The Autobiography of a ________________ Reader by Brett Vogelsinger
Each year, my ninth-grade students spend part of their first day of class creating a list of books that have shaped them as readers. I want them to explore their “reading lives” a bit, so I ask them to recall a picture book they loved, a book they never finished, a book a teacher read aloud to them . . . the list goes on and on, and we try to quickly gather the good, the bad, and the ugly from the reading experiences of their first fifteen years.
Then we choose a few of these books to develop into scenes in which we visualize what it looked like as they read, where they read, and how it felt. We follow this with some reflection on how the book shaped them as a reader and what they learned. It is a wonderful opportunity to examine how to balance showing and telling in our writing, description and evaluation.
Finally, I challenge them to create a title for their collection of moments by filling in one blank in a generic title: “Autobiography of a ________________ Reader.” Our goal is to have no repetitions of adjectives in the class. And so I learn about my (in their words) sprouting readers, my active readers, my mysterious, inquisitive, selective, nimble, devoted, persnickety and stupendous readers. I read about those moments when their parents snuggle them to sleep with “Goodnight Moon” and those moments they soldier dutifully through an assigned text, counting off pages with metronomic tedium.
This year, two autobiographies stood out to me as pieces worthy of their own post on Nerdy Book Club.
I share them with you here, excerpted, as a reminder about how our kids grow and think about their reading life over time.
The Autobiography of an Unlikely Reader (excerpt) – by Claire P.
To me, it seems everyone who’s ever been important or influential has had something positive to say about books. Benjamin Franklin, Malala Yousafzai, Albert Einstein—they’ve all made comments on the wonders of reading. In contrast, consider Nazi book burnings. Evidently, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a book is a decent thing, and the lack thereof, criminal.
I’ve been storytelling for as long as I can remember. Before kindergarten, I filled notebook after notebook with drawings that, in my mind, made sense sequentially. When I learned to spell, I would scribble away indefinitely. (Several—enough—of these tales remain; many were given as gifts to relatives when my parents realized there wasn’t adequate space for them; I guess I’ve never met a journal that has had more pages than I have things to say.)
Yet for all this writing, I’ve never been an enthusiastic reader. The pattern, more or less, goes like this: 1) I find a title and get hyped up to read it; 2) I read through several pages before my mind starts to wander; 3) The book goes unread.
It’s disappointing, particularly given my admiration for bibliophiles (my grandfather has had a book club for upwards of 50 years) and the goal I have to be one. Something, I think, is so romantic about sitting somewhere nice and quiet—a coffee shop, a porch—and whiling away the hours, novel in hand.
Unfortunately for me, books scarcely speak my language. I translate them well enough, but something’s lost along the way. The most prominent example of this would be The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: hugely renowned, but nonsense to me.
When I gripped that thin book in my fingers, I’m sure my face betrayed me and broadcasted my disapproval. Maybe I was scowling, frowning, just looking generally unimpressed. I couldn’t help it; I couldn’t believe how many issues I had with…well, just about everything.
Whose idea was it to use a size 9 font when publishing? Why hadn’t they considered putting any kind of spacing in between the lines?
And what was the book’s appeal? All that ever seemed to be described was the weather or how the street looked.
Settled on the loveseat in my living room, the book was numbing me. I had to distract myself, think of anything but Jekyll or Hyde or Utterson. Ooh, is that the living room wall? Cool.
The story brings to light the good and evil woven in one’s heart, the battle between two raging versions of oneself. It was a theme that wasn’t easily dismissed, even by a pack of 8th graders.
From The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I learned one thing. A book can be extremely popular because of its themes and plot, while the narration itself (upon which every story is built) could be excruciatingly dull to read.
The Autobiography of a Word-Hungry Reader (excerpt) – by Kaycee F.
