My Reading Autobiography
I recently had the privilege to hear Donalyn Miller at the WriteNow conference in North Conway NH. Her talk was inspiring, and reminded me of why independent reading is such an important part of my classroom. She also invited participants to talk about their own reading histories, and what reading means to them, and to consider how their own reading experiences influence the way they guide their students in the students’ reading lives. I did an abbreviated version of this with my department colleagues this week and I was reminded of the power of our personal stories, and how my our own experience influence the messages we pass on to our students. On that note, I wanted to share my own reading autobiography here, both to share where my perspectives on things like censoring and choice originate from and to share a model that anyone can use when thinking about their own reading lives.
My Reading Autobiography
I remember reading very early on in my childhood, but I don’t remember learning HOW to read. I know I learned to decode somewhere at some point because my mom still tells the story about me going through parking lots trying to “sound out” license plates. But I remember reading books in early elementary school and getting lost in them. I remember being excited to find books in the school library that I had seen on Reading Rainbow. I remember crying when reading Shiloh, and thoroughly enjoying Bunnicula. I read books fast, and I considered that a positive thing, especially when I was done reading before my other group members in my third grade reading groups.
Books have been my main form of recreation and entertainment for as long as I can remember. While I dearly wanted to play video games and watch TV like my friends did, those forms of entertainment were pretty restricted in my house. However, I don’t remember turning to books as a “last” resort. As far as I was concerned books were always there, and I was always in the middle of reading something. I would get in trouble for reading Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys (I totally wanted Frank to be my boyfriend. I never figured out why Joe was so popular with the ladies). Late at night when I should have been in bed. I zipped through the Babysitters Club. By 5th or 6th grade I was starting to branch out into books that matched my reading level, but perhaps not appropriate content. I remember reading a Sweet Valley High book in 6th grade and asking my mom to define “seduce.” I’m not sure exactly what she said, but I do remember the stammering involved and feeling a bit embarrassed when I finally “got it.” I also remember getting into Stephan King and my first “big” book. It which has given me a complex about clowns every since.
I think those moments, when almost any adult (my parents, teachers, etc.) could have stepped in and said “you shouldn’t be reading that!” were key. Reading was one of the few parts of my life where I felt like I had choice and ownership, those precious commodities for a blossoming teenager. Books are what I returned to when I was angry, frustrated, or stressed. Reading was the way I re-centered myself and got some time alone. Books were my sanctuary and provided a realm where I could read whatever I wanted and feel some sense of control in my life.
By high school I very readily identified as a “reader.” I would talk to my friends about books. I always read all the books in English classes. Later, I realized that many of my classmates weren’t, which frankly puzzled me. Why wouldn’t you read the books? It was the easiest and most fun homework that was assigned in my opinion! In fact, when I entered 9th grade I went so far as to find the list of books we were going to read in 9th grade English, and I read them over the summer. I enjoyed Fahrenheit 451 the most and couldn’t wait to talk to the teacher about it. When I met Ms. Sullivan I proudly told her about my summer project. And she promptly told me to go read a different book than the class. Specifically sent me out to buy Ender’s Game.
Ender’s Game is still my favorite book. I have read it over again, at least 7 times.
This is the first book where I was as in love with the plot as I was with the character. This is the first book that I both enjoyed for fun and enjoyed analyzing. I made copious notes in my dialectical journal about what I thought about Ender and how I noticed Orson Scott Card creating that character with his amazing use of language. This was the book that made me start to feel like I was maybe worth something under my confused, awkward and grossly misunderstood teenage skin. It appealed to my sense of adventure, my love of science-fiction, and the feeling I had of being a burgeoning adult inside the body of a child.
I already loved books. But Ender’s Game made me love literature.
Sure Ender’s Game wasn’t part of the classical cannon of literature. But I analyzed the exact same way I went on to analyze The Scarlet Letter, The Crucible, The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye. My first lessons in how a writer creates characters and worlds came from a boy fighting buggers, and for that I am eternally grateful to Ms. Sullivan.
Now I’ve managed to get myself into a career where reading the best of young adult literature is part of my job and talking to kids about books is a daily occurrence. While I work hard to teach my students how to analyze text through our whole-class texts there is still a part of me that hopes they find themselves within Percy Jackson or Katniss Everdeen or June Iparis the same way I understood myself a bit better with Ender Wiggen. I still believe that there is the right book out there for everyone, and my job as a teacher is to make sure each kid gets that book in their hands.