The Power of Choice by Cynthia Lord
When I was a child, my mother gave me two of the greatest gifts a reader can receive: access to books and choice.
Though not a reader herself, my mother always let me buy three books from the Scholastic Book Club flyers when my teacher sent them home. I would pour over those whispery pages, agonizing how to whittle my choices down to three.
My mother never put any restriction or judgement on the books I picked, so I was free to try new things, to take risks. I was also free to find comfort in something familiar. I was even free to fail, to experience making a choice that I later regretted.
I bought great literature, like The Witch of Blackbird Pond and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I also bought (and still have!) The Peanuts Lunch Bag Cookbook. No one would classify that as great literature, but it made me feel powerful. I could create something and expand my definition of myself to include “cook,” even if all I made was “Full of Bologna Sandwiches.”
I’d walk to the bus stop with my book order in a long white envelope, tipping it back and forth to feel the coins rolling inside. And when those sharp-cornered, glossy-covered books came, I felt like the richest kid on earth carrying them home.
Making all those choices, I discovered something even more important than the books themselves—I learned about myself as a reader.
Sometimes I hear parents shame a child’s choices, even when they think they’re helping. “You’ve read a lot of these. Maybe you’d like to try. . . .” “Look, this one has an award sticker.” But a child’s free reading books shouldn’t be about us feeling good about their choices. It should be about them feeling good about them.
Sometimes a book fills a need that’s not easy for us to see. My son has autism, and every week my husband and I take him to the library. We limit his books to twenty, but we don’t limit his choices. Most weeks, he’ll get eighteen nonfiction books and two Chris Van Allsburg picture books.
We already have those picture books at home. But in a world that’s often confusing and out of my son’s control, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick and Two Bad Ants and The Sweetest Fig are his emotional anchors, right where they should be under letter “V,” providing the comfort and security of an old friend. That’s what he brings home by choosing them.
Many years ago, I learned the hard way that a book is more than the story. As a young student teacher, I taught first grade in a college community in New Hampshire. We had a wonderful children’s librarian at the school named Mrs. Jenks. She had a way of making every child feel affirmed. As they brought her their chosen book, Mrs. Jenks always said, “Good choice!”
George and Martha. “Good choice!”
Harry the Dirty Dog. “Good choice!”
Goosebumps. “Good choice!”
I don’t know if the children ever realized that she said the same thing to everyone. But if they knew, it didn’t matter. They all beamed.
Mrs. Jenks allowed students to take out any book, even if was far above their reading level. She felt that a child would get something good from the book, just from choosing it. As a student teacher, I followed Mrs. Jenks’ lead—except one time.
Crystal was young, both in age and in development. Reading hadn’t happened for her yet, and she could barely carry The History of Aviation over to show me, a huge smile on her face.
Maybe the author was a parent or grandparent and had donated the book? That’s the only reason I can imagine for it being there. It wasn’t a children’s book. It didn’t’ even have a lot of photos. I flipped through the pages, trying to see why Crystal wanted it.
“Are you sure you want to read this?” I finally asked.
Her smile disappeared. “Oh, Mrs. Lord. I’m not going to READ it!” she said, as if I was being ridiculous. “I just love the way it smells.”
Clutching the book to her chest, she carried it to Mrs. Jenks to sign it out.
I’m sure I tried to teach Crystal something that day. Something written on lined paper with sharp pencils. But whatever that was, it wasn’t nearly as important as what she taught me.
When a child brings us a book they’ve chosen, glance at the book, but then look into the child’s eyes. If there is a light there, a proud joy of ownership, do whatever you can to keep it lit and not snuff it out.
That day, trying to be a grown up, I’d forgotten the magic of those sharp-cornered, glossy-covered books in my hands. Reading was always part of that experience, but so was choosing and holding and smelling those books, making them mine. Making myself a reader.
Crystal, I’m sorry. I failed you that day. So I’d like to say to you now what I wish I had said to you then.
