Finding a New Love by Mindi Rench
For the past twenty-three years, I’ve taught in a middle school. For MORE than twenty-three years I’ve had a passionate affair with young adult literature. It started in 6th grade when I found a copy of Judy Blume’s Forever at a local bookstore and never went away. Even when my kids were little and I was reading Sandra Boynton board books or Junie B. Jones with them, I kept devouring the latest and greatest in YA. I loved YA so much I served for three years on the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award selection committee and read until my eyes nearly fell out as we worked together to honor the best in YA literature.
But now I’m breaking up with YA, or at least having a trial separation. You see, in August I’m leaving my middle school and beginning a new adventure as a third grade teacher at one of the elementary buildings in my district. And while I’ll be able to bring my Wimpy Kid books and my Weird But True books to start my new classroom library, most of the thousand or so books that I have carefully curated over the years won’t make the move with me. They’ll move on to new readers in new classrooms.
So now I’m dating again… meeting new authors and characters, finding the books that I just can’t wait to share when school starts in August. It’s a whole new world, let me tell you. Even though I’ve used picture books for years in my seventh grade classroom, I bought just a few each year. Now I’m reading them with abandon, thinking about the lessons I’ll teach and how those will be adapted for third graders. Appreciating the art and illustrations. Marveling at how few words can have great impact. I’ve read my way through the Monarch Award master list and the Bluestem Award master list, two of the awards for children’s literature given here in Illinois. I’ve stalked the Youth Services librarians at the Northbrook Public Library, and I’ve hit up the librarians in our three elementary buildings to find out what’s hot with the 8-to-9-year old set.
But I feel a bit lost. Those YA books pulled me in, tugged at my heartstrings, put me back into high school for a while. They have complex, compelling story lines about tough situations that kids and adults alike face. These books I’m reading for younger kids? I’m having a harder time warming up to them.
Then I read something like Ruby on the Outside by Nora Raleigh Baskin or A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd or The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky by Holly Schindler or Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo and I am reassured I will find new books and new authors to love. Though these are books most of my students won’t be able to read independently until later in the school year, they are books I can read aloud. Picture books like Be a Friend and Rosie Revere, Engineer have layers for my students and me to discover as we read them together and separately. Books for young readers still have lessons to teach about friendship and getting along and finding one’s place. The storylines and characters can still be complex and relatable. I will still find things to talk to kids about.
People who are not readers might wonder about my obsession for falling in love with books for younger children. Those of us who work with kids won’t. We know that kids can smell a fake from a mile away. If I am not enthusiastic about the books I share with my kids; if I am not genuinely engaged by a story or a character, the kids will know. And as soon as they know, I’ve lost them, at least for a little while. And I don’t want that to happen. I want to be able to go into my classroom every.single.day and say to my class, “You’ll never guess what I read last night! I can’t wait to tell you about this awesome book!” and mean it. I might not jump on desks like Colby Sharp (my knees wouldn’t let me), but I want to look and sound as if I MIGHT! I want to be able to cry over these new books I’m discovering the same way I cried over A Monster Calls when I read it to my seventh graders. I want to know enough about the books that are out there that I can go up to a student who swears she doesn’t like to read and say, “I saw this and immediately thought of you. You should read it first.”
Because it matters. My passion, my joy, my enthusiasm about the books I bring into my classroom sends a message to the readers who join me there. And I know what I want that message to be:
This, my friends, is the place where we fall in love with books.
Mindi Rench spreads the #nerdybookclub love as a junior high literacy coach and soon-to-be third grade teacher in the Chicago suburbs. You can find her on twitter as @mindi_r and read her blog at http://nextbestbook.blogspot.com.