Rewrite the Rules of Reading by Jen Kleinknecht
Do as I say, not as I do. Sometimes I fear that is our attitude towards reading. As adults, we allow ourselves to experiment with audiobooks and new genres, read books that are just great fun, read without pausing to jot notes, and abandon books we dislike. Do we allow children the same privileges, or have we made books the equivalent of vegetables: something that is good for us, but not always enjoyable?
It’s time to rewrite the rules of reading. Allow your students to read graphic novels. They are not a lesser art form; they are a different art form. As a school librarian and a mother of a ten-year -old boy, I can tell you that children are devouring graphic novels right now. In a misguided attempt to raise the bar or increase rigor, are we denying children the opportunity to read what they love? I cringe every time I hear a teacher or a parent say “No” to a graphic novel. Graphic novels marry text to art in a perfect communion. Jerry Craft’s The New Kid won the Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Award this year.This brilliant graphic novel should be required reading for every person over the age of eight. If The New Kid doesn’t legitimize the genre of graphic novels with its powerful, timely, and accessible handling of race and class, I cannot fathom what it will take to end the undeserved stigma associated with graphic novels. Buy your child the graphic novel, so they can reread it or pass it on to a friend. When your student reaches for a graphic novel, affirm their choice. Better yet, ask them about it.
Audiobooks also get a bad rap. Listening to an audiobook is not a shortcut or a copout or a tool reserved for those with reading disabilities. Our children are hungering for stories. Our children deserve to be read to by a skilled voice actor narrating the story and the dialogue with nuance and with passion. Why do we scoff at something born of our oral traditions, when as adults, we are easing our commutes and our empty moments with the comfort of audiobooks? Recently, I listened to Veera Hiranandani’s The Night Diary. My understanding of the book was enhanced by Priya Ayyar, the audiobook narrator, as she imbued each word with depth and feeling. Please, show your child how to access audiobooks from the public library. Point them to Audible’s free offerings. Include audiobooks in your home and school collections.
Instead of limiting our children, we should be expanding their opportunities. Children become reluctant readers when we shame their choices. We adults are powerful. When we tell children that their book choices are too silly or too easy, are we telling them that they are too silly and not very smart? I don’t want to be criticized for the things that I like. Children can read complex and challenging texts and also fun, lighthearted crowd pleasers. Let’s honor the choices that our kids make. I would rather see a child pick up Jeff Kinney’s The Diary of a Wimpy Kid for the umpteenth time and actually enjoy it instead of pretending to read something we deem more appropriate.
As a former reading teacher, I am guilty of assigning the endless questions related to books. I know we all mean well, but sometimes it is just too much. For the love of reading, let’s ease up on our requirements sometimes. Are we assigning the questions as a test of reading compliance? Ask me the name of the main character in the book I read two weeks ago, and I will likely draw a blank. That doesn’t mean I didn’t read, understand, or love the book. It means I sometimes recall details poorly. I am not suggesting that we want children to be sieves, reading words without any retention. I just worry that our good intentions lead us to overdo it at times, making reading feel like a chore.
Finally, I want all children to have the ability to abandon books. No one should be sentenced to a book they hate. Sometimes I am not in the mood for a certain book, but I can pick it up again later and absolutely love it. Maybe I will never pick that book up again, and that’s okay. We are allowed to have different tastes as readers. We should celebrate our reading preferences, not condemn them. We should help children to develop the wherewithal to say, “This book isn’t for me, but maybe something else is.” If we silence our students’ dislikes, we will silence their likes as well because we will inhibit their confidence of expression. There is no room for sanctimoniousness if we want students to build strong reading identities and trusting relationships with their teachers.
It is time to break the arbitrary rules of reading that we may be clinging to unnecessarily. I fear that when we make rules without thinking through all of the implications, we are doing more harm than good. Remember, we are trying to raise readers, not rule followers. Allow children the same reading privileges you enjoy. Let children read graphic novels, audiobooks, silly books, and even books below their grade level. Let the kids slide on the reading logs and questions from time to time. Let them quit the book they don’t like. Let’s make books seem like the precious gifts they are, and may there be no strings attached.
Jen Kleinknecht has spent 20 years as an educator dedicated to inspiring a love of reading. She is currently the school librarian at Henry B. Whitehorne Middle School in Verona, New Jersey. She is a voracious reader who loves coffee, Netflix, and long conversations about books. She writes about life, education, and librarianship in no particular order on her blog, “The Yes Librarian.” You can follow her on Twitter @citecitebaby.