Repeat Readers by Julie Potvin Kirchner

I recently overheard a teacher asking a student to choose a different book because “you have read all the books in that series.” As I listened to their conversation I got the feeling not only had this student read all the books in the series, but that she had probably read them more than once. This caused me to have a bit of a flashback.

A few years ago I had a student who it seemed was always reading one of two things: Smile by Raina Telgemeier or any title from the Diary of A Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney. We would talk about other options and why it was important for him to stretch himself in his reading choices. I would get him going in a new direction with a book we had found “together” and as soon as I turned my back and was working with another student he was back to his old favorites. Sometimes he was reading them and other times he was illustrating them in his writing notebook. I have to admit, his artistic skills were pretty amazing. But I also confess–it made me more than a little crazy.

While I don’t believe the exact words “you can’t read that” ever came out of my mouth, I know there have been many times I have failed to “bless” what my students were reading. My vocal tone and body language has told them how I feel about their choices. I have shown my frustration when trying to steer them in a different literary direction. I’ve failed to see the value of what they are reading and therefore I have forgotten to celebrate the fact they ARE reading.

After twenty years as a classroom teacher, I recently took a position as a media specialist. The memory of my student who adored Smile and Diary of a Wimpy Kid started me thinking about the students like him that I now see on a daily basis, or at least every other day, in our school library. You know the ones…they inhale books from the same series or author, and when they finish, they start all over again. They might consider a book you recommend, but then they turn around and grab their favorite series again when they think you are busy and won’t notice.

And I have been wondering, does it really matter if a child reads a book multiple times? When I was younger, I really liked to read series and familiar authors. I read every Ramona book I could get my hands on, and yes, I read them more than once. I liked to return to Curious George, even when my age reached double digits. I read every book by Roald Dahl and Judy Blume. I would often find my cursive name in multiple places on those checkout cards. Why did I gravitate toward re-reading books when I easily could have branched out and tried something new? I was a strong reader and had plenty of books to choose from, yet there was a comfort in the familiar.

As an adult, I read and listen to a few books each month, often simultaneously. I usually have one I am reading at night, one on my kindle, one audio book, and one I am reading with my son. I am less likely to read an entire series unless it comes highly recommended by readers I trust. While I don’t re-read books very often these days, I will pick up an audio book title that I have already read with my eyes. I have been asking myself why I choose to do this when my piles of TBR titles are always out of control?

I have good reasons for taking a second pass through books these days, or at least I can verbalize my reasoning as an adult reader. I feel like I don’t remember what I am reading as well as I would like to and a second time through the story helps it settle more deeply in my brain. Sometimes I so enjoyed the book that I want to experience it again because it was just that good. Other times, I hear from friends that the audio is amazing and I can’t resist. I am rarely disappointed when I’ve chosen a second reading of a story, despite feeling a tug toward the other books calling my name.

I wish I could go back and ask my former student why he felt compelled to re-read these books he seemed to love so deeply. If I am being honest, I never connected with him in a truly personal way. Maybe he didn’t trust me to help him choose something else. Maybe he didn’t want something else. Maybe he was content to stick with what was familiar and comfortable. I will never know, because I never tried to find out the why, only to direct him to something else that I thought would be better.

My media classes are 30 minutes and I see each class once a week. With over 750 students in our building I am doing my best right now to remember all their names! I realize the need to develop relationships in order to build the trust necessary to suggest books they will actually read. For now, I am making a concerted effort to honor their choices with my words and actions, acknowledging each book without judgment or question. With students who visit the library more often, I have been subtly making a few recommendations that have worked for some, but admittedly, not all. I will keep trying to gain a few followers each week. What I know is I can always do better by my students. Always. And when I picture my student who loved Smile and Diary of a Wimpy Kid…I’ve learned I’d rather have him repeat read than to choose not to read at all. I sincerely hope he’s still reading.

Julie Potvin Kirchner has been teaching since 1994 and began teaching in her current school district in 1997. After many years as a classroom teacher, she is beyond excited to be in a new position as Library Media Specialist at Meadow Ridge Elementary in Plymouth, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. Besides reading, her other great passion is travel. She lives with her husband, son, and her reading companion lapdog Sunshine. She is a proud member of #nerdybookclub, #BookVoyage crew, ALA/AASL, NCTE and ILA. You can follow her on Twitter @KirchnerJulie.