By Elizabeth Wroten
I’m not the f*cking book police
On 19, Oct 2015 | In Uncategorized | By Elizabeth Wroten
Sorry for the language, but I’m about to rant. Recently a few colleagues have come to me wanting me to limit types of books kids can check out (in particular I Spy, Where’s Waldo and Elephant and Piggie books). In lieu of these I’m supposed to push them into chapter books. And while I was gracious and conciliatory I didn’t give them a definite “yes, I will do that”. Because I’m not the fucking book police.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all about helping kids find all kinds of books they like. From chapter books to picture books, from non fiction to fiction, from classics to new releases. The way I see it our kids come to library NOT to learn how to read, but to learn to want to read. One factor in this is that the other librarian is, by training and practice, a reading specialist. She has no other library experience and has in no way been immersed in library culture. That’s not a bad thing. Quite the contrary, she’s an incredible teacher and she knows her stuff. Plus she doesn’t get mired down in some of the library crap there is. The kids like her and she gets books in their hands. But it does mean she sees the library as the place to teach reading, not literacy. She has the same end goal as I do, life-long readers, but our approaches are vastly different.
Here’s why I refuse to become the book police:
Making reading a chore, something where you are told to choose something else or handed a book by the teacher with little to no input from you, does not make life-long readers. It makes kids who don’t want to read. It makes reading feel like something they have to do. Or worse yet, something they need to pretend to do to get the grade, make the teacher happy, or get by. I don’t want to teach kids to dissemble. I want them to love to read.
Moreover, limiting and saying no to their choices invalidates those kids. They like those books. That’s why, of their own volition, that have sought them out on the shelf and brought them to me (or the self-checkout station) to check out. They have sat down with them and started reading them. WITH ABSOLUTELY NO INTERVENTION OR ENTICEMENT on my part. None. Far be it from me to tell them they shouldn’t like that. Or that their choices suck. They probably think that about the books I choose to read. Every book its reader, right?
Also, what if a student is choosing a particular book because they see them self in it? When we tell them it’s not good enough, we invalidate that child. And let’s face it, the large majority of books that are deemed “good” and “worthwhile” are white, middle to upper class, heteronormative, with a traditional family structure. Even in my very wealthy private school these books reflect a small part of our population.
Policing kids reading also underestimates motivation. My colleagues don’t just want me telling kids they can’t read books that are “too easy”. I’m also supposed to stop kids from reading books that are “too hard”. Kids are really good at self censoring, both when it comes to content and when it comes to difficulty. I don’t want to tell the kid who loves mythology he shouldn’t be reading Percy Jackson if it’s a stretch. Especially if he really wants to. That desire is going to do a lot more for advancing his ability to read and his success than me giving him a book he’s not interested in. One thing I do, do when kids bring books that are really hard is tell them it’s okay to put it down and come back to it or ask a parent to help them read it.
I have been that reluctant, struggling reader. That was me. And guess what I learned to pretend to read the book that was handed to me by my parents and my teachers. There was stuff I wanted to read (god awful crap, looking back as an adult), but I was told it wasn’t good enough and that it I shouldn’t want to read it. The result? I read a total of 5 books for pleasure between high school and the start of graduate school. Five books in in ten years. Five books. Ten years. That’s not what we want for our students, is it? And let’s face it, the kids I’m supposed to get all book nazi on are the reluctant readers. The weak readers. Forcing them into books they haven’t chosen will do exactly this. Actually I probably read so many books in those ten years because my parents were readers and it was part of the family culture.
What happened in graduate school, you ask, that made me start reading again? Oh, just that it was library school and I was suddenly given permission to read all the YA, MG, and Kidlit I wanted. And no one batted an eye. It was “for work” and “for school”. Except I love that stuff. LOVE, LOVE, LOVE IT! I wish I could just read all day. Sometimes I do. Oops. I found myself as a reader. I found what I love (most things, especially if they are for younger audiences) and what I don’t like (adult fiction about sad women in bad marriages, tedious and dry nonfiction). And that’s (one of) my goals in the library- to help kids find themselves as readers. I can’t do that if I’m the one selecting their books for them. That’s them learning they don’t know themselves and I do. Which is completely false.
Sure, I’m happy to do reader’s advisory with them. I will make all kinds of suggestions and ask them questions. I may even put a book in their hand and say “try it”. But when I do that I tell them my feelings won’t be hurt if they try it and hate it or even if they don’t want to try it. My ego isn’t on the line. I know they like what they like and I like what I like. It’s not up to me to make that call for them and when they make it, it’s not a rejection of me. Just the book they didn’t like.
It’s not like these kids don’t get other practice or support reading. They’re in library for an hour a week. They are in their classrooms five days a week for 6 hours. In those classrooms the teachers are reading aloud to them and having them read aloud. Choosing books that will both challenge and help them. They have books that are precisely where their reading level is. They read these several times a week. They practice reading directions, math boxes, words on the board, spelling books, and worksheets (ugh). The classroom is where reading instruction takes place. Where they look at phonics and mechanics. That’s why librarians don’t take classes on the mechanics of reading. It’s not usually part of their curriculum. It certainly isn’t in our school, nor does it need to be.
So, to the kids in third grade who want to check out a Where’s Waldo and Elephant and Piggie, to the kids in second who want to check out three Elephant and Piggie, to the kids who want all picture books, to the kid reading graphic novels and comics, to the kids who want the thickest book in the library, to the kid who reads ten books a day: do it! You go! I love those books too. I’ve read them. I haven’t read them. I hate them. What I think doesn’t matter. What you think is the only thing that matters. You are reading. Good for you! Keep going!