We start each morning in my class with a discussion question, giving the students a chance to warm into the beginning of the day. Since we’re nearing the end of the calendar year, a lot of the questions I’ve given them lately have been different types of reflections: The best day they had in 2014, games they learned or invented at recess, new friends they made...that sort of thing.
One day last week I asked them what had been the best book they’d read all year. Many of them listed off different titles from the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series. They’ve been popular reads in class, particularly with the English language learners who use the illustrations to assist them with unfamiliar text. When I ask what they like about their favorite Wimpy Kid books, they’ll usually say how funny they are, sometimes retelling favorite moments or describing favorite characters. And I totally get this. I love Wimpy Kid. Manny, in particular, slays me every time he appears on the page. For years I kept a sticker of the infamous cheese on my classroom phone to discourage kids from asking to make calls unless they really, really needed to. It’s hard to beat Wimpy Kid for big laughs.
But one little guy was insistent on telling us about a book he read from the “I Survived” series, set during World War II. With very little prompting, he launched into a mini-dissertation about the book like it was opened right in front of him instead of something he had read months earlier. I just sat there smiling and took in all of his excited description.
I think for kids, most books end up in one of two categories: The ones that keep them entertained, and the ones that give them something to think about. (I suppose this isn’t so different for adults.) I love seeing my students get caught up in a book. It becomes a companion, traveling with them throughout the day, tucked into whatever pile of binders or notebooks or folders they might need, always at the ready in case a stray minute of potential reading time ever presents itself. They’ll bring their books home with them at night and back to school the next morning. Sometimes they’ll go through them several times before moving on to something new, and come back to them after reading something else. It can reach a point where it’s fair to say they have relationships with the books they love.
A popular theme in middle grade fiction involves characters discovering some kind of portal or gateway that leads them away from their everyday struggles and into fantastical new worlds. I can’t think of a more apt metaphor for when kids lose themselves in books they love, and I think every kid deserves a chance to find their way into getting lost like that. As a send-off into winter break, my teaching partner and I will be passing out a December book club form we never sent home and letting each student choose any book from it they want, under a certain price range. (Don’t be too quick to tag us as generous; we’re only sacrificing some of the thousands of book club bonus points we have stored up to do this.) Our plan is to have the kids pick their books on the last day before break and make our orders right away, then have the new books waiting on the first day back in January. Hopefully this will lessen the sting of having to go back to school when break is over. I know it would for me.
I think anyone who would find their way to a blog about reading and writing is familiar with that feeling of opening a book you’ve been looking forward to and quickly losing yourself in the first few pages. Maybe it was something you were looking forward to reading, or maybe it just caught your attention and wound up eventually changing your life. There are so many kids out there waiting for their next chance -- or perhaps even their first chance -- to experience that. Hopefully some of those kids will wind up with new books to read in the coming weeks, and those books will lead them to others.
This is all the more reason for us keep up with the writing, folks. There are a lot of great stories out there for those middle graders to devour, but when they finish those they’ll be looking for more.