Friday, March 2, 2018

Nurturing Young Adult Readers

Imagine you are a chef devoted to vegetarianism—you are convinced this is good for people and good for the planet, as well as morally accountable and delicious. But there are many people you know and love who aren’t so convinced. Would you try to convince them by serving them nothing but plain, fresh tofu (even though that is delicious and nothing like the freeze dried, good-for-6-months variety mostly found in American supermarkets)? Or the rarest truffles sprinkled with gold dust? (I’ve seen that on YouTube!) Or would you try whatever you could to tickle their fancy with recipes that would meet them where they are and woo them into your world? I’m thinking probably the second. So why do we do it the other way round for books? Why do we try to transform reluctant readers into avid readers with Shakespeare and Hawthorne?

The day I finished reading Scythe by Neal Shusterman and put it out on my display shelf, a student walked into my room and froze in front of the bookshelf. “Neal Shusterman! Can I read it?” he burst out. We talked about it several times as he read, and when he finished, he asked if I had Thunderhead, the next in the series. “No, but if I got it, would you read it?” You should have seen his eyes light up. 

That got me thinking about a couple of other inquiries I’d gotten from students recently, whether I had the second book in a series, which I didn’t. When you ask a student looking for a book to read, “What are the last three books you’ve really enjoyed?” and all they can think of is the first book in a series that they read a year ago, that’s a pretty good indication that it’s time to order some second books. So I ordered them. Last week I read Thunderhead, and it’s already been loaned on. This weekend I’m reading Tokyo Kill. Next weekend it will be The Infinite Sea. 

YA dystopian fiction, crime/suspense novels, and alien invasions are not my usual genres. Ten years ago I would not have believed you if you’d told me I’d be reading these 3 books. Then I read Penny Kittle’s Book Love, and one of the things I realized was that The Scarlet Letter and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are not going to transform non-readers into readers. They will capture and build the imagination of those who are already avid readers. Taught well (and I do still teach them, see here and here), they will even help students who don’t read much to recognize and appreciate the artistry and moral imagination present in the works of a great writer, and to join in the ongoing discussion, across time and cultures, of the big questions of what makes us human. But it still doesn’t mean they will ever pick up another book after they finish their last literature class. 

So I want to nurture both an understanding of great literature and a love of reading. Reading of any sort. Because reading correlates with all kinds of benefits we want for our students (vocabulary, writing, IQ, empathy, background knowledge, college success...), because it only takes one “home run” book to convert a reluctant reader into an avid reader, and because a person who reads, say, Captain Underpants, will be more likely to eventually pick up, say, Americanah, than a person who doesn’t read at all.

So read what you love, and also read what those you love may love. Besides, you may be surprised. Scythe sets up a fascinating world with intriguing problems (like the elimination of all human threats, including death) that raise big questions like what is a good life and why? The author of the Jim Brodie books has live in Japan for over 20 years, so he does a really good job of writing for Americans about the country I’ve lived in for over 30. As for The 5th Wave, it was the best alien invasion book I’ve ever read. Okay, it’s the only alien invasion book I’ve ever read. But it, too, raises those big questions like how do we choose our loyalties, at what cost, and is giving up ever an option?

Where can you find these books? Ask a librarian. Ask a kid. Follow a blog like The Nerdy Book Club. Read Book Love and follow Penny Kittle on Twitter. Check out Pinterest or Goodreads. Try something. There are few thrills like seeing a young person fall in love with a book you’ve recommended and discussing with him or her the big questions it raises.

What do you do to nurture your own reading life and that of the community around you?  

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