When Readers Don’t See Themselves as Readers – A Discussion Between Jenn Bishop and Amy Estersohn

the distance to homeOne of us (Jenn) is the author of The Distance to Home, a brand-new book for middle grades readers.  Another of us (Amy) teaches middle grades readers.


In The Distance to Home, Quinnen is mourning the loss of her older sister, Haley.  Quinnen’s grief and her guilt over the circumstances surrounding Haley’s death create a cloud over everything she does, including how she sees herself as a reader.  Amy and Jenn had a chance to sit down (okay, they collaborated on a google doc and talked a little bit in person at nErDcamp) to talk about the realistic reading habits of a fictional character.


Jenn Bishop (JB): I think what affects Quinnen the most is how, as the younger sibling, she is seen in relation to her older sister. Haley’s identity is built on reading and being a strong student, and that sets the bar for Quinnen, so if she doesn’t exactly meet it, she’s seen as “less than.” As much as I hate this reductive way of looking at things, I think it’s fairly common, both in families and in the classroom. It’s so easy to put someone in a box. Quinnen reads several books over the course of TDTH — in the last summer and the this summer chapters — and yet her self-conception is that she’s not a reader, despite evidence to the contrary.


Amy Estersohn (AE): As a kid, I was totally like this: I didn’t think of myself as a reader nor did I find reading fun for its own sake.  Like Quinnen, I read what was on the summer reading list, generally enjoyed the books I was assigned, and that was about it.   Quinnen, like many readers, sees reading as something of a game to be played or a contest to be won.  I love the scene where she pretends she has read Junot Diaz and finds herself flustered when it’s pointed out to her that Junot is male, not female.   Quinnen gets angry and thinks to herself, “How can they know everything I’ve read?  They can’t prove it.”  The idea of a middle schooler being upset because she hadn’t read the wonderfully complex and colorful Junot Diaz made me chuckle.    What do you think could have helped Quinnen to feel better about herself as a reader?


JB: I think what really could have helped a reader like Quinnen is the idea that there’s no “right” or “wrong” book to be reading. That all reading is reading, and no book carries more value than any other. Clearly, she’s grown up with Mom’s conception of reading . . . and with Haley’s collection of books. And Mom’s invitation to join a mother-daughter book club further reinforces this idea. Mom is trying to tell Quinnen what to read, rather than letting the choice come from Quinnen herself, and Quinnen rebels.


AE:  This was my experience as well.  I only began to enjoy reading for fun when teachers openly validated a right to independent reading and were nonjudgmental about the books I expressed interest in reading.  Once I stopped trying to impress people with my reading, I started enjoying it for its own sake.  Now, as an adult, I feel we sometimes need to get out of our own way for kids to really become independent readers.


JB: Getting out of their way! Yes! It all comes down to having a choice, that freedom to select what appeals to you. That said, I love Quinnen’s discovery that she actually did like the books Mom wanted to read, which suggest that perhaps Mom is more attuned to Quinnen’s reading taste than Quinnen could have imagined.


AE: Before you wrote The Distance to Home, you worked in a library.  How did that experience help shape what you learned about readers and reading?


JB:  I think a lot of people are surprised to find that some of the teens who frequented my programs  when I was a librarian were not self-described readers. For a lot of them, I could see that their feelings about reading, and the library summer reading program, came from experience in school. I could see these kids clearly caring about stories — many of them would hang out in the library for hours and hours playing role-playing card games, which involves a fair bit of reading and imagination — but they would only come to the programs, never participate in the reading log part of summer reading.  I have to ask you the question back … what have you learned about readers and reading from being a teacher?


AE: I’ve learned to question some of the rituals and routines that teachers put up around independent reading.  Teachers can make arbitrary rules like, “You can’t abandon this book until you’ve read 50 pages.”  But here’s the thing: if I forced myself to read at least 50 pages of every book I picked up, there’s no way I’d be able to read 150 books every year, as I typically do.  By allowing myself to abandon books by the first 10 pages, the first 5 pages, the first paragraph, even, I give myself more room to read books I love. So I read more.  And I continue to abandon with abandon.


jenn bishopamy e< Jenn Bishop is an avid (okay, obsessed) Red Sox fan, long distance runner, writer, and reader. Her debut middle grade novel The Distance To Home is published by Alfred A. Knopf/Random House. You can find her on Twitter as @buffalojenn.

> Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York.  She has not downloaded Pokemon Go. She has reading-related tweets at @HMX_MsE.