No, really, let kids choose what they read

In case you need something to tide you over while you wait for your copy of Reading Unbound to arrive, here are some more quotes about why we need to let kids choose what they read.

We want to help our students fall in love with books in ways that foster a life-long devotion to reading. So what should schools do? We think the implications of our research are manifold, but two seem especially compelling.  First, our data make clear that educators should consider interpretive complexity in concert with textual complexity, a centerpiece of the Common Core State Standards.  Every text our participants read—from graphic novels to dark fiction to Harry Potterrequired sophisticated strategies for entering a story world and absorbing the twists and turns of the plot line and character relationships.  All fostered deep intellectual engagement.

Our data also convinced us of the importance of choice. Students should have regular opportunities to behave the way adult readers do and choose their own reading.   They know the kinds of texts from which they will take pleasure. At the same time, teachers should expand the possibility of pleasure by introducing students to new books they might not select on their own.

I love that this quote illustrates the role that “gate-keepers” should have–opening gates rather than closing them. Once a kid has read through everything they could find on their own, teachers and librarians can help them find the hidden treasures that will still meet their needs.

Reading is indeed crucial to success in school and in careers.  But we worry that discussions of reading, especially public policy discussions, focus almost exclusively on its utilitarian value. What’s missing is the pleasure readers derive from the reading they do.

Again, people making these policy decisions know very little about children and child development; however, I do believe that Common Core, with its breadth of text types, actually encourages what I believe is important–giving children a wide variety of choices when it comes to what they read. Have you ever had it suggested that novels in verse are better for struggling readers because of the white space and shorter length? Then what about play scripts? White space abounds, it is mostly dialogue, and it very pointedly tells you what you’re seeing–but then again, it’s like a graphic novel without the images, and your imagination needs to fill in the pictures. HOW AWESOME IS THAT?

If I were Queen of the World, I would decree that all students be given the gifts of time and books they want to read throughout their schooling, and all pre-readers would have an adult who would read aloud to them everyday. Through independent reading children gain a wealth of background knowledge about many different things, come to understand story and non-fiction structures, absorb the essentials of English grammar, and continuously expand their vocabularies. Many also remember visually how to spell words. In a nutshell, the habit of reading does as much, if not more, than Direct Instruction and the rigorous demands of the Common Core. All without boring kids to death or persuading them that they’re dumb.


Years ago, I received a phone call from my godson’s mother. She said, “I know you told me to wait, but David is reading Harry Potter on his own.” David was in kindergarten. David read Harry Potter at 5 for the plot. He reread it at 10 for the plot, characters and emotional truths. He reread the entire series repeatedly the summer he was 13, to his mother’s dismay. “Can’t you get him to read something else?!” I didn’t even try.

NY Times Room for Debate

Yes. The importance of re-reading. I know, I know, there are so many books! But every time you re-read something, you gain something new. It’s magical.

The latest salvo comes from a survey released late last week by Scholastic Corp., a publisher of popular children’s books, which suggests that middle and high school students who have time to read books of their own choosing during the school day are also more likely to read frequently for pleasure.

“For us, choice is key,” said Kyle Good, a spokeswoman for Scholastic. “When you let kids choose the books they want to read, they’ll be voracious readers.”

In the survey, 78 percent of students, who read frequently for fun (at least five days a week), said they had time to read a book of choice during the school day. By contrast, 24 percent of infrequent readers — those who read for fun less than one day a week — said they had time to read a book of choice during the school day.

Chicago Tribune

Review of Reading Unbound, with links to supplementary material 

Top 5 Reasons to let kids choose their own books


Why Kids Need to Read What They Want

Is this how we want kids to act when it comes to reading? / flicker, C. Bitner

In the most recent edition of Cover to Cover by K.T. Horning, there are no early childhood, middle grade, or ya distinctions in books for children. Encompassing fiction and nonfiction, the breakdown is:

  • Picture books (including board books)
  • Readers/Beginning Readers/Easy Readers
  • Transitional books
  • Chapter books

That’s it. We have those formats, and within those formats, every genre is covered, for ages birth to teen. (Oh, but wait–where should graphic novels go? I’d include them with chapter books, honestly; the art in a graphic novel serves as a concurrent visual text, in my opinion. Or, heck, let’s put them in with picture books, maybe? I don’t have all the answers, clearly.)

