Teaching New Readers to Love Books

Packing and unpacking. Those were the governing actions of my Army brat childhood. I learned how to size up the fashion, the accents, the special vocabulary, and the social climate of every place I lived. I learned the bike and walking routes around all the Army bases and was a quick study for the best places to buy candy, comic books, and the other staples of life. I can still picture the movie theaters, the fancy officers’ quarters, and the chapels. And I remember the libraries.

I vividly remember story hours at the Patrick Henry Village base library in Heidelberg, Germany, where I heard the fantastic tale of Charles Wallace, Meg, and their search for their missing father. The swirling blue and green cover of A Wrinkle in Time, viewed from my spot on the story-hour rug, was the highlight of my seventh summer. It was the first time I experienced the delicious feeling of anticipation as I longed to find out What Happens Next.

Throughout my childhood, in a variety of Army base libraries, there was usually method to my reading madness. In second and third grade, I read the Nancy Drew mysteries in order. I was a big fan of the Childhood of Famous Americans series and can still remember minute details of the lives of Dolley Madison, Molly Pitcher, and Clara Barton. In sixth grade, while my father was in Vietnam and I suffered from one of my many childhood illnesses, I read through The Happy Hollisters and an adult mystery series with equally large print. In seventh grade, I read books in order by author’s last name — I can still remember getting to Stolz (Mary).

Although I don’t remember my parents reading to us, I do remember reading to my little sister, who had trouble learning to read. I had never thought about reading as something to learn, any more than I thought about taking lessons for talking or walking. But sitting with Laura as she struggled through Mr. Pine’s Mixed-up Signs and The Cat in the Hat was a small epiphany for my third-grade mind: it was possible to make reading difficult, frustrating. Phonics? Sight words? Sounding out? She was totally confused and discouraged, and no one seemed to be able to help her. So I would read aloud to her and listen as she painfully sounded out each word.

I can’t remember any teachers who read aloud. In fact, I remember very few real books in any classroom. There were the laughable SRA readers and the absurd tests that followed. We would read a few pages and take a comprehension test right after. I am sure our parents would have been horrified if they knew how we cheated and rushed along in the frantic race to get to the next level.

From junior high school, I remember one teacher, Mrs. Laugen. Actually, I remember her bookshelves. Her room was festooned with paperback books loosely organized by level of difficulty. We were encouraged to read from all the shelves, but she explained that the levels might make it easier to find books we could read. And we did read. To Kill a Mockingbird, The Soul Brothers and Sister Lou, The Catcher in the Rye, Karen, Mrs. Mike, Up the Down Staircase, The Autobiography of Malcolm X. My friends and I traded books and talked books. This was what reading was supposed to be — fiction, nonfiction, new ideas, new authors, and books we could get excited about!

My nomadic life came to an end when we moved home to Cape Cod. In high school, I had two fantastic history teachers who made real books the center of their teaching, and those books have stayed with me over the years. Reading Franz Kafka’s Castle and Metamorphosis, The Stranger by Albert Camus, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, Philip Slater’s Pursuit of Loneliness, Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo, and the writings of Abbie Hoffman forced me to think. I could read Howard Zinn’s radical view of history and go home and lose myself in Howard Fast’s historical fiction. Books were my ticket to different ways of thinking. They challenged my myopic view of the world and pushed me to college.

To assure my parents that I could get a job when I graduated, I took education courses and earned my certification. I found some of the classes fascinating, but many were what my friend Joann would call PGOs: penetrating glimpses into the obvious. As I signed up for the required children’s literature course, I said a prayer of thanks that it met just once a week and would not interfere with my babysitting jobs or my student teaching, which was just about to begin. I did not recognize the teachers’ names: J. Yolen and P. MacLachlan. No matter, this promised to be an easy class. Picture books. Short novels with big print. Piece of cake. I could just read them to my babysitting charges and be done with it. Little did I know that this “gut” course would form the basis for my life’s work. I soon realized that J. Yolen was none other than Jane Yolen, the author of The Seeing Stick and about three zillion other books. And quiet, funny Patricia MacLachlan was a new writer, willing to share her worries with us while she worked on a novella about a mail-order bride from Maine. I was mesmerized. I read novel after novel and piles of picture books.

