Tracey Baptiste, Guest Blogger
After a panel at BEA this year, an audience member came up to chat with me about writing. As he talked, I could tell that he was holding something back. Eventually, he looked around, leaned in a little and whispered, “You know, I wasn’t really a reader as a kid.”
I’m always curious when people say this to me, and I’ve heard it a lot. I’m not curious about how they finally became a reader, if they did at all, but more about why they think they’re not (or weren’t) readers in the first place. I leaned in as well and asked, “What were you interested in when you were a kid?”
He started talking about basketball. He really lit up about it, actually. He told me about players he’d followed when he was a kid, and teams he liked. So I asked if he read anything about the players he liked, or the teams he followed. “Of course!” he said, so I asked, “What makes you think that wasn’t reading?”
It was like I’d opened a door to somewhere he hadn’t been. His face clouded momentarily, and I could see the moment that his thinking shifted. “Oh yeah,” he said. “Yeah!”
All this time, he’d been a reader as a kid, and he didn’t even know it.
When I was in the classroom and did reading logs. (Yes, I did those dreaded things.) I myself held prejudice about “certain types of reading” that I didn’t consider to be “literature” and therefore worthy of appearance on a reading log. I’m pretty embarrassed to admit that, really, especially now that I know at some point, this guy at BEA had someone like me say to him that what he was actually reading, wasn’t really reading. And the fact that he was embarrassed by this (the leaning in, the whispering) is mortifying. His self-view as a nonreader wasn’t even his own. It was imposed on him. He read! He read all the time!
The good thing about education is it’s a long game. You can correct mistakes years, even decades later.
By my teacher standards, I might not have considered my own son to be a reader. He doesn’t particularly like fiction. He likes How-To books. Mainly, how to use cheat codes to make your way through Minecraft, or how to make a stink bomb that will annoy your big sister. So, when we go to the bookstore and I say, “Pick anything you want,” he goes straight for these procedural manuals and right past the lovely fiction section. It sucks. I write those fiction books and of course I want him to love them as I do, but he only has eyes for How-To. On the rare occasions that he wants a story, he turns to comic books, specifically, Spider Man. Spoiler: after reading all the Miles Morales available at our local comic book store, I got him Jason Reynolds’ Miles Morales novel, and he was not impressed. No pictures, no thank you.
It hurts me. Like, in my soul.
But my son’s reading life, and the reading life of all the kids in our classrooms and libraries is not about us. It’s not! It’s not about our judgment about what is “good” reading or what is “literature.” It only matters that readers are engaged, that it’s not a chore (see: reading logs and all required reading) and that they get to share what they’re reading in a safe space that makes them see that they are in fact readers, and that people are interested in what they learn when they do it.
I’m reminded of a recent story (via the interwebs of course) about a babysitter who encouraged the toddler in her charge to draw, by doing sports commentary on all of her drawings. That toddler then went on to art school. (Now that I think about it I really hope that story isn’t a hoax!) There is a clear correlation between encouragement and performance. I don’t even need to give you stats on that. You all have personal experience that fits. We know that kids thrive when there’s someone to champion them. And what readers need are adults who champion all of their reading, make them feel excited about it, and then encourage them to read more. I bet there are some works of fiction even the most die-hard How-To reader will take on. We discovered my son was really into Tom Angleberger’s Origami Yoda series some years back. Why? There’s some how-to in there as well. It’s all a matter of finding the right inroad to open up readers to a wider selection. It requires patience, paying attention, and leaving our judgment at the door.
Some people come late to reading. Some come really, really late to reading. But it’s never too late. Education is a long game. Take your time.
Tracey Baptiste lived in Trinidad until she was fifteen; she grew up on jumbie stories and fairy tales. She is a former teacher who works as a writer and editor. Visit her online at traceybaptiste.wordpress.com and on Twitter: @TraceyBaptiste.