In my ideal, imaginary library, this is how it would be– those formats would be organized, so kids who are being read to can find board and picture books, pre-readers can find the books they need, transitional readers the same, and then chapter books for independent readers who can make their own choices (with guidance from their parent/guardian and, ideally, a librarian). There would be a call number, and no other designations– no guided reading, or any of that other stuff. Just books and excellent staff and seemingly limitless choices. (I’m getting chills just writing about it.)

Does a library like this exist? Probably not. Although my personal library is like this. I’m sure everyone’s personal library is like this. So why do we insist that youth follow dozens of arbitrary guidelines when it comes to the stories they get to read?

Anyway. This summer I tried something different with our suggested reading book lists, in an attempt to create a small scale version of this literary utopia. I wanted to move away from parents just grabbing the list of their child’s grade, and slavishly following those suggestions we’d made, with the best of intentions. Instead of lists covering 2 grade levels, as had been the practice in the past, I had:

  • Pre-readers (babies-Kindergarten): includes board and picture books, all genres
  • Beginning readers (K-3rd): easy/beginning readers, all genres
  • Transitional Third Grade reads: transitional chapter books, all genres
  • Third Grade and Up: picture, beginning, transitional, and chapter books, all genres

Now, there isn’t just one Third Grade and Up list, oh no. There were several, with titles like:

  • Smile Diary: books for Wimpy Kid and Telgameier Fans
  • Murder and Mayhem: stories that are scary and thrilling
  • WONDERing what to read next: Wonder readalikes
  • Full STEAM ahead: books for kids who like to tinker and create
  • Myths, Magic and More: fantasy, science fiction, and the just plain strange
  • Game On: books for gamers
  • Tell Me A Story: books about the magic of storytelling
  • That’s Funny: Books to make you laugh
  • Can You Believe It?: Books to make you see the world in a different way

The books were listed not in alphabetical order, but rather in order of literary and thematic complexity.

To explain, each list had an introduction like this:

3rd Grade and Up

Murder and Mayhem: stories that are scary and thrilling!

If you enjoy scary stories, thrilling tales of true crime, forensic science, and the unexplained, then these books are for you!

Read from the beginning of the list when you’re short on time but still want a good story. Read from the end of the list when you’re up for a more textually and thematically challenging experience.

Not every book on every list will be right for your child. If you have questions about any title, please see [library] staff for guidance.

Third grade and up meant just that: independent readers from third to twelfth grades (or beyond! Mom and Dad, you can read these books too!) could read these books, all of which were chosen from our children’s department collection. I wanted to do this so that an older student who wasn’t reading at grade level wouldn’t be stigmatized by reading from a list that was clearly marked for a younger age. By having only a lower limit, rather than a lower and upper, the list was more open to more readers. And by keeping the selections limited to our children’s department, we were still helping parents make appropriate choices for their child (advocate for freedom that I am, I still want to make things easier for parents, so I’m not going to hand them a third grade and up list with really intense themes and situations).

Oh, and another cool thing–the books on these lists were jointly nominated by my library staff as well as school librarians from our main school district, and they used these lists as their district’s recommended summer reading. How great is that? School librarians got to suggest awesome books that they loved, while I did all the grunt work of collating and organizing them, and our wonderful graphics department made them into beautiful brochures.

Ultimately, I wanted these lists to provide some guidance, while also encouraging kids and parents to use library staff to help them find the  best book for them.

For teens we had 7th grade and up lists, with items exclusively from the teen collection. (Now, ideally I’d want to include picture and other books, but with display and cataloging restraints, this just wasn’t possible; and, again, these teens could also enjoy all the books on the third grade and up lists.)

For teens, our themes were:

  • Social Justice: books about making the world a better place
  • Not Okay: readalikes for The Fault in Our Stars 
  • Get Real: Realistic fiction and memoirs
  • Myths, Magic and More: Fantasy, sci-fi, and speculative fiction

I have to say, the impetus for this project was the book Reading Unbound: Why Kids Need to Read What They Want—and Why We Should Let Them. We actually recommended this title to parents in our lists, and amazingly, the book got checked out. How many people actually read it, I don’t know, but it just goes to show that if you make something available, people will take advantage.

