Category Archives: Books

Well-Versed In Books

Note: This post was originally written for teachers, but applies to parents of middle school kids as well. 

I have an amazing talent for stating an obvious fact, one that everyone already knows, way after everyone has already talked about it. What’s worse is that I somehow fool myself into believing that this universal well-known idea was hatched in my brain and so it must also be deeply profound.

You have been warned. There is nothing new in this post. Nothing any English teacher, librarian or committed reader doesn’t already know, but what I am about to share with you has been an epiphany of sorts for me. It has sparked a thirst for books that I seem powerless to quench. Ya’ ready?

Read the books your students are reading.

Wow, I am actually a bit embarrassed when I see it written out like that. Let me explain. I have been teaching Middle School English  for over ten years. My name is Jabiz and I am a book snob. Until last week, I rarely if ever read any Young Adult literature. At any given time I could be found saying things like, “I found the writing mediocre at best, the characters shallow, the themes trite and the stories plot heavy.” I almost threw a copy of The Knife of Never Letting Go across the room, after the the protagonist was nearly caught for the 100th time!

I couldn’t be bothered to read YA Lit, because that genre didn’t scratch the intellectual itches I enjoy. How could I tear myself away from David Foster Wallace, or my new love– James Baldwin, to read whatever dystopian garbage the kids might be reading?

But here’s the thing, I have only just recently realized– My intellectual and literary needs should not always come first. I owe it to the kids I teach to be well-versed in both the books they love and the books that I can find for them to love. As their English teacher, I should be the main resource for what is good, bad, exciting, at their level, too hard, and a bit simple but fun. I should be able to tell a kid who just liked Wonder that Eleanor and Park is a bit darker but about similar themes.

What sparked this epiphanal moment, you might ask? It was a series of things I suppose– years of incurring guilt for my ignorance about YA Lit, news that we have been approved for classroom libraries (150 titles per room!), and my becoming tired of recommending the same books over and over.  We are currently in an eight-week reading unit, where we explored a shared class novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  After practicing a series of skills, we allowed the students to choose a novel of their choice to show transference of  skills. Like most text hungry teen-agers, they were looks for suggestions.

I began to realize that I couldn’t recommend many of the authors or books I love, because the content is not quite appropriate or interesting to fourteen year olds. As great as Jonathan Franzen may be, I am pretty sure no middle school student cares about mid-life crisises in the suburbs. So I did what I have always done. I recommended the books I know: Of Mice and Men, Lord of The Flies, and Catcher in the Rye. Don’t get me wrong. I love these books, and I have been blown away by the exploration and analysis of these texts by my current students. But I knew there had to be better titles. Better matches. I knew that I was short-changing my students for not helping them find the just-right book for each of them. And the only way to do that is to read more YA Lit– plot-heavy dystopian adventures be damned!

Guess what happened? I felt totally empowered after reading just four books. After each title, I could name several kids who would love that book. Or I knew that this book was just right for one or two more mature and advanced readers. I start every class now, pushing books. I tell them about what I am reading. I can sell these books with confidence. I am even emailing specific kids and saying, hey you! This book is perfect for you. What will be great is when I have a library of 150 titles, I know and love, so I can literally just grab the right book and hand it to the right kid.

My enthusiasm in class has already led to one girl asking if I have read Angel’s Fury, to which I said no. The next day she brought me her copy, which I am reading at the moment. I have put up a physical list for suggestions.  There is something magical about empowering students to feel like experts. Allowing them to feel that they can influence their teacher with their love of books.

I feel that by reading more YA Lit, English teachers are creating and fostering a more authentic community of readers. Hey parents, I did not forget about you! If you want to foster a love of reading, then read some of these YA titles as well. We cannot continue to discredit books that were written for young adults, while promoting an antiquated list of books that they “should” be reading.  There will always be a place for the classics we love, or the stretch books from our own libraries that might fit a few students, but we owe it to our students to be well-versed in books that they can access and explore and love. I would love to hear about some of your favorite YA titles, or about some of the strategies you have chosen to excite your students about books.

As for my intellectual itches? I have decided to read five YA titles for everyone of my own choices. Although, I have already checked out a few books that will put me past five. My collection of Foster Wallace essays can wait, I need to read Holes, so I can talk about the narrative perspective with my struggling readers, and maybe The House of Scorpions might be the book that gets Billy to “get” reading.



I was not a huge reader in school. I liked books and I read what was required, but I was not a bury-your-nose-in-a-book-at-all-times kind of worm. Not like some kids I see in my classes today. That is until my last year in high school, when our student teacher Mr. Schmitt walked into class with a bag full books he had bought with his own money and asked us not to tell anybody what we were about to read.

“He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”
Dr. Samuel Johnson

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold…”

That was all it took. That opening sentence. I was hooked on books. I’m still not sure what made him feel that reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with a group of seventeen year old was a good idea, but thank goodness he did. Because after that I started to devour books.  I started by reading everything Thompson ever wrote. Following names and ideas from his pages, I read The Beats, Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski. I developed an insatiable appetite for books and ideas that I have barely begun to satiate twenty years later. In short, I love books. I have been reading one book after another since I was nineteen. I do not understand people who “do not read.” What does that even mean?

My point? Patience, I am getting there. During my lifelong stint with reading I have only not ever finished two books. (That I admit to, there are a few others Pale Fire and Dante’s Inferno should be on the list too)  Not finishing those two books haunts me to this day, because I was three quarters of the way through both before some freak incident made me stop. I was 900+ pages in War and Peace when a move to Angola forced me to abort the book, and I just couldn’t pick up steam again.  If I had to read one more fifty page description of a battle or a ball, I would have killed myself. The second book?  Again 900+ pages into Don Quixote before a tsunami literary washed it away.

