Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Selling the Summer Reading List

The Battle of the English Teachers has always been the Battle of the Parents, and more recently become
the Battle of the Booksellers. About ten years ago, schools started assigning books for summer reading. They thought students didn't keep their skills over the summer, and that getting a few book reports in between June and August could make the difference.

The Parents reacted as they always do. I give it four basic reactions.
1. Those that privilege reading at home brought their kids to the store, had them pick out books, added some others that looked interesting, and went home to enjoy their narrow, bookish existence.
2. Those that want their kids to get into Harvard came in and selected the books they wanted their children to read. Whatever war occurred, it took place in the MacMansion, and I suspect bribery is used.
3. Those that don't like reading come in yelling on their cell phones: "I don't care! Teacher says you have to read!" They curse, close the phone, and ask for the shortest three books. They don't care what.
4. Those who were scared to death to be there, intimidated by the whole process, clutching a dog-eared list.

For me, group number one was the most reassuring, group number two the most boring. But group number four was the most fun for me. Mostly you had to get them at the door. They were too afraid to go all the way to the information desk.

Scared of Books
"Hi. It looks like you have a school reading list."
"He doesn't like to read. I don't even know where to go."

I would take the list and scan it. Then I would not move toward the books; I'd ask about the kid. What he liked, what interested him. What he wanted to do. Then we'd sort through the stacks. Anything too long, forget it. I love Dickens, but you have to be realistic. Three books of any size represented Living Room Wars.

So if it was a boy, I'd pick the guy books. I'd pick a short book. I'd pick a book next to his interests. Then I'd give mom a quick version of each one. Something she could use, when she asked him about it. Something that would make it interesting to her, so that she could talk about it to him or even read it herself. I'd try to give each parent the confidence: this was the best choice, they could connect with the child over the book, that the parent had done their level best. Go forth. Get your child to read.

Resentful of Books
Group three was always difficult. Judging a book by the number of pages sounds quick and easy, but it's the scam of scams. Number of pages does not indicate Word Count. And what if the boy only likes basketball? Does he really want to read junior chick-lit and write a book report on it? What if he has to present it to the class?

This actually went easier when I had the surly teen standing next to mom. "I can give you the three shortest books," I'd tell the kid. "If I do that, you're going to be bored out of your mind."

Since they already knew that, I looked like a trustworthy individual from the get.

"We could try to get you something that would make reading it seem less like a pain in the butt. I'll show you some things, and then you can decide."  It's really important to give all surly adolescents a choice, especially since they really don't have one.

Then I'd ask about his interests. I did not even talk to the parent after the initial greeting. Maybe you think this is rude, but they were relieved to have it out of their hands. And I was manipulating events. No parental coercion involved. That blocks the reading from the outset.

We'd narrow it down to six or less. The three shortest, and the three most interesting, perhaps some overlap. It was always a crap shoot which ones they would take. But when they picked up the stack, they had chosen for themselves.


Bob G. said...

When I was in school (back when FIRE was a new-found novelty...lol)
I never recall having ANY reading lists at school. We just raead what we were told to read or pick something to report on.

Many of us were just plain motivated to "get thee to a library" and get our noses in a book.
Many times, our parents already had some of "the classics" in THEIR collections.

When I was really young (1st-4th grade, the ONLY library I came into contact with was at our school.
We simply didn't live close enough to walk to one, but that never deterred us from reading, and our parents encouraged us to read... to no small end.

All that served me greatly when I worked for a publisher and visited a great number of libraries (mostly medical) on the East coast.
Thank the maker for the Dewey Decimal System...LOL!

Gotta love the libraries...and those stalwart librarians who helped every one of us along our journey through our mind's eye.

And the journey continues...

The Bug said...

I LOVED to read! Nancy Drew, Encylopedia Brown, Trixie Beldon, The Bobbsey (sp?) Twins (although they bored me), the Heidi books - I devoured the books my aunts had left behind at my grandmother's house, the books from the library, and then when I got older I started making my way through the Reader's Digest Condensed Books my parents had (this was before I realized that I can't really stand to not know what was cut out of the book - no abridgements for me!).

I was never a SERIOUS reader - I would read the classics that were assigned but did not seek them out (except Ivanhoe - I loved that!). But I was voracious. I still haven't decided if that has helped me in my life, or if I'm just a freak to everyone else. :)

Christopher said...

There isn't a room in my house that doesn't have books in it. Literally, not a room. So I don't understand parents 2 through 4.

The Bug said...

Christopher - me too! Of course, we don't have that many rooms, but they all (including the bathroom) have books in them. The garage too. And my car has books on tape.

Ann T. said...

Dear Everyone,
It's crystal clear we all come from great reading backgrounds, and have enjoyed it--where the library was a treat, and the books were everywhere. I can remember buying Scholastic books, having to justify each purchase by discussing it, and that made each book valuable too.

So none of you would see the mom scared in a bookstore without feeling heartbreak. Entire worlds are closed to her, and she knows they count. She has few ways or inclinations (except teacher orders) to open them up to her own child.

The road to literacy takes individual attention and kindness, and even a few scamming librarians, booksellers, and interested adults. Even then, if the fear has turned to resentment, it won't be enough.

As to group 2, the 'tool readers' I never know what to think. They benefit, but it's a narrow benefit in my opinion.

The fabric of society--
Ann T.

Unknown said...

Ok so here's a mother who put books in her kids hands every chance she got. It started at Dr. Suess (the first book she read out loud to me) and didnt stop for a long time.

I grew up with a book in my hands constantly. I can remember staying up all night reading on a school night and being dead in class the next day. Even more dead for practice after school because I may have been a reader, but I was also an athlete.

So I give this kid all the fun books and classics I read as a kid. Took her to the library and got her into the newer series...then BAM. It just stopped. After about 8th grade reading became a chore to her. She didnt like it anymore. She'd read what she had to read. And that was a lot being she was in all honors classes in high school. But that was it.

So what happened?? She still doesnt like to read. I feel I failed.

Ann T. said...

Dear Peedee,
I was like you--stay up reading, first period, eyelids drooping. And love Dr. Seuss!!!

I also know at some times in my life I did not read as much as others. I was doing things. This might be true for L.

Other reason might be she learns better kinesthetically or by sound rather than sight. For sound learners, books on tape. For kinesthetic learners, highlighters, holding the book, taking notes. Maybe one of those Kindle or Sony readers, where you press for the next page, or magazines that can be tattered and thumbed over.

(If you were going to do that big buck thing, I'd get her useful news & mag subscriptions and some content like Musashi and Krakauer--job and adventure-related--and some fluff like jokes or chicken soup for the X--last choice, mil fiction like Steven Pressfield--but you would know best.)

I wouldn't be surprised if she returns to books at a quieter time in her life. I also expect that in her field she's processing a lot of information daily--moving up fast, lots of responsibilities--and so decompression during leisure allows her brain that rest and re-sorting time--TV, film, music.

My store used to say there was a book for everybody, and I do believe that. Most people have to be seduced by one.

But be comforted--you gave her the tools she needed to go where she wanted to go. And she'll come back to them when she needs them, whatever need that might be.

So I wouldn't regret that this year . . . too soon to tell. It doesn't sound to me like you failed.

Ann T.

The Observer said...

Ann T.

A quote: "When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes."--Erasmus

I like your style with the kids--give them control and a good taste. I imagine most with the reading level needed catch the bug.

If my kid was not reading well, I might have them tested--both their vision and their ability to understand what they are seeing.

My house growing up was full of books and my house now is full of books.

The Observer