Let’s say a book somehow sailed over the rift between our universe and a parallel one on its wide, white wings and landed in the backyard of an unsuspecting person who was tending to their little garden as they usually did. This person would timidly pick up the book among the green grass and yellow wildflowers and look at it in such an expression of confusion and awe. Now, in this parallel universe, all is the same as it is in ours; however, the concept of written language is foreign and alien to them. They would open the pages of this neat little book and stare blankly at the black markings scrawled across the white. After finding no meaning in the slab of plastic and paper, they would shrug their shoulders and drop the book into a bin along with the scrawny weeds and the rest of the worthless waste from their little garden.
But possibly that same book could have shot down from the sky of our universe and crashed into the garden like a fallen star. The same-but-different person, one blessed with the knowledge of words and reading, would pause a moment, eyeing the colorful flash in the corner of their vision amongst the green, and pick up the novel with much care. They would turn it over once or twice, faint surprise and fascination ribboning through their thoughts. Brushing a patch of dirt from the cover with their thumb, they would toss away their worn gloves, sit lightly upon a dry log, and allow the book to unfold before them – a flower, a bud, a new journey born before them with the turn of a page.
Two hours later, when the sunflowers began to yawn in the lingering sunset, the gardener would still be sitting upon the dry log. However, they would be crying. Sobbing. Sobbing, with fat tears rolling down their sun-streaked cheeks and watering the roses underneath them.
Now, how could one bound mass of paper and ink mean nothing to one but send another over an edge they never thought they would fall over?
Only the odyssey of a reader could ever answer that question.
Let me allow you to experience my particular journey through words and chapters.
Once upon a time, not too long ago, voices clamored through the room, loud to everyone else, but muffled to me. I hunched over my desk, supporting the book with a single hand and crinkling a dog-eared paper between my thumb and index finger. Biting my lip mindlessly, I flipped the page. An inked drawing spilled across the two pages in front of me. Another page crested its arc and settled down, painting another picture before my eyes. I tensed, gasping a bit, a new page flying to rest with the old ones. Text formed once more, and after a moment, I relaxed as all turned well.
How could anyone happen upon the idea that words and pictures could toss their duties back and forth to make a story explode and crackle before my eyes in its fullest beauty? The idea was so terribly foreign to me until I read – no, experienced — The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Brian Selznick did a great deal of good for me by piecing together this novel, for it opened my eyes to such a fantastic realization that great stories did not have to be told in only words. At the time, it did not come to my mind how much this may affect my writings in the future. It has, though, and it may be one of the reasons I came to love writing in the first place.
From this assignment, I learn many things. First, I am humbled. My colleagues and their parents have helped these students grow into impressively mature readers and insightful writers in their elementary and middle school years. Second, I am challenged. I must find the right books to take each of these readers to the next level, to maintain enthusiasm in one case and to build enthusiasm in the second. This is the feeling that makes teaching such exciting, endlessly interesting work.
Most of all, I learn that we must never think our students are too young to step back and examine their own reading lives. They want to tell us about their successes and struggles, and especially when we are building community in the beginning of a school year, we should let them.
Brett Vogelsinger is a ninth-grade English teacher at Holicong Middle School in Doylestown, PA. He loves spending time in the garden, shopping for books to add to his classroom library and spending time with his family. He leads his school literary magazine www.sevenateninemagazine.blogspot.com.
Ninth grade teaching can be real hectic and tiring but nothing compared to kindergarten. Nice post.
I found this very moving actually. How beatifully written the two examples you share are! It seems to me that such questions as you posed are a very effective and actually quite intimate tool of psychological insight. Also of course it makes me think of my own answers, following over 30 years of being a…hungry reader. I’m amazed how easily and speedily memories of those books that have meant something to me return. Wonderful post – and thanks for the gifts your giving to your students by setting such thoughtful and thought provoking assignments. Harula x
cool!! i adore books!
i have just recently started blogging.
What a wonderful, heart-warming post. I think I might steal this idea.
Amazing assignment idea. Your students write beautifully
I am in awe of both the beauty of the assignment and the beauty of the essay writing. Thank you so much for sharing these with us. Please tell these two students: Never stop writing. Never, ever stop.
Thanks for this post — I really appreciated the perspective. And, I love this way of getting to know readers by finding out what books they abandoned. I’m going to use that idea with my readers.