I hated both of those books, but I was determined to finish them. And the fact that they lay half baked in my reading repertoire bothers me to no end. I will, someday, go back and start from the beginning and finish them both. Because I want to be able to say honestly and wholeheartedly that I have never not finished a book. Making this declaration is important to me.

Why you may ask? Who cares? Life is too short, you may say. Why waste time on reading what you don’t like? I hear you ask. Well dear reader, reading what you don’t like and never putting a book down, no matter how boring or difficult is the point of this post.

At the start of summer I began to read Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. After nearly two hundred pages I was still not sold. His scattered verbose meta-narrative style just wasn’t doing it for me. I complained on facebook and was told by many friends to stop wasting my time and just move onto something I would like. At that moment, the seed for this post was sown. A few days later I saw the film Liberal Arts in which the two main characters have this great conversation about reading books for fun.

Before I get started let me state that I know there is no one way to read. I am fully aware that my OCD with text is abnormal, and yes I know I too sound a bit like a snob. I can handle that. Here’s the thing– books for me are not entertainment. I have Master Chef and lame Hollywood super hero movies for brain numbing junk food. Books are my sustenance, my protein. They are my exercise. I am a bit nervous about pushing this exercise metaphor as I do not actually exercise, but conceptually I understand the concept– you push your body beyond physical comfort to force your muscles to exert extra energy, which in turn helps them stay fit and grow. This is the same reason I read. Books are dumbbells and elliptical machines for my brain, my heart, and my ideas.

I read books to help keep my intellect and imagination fit. I read books to help me write. I read critically, intensely and with passion. I seldom, if ever, will pick up a random book cause it looks fun or easy. I do research. I choose books that I hope will stimulate me. I choose books that I think will be a good work-out. So when I make a commitment to read a thousand pages of Rushdie over the summer I am not just going to stop because I don’t like it. Liking it has nothing to do with why I chose it. At this point in regime, I am forcing my brain to articulate why I don’t like it. What about it do I like? What is working in terms of craft and style. I read as a writer, not for pleasure. I return page after page, rep after rep like exercise in order to be a better thinker.

My point–  as a teacher what do you tell your students who want to give up on books. As I mentioned earlier, I know that an unyielding commitment to books is my style and may not the best way to read for everyone. There are many ways to read. I get that. There are also many kinds of readers, and forcing a struggling reader to finish a book he hates may do more damage than good. I get that.But at what point to we ask our students to get on the bench and pump the weight.

In closing, by no means am I making a judgment on people who stop books or choose to read for fun. I guess I am looking for some well argued reasons why people read for pleasure or feel that it is okay to abandon books when they do not meet our expectations. I want to hear from you about what kind of reader you are and how you talk to your students about books. If you are a student, I would love to hear about your reading routines.

What kind of reader are you? How do you mentor the readers in your class? Am I crazy? Where do you agree? Disagree with what I have said?

For the record, I am now almost half way through the Midnight’s Children and things have changed! There is a bizarre magic realism plot forming (weirdly like the X-Men) and I am finally finding my groove. I am actually enjoying it. Glad I did not give up. Sometimes the best things are the ones that are the hardest to get to.


The Edge of Tension

A few weeks ago, right around the time I started to really get to know my students, a shy girl–the brooding artistic type lingered after class, nervously asking me if I had read The Perks of Being a Wallflower. When I mentioned that I hadn’t, she insisted that I should “definitely check it out.” She assured me that I would love it.

Coincidently, a short time later my wife read the book, and I began to hear about it from different people everywhere. It has since been passed around the grade eight and several of my students have taken to blogging about it. My wife was surprised that so many grade eight “kids” are reading it, as some of the main themes are “inappropriate.”

Since I am still mired in Infinite Jest, I haven’t had time to read the novel, but I just returned from a movie date. Yup you guessed it: sex, drugs and rock and roll and suicide and sexual molestation, and mental illness– it is all there. I would have loved this book in grade eight, so why do I feel nervous talking about it with my students? I have a book that kids are exited about it. They are asking me to read it. Isn’t this what we want?

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by helen☺

Realistically there is nothing new here, nothing that wasn’t covered in Catcher in the Rye, but for some reason, anything that veers ever so slightly from the sterile narratives of life as puppies and rainbows makes us nervous. We pretend that young adults and teenagers do not swear, they don’t think about sex and they don’t drink or do drugs.

We tell them not to do these things, without giving reasons why, only to act surprised when they experiment and get lost, but here is the thing–whether or not we admit that kids are thinking about these big ideas, they are! They want to talk to us about drugs and sex and alienation. We owe it to our students to meet them at the edge of tension and their interests or we will lose them to sanitized versions of life that bore us all. Kids gravitate toward the dark frayed edges of life and we owe them literature, culture and media that helps them navigate these edges, but how do we know when is too soon?

I hate to pin everything I do based on who I was in middle school, but it is my main point of reference. I know that I really could have used some adults to talk to about so many topics deemed inappropriate. I figured it out on my own, like most of us do, but why do we force kids to do that? We have been there, don’t we owe it to them to help?

Experience has taught me that we underestimate kids at nearly every turn, but what do you think? I know many grade 11 and 12 teachers who are not shackled by taboo themes in literature. But what about middle school? How do you decide which themes are age appropriate? How do you know how far to go down dark paths? Can we teach this novel? Should we? Talk to me people…