I was concerned about confusion and push back–would parents get on board? Would they understand it? Was I creating a problem where there wasn’t one?

I don’t think so. I actually think these lists have been doing what they are meant to do–broaden the scope of what kids read, and providing guidance while also encouraging choice.

Now, summer’s not over, so the verdict isn’t completely in yet, but so far I’m going to call this a success. Books are still getting checked out at a rapid clip, I’ve heard people express delight at the themes, and so far no one has been upset that a book about the Lizzie Borden case was on the “Murder and Mayhem” list (really, with a title like that, I was suspecting parents of sensitive kids would know to steer clear).

What do you think? How do you handle suggested reading/passive reader’s advisory?





Stuck in the Middle With You

I don’t like the term middle grade, even though I love a lot of books that fall under that umbrella. Middle grade books are not for middle schoolers, but the confusing terminology flummoxes a lot of teachers and parents.

If you’re also unclear, here’s the breakdown:

Middle grade= a publishing classification; literature for 8-12 year olds.

Middle school=students in 6th-8th grade, typically. Ages 12-14.

Tweens: pre-adolescents (preadolescene being “a stage of human development following early childhood and preceding adolescence), generally between the ages of 10-13. Blend of “in between” and “teen.” Used as a term for reckless twenty something Hobbits in Tolkien’s books.

Some middle schoolers are tweens, but not all tweens are middle schoolers.

Middle schoolers are more likely to be reading teen books, occasionally enjoying middle grade choices (Wonder and The One and Only Ivan are a couple of MG titles that I know appeal to middle school students).

This is a great article that breaks down the difference between middle grade and young adult books. I particularly like this section:

MG vs. YA Readers
Middle-grade is not synonymous with middle school. Books for the middle-school audience tend to be divided between the MG and YA shelves. So which shelf do those readers go to? While there is no such thing as a ’tween category in bookstores, there are degrees of maturity in both MG and YA novels that’ll appeal to the younger and older sides of the middle-school crowd. A longer, more complex MG novel with characters who are 13 could take place in middle school and be considered an “upper-MG novel.” But the material can’t be too mature. It’s still an MG novel, after all, and most readers will be younger. Writing a sweeter, more innocent YA? Then it’s pretty likely that your readers will be ’tweens, that your characters should be around 15 years old, and that your book will be marketed as a “young YA.”

While it’s useful for you to understand these nuances as you craft your story and relate to your true audience, when it comes time to submit, don’t go so far as to define your novel as upper MG or younger YA in your query. That’s already pointing to a more limited readership. Instead, just stick to calling it either MG or YA when you submit, and let an interested agent draw conclusions about nuances from there.

So here’s my philosophy (which I’ll expound on further and in more detail in an upcoming blog post): I think for children and teens, programs and spaces need to be clearly defined and specifically tailored; baby lapsit is so very different than a teen maker program, and so it goes for every developmental stage in between. What youth needs socially, emotionally, and physically varies greatly as they grow.

However, in terms of your collection (and here I am only concerned with what they’re reading), once a kid reaches about third grade and is an independent reader, I think things should be much more open.

What do I mean? Well, first of all, stop labeling your books. No more E for easy on the picture books, or J for juvenile, or any of that. You just have fiction and nonfiction in a variety of formats. Board books, beginning readers, and transitional books are pulled out, because those are very tailored to their audience for developmental reasons. The rest? All one big pile.* Picture books through chapter books, arranged by genre, perhaps. But no other labels. Have a kids’ collection that goes up to, say, sixth grade, and then a teen collection that’s 7th grade and up. But both collections include picture books.

Is this practical? Probably not. Would any library dare do this? Probably not. Is it a better way to organize literature and resources for youth? I believe so.

Stay tuned for another post about this idea of “reading unbound.” In the mean time, read more about  those tricky tweens and how to serve them.

The Trouble with Tweens

Tweens, teens, and twentysomethings: a history of words for young people

What do Tweens Want? 

