grade levels, I brought home hundreds of middle school books that weren’t suitable for my new fourth grade classroom. When our home flooded last October, we packed most of our personal books so contractors could replace our wood floors. When we moved back into our home, unpacking and shelving our books took three weekends. We still discover random boxes of books in the garage.

Determined to get rid of more books that we buy this year, Don and I decided to downsize our book hoard. Taking books to my kids at school and donating a few boxes to charity wasn’t going to cut it. We had to get serious.

It wasn’t difficult to find readers who wanted our books. We sent half of my middle school books to colleagues and their students. Our oldest daughter, Celeste, took stacks of picture books and early readers for her preschool class and our two granddaughters. When Sarah’s friends visit, we invite them to dig through the stack of young adult books in our dining room. Don dutifully hauls books to the mailing center or Half Price Books every week. Three months into our book reduction project, we see progress. We can walk in our back hallway without fearing an avalanche.

Three bookcases in our book room remain untouched. Reliquaries of our reading lives, the books that live on these shelves live in our hearts, too. Don and I don’t need to go through these books. We won’t be getting rid of any of them. These shelves hold our personal canons, the books that have shaped and defined who we are. To an outsider, these shelves store a hodgepodge of thrift store paperbacks, children’s picture books, and best sellers from the past 20 years. A lavish edition of The Odyssey, purchased when we moved into our first apartment, sits next to Confederacy of Dunces. We picked up Toole’s Southern classic during our New Orleans honeymoon. Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, the book Don and I discussed on our first date sits next to The Princess Bride. We call groceries, “grocs,” and Don whispers, “As you wish,” whenever I ask him to perform onerous tasks around the house. Our shared reading experiences weave through our married life, binding us to each other as husband and wife and as readers.

Don and I share books in our life canons, but many titles hold individual significance. My beloved copy of Bread and Jam for Frances lives next to Don’s volume of Curious George stories—two books that mark different personalities. I think George is annoying and Don thinks Frances is too fussy. On our worst days—we are Frances and George. On our best days, we are Griffin and Sabine (one shelf higher). When Don and I stew in separate corners, we are both probably reading.  That’s what matters.

We don’t have to agree on every book to appreciate each other. How boring life would be if we did. I often think about Don and me and our overlapping reading lives when I think about my students and me. Our reading lives overlap, too. My students and I swap books back and forth every day, but I don’t limit my students’ reading lives to the books that matter to me. If I define their book choices, reading will belong to me more than it ever belongs to them.

While the Common Core text exemplars collect a list of worthy literature, I question the premise that any reading list meets the needs of all readers. Creating such a list, anchored in a time or viewpoint driven by one group’s opinion of what literature is meaningful, marginalizes the personal aspect that readers bring to what we read. Ultimately, a canon grows from our individual experiences as well as our shared ones.

When we lead students to great works, we offer them a transformative experience, but only the readers themselves can define how reading a text affects them. When I pass The Diary of Anne Frank into Ashley’s hands, I know that she will find another girl, struggling with the same questions, the same need to carve out an identity and purpose. When I sit with Reed, discussing Patrick Ness’ dystopian epic, Monsters of Men, we weep for the Spackle, indigenous beings destroyed by a colonizing army—a tale as old as Mankind. Anne Frank’s diary appears on the Common Core list. Chaos Walking–a recent work that captures eternal themes–does not. Only the reader decides which book carries personal value.

As more experienced readers, it is our charge to lead children to reading, first as enjoyment, then a place to understand themselves and the world we must live in together, and ultimately as an appreciation for the power of stories to capture what Thomas Foster calls, “the one story, the ur-story, (which) is about ourselves, about what it means to be human.”

What children read shapes the men and women they will become, but what I want most for my students is the discovery that reading is a well that never runs dry. Beyond the confines of a traditional education—often designed by entities outside of the readers themselves—lies a vast lifetime of reading and learning.  Who can say which books will mark my students’ lives? It’s not my journey, but I am happy to walk alongside them for a few miles. Perhaps, some of the books I invite my students to read will become part of their personal canons. I hope they find many more without me.


What books appear in your personal canon? How have these books shaped your life? Thank you for sharing your reading lives with all of us.

Donalyn Miller is a fourth grade teacher at Peterson Elementary in Fort Worth, TX. She is the author of The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild. Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy co-founder, Colby Sharp), and facilitates the Twitter reading initiative, #bookaday.