Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Relearning reluctant readers

Einstein quote: the only thing that interferes with my learning is my education

As a librarian, I’ve always tried to champion the reluctant readers. I’ve worked to provide a wide variety of reading material in my collection development ranges – everything from high interest low level books, to compelling nonfiction, to fiction told by and about diverse voices, to comics, image heavy browsing books, and more. When parents would lament about how their teens just don’t read, I’d nod sagely and advise them, as I’d been advised, to give it time and provide ample options for free choice. [Why wouldn’t these parents just chill out and back off?!] I’d assure them that comic books are real books, and that engaging with books on nail art or internet memes is reading, as it’s engagement with the text. All of it, when self-selected, works to create good feelings about books, self confidence, and becomes a scaffold to reading more. I don’t think they believed me a lot of the time.

And then I met a reluctant reader whose resistance to novels just broke my heart: my own kid! Getting to know my daughter as a reluctant reader has completely reoriented me, and yes: it knocked me off my high horse right quick. What I know about her is that she loves stories. She creates them in her mind, in her play, in her notebooks, and on canvas. She listens to them whenever people will read to her, or in audiobook format, she watches them on screens, and she reads them visually in comics. It’s the physical and mental act of reading itself that challenges her and that she dislikes. She is so hungry for stories that her own skill level slows her down so much that it gets in the way of her consumption.

Now. She’s not a teen yet. She’s a developing reader. She needs to learn how to read fluently because it’s a basic life skill, without even addressing the joy of discovery to be found in sinking into your new favorite book. She has to learn it. She has to get better. And I know that in time she will. But it’s hard. It’s hard to know that the path that I know will lead her to happiness is rocky and her feet are bare. It’s hard to hold myself back from taking the book from her and reading for her, letting her get swept away on the magic carpet of words that she so desperately wants to be on.

The fact is though, that she has to read to become a better reader. She needs to do the work that she’s assigned at school, and practice those spelling words, and follow through where her teacher expects it. And though I’ll never stop reading to her and never deny her audiobooks, I may suggest she choose something with a few more words on the page. At least on occasion. Reading is a skill that expands the potential to consume stories, but it isn’t the key to enjoying them. It’s not even necessary for enjoying stories. I live in the intersection of the Venn diagram where a love of stories and a love of reading overlap. She’s not there yet. And that’s ok because she’s in her own circle.

My daughter’s experience doesn’t mean that all of these teens are in the same circle she’s in, but they have a lot going for them. They’re in the circle for “my teacher is encouraging/scary enough that I’m here at the library looking for a book.” They’re in the “my parents really care about me and brought me to the library” circle. They’re in the “I already know what I like, and I already know I don’t like what my [mom/dad/teacher] likes” circle. They’re in the “a librarian in my community cares about what I’m reading and is providing me options” circle.

So back to my interactions with “reluctant reader” teens and their parents. I’ve had a healthy taste of humble pie, and it’s making me more empathetic. These parents – most of them at least – don’t want their kids reading Proust. They just want them reading a full page of text because it’s an important skill to have. We want our kids to succeed, whether they’re actually our kids or not. We all do. And though my lines are still the same: provide options; books are books; all reading is good reading, I say them with a greater understanding of the difficulty of letting the process unfold at its pace, of navigating the wire between “free choice” and “graded assignment” and of the personal stake that these parents feel in both their children’s reading enjoyment, and the academic success that they think it will bring them.

Sunday Reflections: If Ranganathan wrote a list about the SRP

I dislike participating in the SRP program with my own kids. 

I know, it sounds horrible. I cajole and prod during the school year and do my best to keep up with the paperwork, and by summer, my energy for the tedious tracking is gone. And my daughter’s energy for sustained, monitored engagement is as well. We are both ready for a break.

That’s not to say that we don’t read! The house is full of books, bedtime stories have been de rigueur since the first day home from the hospital, and both of my girls pride themselves on the carefully curated bookshelves behind their beds. I just don’t care to keep track, and neither do they. Part of our problem is that reading happens constantly. They encounter passages about various animals as they play Animal Jam. She reads street signs as we drive, cereal boxes at breakfast, and grocery lists midafternoon. Reading happens everywhere. How to mark the fits and starts into twenty minute segments?
This afternoon, my daughter raced up the stairs with her reading log exclaiming that she and her friend were going to read. Yay! About a half hour later, she came down to update me: they’re almost done with the reading club. Eleven princess books down, surely it had been six hours already. Do I dash her excitement about all of this reading, erase the marks and bring her back to reality? Or do I gauge her time generally, and return to the library when it seems about right. It’s the latter, and here’s why: 

I’m a firm believer in the simplicity and flexibility of Ranganathan.  The SRP, like libraries and books, is for use. To me, the five laws for SRP should read like this:

1. SRP is for people.

Let’s make the focus of SRP not prizes or hours or tallies, but the people who are participating. What do they want and need to make the most of their summer reading experience? How can we keep our SRPs people focused?