Cynthia Lord is a former elementary and middle-school teacher and the children’s book author of Rules, Touch Blue, Half a Chance, and her newest novel, A Handful of Stars. She is also the author of the Hot Rod Hamster series, illustrated by Derek Anderson, and the Shelter Pet Squad chapter book series, illustrated by Erin McGuire, all published by Scholastic. She lives in Maine with her family, a dog, a guinea pig, and two bunnies. You can visit her at http://www.cynthialord.com.
I love this post! My mother took my brother, my sister, and me to the Newark Public Library every Saturday morning. She went off to find her own books for the week and we were each allowed ONE book from the children’s room. (Apparently, she was not “chasing down 59 books next Saturday morning.”) I would usually measure the books I liked and always took the fattest one so it would last longer. It never occurred to my siblings or me that we actually had THREE books to read that week. Our choices were so personal we never even thought to share. We each had our own “Good choice.”
I love this, Genevieve. Especially that you chose the biggest book so it would last longer!
Cynthia, what a post! It is so true, that we can’t know for sure why a book is chosen….but a book being chosen is wonderful. I’m going to remember this all year as my students pick their books! Thanks for reminding me how to be a better teacher this year!
Thank you, Anne. I hear parents at the library all the time say, “You already have that book at home!” and I think, that’s why they want it. It’s a familiar trusted friend. 🙂
I am so guilty as charged about questioning students’ choices. Now I’ll look at their eyes, not for the book in their hands. Thanks for this important reminder. Good choice!
Thank you, Margaret. I think that look in their eye is the spark of becoming a reader.
I love the comment, “Good choice!” and will be using it whenever I have the opportunity, even if only with my grandson. Thank you for this sweet post.
Good choice, Carol!
“Good Choice!” My mantra for student book choices this year! Thank you Cynthia. Perfect post for beginning of the year. Your fabulous book, a handful of stars, is our first read-a-loud. Can’t wait to share with this year’s group.
Thank you, Mary! I’m so excited to hear that!
Oh man how I love the way books smell! And library books have a distinct smell unlike other books. I’ve always been an avid reader (and smeller) of books. It may have been in part the smell of the books that propelled me. And my mom, who also allowed me to select three choices from the Scholastic Book Club flyer every month when we had “book fair.” (Even those books had their own distinctive smell!) What exciting times! Thank you for refreshing my memory of those days!
Yes, there is nothing like that book smell, is there? It smells like possibility and magic.
This made me smile the whole way through. I remember the thrill of a new Scholastic book newsletter being sent home, how I used to deliberate over my choices, and also the Lunch Bag Cookbook. I ordered it, too! I wish every well-meaning parent, teacher and librarian who has questioned the choices of young readers could read this post.
I’m going to go and sniff a book.
Me, too! 🙂
Fabulous post! Sometimes I poke around the children’s section at our local bookstore. More than once I’ve seen a child grab a book and hug it to her chest and the parent pluck it out, examine it and put it back on the shelf. “This is way below your reading level.” The child’s face collapses and she will not choose another book despite the parent’s continued cajoling. Choice. It’s the reason I’m a reader today . . . and a writer. As a child, I read books way beyond “my level” and way below. And I’m happy to say I still do.
I’ve seen that, too. I think it has the opposite effect the parent wants, too. A child won’t read “for pleasure” if it’s not pleasurable.
I’m including this in my parent packet this year, Cynthia; such an important post for all teachers and parents to read and remember. Thank you!
I’m honored, Tara! Thank you.
I LOVE the description of the Scholastic catalog as “whispery” pages. Wish I’d thought of that!
I loved that sound!
I love you so much, for real. I’m going to say good choice all day and pass this on to everyone I know. What a totally beautiful post. You are living your life so well and everyone who touches you is lucky.
Thank you, Kimberley. Love you back! I’m so glad I know you.
