Reading LiveS by Kristin McIlhagga

Like many of my nerdybookclub friends, I am an avid reader and have been for as long as I can remember. My daughters are both readers, as is my husband – we are frequently found during the summer months sitting on the back deck reading. But six year ago, I became a doctoral student, and my reading life and reading identity changed. Initially it was scary for me. Suddenly, my ability to read quickly was not necessarily a benefit. Yes, I could plow through articles but I couldn’t necessarily recall them and draw across articles in the ways that I needed to in order to form arguments. There was a slew of new vocabulary that I struggled with no matter how many times I looked it up; “epistemology” and “ontological” still trip me up sometimes.


While my previous reading life as a teacher provided me with a reason to read vast amounts of children’s and young adult literature, I often read it either with a pedagogical lens (thinking of it as a tool for my students) or with a personal lens – for my own pleasure and entertainment. Now I was being asked to read children’s literature text in a more critical way.


I’m not going to lie; at first I was terrified that this new way (for me) of reading critically was going to ruin pleasure reading for me. For example, the first time I read about the problematic representations of American Indians in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, I had to literally walk about. How could something that had been so much a part of my childhood reading identity be “bad”? Because I was learning to become a more critical reader, particularly in regards to sociocultural thinking, it was not only a huge effort it also seemed to be the only way that I read anything. I slowly came to realize that part of that was because of the need to be very conscientious as I read – automaticity was no longer a benefit for me because I missed things.


But then one day I realized that it wasn’t that I was losing my previous reading life and identity to a new one; I was adding to it. I don’t have one reading life or one reading identity – I have multiple ways of reading and thinking. Sometimes this is tricky for me, for example: I want to escape into a beautifully written story but I am considering it as a text for a class I’m teaching. In this case, I will read the book multiple times – particularly if it is a book like BROWN GIRL DREAMING that needs to be savored for the language and writing, and then considered from a cultural and historical perspective.


Earlier this year during a “struggle week” with writing my dissertation, I realized that I had not recently read any children’s or adolescent literature. This is ironic considering that my dissertation is about children’s literature. I had gotten so wrapped up with trying to figure out the “right way” to write and read/reread the scholarship that would shape my own argument that I lost sight of what brought me back to school and writing a dissertation: the reading and the literature. So I went back to it and reread a couple of favorites: Crooked Kind of Perfect by Linda Urban and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle. Then I picked up Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith. It blew my mind in so many fantastic ways. I couldn’t wait to talk to people about it; I couldn’t wait to write about it; I couldn’t wait to share it with reader friends.


Now I work to make sure that I am simultaneously feeding my different reading lives. Sometimes one has to take precedence over another but ultimately I have found that my reading self, though sometimes a bit crowded, benefits greatly from reading different types of texts (children’s, adolescent, scholarly, teacher practitioner, general, etc.) and thinking of them in conversation with each other as well as with my own thinking.


Kristin McIlhagga is a Ph.D. Candidate at Michigan State University currently finishing her interdisciplinary dissertation on children’s literature in Education, Library Science, and English. She is currently reading The Use and Abuse of Literature (2011) by Marjorie Garber, I Kill the Mockingbird (2014)by Paul Acampora, Children’s Literature and Learning (2007) by Barbara Lehman, and an article written by Frank Serafini titled “Informing Our Practice: Modernist, transactional, and critical perspectives on children’s literature and reading instruction” (2003). She can frequently be found talking about books at the East Lansing Public Library and Schuler Bookstore with her daughters & husband, or writing in a coffee shop. Kristin blogs about children’s literature, reading, and teacher education at Children’s Literature Crossroads and is @TeachChildLit on Twitter.