2. Every reader his [or her] material.

3. Every item its reader.

These stay largely the same; everything that we read is useful in its own way. As my pre-reader points to words over my shoulder in my novel asking, “does that say bed?” my early reader sounds out the words on the back of her cereal box and her older friend reads Rainbow Fairies to her. One teen takes the summer to dive into books by her favorite comedians in hopes of improving her performance in forensics, and another rediscovers his little brother’s Goosebumps and takes a walk down memory lane, while yet another has had her interest sparked by the Fault In Our Stars fervor and is devouring all of the contemporary YA and fanfic she can get her eyes on. None of it is better or more worthwhile. It’s serving the purposes, stages, and interests of the reader and it counts. 

4. Save the enthusiasm of the reader.

Did I tell my daughter to march back upstairs and erase the marks she’s made because they didn’t accurately reflect her reading? No way. She was THRILLED to have read so much; and thrilled to be reading for the first time in ages. SRP shouldn’t discourage enthusiastic reading, and that certainly would have. If she were another child, one who is an avid reader, or has a better grasp of time (don’t get me started on this — asking kids who can’t tell time to track minutes or hours… just makes no sense to me), I might treat this differently. For some, the prizes are a great motivator to read. Others will be content with just getting their name on the big board of participants. Some will read voraciously all summer long. Others will do exactly and only what they need to do to meet the requirements, others will register and never turn in their logs. Though it doesn’t jive with our need to document success through statistics, I really believe it doesn’t matter.

5. The SRP is different things to different people.

And this is the crux of it all. Just like the library means different things to different people, so does the SRP. For some, it’s a chance to read as many books as possible. For others, an invitation to dive into some books they’ve been waiting for. For another, it might be a way to get a pass to a museum or a free food coupon. Still others might really like getting little prizes along the way. Some use it as a way to structure their week and remind themselves to visit the library.  And others just might not care, and for that we should not judge them. It’s ok. We’re glad they came to the library and are using it for what they need and want. 

What the SRP isn’t to any of our patrons: an opportunity to gather statistics. Let’s keep that in mind as we work to make our SRPs bigger each year with numbers that reflect that. My hunch is that if we keep the focus on the people, the numbers will work themselves out.


Sunday Reflections: Thinking About Dads, in life and in YA lit

I’ve mentioned it before, but The Tween has had some difficulties with a neighborhood girl. For a while they were really close friends, but things fell apart. I recently was having a discussion with her mom when I told her this story:

The other Sunday I came home from work and The Mr. informed me that there had been another incident. The Tween came home crying, she went into her room and apparently drafted an angry letter, and she came stomping out to angrily deliver the letter. There was lots of anger. And tears, lots and lots of tears. So he took a moment and told her that she might want to allow herself a few moments to calm down then re-read the letter to make sure it said what she wanted it to say before delivering it. Maybe she would decide to deliver it as it was, which was fine. Maybe she would choose to re-write it.

I was quite shocked when the mom informed me that was what our problem was, we interfered too much. What some people call interfering, other people call parenting. In the long run, I think his advice to calm down and re-assess the situation is good advice. He didn’t read her letter, he didn’t tell her not to deliver it, he just advised her to wait until she was less ragey to make sure she was saying what she wanted to say in a way that she could later live with how she said it. It’s good advice, we should all do it a little more.

The other day The Mr. forwarded me an article that said that daughters who have involved fathers start their periods a little bit later in life. I know he sent it to me as a self-congratulatory joke – “see, because I am an involved dad my girls will start their periods later, they’ll thank me.”

The truth is they do thank him, because he is a pretty awesome dad. Because of the way life worked out, we work really opposite schedules. I work Sunday, Monday and Tuesday while he works Thursday, Friday and Saturday – at night. The bonus is that we no longer have to pay for childcare, which we couldn’t if we wanted to, and our girls are always home with a parent. The bad news is we get very little family time – it is a well established rule that no one gets to do anything on Wednesdays because it is our only family day. The other bad news is that he and I haven’t been on a date in three years and I really miss it because he is an awesome guy.

Our situation is in no way unique. I know a lot of teens that have parents working hard to try and make ends meet and trying to raise happy, healthy families. Our current economics makes it very hard for families. But despite what you may read in YA literature, which likes to write parents out of the stories, a great deal of parents try.

The Mr wears a ball cap every day. Sometimes, he will look at the girls and go, “This is your Dad.” He will then take the ballcap and put it to the side and barely place it on his head and said, “This is your Dad on Beiber.” He introduced them to Monty Python and Animaniacs. He makes them learn what the various tools are called as they work together to rebuild a moped he picked up somewhere for $50.00. Sometimes he reads to them, all snuggled up in a chair. And my favorite is that he likes to cook (I do not), although he leaves the most horrific messes in his wake.

If I Stay by Gayle Forman is one of my favorite YA novels. (Yes, I know, there was absolutely no transition there). It stands out to me for many reasons, but it is also one of my favorite families ever presented in YA lit. It was refreshing to me after all the absent moms and dads to read about a family that sat around the table together and had real conversations. I finished reading If I Stay one Sunday morning on the way to church, The Mr. driving us all there as I sobbed in the passenger seat flipping through the last few pages, the girls in the back seat asking if I was okay. But as I closed the book I could look around my car and know that although we may not be the perfect family, we were definitely blessed because we really did love each other and we were genuinely trying.