My most common responses are, “Oh, I love this one!” and “I can’t wait to talk about this one with you next week!” I’ve read almost all the books in our library and I do love almost all of them in some way. 🙂
Reblogged this on David Macinnis Gill.
I worked in a public library and would hear parents all too often focus on reading level (AR or Lexile) when “helping” their kids pick out books. I remember a dad flipping through a Diary of a Wimpy Kid his son selected and telling him that he couldn’t get it. His reason was it was “full of pictures”. He son insisted it’s not (and I agree), but the dad would not be swayed, “No. Too many pictures” he kept saying. I felt bad for the boy. I also thought, “What a way to turn a kid off from reading!”
Now, I work for an elementary school. I’m in the middle of teachers and students. I understand where teachers are coming from, but it is frustrating trying to balance helping student learn to read/increase vocab/reading frequency vs student wants.
I have a similar situation with my own two daughters. Both are avid readers and read above grade level. Every school year I have a conversation with their teachers and ask that they be allowed to check out what is of interest to them regardless of their Lexile number. Even though they are advanced readers, they are not necessarily ready for the subject matter of The Hunger Games or The Absolute True Diary if a Part-time Indian, for example. (Though, I can’t wait to share with them some if my favorite YA titles. Hunger Games, included.)
wow! I think we bought the same exact Scholastic books 😉 Great reminder for parents and teachers/librarians
You and I made some good choices then, Eileen!
I love this post! When I was younger, my family lived in a tiny two-bedroom apartment. We didn’t have many toys and we didn’t have cable or internet access. But, we lived right next to a library where my sister and I would escape to everyday of our childhood. It was one of the saddest days I can remember when we left that apartment. And although there wasn’t any space for the five people in my family, I loved that apartment just for the reason I had some of my best memories inside that tiny library.
I’ve been a teacher for over 18 years and I STILL get excited when the Scholastic book orders show up! This post came at the perfect time. I start school tomorrow and I’ll be sharing parts of this with my middle school students and then book talking some of your titles. Can’t wait!
Aww, that’s wonderful, Beth! Thank you! I loved those book orders as a teacher, too.
I love the way you write. Reading your words always makes me feel like someone nice is sitting beside me with their arm around my shoulder telling me something wise and wonderful.
We are all so lucky. Thanks for the post!
The only thing that is hard for me about this post is to think of the most important part. Which isn’t possible because it is all so very wonderful. Every word. Every point. I should have known loving your books like I do, that you would write something this beautiful. I am in the middle of editing, adding to and organizing my classroom library which I do every summer. I love that I have so many “good choices” just waiting for all of the little readers who will “live in” this library with me for the year. I think I might give my copy of The Sweetest Fig an extra hug tomorrow.
What an amazing post- thank you for sharing your experience. As adults, educators, and booksellers, we can often create judgements about what we think is “good.” I’ll be having Mrs. Jenks “Good Choice” in the back of my head now. I too remember those catalogs and the feeling of free choice in reading. It’s awesome.
Oh- and I am about to order the Peanuts Lunch Bag Cookbook, for reals. #andshecancook
Ahhh…. the intoxicating smell of books! One of my earliest memories is going to the library. It was in this old house, with creaking wooden floors. The “old house” smell, the book smell! I loved it! Then, when I was older, I loved walking to the library and toting home a huge stack of books, trying to make the impossible decision of which to read first, and glorying in the fact that I had so many from which to choose.
Aaahh…. the Scholastic book order flyers! We didn’t have a lot of money, and with 5 kids it was rare that one of us got something the others didn’t, but I always was allowed to order books. Now, it makes me so sad for kids who don’t get to- kids who were in my class, and kids who are my students now.
This was such a moving, loving post. Like Tara Smith, I plan on giving it to my parents next week at Curriculum Night. And, like Carrie Gelson, I can’t be surprised at how much I love this piece of writing given how much I love every piece of your writing.
Cynthia Lord writing a Nerdy Book Club post? “GOOD CHOICE”!
