Make New Friends, but Keep the Old by Michelle Blanchard Ardillo

Over Christmas break, I gave my 7th and 8th grade students a one-sentence homework assignment: read a good book. I told them it didn’t matter if it was long or short, above or below grade level, fiction or non-fiction. Just read a good book. 
Upon their return to school, I asked them to write on an index card the title and author of the book they read over break. They then took turns sharing this information with the class, as I asked them general questions about the book: did you like it, was it good, was it challenging, would you read something from that author again? My goal was to inspire them to read each other’s books or, at least, do some reading for leisure. You see, in spite of having two built-in bookshelves in my classroom chockful of books, one organized by genre in pretty, brightly-colored and labeled baskets and the other organized alphabetically by author, the majority of my middle schoolers do not read outside of what is assigned to them in class.

I teach in a Catholic school in an affluent neighborhood, but it is a school and neighborhood that is very much sports-oriented. We have an artificial turf field where our students attend PE class, congregate at recess, and play soccer and flag football with their intramural teams. Our all-purpose/auditorium was renovated a few years ago with adjustable basketball hoops and a new floor for after-school basketball practices. If I want to explain an allusion or an analogy in class, my best chance is to draw upon my limited sports knowledge to craft a sports metaphor.

One student announced that he read the fourth Harry Potter book again. I asked him whether he had read the other Harry Potter books and he said, “I’ve read them all several times.” I asked if he wanted me to recommend some other books that he might enjoy and his response surprised me, “No, I don’t like to read, I just like the Harry Potter books.”

We all have our favorite books that we read and reread periodically. I’ve read Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice multiple times and always find something new to like about it each time. My favorite book of all times is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, and I’m not really sure how many times I’ve read it since my first reading in 1980. I teach books by Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, so naturally I’ve reread those either in part or in their entirety each year I’ve covered them in my literature classes. But, I’ve read many, many more new books in between those re-readings. I absolutely love finding a new author and reading everything I can get my hands on with that person’s name on the cover. Stumbling on Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife brought me to her subsequent novel Circling the Sun, which is my new favorite book. Kristin Chen’s debut novel Soy Sauce for Beginners was so intriguing that I searched her out on social media so I could be sure not to miss her next novel. Having recently discovered new writer Amor Towles’s Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow, I am now waiting patiently for a third novel to come from his pen.

On a recent episode of Anne Bogel’s podcast What Should I Read Next, the guest claimed The Great Gatsby as her favorite book of all times. She said that she reads it at least once a year, and whenever she is feeling restless or down in the dumps, she picks it up again because she knows what joy it will bring her. I love this podcast because each week the guest is asked to list his or her three favorite books, whether it is favorites of all times, or just recent favorites. More than one guest on this podcast has said that their favorite book is like an old friend, always there, just waiting to be picked up and read again. Long after an author is dead and gone, with no new books to look forward to, that old friend is still there, loyal and patient, ready to supply inspiration, comfort, healing, familiarity, or whatever else you are in the market for. 

As much as I love my favorite books, hard as it is to narrow down to a list of two or three, I wouldn’t want to be left with just those as reading choices for the rest of my life. Yes, they are tried and true friends, but I am always happy to make a new friend, to find something in common with a new acquaintance, to learn something interesting and exciting from a passing stranger as I travel to their world. In the words of my favorite song from my scouting days: “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, but the other’s gold.” 
A Louisiana native, Michelle Blanchard Ardillo is a lifelong reader who teaches middle school English and literature in a suburb of Washington, DC. Her essay “You CAN Handle the Truth” was published in an anthology of ultra-short memoirs called Reflections. She is currently working on a middle grade novel about a missing suitcase as well as a collection of autobiographical essays. Read more of her work at where she writes as “Cajun Girl in a Kilt,” or follow her on Goodreads or on Twitter @michardillo.