When The Mr. told me that Sunday about the advice he gave our daughter about waiting to re-read the letter, I was reminded once again that out of all the things I have done wrong in this life, I did this one thing right: I chose a man who would be a good father to my daughters. This parenting thing is hard and expensive and challenging and scary. But if you get it basically right a little more than you get it basically wrong, I figure that’s a win.

And you know where else you can find a good dad in YA lit? The Lynburn Legacy series by Sarah Rees Brennan, a great series you should definitely read. (Yes, I know, still horrific transitions.) That dad would totally do things like the Justin Beiber hat trick. And the truth is, for every absent father in YA lit, there are some really great ones. In Sex and Violence by Carrie Mesrobian circumstances force the father to really examine what kind of dad he has been and asks him to change at the same time that the story allows Evan the opportunity to grow and change. And in This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales, which I adore, we see a divorced dad and a stepdad trying really hard to both be good dads to the main character, which a lot of teens are also dealing with. Because that’s part of being a parent, too, sometimes we can start off on the wrong foot and make the conscious decision to turn it around. Parenting is about choosing every day to try and be an active parent; it’s an active choice. It doesn’t matter that we sometimes mess it up, well all do and will, it matters that we keep making that active choice.

Lots of my teens won’t be celebrating Father’s Day today. Some of them don’t know who their fathers are. Some have very legitimate reasons not to want to speak to their dads. These family themed holidays can be very challenging for a lot of people. Some of my friends will be trying to avoid this day as they miss their very good dads who have left this mortal coil. Whatever this day may or may not mean to you, I hope it is a good one.

What we can learn about the gift of security and foundation from USES FOR BOYS by Erica Lorraine Scheidt (by Christa Desir)

A long time ago, I sat at a lecture where the speaker said, “Don’t be afraid to tell your kids ‘I love you, but no’. This is the very best gift that you can ever give them. It is the gift of security, of them knowing that someone is driving the bus.”

I think about this a lot. Mostly I think about those of us who for one reason or another didn’t have parents who said no. The unprotected ones. The ones with no boundaries, no one driving the bus. Or maybe someone was driving the bus, but only sometimes, and it was erratic enough to feel unsafe.

There are a lot of different reactions to being left unprotected as a child, but at the end of the day, it all ends up in the same place: with the undeniable knowledge that however you’re going to navigate this world, you are on your own.

It’s a tall order for a small child.

When I read USES FOR BOYS, I felt this narrative creep back inside me. The narrative of someone who grew up with few boundaries, with no parent around to say “I love you, but no.” Anna was unprotected. Her early life was peppered with a revolving door of men and/or her mom notably absent. And the gaping hole inside her got bigger with each interaction she had with guys. 
To me, there is a lot of solace in reading a book that lets you know you’re not alone. But Erica Lorraine Scheidt takes it a step further. By Anna so frequently creating her own fairy tale in her mind, desperately trying to control the narrative of her own existence (i.e. posing herself the first time that she goes on a date with Sam), the reader is pushed into considering how we could change Anna’s story, both from her perspective and from her mom’s. We are left to think: at what point along this path could we have made this better so that Anna is not so incredibly unprotected. What lessons could we have offered Anna or what could we have helped her avoid. 
You cannot protect your child 100% of the time. They don’t live in bubbles. It’s a wide world of a lot of shitty things. But there are tools to give them, resources to provide them with enough of an emotional landscape that when confronted with hard things they can get through. People say that kids are resilient. I think they are only if they have enough resources to be. If someone along the way has given them enough of something to cobble together a workable life. They deserve this. And Erica Lorraine Scheidt spends a lot of her time trying to provide this. (Ask her about her job/non-profit). 
This book is about sex and not about sex at the same time. It is about want. It is about seeking wholeness in the only way that Anna knows, through interactions with boys. Over and over again we see Anna trying to fix herself through boys and over and over again it doesn’t work. And to me, Anna’s journey in this book is more about figuring out what she wants than anything else.

But for girls (and boys!) to figure out what they really want, they have to be asked. They have to know that what they want matters. They have to consider themselves as part of the equation in all things that they do. They have to feel protected enough to fail and know that they still have a safety net.

Which is the role of Sam in this book. Sam is the protected one and through him, Anna figures out what she wants. Not because he tells her, but because he asks. A lot. And then his mom does. And Anna finds her way into something that starts to solidify the broken foundation she had been existing on. Which ultimately leaves us with enough hope at the end of the book to believe it might be okay for Anna. That she might have the tools she needs to make it through after all.

Christa Desir is an activist, editor and the author of FaultlineFaultline is the story of a girl (Ani) who was gang raped at a party and how her boyfriend, Ben, deals with his guilt and feelings in the aftermath. She is also the author of the forthcoming title Bleed Like Me. Desir is one of the moderators of the #SVYALit Project and guest blogs with us here on topics involving sexual violence, slut shaming, and consent.

You can join us tonight at 7 PM Central on Twitter as we discuss Uses for Boys with author Erica Lorraine Scheidt using the hashtag #SVYALit.