Will the Reading Police Come and Take Me Away?

November 6, 2014

I took my students to the library last week to pick out books for a short, two-week independent-reading study. They are seniors, in a semester course, and the task was to pick a book that they were interested in, but would also be rigorous and challenging. They had free reign over books -- biography, memoir, fiction, poetry, etc -- because I believe that choice is important. It empowers students, leading to greater independence, as they make decisions for themselves rather than have an authority figure telling them what to do.

My building has a fantastic librarian. She arranged a book tasting, organizing the various tables by category. One table had dystopian literature, another war stories, sophisticated graphic novels were there as well. Students had the opportunity to circulate the tables, getting a taste for each genre and its recommended books. But they also were allowed to search the stacks and move beyond the tables.

At one point a student approached me, asking if she could read The Five People You Meet in Heaven. She said that she heard so many good things about it and had wanted to read it for some time. And that is when I was caught in a conflict that divides me.

The truth is, I know many adults that no longer read books. So, as a high school senior, this may be the last time that she cracks open a spine and dives into the imaginative world of a story. Should I deprive her of the opportunity to read something that she is genuinely interested in? Should I have recommended something more rigorous even though she seemed enthusiastic about Five People? I know plenty of adults that have read the same book and they paid no heed to its lexile score, they just read for the sheer joy of reading. The book has sold millions of copies, a good percentage to adults. Is there shame in reading a book with a simple story line and basic vocabulary? Have we gone too far in pushing rigor that we have neglected the purpose of reading?

At the same time, I see students struggle with complex texts and realize that we do need to do more to elevate literacy levels in this country. Should I have steered her in a new direction, guiding her to a work with greater complexity, and persuaded her that something more was superior? Should I have politely told her that she was better than that book and should look for a greater challenge?

This issue cuts at me as a teacher because I am a house divided. I see the validity of both sides. Ideally, all students would gravitate towards works that challenge them and ask them to struggle, and reach, and grasp at a higher literary existence. But that's just not reality. Many just want a great story that they cna become engrossed in. And for a lot of students, that means YA literature that speaks to them and their experiences. 

Is it wrong to deny them this pleasure? It is wrong not to challenge them to something more sophisticated?

I would love to know your thoughts.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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