Great post! I always try to remember that my children are little people who are free to make their own choices. I am just thrilled that they have both grown up with the same love for reading that I have. Maybe not to the same degree, but a fondness all the same. And for that I am grateful. I will make sure the next time my youngest brings home his scholastic book flyer and sits there agonizing over his choices I will make sure to tell him “Good choice!” Thank you for the reminder!
Love this post! Nothing like seeing the pride in their reading choices!
As always, your words are a delight to read and their message spot-on.
Love this post.
I love your story and I don’t think you failed anyone! What a great reminder on the power of choice to get kids to love reading!
Yes, yes, and yes again! As a children’s librarian, I proudly wear a badge that states, “I believe that reading is reading, so read what you want.” I can’t thank you enough for this beautifully written and spot-on-important post.
This made me teary-eyed. So beautifully written! It makes me think of a restaurant I dined in recently when the waiter kept telling me, “Good choice!” after everything I ordered. It made me feel so proud. Wow, I must have really good taste, I thought to myself. 😉 I didn’t think about translating that experience to validating my students’ reading choices with those same exact words. I will from now on!
I agree with the above poster, (Holly). This made me teary. I don’t exactly know why, but most likely because I could have been Crystal. I’m sharing this post wildly. Thank you so much for being so open, honest and down to earth.
Thank you for noticing the things you notice and for so eloquently sharing them. I remember going to the public library where my mom let me get whatever books I wanted. The image of the checkout counter in the library lobby is forever etched in my brain. Luckily I don’t remember the school library where I was limited to the shelf for 1st graders because that’s the way it was done – whether you read those books or not. Hooray for choice and all that it teaches us. I still get giddy when the red and white scholastic box shows up – only now it has my name on the outside and shiny corners of joy for my students.
I’ve just moved from substitute teaching to full time teaching, middle school Language Arts. We have our first library day on Monday. I am going to remember this post. Yesterday, while talking about classroom expectations, I spent a long time on personal responsibility and my catchphrase: “make good choices”. It just occurred to me that might supply a little extra meaning when I greet book choices with “good choice”!
This was beautiful! I am a principal and I will be sharing this post with my entire teaching staff. Thank You!
Thank you for this beautiful post (and making me teary!). I know that I have inadvertently been the “book buzz-kill” before. Thanks for the important reminder (and beautiful writing!).
I read this post last week and it really made an impact. Even though I thought I was very positive about the books children pick, this week I made sure I made an extra effort to use these exact words when I had classes in the library. WOW. The response I got from them was mind blowing!
I will forever remember James’s reaction when I told him that I had almost taken that very book home that morning. He very seriously told me that he would bring it back next week so that I could share it with the whole class and then ran off telling anyone who would listen that “I like the same books as Kristen”.
I have passed this on to the other children’s librarians that I work with, fingers crossed they get as much out of it as I did!
I too had a similar experience as a child. My mom never really took us to the library nor was she a big reader, but always gave an allowance to order scholastic books through school, and boy did a cherish that opportunity. ALSO, love the title of your post..it’s what drew me in to read it.
But Crystal had the strength and knowlege to clutch that book and sign it out. And I’m sure Mrs. Jenks said “Good choice.” Crystal was your teacher that day. Such a wonderful post. I know I made mistakes but I am sure that many more children enjoyed free their choices than not.
Best read of the day. I can still remember pouring over those book order catalogs. It felt like Christmas morning when the books finally arrived. I had The Peanuts Lunch Bag Cookbook too. Good choice.
Thank you so much for this article. I work in a school that has been really pushing the “just right” fit model in reading. I understand the need to consider level when teaching skills, but the ‘just right’ rule is being over-applied. Our well-intentioned librarians monitor the level of the books children select at library – one MUST be a just right got book. The impact is often the opposite of what the intent is. I truly believe the best ways to instill a love of reading are: sharing great books with students during read-aloud, sharing our own enthusiasm for books/reading, and giving students choice.