It’s that time of year, the time when school comes to a close and children are handed their summer reading lists. Many great, local libraries engage in fun contests to encourage the kids to keep reading over the summer, and even Barnes & Noble gets in the act, offering a free book to children who complete the reader’s worksheet they provide.
Her dad and I were pretty pleased with munchkin’s list this year. She’ll be preparing for sixth grade, and she has to read six books. Two are determined by the school (one, Wonder, by RJ Palacio, will be read by the whole middle school; the other is Hatchet, by Gary Paulson). For the other four, the school provided a list with options in many different genres: poetry, science fiction, non-fiction, historical fiction, realistic fiction, and fantasy. Clearly, the faculty wanted every student to find something on the list that would appeal to him or her, and I think they did a great job. It’s not easy to please everyone!
But too often, the lists I see and hear about are limited to a single “approved” genre, or the books are completely prescribed, with no reader choice. There are many adults who still seem to believe that reading a graphic novel isn’t really, well, reading. And this makes me sad. Reading the written word, any written word, does delightful, delicious things for the developing brain. Giving children the freedom to make their own reading choices gives them power, ownership over the journey they’re undertaking. There are so few parts of this journey from childhood to adulthood that they will have some say in, that it seems important to give them what we can, allow them that responsibility. Kids will challenge themselves when they’re ready, honest.
Our daughter is a very bright, articulate child. She’s also empathetic to the point that it can be painful. So while her friends were reading Harry Potter in first and second grade, she was reading about candy fairies right into fifth grade. Her choices were safe. She made mostly non-fiction reading choices. Books about nature, the weather, and cats were her go-to choices, because they was no drama and conflict. Her teachers told my husband and I again and again, let it go, she’ll make different choices when she’s ready.
We took her summer book list to the store to shop two weeks ago, and she snatched up the poetry book immediately. Then she perused the other choices, and to my surprise, chose the one that seems to have the deepest, most emotional story from the realistic fiction category. It’s about a child who struggles to fit into his new school and town, suffers from constant harassment from his brother, and is overwhelmed at the secrets he’s discovering about his family, but ultimately gains confidence on his journey to acceptance, both for himself and of his family (Tangerine, by Edward Bloor). Then we moved to the YA section where she chose several weighty books with a variety of themes. All reading-level appropriate, and a few that will challenge her. But I didn’t pick them–she did, because she’s ready.
Likewise, munchkin’s school has had the students writing quite a bit. There’s been a summer reading journal most years, and even though that’s not a requirement for this summer, she’s doing one anyway. As with many schools, hers had the students write poetry before a visiting poet arrived, hosted a Young Author’s Day every spring where the students read their original work to parents and grandparents, and so on.
I would argue, however, that it’s not enough to simply lean on the school and expect teachers to produce the next generation of readers and writers. Like most families, we’re quite busy and it’s hard to fit in any more stuff. But we have to, I think, in order to truly encourage, support, and create that next generation. It takes more than reading a bedtime story (although that activity is incredibly valuable). It requires the adults in the home to show that they value the written word, either by reading it or by producing it. Visiting libraries and book stores is a wonderful way to spend time with children.
Further, children need to hear from us that we value the act of reading. In our house, we ask munchkin (and her friends!) to talk about what she’s reading, to share what she likes and what she’s confused by; we encourage her to read her stories and poetry to us, and share her reading journal with her grandparents. These small activities bolster her confidence and creativity. We don’t evaluate what she presents or writes, we just enjoy it, which gives her freedom to explore and challenge herself. It’s not easy to find the time (remember that post on making time?), but it’s essential, in my opinion. Any other great ideas on how to keep our kids engaged in reading and writing?
Here’s to future readers and writers everywhere! May summer be a time of reading and writing enjoyment for all.