October 31


All You Need is Books by Roberto de León

When my son Leo was born, my wife and I immediately realized that raising a baby in New York City was like trying to fill a bucket with sand, one tiny grain at a time: it’s totally possible, but also totally exhausting, painful, and questionably worthwhile. So, we packed our bags and moved to California to live near Grandma.  When the byzantine California teacher certification process took longer than expected (Me: “I’m in my 10th year of teaching. I’m tenured in New York!”  Them: “We understand that, sir.  Please start over and take all these introductory teacher tests.”), I found myself jobless in September.  After securing some consulting work, I had a little extra time on my hands, so I volunteered at the local homeless shelter in their afterschool tutoring program.  This is the story of my experience there, and how I turned a former non-reader into a book lover in three months.


I’ll set the stage: the homeless center was a huge live-in facility.  In the east wing, there was a room with a couple long tables (room for about 10 students), and boxes upon boxes of new books.  That last part is totally true!  I remember walking in on day one and seeing a new shipment of donations from a local law firm; copies of Wonder and Ender’s Game were stacked askew on a mountain of other boxes.


So, I did what I always do when I get new books: I sniffed them.  My student for the day, Rebecca (not her actual name), walked up to me.  “What are you doing?” she asked.  “I’m smelling the books.  I love this smell.”  I offered her to try it.  She declined.


And what I realize now about Rebecca and the other students at the Shelter was that it wasn’t just that they didn’t want to sniff the books, they didn’t want to read them either.  Books were decorations.  Wallpaper.  For these students, book were like dental floss: you know you’re supposed to read them, but you rarely do, and even then, it’s because somebody made you to do it.


So, back to Rebecca. She was 11 years old, and had never read a full novel in her life.  She’d been living the shelter for a while, and according to the Center’s Director, she was a “good student.”


So, why, then, did she “hate” reading?


Call me crazy, but when my students fail their tests, I think it’s my fault; if I had taught my lessons better, if I had structured tutoring differently, they would have passed.  So, it’s in that spirit of high expectations that I think Rebecca hated Reading because no one told her not to.


No one believed that she could change her preferences.  When I spoke to them about Rebecca, they said things like, “Oh, you’re working with her?  You should do Math.  She likes Math.  “What about Reading?” I asked.  “She hates it,” they said.  “Stick with Math.”  And let me be clear: I am, in no way, blaming any of these selfless, hardworking, caring, and loving people for anyone’s disinterest in reading; they did their best.


But, like any stubborn teacher, I ran right to the bookshelves.


And so, on Day 1, after politely declining to sniff the copy of The One and Only Ivan, Rebecca and I sat down to read it.  We read few pages together and talked about how sad Ivan’s predicament was.  When I told her it was based on a true story, she did something no one else thought possible: she asked to look it up online.  So, there we sat reading newspaper articles on Ivan the gorilla.  Rebecca was reading.


Fast forward three months, and Rebecca is mid-way through Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane.  Her favorite character is Ripred (obviously), and she thinks Luxa would be best friends with Tris from Divergent.


So, how did this happen?  Surely nothing on the list below will be new to anyone.  But, maybe that’s the point; stick with the classic techniques.  They’re classic for a reason. ☺


Tip #1: To make a kid keep reading, we stopped at the cliffhangers.  In Gregor the Overlander, when Gregor jumps off the cliff, the chapter ends while he’s in mid-air.  Stop!  Stop right there!  Each day we read together, we stopped right at the moment when excitement would be at its highest.  “Finish this tonight,” I would say.  And she would.


Tip #2: If they don’t like cheese, try pepperoni.  Rebecca, like any 11 year old girl, had strong opinions.  Ivan turned out to be a bust (“Too cheesy.”)  So, too The Fault in Our Stars (“It makes me want to puke.”).  But, toss a weapon in a female main character’s hand, and she’s all set.  Dystopian-Rebel-Faction fiction was right up her alley.  The trick with her was not to shut down her opinions.  “You hated that book?,” I ask.  “Why?” and when she tells you why, feel free to voice your own opinion.  Reading is no different from listening to the radio.  Sometimes, you just don’t like a particular song.  No rhyme or reason; you just don’t.  And that’s okay.


Tip #3: Rebecca could read well enough to get through the words, but she stumbled a lot at first.  And while I did offer word/phrase-level support, there was a limit to how much I gave.  We read together a lot at first, but eventually, we read silently while sitting next to one another and stopped around the same parts.  The silent part is key; Rebecca had to internalize that reading was something she does, not something we do.


Tip #4: Visuals matters.  Kids like Wimpy Kid because the pictures are funny.  So, too Absolutely True-Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  But, the spacing on the page matters, too.  I started with Ivan because it had short chapters and large spaces in between the words.  When Rebecca read to page 75 on day 2, she freaked out.  “I’ve never read that much before.”  As much as she ended up liking Gregor, what she really liked was the short chapters.  And that’s okay.  Sometimes, I read a little Dan Brown for the exact same reason.


Tip #5: You have got to believe that all children can one day learn to love reading.  As a wise teacher once told me: if you don’t like to read it’s because you just haven’t found the right book yet.  And finding that first book – that seed – lets you move from one branch to the next.


Rebecca’s story doesn’t end well, unfortunately.  I showed up for tutoring on a Thursday afternoon just like normal, and was told ever-so-matter-of-factly by the front desk that her family had “vacated” the previous night.  Rebecca would not be returning.  Our tutoring days were over, and I had no idea where she went.  I doubt I’ll ever see her again, but I would like to think that if she’s not in a private house of her own that she’s standing at the bookshelf in her new shelter, trying to choose the book she’s going to read next.


Update: After securing my teaching credentials, I started teaching in the fall.  A few weeks into the school year, in an incredible twist of fate, I got a notice from the main office that a new student had been registered in my Reading class.  Glancing down at the name, I couldn’t believe it: Rebecca.  Looks like we may get to finish The Prophecy of Bane after all.

Roberto de León has been a public school teacher for the last ten years.  His benchmark for a successful year is his ability to turn non-readers – like Rebecca – into book lovers.  He lives with his family in California.