Fangirl by Donalyn Miller
Driving around Saugatuck, Michigan during our family vacation, we stopped in front of a bed and breakfast to photograph the sign. “The Kirby House,” I laughed, “It reminds me of Kirby Larson.” My husband, Don, said, “I was thinking of Jack Kirby.” Different Kirbys—one a Newbery Honor-winning author, one the co-creator of X-Men and Captain America—both legends to their respective fans in the Miller household. I have read a lot of comics over the years because of Don and he’s read a fair amount of children’s literature. When you love someone, you grow to love his or her passions as extensions of your affection.
Thinking about our conversation later, I was reminded of Wil Wheaton’s speech at the Calgary Expo this April. Asked by a mother to explain to her newborn daughter why being a nerd is awesome, Wheaton gave a heartfelt response, “Being a nerd isn’t about what you love, it’s about how you love it…The way you love it, and the way you find other people who love it, too, that’s what makes being a nerd awesome.” On this blog, being a reading nerd is awesome because we share our fangirl and fanboy obsessions for children’s books and their authors.
I have spent most of the summer traveling from one literacy conference to another like a Deadhead following my favorite band. When I am not presenting a session, I stalk authors—my professional gurus like Penny Kittle and Lester Laminack and children’s and young adult literature writers and illustrators like Paolo Bacigalupi, Matt Phelan, and Holly Black. Shyer than I appear, I am often star struck during these encounters. What do I say to authors whose work has changed me irrevocably? How can I express how much their writing means to my students and me? After one embarrassing episode when I wept all over Lauren Myracle, I often avoid face-to-face conversations with authors altogether—preferring to “meet” them between the pages of their books instead or mention them in a tweet later—admiring them from afar.
I didn’t meet a published author until I was an adult—after years of zealous admiration for books and reading. Meeting authors isn’t like meeting Cameron Diaz to me—it’s like meeting Picasso. Writing is an art. Authors are artists—painting images with words, sculpting worlds to explore, evoking emotions that make me feel more alive. When you are a fan, reading is art appreciation. Lifelong readers are patrons. Some may scoff that avid readers of anything not deemed “literature” deserve standing as art aficionados. I imagine Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, both rockstar authors of popular fiction in their day, would have pithy responses to such critics. My husband can talk your ear off about why Stan Lee is a genius. I could do the same for Tom Angleberger.
When I think about why many children don’t read or see reading as relevant to their lives, I wonder how many see writing as art and authors as artists (or even celebrities). In our zeal to dissect reading into a series of skills to be mastered, have we taken the art out of language arts? Do we stand between children and the artists who write and illustrate for them? Do our students understand that the books we put in front of them were created to inspire and entertain them? As young adult author, John Green, said, “Books belong to their readers.” No authors write books so that teachers can tear them apart and turn their work into curriculum; authors write to explore the vast depths of human experience and knowledge.
Teaching reading as a list of discrete skills marginalizes writing as an art form and denies readers the opportunity to discover what reading is meant to accomplish. I doubt that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlett Letter so that generations of students could pick up a lesson on symbolism, or that Gary Paulsen wrote Hatchet so his readers would build dioramas of their favorite scenes. Hawthorne’s classic is still relevant because the shame, betrayal, and confines of society’s norms he explores still impact us. Paulsen’s book is more than a treasure trove of fun camping lessons; it’s worthy because it shows us that we are all capable of great courage and resourcefulness. Reading isn’t about becoming a better worker. Reading adds information, joy, and beauty to our lives. Reading helps us become better human beings.
How would children see reading differently if we taught language arts as an art appreciation class? What if they discovered favorite authors and became fans? What if they knew we were fans, too? What if every lesson we taught and book we shared served these goals?
If we want our children to be reading fans for life, we must show them that being a reading nerd is awesome.
Donalyn Miller is a fifth 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. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.