THE IMPORTANCE OF READING MENTORS by Mark Overmeyer
All this talk about Harper Lee’s newly discovered novel slated to come out this summer has me thinking about my grandmother, my first reading mentor.
My mother would drive my brother Scott, my Grandma Hattie, and me to the library every Wednesday right after dinner. Scott and I would head downstairs to the children’s section where he looked for Tom Swift and I checked for Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. One Wednesday when I was about 11, my grandmother placed a book next to my stack on the library counter. “Read this,” she said, matter-of-factly. “You’ll like it.”
The book was To Kill a Mockingbird. Though my grandmother was already my reading mentor – she checked out and read at least 4 books per week – she had never recommended a book before. This simple act of placing a book on top of the library counter changed my life.
I read the book in less than a week. Being 11, I read this book very differently from when I read it in middle school for the second time and high school for the third time. I have read it at least five times since then. But there is nothing like reading a beloved book for the first time. For me, there is a special resonance with To Kill a Mockingbird because my grandmother, the most important reading mentor in my life, and also the strong Irish woman who I loved dearly, suggested I read it. Perhaps more accurately, she told me to read it.
And then we watched the movie together. We talked about Atticus and Jem and Scout and Boo and injustice and racism. My world opened.
My interest in books expanded beyond the children’s section.
I am a firm believer in choice when reading. I became a reader because I grew up surrounded by library books. The Wednesday night library ritual began when I was about 6 and continued for nearly 10 years. But in addition to understanding the importance of choice, I know I am a reader who believes books change lives because my grandmother told me to read a story that made me see the world in a very different light. My reading life expanded because of a reading mentor.
After my grandmother recommended To Kill a Mockingbird, I sought out other reading mentors. My best friend Eddie told me to read A Wrinkle in Time when I was twelve. An eighth grade teacher recommended A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I read in one weekend. My friend Dan in high school told me about Stephen King. My English teacher Mr. Grantz introduced me to Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, and the work of African American poets from the 1960s. Jake York, my poetry professor who died suddenly from an aneurism two years ago at the age of 40, told me about Mark Doty and Brigit Pegeen Kelly. Their books of poetry sit on my shelves next to Jake’s and they continue to sustain me every time I feel his loss.
As teachers, we can mentor our students, they can mentor each other, and they can also mentor us. As mentors, we can recommend books based on genres and titles readers already love, or we can do what my grandmother did for me: suggest a book readers may not pick up or find on their own. I read Hunger Games and The Fault in Our Stars because I saw them on so many students’ desks. I am always asking students in the schools where I work about the latest books they love. My reading life is richer because of them.
My grandmother’s influence as my first reading mentor continues even though she died long ago. She loved westerns more than any other genre. When I worked as a teacher in China for a year, I knew I had to bring a lot of long books to sustain me. My “Grandma Hattie” choice was Lonesome Dove. How she would have loved McMurtry’s western classic. I wish she were here so we could talk about it, and then watch the series together on TV.
Of course I will read Harper Lee’s novel when it comes out this summer. It’s a Grandma Hattie kind of read. And as I read it, I will think about how the power of a book passed from one hand to another can change a life forever.
Mark Overmeyer worked for 28 years as a teacher and literacy coordinator in Cherry Creek Schools near Denver, Colorado. He now works full time as a literacy consultant for schools and districts interested in implementing or refining reading and writing workshops. His latest title from Stenhouse Publishers is Let’s Talk: One-on-One, Peer, and Small Group Writing Conferences. Mark blogs at markovermeyer.wordpress.com and you can find him on Twitter at @markovermeyer.