Meanwhile, I was student teaching in the lab school. I loved the kids and the pace of each day. My first big assignment was to teach My Side of the Mountain and Island of the Blue Dolphins. I had no idea what I was doing and was terrified I would ruin reading for my students, just as it had been ruined for my little sister. I wanted these children to love reading as much as I did. I designed the required lessons, learned about survival and the Pacific Ocean, did research on hawks. I made up clever worksheets and comprehension quizzes. But in the end, I simply let the kids read the books, and we talked about them. They drew pictures of the landscapes and wrote essays imagining what it would be like to live on a mountain or be the only person left on an island. I loved our discussions and relished the enthusiasm the kids showed.

My next student-teaching assignment was at a public school. I was lucky here: Mrs. Park was enthusiastic about books and saw them as the key to opening up the world to her class of first graders. She had just earned her Ph.D. and was interested in language experience and books. She had even written her thesis on a children’s author named William Steig. I had no idea who he was, but, with my trusty library card in hand, I came to know Sylvester, Doctor De Soto, and Amos and Boris. I marveled at the language and philosophical depth of his stories. I would sit with our little charges, many of whom could not read yet, and watch their faces glow with anticipation when Mrs. Park read aloud to them. Her rug was thousands of miles away from the rug in the library in Heidelberg, but it held just the same magic. Soon I would move from the rug to the reading chair. I would sit in the chair with those little faces staring and laughing and gasping at the stories I chose. It soon became the best part of my day.

Between Thursday evenings with Mrs. Yolen and Mrs. MacLachlan and daily reading to first graders, I slowly learned the canon of children’s literature. My library grew, but my interest in books grew even faster. I just couldn’t get enough. When I became a teacher in my own classroom, I had finally read enough books to feel qualified to do my job. I packed away the basal readers and filled my classroom with books.

For the past ten years, I’ve worked with second graders. I have a list of books that demand to be shared every year. I usually read about two hundred picture books a year, a novel every two or three weeks. I think of what my job is: I teach very new readers to read. I teach very new readers to love books. Despite the pressures of parents and the winds of educational change, I do not teach children to read because it is good for them. To me, books are not meant to be the path to Harvard or even the best high school. I do not think of them as “tools for learning,” a phrase I read in a teacher catalog. I read with children because I enjoy it. I read because they enjoy it.

On the list of the books I have read aloud to my students over the past years, there are some that appear over and over. I love books about school and teachers. Every year I read Kirkpatrick Hill’s The Year of Miss Agnes and Rebecca Caudill’s classic Did You Carry the Flag Today, Charley? When my children clap at Charley’s final triumph and sigh with relief when Miss Agnes decides to stay with her students, I know the year is off to a good start. Miss Agnes and Charley become touchstones of a sort. Those classrooms and teachers are my ideals.

I always, always read John Reynolds Gardiner’s novella Stone Fox. I often teach boys who only like nonfiction — usually they like predictable biographies of current sports figures. Stone Fox gets under their tough-boy veneer and reminds us that books have the power to move any reader to tears. I have never managed to read this book aloud without my voice breaking. Usually, some unsuspecting listener finds himself reaching for a tissue. I have ten copies of this book in my room. It is often the first chapter book a child ever reads. Manipulative? You bet. But in a world where even second graders can be cynical, it is just the ticket to break through that façade.

For sheer poetry and a complete suspension of disbelief, I love Randall Jarrell’s The Animal Family. I have read that book aloud more than any other, at least seventeen times. Those Sendak drawings, the connections the children make to fairy tales, the way their eyes look when they discover the little boy and his drowned mother, and the marvelous way the mermaid acquires human language make it a book I must read every year, no matter what.

And how can I leave out the Michaels family that Johanna Hurwitz magically brings to life for new readers in Rip-Roaring Russell and its many sequels? Writing novels for new readers takes a special talent, and Hurwitz does it with such grace that my students want to live with Russell and his siblings on Riverside Drive. And so they do. They read the whole series, write their own family stories, and move on to the Aldo books and PeeWee and Plush.