Teen/Tween Spaces

Teen Space Guidelines (does there need to be one for Tweens?)

Sign up for SLJ’s “Be Tween” newsletter.

*an organized, and definitely not literal, pile.

Let’s Get Digital

I’m using Digital Storytime and the CYBILS site to curate a collection of early literacy apps for my library’s iPad. I’d really like to offer these apps to my patrons who are interested in items such as Your Baby Can Read and Hooked on Phonics, but I’m not sure of the best way to circulate this iPad. Do other libraries allow these expensive items to go out the door? Do you make them in house use only?

Here are some of the apps I’m looking to buy:

Wee Sing & Learn ABC.
The Edible Suit, based on the new vestments by Edward Lear
Dr. Seuss’ ABC (pretty much any Dr Seuss app, actually)
Harold and the Purple Crayon
Richard Scarry’s Busytown
Don’t Let the Pigeon Run This App
I have to get there
Any BOB book apps
Nosy Crow Cinderella
Any Sandra Boynton Book Apps
The Monster at the End of This Book

Go Away, Big Green Monster

Does anyone else use book/literacy apps in their library, either as a collection or as a programming tool? Let me know!

five fast ones

Fly Guy Meets Fly Girl by Tedd Arnold

The first Fly Guy book was on the Monarch List a few years ago, so I’m well aware that the character is popular with kids. This addition to the series seems to be more of the same, which means it’s well-written and illustrated and kids will read it. As you can guess, Fly Guy meets a Fly Girl. Sparks fly (HA!) for a bit, until each fly realizes that being in love means leaving their best child friend. Not particularly exceptional, but hand it to fans of the series.

Funny Lunch (Max Spaniel) by David Catrow

This book bothers me. I personally enjoy David Catrow’s art immensely, and his books are always big hits with kids. I just don’t find that this title is particularly suited to the needs of a kid who is just learning how to read. The art and text, while both humorous and engaging, do not complement each other all that well; meaning that a child struggling to decode a sentence would not really find any help in the accompanying picture. I think the Max Spaniel books would have been much better as a picture book series to allow room for the art to really breathe. Again, an enjoyable title, but not an outstanding example of the genre.

Alien Alby by Kaye Umansky

This book has a lot of made-up words in it (Groobleblaster, Splattermerang, Zoomeroo) that I didn’t find particularly amusing, but maybe that’s because I’m an old curmudgeonly fart, or I’ve been spoiled by words like chortle and Jabberwocky. Anyway, it seemed to me that a lot of the word choices in this book would be hard for beginning readers to decode. Further, the story didn’t grab me (something about Alby’s pet being bad and put into a cage, and Alby then sold all of his toys to buy a new rug) and I don’t know if it would grab any kids, either, unless they were really into aliens. An okay book.

Yeti Spaghetti by Samantha Hay

My first thought upon opening this book was, “These illustrations look exactly like Quentin Blake illustrations!” See for yourself: Mark Beech’s art. Quentin Blake’s art. Startling, no?

The story is about a boy who wants to be a chef, and how the town cooking contest is disrupted by Yetis. There is a yodeler that yodels the Yetis away, but one comes back on the cooking contest day with a saucepan full of spaghetti. I found it so boring that I can’t even finish typing a summary. There are eleven sentences that end in ellipses, which really bothered me for some reason. Also, there are tons of  adverbs in this book, telling us how characters spoke, which is sloppy. If you follow Stephen King’s edict to treat adverbs like $100 bills, there are$1000 worth of adverbs in this book! Not recommended.

Gilbert, the Surfer Dude by Diane DeGroat

Gilbert  goes surfing and loses his shorts. Ha, ha. Apparently this is a “high-interest” story. Maybe for some kids? Nothing special here, nor particularly well-done.

All reviewed from library copies. All opinions are my own and not those of the Cybils panel.

Ling & Ting: Not Exactly the Same

It would take a cold, cold person to resist the charm* of Grace Lin’s Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same. Ling and Ting are twins who are, as the title implies, similar but not completely the same. In the first story, The Haircuts, we see Ting get terribly butchered bangs because she can’t sit still, which gives readers a handy visual clue to which girl is which for the rest of the book.

