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.


14 thoughts on “Well-Versed In Books

  1. avatarSallyGNicholas

    Yeah Jabiz. Absolutely. This year I am teaching Year 5. One of the things I am loving is talking books with the boys. I have read Grimsdon by Deborah Abela. Loved it. I am currently reading Wonder as a read aloud to the class. Next on my list is Once by Morris Gleitzman and The Black Book of Secrets by F.E. Higgins. The school has a well stocked library with librarians who love to read and share their knowledge. Awesome.

  2. avatarJohn T. Spencer
    Twitter: johntspencer

    Hey, it’s not YA (more of mid-level reader) but if you ever want a copy of *Wendell the World’s Worst Wizard* let me know. I’m sure it costs a fortune to send it to Singapore, but I’d do that for you.

  3. avatarAldine Yates

    Fantastic Jabiz, and something that very few English teachers do. Catriona Riordan, (Wellington Dubai), one of the most inspirational English teachers I have ever met, very similar to yourself, also made it her job to “get down to student level” and understand what youngsters enjoyed reading. As a result she was a very “informed” teacher and had a magic bond with all her students. Her students were well known as the “over-achievers” in her lessons, simply because she related to them, and they felt the need to reciprocate. Lovely to see the same values in your English class.

  4. avatarnamita lal

    love the idea Jabiz..have been thinking about this myself ..but have not got down to it..
    i guess you know nikita’s choices more than i would ..let me know if there are any books you would recommend for her ..that would motivate me to read them too !

  5. avatarTara Lee Ronzetti
    Twitter: tararonzetti

    YA literature has come into it’s own. There are many excellent literary works our there. I don’t think I would consider The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time YA. However, what a great story to share with our budding ideologues as they roam the halls and look at all the people around them, perhaps with more empathy after reading. We’re always looking for juicy sentences to deconstruct with our young writers–the best place would be in books they LOVE! And, of course, relating to students in the middle years is paramount; reading some YA could help.

    I’m reading Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (more for 5th maybe) and I love it! I’m reading it to my daughter too. It reminds me a an Asian Wizard of Oz. At the same time I’m reading In Cold Blood for the first time, and I must say I find myself in awe of such succinct and precise description.

    Happy Reading!

  6. avatarMary Worrell
    Twitter: pickledtreats

    I’m glad to see you breaking down your book snobbery! There’s nothing more discouraging to a budding reader, I think, than the feeling that what they are reading isn’t “really” good or wouldn’t “really” qualify as reading. I often share the reader’s bill of rights with my students to try and tear down some of those insecurities about reading.

    I bring my books in to read when they read, whether they are comic books, YA, or adult. I don’t do it as much as I should, but I want to model the life of a reader. Have you read “The Book Whisperer” by Donalynn Miller? It’s great.

    Also, I liked the Knife of Never Letting Go! I’m reading the second one in the series right now. And guess what? Charlie Kaufman is doing a film adaptation of it. Yes, the Charlie Kaufman…my favorite screenwriter. I can’t wait for the weirdness.

  7. avatarSarah G

    A ‘wow’ post, Mr. R, and really interesting. As you already know, I read a lot (but have about 800 books on my to-read list…). I am currently reading Les Misérables, which takes a while to read, but I’m going to read a more ‘recent’ YA novel afterwards, Clockwork Angel. Holes is really good. I personally loved it… though I read it quite a while back. It’s sort of a miniature dystopia in the middle of… a desert. The Catcher in the Rye- written from an interestingly cynical but interesting point of view. I liked it. Reboot is also a good YA book and revolves around a dystopian society in which people can return from the dead after being affected by a certain virus.

    I think YA literature is huge now. Mostly, whenever I walk into Kinokuniya, I see these huge stacks of books with the spines all flashing out ‘Cassandra Clare’ and ‘The Hunger Games’ and ‘Veronica Roth’ written down on them.

    A really cool post!

  8. avatarBecca

    I love this *aha* moment when my teachers have this same discovery! It opens a completely new avenue for conversations. Some of the most personal conversations I’ve had with kids about their lives, their struggles, their concerns, their joys have come out of a simple exchange about books. I echo Mary’s recommendation of The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller. That book changed my life. Cliche perhaps but I moved into our Library after reading that book, sharing a passion for reading with my students, and discovering that I could do that on a larger scale in the role of librarian.

  9. avatarJenny Hinton

    I love this post! I am not yet an English teacher as of yet, but I think it is fantastic that you are taking time to find ways get your students more in to reading books for pleasure. I also really like that you point out to encourage parents to experiment with reading these YA books as well. I grew up during the “Harry Potter Era” right as the books were coming out and both of my parents are book junkies regardless of the genre. I say this because it became an activity of sorts that involved the entire family. We would order one book and it would go down the ranks of who got to read it next. First was my dad, then my mom, and then usually myself because I am the next in line book junkie of the family. The fun part of it was discussing the book and giving my thoughts about “who is the bad guy this time?” with my parents as I progressed through my reading. I have always been a big reader on my own, but having that type of stimulation as I read made me all the more passionate about the book. As a teacher I very much hope to encourage my future students to read for pleasure and I am so happy that you have reminded me of that time in my life that helped me to do the same at that age. I can’t wait to incorporate this idea into my teaching like my parents did for me!

  10. avatarPearl Johnson

    I enjoyed reading your blog post. I agree that teachers should be knowledgeable of the new and trendy things that their students are into. I know it is so easy to stick to the classics but it is when we step out our comfort zone that we really get to know who we are.

  11. avatarStacey

    “But here’s the thing, I have only just recently realized– My intellectual and literary needs should not always come first.” There’s so many rich pieces of contemporary YA literature on the spectrum that can scratch the intellectual itch: Nick Lake’s IN DARKNESS, Rachel Wein’s CODE NAME VERITY are two that I’ve read this month that remind me of how YA books are transformative. The wellspring is there in the YA pool. For me, it’s important that we not only promote books for our students, but that we heed the value and the intellectual/personal gains of this genre. We denigrate our teen readers and the genre itself if we reduce the genre to fluff. YA is a genre like no other–it breaks rules and offers novels written in verse (Ellen Hopkins/Ron Koertge/Eirann Corrigan); it can be edgy (Gale Giles/Pete Hautman/Melvin Burgess); it can push the envelope (Julie Ann Peters/Chris Crutcher). There is no other genre as vast: in its lap there is the dystopian and the historical fiction. Romance and suicide. It is an all-encompassing genre that offers readers–young and old–the opportunity to bring our own sense of intellect to the page. I’m not sure intellect is something crouching on the page; in my mind intellect is what we bring to the page and what we are willing to extract and learn on our own volition.

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