That’s Not a Real Book: In defense of non-traditional reading by Amy Gibson
“How do you ever find time to read all those books?”
”Well, I listen to audiobooks during my commute…”
“Oh. That’s not really reading.”
I find myself having this conversation more and more these days. What counts as real reading? Is listening to an audiobook the same as reading the book? Is a graphic novel “rigorous” text? Should students be “allowed” to engage with these types of texts for classroom purposes?
I answer yes wholeheartedly to all of the above questions, and this is why.
During my commute which is about thirty minutes each way to school, I live on audiobooks. Often, I am still listening as I walk into the classroom each day leaving people I passed in the hallway wondering why my pants are talking. Audiobooks are not just a way for students to shirk reading assignments. They offer both students and adults an opportunity to access texts that may otherwise be unreachable. For example, there is no way I would be able to keep up with my classroom responsibilities, my responsibilities to my own children at home, and the reading life I wish to live if I only read physical copies of books.
Audiobooks offer me the chance to make valuable reading time out of what would otherwise be an hour lost each day. Likewise, for my young daughter, audiobooks open up a world of texts which she is not capable of deciphering on her own yet. Being the youngest in the family she already has developed some serious reading ambitions. However, her second grade vocabulary often creates a hindrance to her reading goals. Being able to use an audiobook and follow along in the actual book helps her develop her vocabulary and fosters her love of reading because I don’t have to say “No, it’s too hard for you,” when she picks up a new series that is beyond her current skill.
Audiobooks have also opened up new opportunities for me as a reader. During one reading binge with a long time favorite, Deborah Harkness’ “A Discovery of Witches,” I found myself drawn deeper into a story I had read many times by the skill of the narrator, Jennifer Ikeda. This lead me to a search for other books boasting her vocal talents and that is how I discovered The Girl of Fire and Thorns series and in turn, the work of Rae Carson. Two series and one serious book hangover later, I am now a fervent fan of her work and passing it on to my students as often as I possibly can.
Granted, audiobooks are not for everyone. Many of my colleagues lament being unable to focus strictly on the audio of the book. However, I would argue that this is a skill to be developed just like any other reading skill. I often find myself repeating portions of the texts if I am distracted during my “ear-reading” but this is no different than when I am interrupted during my reading at home. Listening to audiobooks regularly has limited these lapses and has also increased my ability to attend to other tasks while still being engaged in the text.
Graphic novels are showing up in my classroom more and more these days. First with the boys and the Big Nate series by Lincoln Peirce and now, more often with girls and books like Smile and Sister by Raina Telgemeier. In the beginning, students would sneak these books into my classroom and hide them in desks. After they began taking up prime real estate at our annual Scholastic Book Fair, I chose one for myself after spotting a title I fondly recalled from growing up, The Baby-Sitters Club. When my students saw me reading a graphic novel during our daily sustained silent reading time, they were shocked! Everyone suddenly had questions about graphic novels “counting” for book talks and our classroom forty book challenge.
Like audiobooks, many adults I encounter both in and out of the field of education seem to think of graphic novels as a shortcut, or easy way out of reading. However, authors are challenging that assumption but turning out novels that are both visually stimulating and skillful storytelling. If the colorful images convince students to stick with a plot-driven novel with multiple characters, shifting points of view and multiple narrators voices, I’m all in. Often, the format of the graphic novel pulls in a new level of depth in my discussions with my students.
One such conversation involved the coloring surrounding the characters in a specific scene. The reader noticed the shading and colors becoming darker along with the character struggling more with the issue at hand and pointed this out to me. When I asked why she thought this was, the reader suggested that the author was using color and shading to show mood. This is a connection I struggle to coax out of readers with the most vivid of texts! Yet this student easily spotted the significance in the graphic novel. Later on, in our Poe unit, the same student readily made connections between setting and mood. I have no doubt that his graphic novel experience, helped him make these connections.
A great playwright once stated, “Love is love, is love.” I argue that reading is reading is reading. When it comes to getting young readers hooked into the reading lifestyle, what and how they choose to read matters less than just getting them to commit to the books. As for me, I’ve got a long list of audiobooks waiting!
Amy Gibson is a seventh grade language arts teacher. She is also a theatre nerd, self-proclaimed bibliophile and a firm believer that all bathroom doors should open out. When not teaching or reading, she can be found at home in southern Kentucky with her husband, two children and menagerie of pets.