My Secret Reading Identity by Julia Guthrie
I have a confession to make. I have a double reading life. Most of the time, I read middle grade novels. Not only do I consider this part of my job as someone who is entrusted with the reading lives of young people, it’s something I genuinely enjoy (seriously, have you read any kidlit lately? I defy anyone to sneer at a book like Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar as being just for kids!). But sometimes, on the rare nights when my children are asleep, the papers are graded, and the house is in some kind of order, I revert back into my old reading identity: Julia Guthrie, Queen of Non Fiction and How-To Books.
Before I became a reading teacher, pretty much all I read were history books, biographies, and instructional manuals. A history of whaling in Nantucket (yes, really), the latest Doris Kearns Goodwin bio, and cooking book after cooking book whose pages I would lovingly pour over. But somewhere along the way, I pushed this part of my reading life aside to make more room for classroom reading.
It wasn’t until a conversation I had last week with a boy in my class that I realized I have been making a mistake- for my students and for myself. Picture it: it was morning meeting time in my 4th grade classroom. My students were whipping around the loose circle we gather in on the floor, sharing things that they did over the weekend, when one young man chimed in with his excitement over some books (catch that plural, ladies and gentlemen!) he had read. Now this particular student is a tough nut to crack. He is what you’d call a feast or famine reader. He will read voraciously if he has the right book, but he is (rightfully) very picky about the types of books he will get into.
Anxious to hear what had caught his attention, I asked him to share a book talk with the class. “Sorry, Mrs. Guthrie. The books I read weren’t real books.” My interest piqued, I asked him what he meant. “It’s a Minecraft book.” Again, I pushed him. We have several well-worn copies of the Diary of a Minecraft Zombie series in our library. They have been book talked by his friends. How could he think this wasn’t real reading? “Well, it’s not a STORY about Minecraft. It’s a book about how to PLAY Minecraft.”
Of course, my students and I all chimed in to celebrate his reading and reassure him that of course that is “real” reading. But I’m going to be honest with you- I don’t think he completely bought it. And I think I know why. Like many of you, I actively model my reading life. Room 208’s door is covered in print outs of book covers from the books I’ve read this year to inspire conversations. A sign hangs outside our classroom boldly proclaiming what I’m reading now and how I’m liking it. But my secret reading identity never seems to make it onto that sign or that door. Why WOULD this child think How-To guides are real reading when I never show that I value them?
And let’s go further. By denying myself the books I enjoy as an adult, aren’t I just being a giant reading hypocrite? If my goal is to help create a generation of young people who will read for pleasure and knowledge throughout their lives, shouldn’t I be doing the same and allowing myself to read for ME? How would I feel if twenty years from now, I ran into a student and she told me that she only reads for work? I would be devastated, even if she happens to enjoy that reading, as I do.
A final thought that has troubled me since this conversations occurred: denying my “adult” reading life completely cuts out the fact that the reading lives of my students will probably evolve and change as they get older. I would love if the kids who are fans of Lynn Plourde’s Maxi’s Secret one day grow up to read David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. I would be over the moon if a student who only reads fiction now grows up to enjoy the books and essays of Ta-Nehisi Coates or Maxine Hong Kingston. But it’s not what I am modeling now. As far as they know, I am stuck in a middle grade time capsule.
This post doesn’t have an ending (yet). I can’t tell you that my classroom has changed since I had this realization because it hasn’t (yet). But it does end with a resolution. I promise to make sure my secret reading identity is no longer secret. I promise to take care of myself by making time to read books that are just for me. And I promise to share both those facts with my students.
Julia Guthrie is a 4th grade teacher at Notre Dame Academy in Palisades Park, New Jersey. She recently received her Masters in Teaching from Felician University and is proud to serve as her school’s language arts department chair. Her greatest passion is helping to build supportive reading communities for students. She is pleased to have the opportunity to do just that both in and out of the classroom as an organizer of #nerdcampnj and #EdCampRCAN.