In the five stories that follow, Lin skillfully shows us how the girls are both different and similar through words, actions, and illustration. Ting emerges as forgetful (she spoils her sister’s card trick by forgetting her card) and fanciful (when Ling has trouble with chopsticks, Ting suggests glue and string as solutions), while Ling proves to be much more grounded and responsible when she closes her dumplings tight and logically uses a fork when she has trouble with chopsticks. However, both girls are great at working together and helping each other solve problems.

Lin ties up the book neatly by having Ting re-tell the preceding incidents in her own special Ting way, which is a perfect way to close out a book of interlocking episodes. This is a great book for emerging readers who enjoy realistic fiction with gentle humor. Highly recommended.

Reviewed from a library copy.

Goodreads page for Ling & Ting

*Is charm one of those sloppy words reviewers aren’t supposed to use?

Rick and Rack and the Great Outdoors

Rick and Rack and the Great Outdoors by Ethan Long

Rick and Rack are a raccoon and a deer, respectively, and in this slight graphic novel they go on three different outdoorsy adventures, including fishing, tracking, and paddling around the lake in a canoe.

There is really no through-line to the three anecdotes, and this book ultimately comes off as an extremely abbreviated comics collection. Perhaps in a larger collection of comics, a story and relationship between the pair could begin to emerge, but as it stands, this book is an unexciting entry into the field of graphic novel as easy reader. Long’s art is as charming as ever, but as characters, Rick and Rack are just as bland as their names. Hand it to Ethan Long fans only if they are tired of Manana Iguana. Otherwise, there’s better stuff out there.

Reviewed from a library copy.

Porky and Bess

Porky and Bess by Ellen Weiss, Marsha Winborn, Mel Friedman (link to Goodreads book page)

Porky and Bess is the story of two best friends–Porky, a bachelor pig, and Bess, a single mother with three kittens. They could not be more different, and really, I could not puzzle out why they were friends, or if they are even good friends to each other.

The very first picture in Chapter One shows Porky and Bess both looking incredibly depressed–not a very pleasant beginning to a story that is supposedly about best friends. Bess doesn’t like to take her kittens to Porky’s house because it is messy, which is fine with Porky, because he doesn’t like Bess’s kittens anyway. While baking a moon cake in Chapter Four, Porky realizes he’s run out of moonlight. When Bess offers to get and lend him some moonlight that she has, Porky says, “‘I don’t want to bother you,” [b]ut really, he didn’t mind bothering her to get some nighttime for for his cake.’”

Fans of cozy stories with animal characters might enjoy this book, but there are better examples available.  This pair lacks the charm and humor of other easy reader duos. I would suggest sticking with Frog and Toad, Henry and Mudge, and Elephant and Piggy instead.

Reviewed from a library copy.

Falling Behind

September went by in the blink of an eye! I was on vacation for the first part of the month, spend the middle part enduring and enjoying my robust programming schedule (note to self: cut back on both programming and pastry and you’ll be much happier for it), and at the end of the month I presented as part of a panel at the Illinois Library Association conference at Navy Pier. I have a lot of information to share about all that happened in September, and I’d like to do it justice, so a new post will be coming soon.

In other housekeeping/blogging news, in November I’ll have a guest post up at Librarian by Day*. I’m going to discuss adult historical fiction that has cross-over appeal for teens. I’m really excited about it, so I’ll remind you when the post goes up in mid-November.

I’m also a panelist for the 2010 Cybils in the Easy Reader/Early Chapter book category, so the number of book reviews here is going to jump dramatically. I’m really excited to be a part of the Cybils, and I’m happy to have been chosen since it is fairly competitive. I’m well-versed in picture books and YA fiction, so I’m looking forward to expanding my knowledge in a genre that I love but don’t always make time for.

I’m also trying out having a facebook page for my “Miss Julie” librarian persona. I want to use it to connect with other libraries, librarians, and the families that I work with especially. We’ll see how it goes. Do any other librarians have a page like that, so patrons/users can interact with you a bit more personally but still with some boundaries?

*I just realized there is more than one “librarian by day”!  Melissa uses that title and  Bobbi Newman does as well.