A few weeks ago, I dragged out my collection of illustrated editions of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. When we listen to the story and come to the parts that are not in the movie, I have the children picture the story in their mind. What do the Kalidahs look like? The dainty china people? Then we see how Michael Hague saw them . . . and Lisbeth Zwerger . . . Michael McCurdy . . . as interpreted in the amazing pop-up art of Robert Sabuda . . . and the detailed woodcuts of Barry Moser.

Sometimes I find myself making reference to a story that I thought I had read to my students, but had not. Their hands shoot up to demand the story. “Remember the old woman with the removable head in The Talking Eggs?” I asked just the other day. “No-oo-oo, Ms. Smith,” the high-pitched voices complained. Oh, dear. Somehow The Talking Eggs had been neglected. Stop everything and read. Hear San Souci’s story of the old lady in the woods. Connect with Baba Yaga. Throw in a mention of “Diamonds and Toads.” Note the dialect. Another literary crisis averted.

Then there was the year I decided not to read Louise Erdrich’s The Birchbark House to my second graders. I loved the book, but had decided that the length and content were too much for my little guys. I thought I’d try to persuade the fourth- or fifth-grade teachers to add it to their program. When my former students (now fourth graders) heard about this change of reading-aloud plan, the hue and cry that followed surprised me. They recounted nearly every detail of the story, from “Omigosh that was so sad when her brother died” to “I knew she was adopted” to “Remember that old woman who shot bears and chased all her husbands off” and “It was even better than Amber and Essie.” My second graders were outraged that I thought a book could be “too sad.” The comparison to Vera B. Williams’s Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart put them over the top. They had to hear it. That was that. We read The Birchbark House.

Fostering a thirst for books is a subtle art. I try to create a classroom where stories are valued and characters are loved. I make teaching decisions with one simple thought in mind: reading is fun.

In my classroom, we talk about what we are reading, what books we love, what we will read next. We refer to characters all the time. If someone is playing with food, I am not surprised to hear a reference to Aunt Sally (from The Trolls). Dangerous behavior? What would Officer Buckle think? The mention of smallpox in the news brings Neewo (from Birchbark House) into the conversation.

Sharing books is very important. When someone finishes a book and is especially enthusiastic, I ask, “Who do you think would really like to read this next?” The children begin to have definite tastes and get to know one another’s as well. At the end of independent reading time, I sometimes ask them to share what they are reading. Though I listen to children read aloud during most of our independent reading time, I make sure they see me reading my books whenever possible. If it’s a sad one, I let myself sniffle; if it’s funny, I laugh.

Good record keeping helps us all see growth as readers. The children like looking back on their reading for the year, and I like tracking their reading. Parents are usually surprised to see my nose wrinkle when they ask about book reports. Apparently, most parents see book reports as a necessity. I abhorred writing them as a child and do not like reading them as an adult. So I don’t assign them. (Would any adult read for pleasure if a book report were required?) However, children often choose to write about books in their free-choice conversation journals.

The classroom library constantly grows and changes, based on the readers in the room. One year, my collection of airplane and aviation books grew when I realized that Jake would only read if there was a reference to planes. I try to add books nearly every week, a book or two at a time. Every time a book is added, I introduce it to the class and create a waiting list on the board for those interested. A waiting list makes a book seem desirable. Certain series are wildly popular; when one of those titles becomes available in paperback, I buy a few copies so the wait doesn’t seem overwhelming. I often leave a book on a child’s desk with a note taped on: “I just read this. I think you’ll love it, too.”

We are always searching for that next, great book for our students, our children, and ourselves. Sometimes the next great book is the book we read last year . . . and all the years before that.

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Robin Smith About Robin Smith

Robin Smith is a second-grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a reviewer for Kirkus and The Horn Book Magazine and has served on multiple award committees.

Comments

  1. Sunny Zhang says:

    I loved this article. It really resonated with my own thirst for reading and how it all began. I really liked that the author reads and teaches reading and reads out loud to kids simply because gse enjoys it and the students enjoy it. We often forget that enjoying something is justification enough for doing it. In this world of ever increasing pressure we put on kids to achieve academic success, we often forget to highlight that learning and reading can be fun, along with being educational. That is something I will remember and bring to my future students and kids.

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