Touchstones by Donalyn Miller

This weekend, I attended the Michigan Reading Association Conference and presented three sessions—one session about early 2016 book recommendations and two sessions about reading response. During the reading response sessions, I shared a few books from my reading autobiography, invited attendees to reflect on their own reading experiences and list books that have been meaningful to them at different points in their lives.

Robert Carlsen and Anne Sherrill collected reading autobiographies from their college students for decades and presented their findings in Voices of Readers: How We Come to Love Books (1988). My friend and regular collaborator, Teri Lesesne, collects reading autobiographies from her grad students. Reading autobiographies have been around awhile, but I think their longevity lies in their value to both readers and the larger reading community.

More than listing favorites, creating a reading autobiography encourages readers to revisit their reading experiences and identify books signifying turning points or touchstones in their reading histories. While we often live our reading lives in the present and the future—the books we are reading right now and what we plan to read next—readers benefit from traveling back through the books we have read in the past.

While I believe we find something beneficial about every book we read—knowledge, escape, entertainment, insight, and so on—some books transform us in fundamental ways. Reading The Velveteen Rabbit when I was five or six, I discovered for the first time that books could evoke powerful emotions. In elementary school, I read every Marguerite Henry book in our school library—feeding my passionate interest in horses and sparking a desire to become a veterinarian. As a teenager, I burned through fat tomes like Lonesome Dove, Ragtime, and Stephen King’s The Stand at home and marched through assigned texts like The Scarlet Letter and 1984 in English class. As a new teacher, reading Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle and Ellin Keene’s Mosaic of Thought altered how I saw teaching and learning. These books (and many others) have shaped not only who I am as a reader, but who I am as a person.

This connection between our literacy and our identity runs through all of us. Our literacy experiences—both positive and negative—influence our orientation toward reading, define the value we place on reading, and often dictate what we choose to read. What we choose to read and how much time and effort we invest in reading (or don’t) affects who we are. Literacy shapes identity and identity shapes literacy. We can’t separate the two.

We might be unaware of how a book is changing us while we are reading it and can only recognize its lasting impact years later. As John Dewey said, “We don’t learn from experience. We learn by reflecting on experience,” and retracing our reading lives back a bit offers us this opportunity to learn more about ourselves and how specific books and reading experiences helped create who we are now.

After session participants wrote down a few books that were significant to them, they shared their lists with other people sitting near them. Walking around the room visiting different groups, I overheard great conversations. Three teachers who had worked together for years discovered they all had Harriet the Spy on their lists. Some groups spent several minutes jotting down book titles from their partners’ lists that they hadn’t read, but they wanted to read now, since these titles were clearly powerful for one reason or another. Some folks discovered that books they hadn’t liked that much were influential to their discussion partners. In a room full of educators with college degrees, there wasn’t a single title that appeared on everyone’s list—or on the lists of even half the group. So much for that classic canon everyone needs to read as part of our cultural and social heritage. It’s clear that people who read for a lifetime build personal canons, which include books we share in common and books that matter to us for personal reasons.

harriet the spy

After sharing our lists, we took one title from our reading autobiographies and wrote about why this particular book was so important to us. How did this book change us? What memories do we attach to this book? How do we connect this book to a specific time in our lives? We shared our stories with our discussion partners and I was surprised at how emotional some of these conversations became. One teacher wept while telling her group about her grandmother and their shared loved for Anne of Green Gables. Her grandmother had recently passed away. Another person told his colleagues that he realized he didn’t have a single book on his reading autobiography for all of middle school or high school. He had read books in English class, but none of them had meant anything lasting to him. He had written a reflection about reading Sandra Boynton’s Moo Baa La La La with his three-year old son. He hoped his son didn’t have to endure years of disengaged reading down the road.

moo baa la la la

We talk about how books bring people together, but that isn’t exactly true. The conversations we have about books bring people together. At the end of our 90 minute breakout session, people expressed that they felt closer to their discussion partners—even if they had met them for the first time. Most of our reflection and discussion had very little to do with the books themselves and more to do with how these books helped us through hard times, connected us to important people in our lives, inspired us, or changed our world view.

Our children are collecting reading experiences in our classrooms and homes right now. How are these experiences shaping the people they will become? Are they reading books that might form both their cultural and personal canons? Do we celebrate every book a child reads as one more potential touchstone on their reading journeys? Do our children have gaps in their reading histories? How can we help them find some positive reading experiences? Most of all, how can we provide them space and time to reflect on the books they read and consider how these books shape and represent who they are?

A reading life lasts as long as it remains personally meaningful to us—hopefully a lifetime.



What books stand out as touchstones in your reading life? Why are these books significant to you?

I would like to thank everyone who participated in my MRA sessions this weekend. I appreciate your vulnerability and honesty. I learned so much from all of you.


Donalyn Miller has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas. She is the author of two books about encouraging students to read, The Book Whisperer (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013). Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy Book Club co-founder, Colby Sharp) and the Best Practices Roots (#bproots) chat with Teri Lesesne. Donalyn launched the annual Twitter summer and holiday reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.