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Editorial: Tear Down That Wall

My kind of contest: read a book about a character unlike yourself, or read a book about a subject you don’t know much about, or read a book in a format different from what you’re used to. These parameters for the “Reading Without Walls Challenge,” devised by National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Gene Luen Yang, are so simple, and so, so right.

While I recognize and applaud the social and educational benefits of the challenge, I must say that what I appreciate most is what it offers to those of us who already love to read. We positively shine in any kind of reading club that only asks us to read as much as possible. But as Gene and I discuss in our conversation, it’s easy for even the most voracious reader to resort to a default favorite — for me, mysteries and spy novels — that offers both familiarity and a reasonable chance that you will enjoy yourself. Thus books in series; thus superhero movies. (Those who fret about young readers getting “stuck” on series books probably need to take a good look at their own media consumption, is what I’m saying.) Reading Without Walls will tell readers as much about what they do read as what they don’t.

Don’t think that the challenge is just for young readers; everybody needs to break down the walls. I can’t say I’m exactly enjoying World War Z, Gene’s Reading Without Walls challenge to me, but it will be good to say I’ve read it. Even as I shudder through the latest scene of an awakened Undead, I think, Well, at least I’m gaining genre fluency here, a skill required of a book reviewer and handy for any reader. The more walls you scale or tear down or, ahem, refrain from building in the first place, the less you need their protection. And just as I suggested the novel 11/22/63 as a challenge to the Stephen King–averse Gene, Reading Without Walls offers a built-in opportunity for reader-to-reader dialogue. In the spirit of the Challenge, I’d like to suggest that for every title you suggest to a young reader-participant, you solicit a suggestion in return. The distinction between “grown” and young readers is another wall worth dismantling.

And yes, Reading Without Walls fits right into our mandate to culturally diversify the universe of books for the young. But there’s a twist: in asking participants to consider a book “about a character who doesn’t look like you or live like you,” the challenge makes readers active partners in the diversity we have thus far requested mainly of the books themselves. Perhaps even more daringly, the challenge asks us all, for at least one book, to put down (to use terms introduced by Rudine Sims Bishop) the reading mirror and open the reading window. Everybody needs some air.

People who don’t like to read aren’t off the hook here. If the beauty of Gene’s initiative is its appeal to readers, its genius is its literally singular focus: one book. Even people who hate to read, even people who don’t know how to read (yet!), can find one book. If you typically don’t read about anybody or anything in any format, your choice is wide open. This magazine and its readers are evidence that there are plenty of people willing to help you find The One.

From the March/April 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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