A Struggling Reader Responds by Laura M. Jimenez

I was born into and continue to live within the space that Gloria Anzaldúa termed La Frontera, or The Borderlands. Today I write to the Nerdy Book Club Universe from La frontera de los libros/the borderlands of books. I have come to truly admire the Nerdy Book Club bloggers but I am often left with the feeling that the one voice rarely heard from is that of “struggling readers.”

For me reading was a giant fire-breathing sloth with red eyes and poison spittle dripping off its chin that I avoided like, well, a giant fire-breathing sloth. I learned to read but I didn’t attain any kind of fluency until well into 7th grade. I remain a struggling reader, although now I am also a successful reader. I earned a PhD and now teach children’s literature and other courses at Boston University. The irony of my career choice is not lost on me.

Recently I was reading Paul W. Hankin’s These 4 Corners post and Teri Lesesne’s responses. I was struck by a question he posed, “What do I need to do to replicate the way I come to books?”

Please allow me to let you in on a little secret. There is nothing you can do to replicate the way you come to books that will help me in the least. Nothing. The way you come to books isn’t appropriate for me, unless you are a struggling, atypical, non-reader (please note fire-breathing sloth above). When I see a new book and think, “Ugh, there is a lot of arduous work. Well, better get started.”  I love books and stories but that is still the first thing that pops into my head. Instead of thinking about replicating, maybe you need to ask a different question, “What do I need to do to repair the way they come to books?”

As a struggling reader I suspect I do things a bit differently than most – both as a reader and as a teacher. My personal reading profile is to either read the same book over and over and over again and to binge read on a single topic. Binge reading is quite typical for some struggling readers (email me for research articles). We have a tendency to burrow in and read deeply on one very focused topic. My point is that if you were to ask me to replicate the way I come to books, it would drive a lot of people completely nuts.

On the other hand, when I read children’s and YA literature for instructional purposes, I do things differently. I want to provide a set of tools for the pre-service and in-service teachers I instruct. Instead of thinking about myself as the reader, I try to take a open stance and model diversity and variation in text selection.

This is a point that Nerdy bloggers hit over and over and I cannot support it strongly enough. Being dedicated to a diversity of texts means I read outside my comfort zone and aesthetic sensibility most of the time. For example, I am not a fan of historical fiction, poetry, fantasy, and most realistic fiction in which teen girls are the protagonists. But, I read a lot of historical fiction, fantasy and realistic fiction in which teen girls are the protagonists (I’m working on the poetry thing) because I need to find a wide range of books to offer my students. I want them to know how to get over their own reading preferences and instead of duplicating their favorite book lists, I want them to learn how to give their students the power to come up with completely new lists!

I have learned to recognize markers of well-written historical fiction and I have come to enjoy some fantasy (Thank you, Kristin Cashore). More importantly, I have learned the secret to realistic fiction with teen girls is to be mindful of my own annoyance. The more cloying and dramatic I find the characters, the more likely it is brilliantly written (I’m talking to you, Linda Urban). Did I mention I’m working on the poetry thing? I am, really.

Because I do not read quickly, time is a precious resource. The blog-o-sphere and social media allow me to be in contact with a never-ending and amazingly generous group of true book nerds. I am connected to a community of readers and writers that keeps me invigorated to use the time and energy it takes to slog through all the books available to me.

So, instead of trying to replicate your own experience, I would encourage you to keep in mind that some readers hate reading. We may come to love stories or thirst for knowledge and we might even come to terms with reading but only if you help guide us to places where the struggle is worth it.

Laura M. Jimenez is currently a lecturer in Boston University School of Education, so she is a doctor –  just not one that can help if your arm hurts when you “move it like this.” Her area of focus is on graphic novels and reading comprehension. You can find her online at booktoss.wordpress.com and on Twitter as @booktoss.