When I look back on my formation as a reader, my strongest memories are not of books at all. My mother, an actor and director for a small local theater, would cart me as a very young child to her rehearsals, often many nights a week. My clearest memories are of the space in winter. To save on the oil bill, the heat would be kept very low, but I'd remain cozy, bundled up in my winter clothes in a seat in the audience. There, drifting in and out of sleep, I'd sit and listen to Macbeth or Antigone or The Hairy Ape. Much of the plot and vocabulary cruised right over my head, of course, but as an elementary school kid I could've recited many of these plays from start to finish for you. However much or little I understood, I was molded by the musicality of the language, the desire to understand more, the encounters with characters from other places, times, and walks of life, and above all, by the clear sense that a shared experience of literature was at the heart of my community.
Fast forward a few years and the reading experience that shaped me most as a teen was encountering Catullus and Horace under the guidance of an inspiring and hilarious Latin teacher. The slow untangling of those poems and exploring a language with such an alien grammar permanently changed me as a reader. Even though I abandoned Classics by the time I hit college, if you asked me now to choose between painstakingly reading those two volumes of poetry over the school year and every other book I read through my teen years, I'd probably still pick the former.
Almost daily I hear a librarian venting her frustration with a school culture that deems certain kinds of reading as "counting" and others—graphic novels or audiobooks or fill in the blank—as failing to meet the bar of serious reading. These librarians observe that such short-sighted and restrictive definitions of reading run counter to our goal of developing young learners' intrinsic reading motivation. What counts for one kid—what really counts—might be a graphic novel. For another, it might be reading a play out loud. Rubrics that discount such forms of reading tell us more about our adult prejudices than students' abilities.
But what bothers me even more about rules that define reading so narrowly, is that at the same time they devalue students' passion and choice they shift responsibility for getting kids excited off of the adult and onto the child. Reflecting back, it's clear to me that at the center of my most powerful reading experiences there were invested adults warmly inviting me into what felt like new, thrilling worlds. There was nothing inside me magically predisposed to loving Latin poetry—there was a great teacher with whom I connected personally. And never once in these formative reading experiences was there a sense that I should be keeping count of anything—the reading values that adults were instilling in me instead were ones like care, curiosity, patience, repetition, and the joy of discovery. This stance toward reading felt more like an all-consuming and slowly unfolding romance than a series of fun but forgettable blind dates.
Kids may not need Catullus. But, every kid deserves to have adults committed to helping them find joy in experiences with literature.
We ♥ Lit
This month at SLC we are celebrating school librarians' role as architects of students' most powerful encounters with literature. We've taken something of a different approach in the latest issue, where you'll hear first-hand from a number of kid lit authors about their practice and their connections with young readers, including Candace Fleming, Wendelin Van Draanen, April Pulley Sayre, and Emma Walton Hamilton in conversation with librarian Timothy Horan. And, of course, we have our usual cast of librarians and experts talking about the love of literature. Our own Sylvia Vardell talks poetry, while Kim Gangwish argues for putting fostering the love of reading back at the center of our understanding of future forward librarianship.
Also not to be missed this month, and with thanks to our sponsor OverDrive, Melissa Thom will be presenting a live webinar on creating and sustaining a school-wide culture of reading on Thursday, November 8th at 6:00 PM EST. Registration is available here for those planning to attend live as well as for those who would like to be notified when the archived recording becomes available. We look forward to seeing you there!