When Reading is More Than Just a Story by Carrie Rodusky
Sometimes I come across a story that is so special, so important, that I almost do not even feel worthy enough to have been part of something so beautiful; like I was let in on a secret and that secret changes me. I read many books. Not only because I love to read, but also because I feel it is important to stay current for my upper elementary/middle school aged students. Therefore, I read a lot of books for that age group. Some are fantastic, some are okay, and some are not. And a couple are just magic.
A few weeks ago I read a post on this very site by Laurel Snyder in regards to her book, My Jasper June. I had already requested that book from my library and it was fitting that it came in the very next week. I devoured that book. I could not put it down. When I finished the book, I said out loud, to no one in particular, ‘That might be the best book I have ever read. “
Because you can read Laurel’s post and get an idea of what the story is about, I will not give a summary. However, I will share my thoughts on why books like this absolutely need to be in the hands of upper elementary/middle school readers. Which made me think of another book that also resonated with me in this way, Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate Dicamillo. Oh. My. Gosh.
Students need to see this style of writing. It is real. It feels real. Both of these stories and their authors write from the character’s heart. If they are in pain, you are in pain; if they are happy, you are ecstatic. The words and sentences are fluid and show how to match both a character’s personality as well as the situation. I have already found passages in both books that I will use with my students to teach word choice, tone, and structure.
Beautiful characters with real-life struggles. “Jasper had reminded me how to be.” A line from My Jasper June.; actually the first line that hooked me into this wonderfully broken girl. These stories let us work through the problems of homelessness, death, sorrow over what once was, friendship, and family. We can do this through the characters themselves, while then seeing if anything can relate to our own lives. We teach students to look for themes and make text to self connections, but many times the stories we read only remind us of something we may have experienced or knew of someone else who may have had a similar moment. We feel empathy and that is great and necessary. However, when I read these two books, at very different times in my life, I connected so deeply and so personally to various lines and resolutions that more than once, in both stories, it made me pause and reflect. It was like I was meant to read these stories at the times I did because somehow the universe knew I would get something from each to help either myself or one of my students. Sounds weird, but so true.
Relationships are key. We all feel alone at times, but nothing like what today’s kids go through. It is so easy to think that because kids have 400 followers on social media, clearly they must be popular. Not so. Kids today feel lonelier than ever. I know this because many confide that even though they text or chat everyday, they are not seeing friends outside of school or being invited to things like my generation did. There is also the added pressure to make everything look beautiful and perfect on social media, when real life is just not. These two stories honor that sadness and loneliness, but then show what can happen when friendship and relationships grow. These are not superficial but true and real and quirky. It is not all roses and rainbows. The characters still hide things and have disagreements. Life is complicated, but each come into their own and we, the readers, are left rooting for only good things. We also learn how to work through and deal with these events life gives us. Kids need that! They need to learn to cope and how to find resiliency, and most importantly, how to reach out to others when they need support. To quote Louisiana herself, “And perhaps what matters when all is said and done is not who puts us down but who picks us up.”
I really feel that these stories can and will do so much for our young readers. While both books have female main characters, I would still recommend them to my boys as there is so much to gain. I know that I have been truly inspired by a book when I read it and need a moment to reflect when I am finished. That I need to almost savor that time I just spent with that story before I can do it justice when sharing in a book talk or just in conversation. I will also be selective in my recommendations as I know that these may not be appropriate for all of my students. I always suggest teachers and parents read a book before recommending if possible. I wish all those who choose to read My Jasper June and Louisiana’s Way Home the same affection and love for these storylines and characters and may you too find the magic that these books can bring.
Carrie Rodusky has been teaching since 1996. She is currently an upper-elementary language arts teacher in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. She loves all things reading and can be found out under the trees on a summer day with book in hand. She hopes all kids will identify themselves as readers and still tries with her own teenagers. She will read “Wild” and “The Secret Life of Bees” every year without fail. You can find her (with almost no posts) on Instagram @carrierodusky