At the end of last year, I’d planned to make 2020 my year of reading books from the K-8 library where I work—to really understand what the kids like to read. Then came Christmas morning, when I unwrapped a nice stack of books from my husband, including A Month in Siena, Exactly as You Are: The Life and Faith of Mister Rogers, A Short Philosophy of Birds, and RisingTideFallingStar. Then, in January, two friends loaned me books I’d wanted to read—Lori Gottlieb’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone and Tara Westover’s Educated.
All of which is to say it’s late February, and I’ve read only five chapter books aimed at middle schoolers. Maybe my goal was too much like a New Year’s Resolution to succeed. (I’m terrible at keeping those.)
Also, life is too short to restrict your reading.
Of the chapter books I’ve read so far, I really enjoyed Fair Weather by Richard Peck, the sequel to A Year Down Yonder. As for the other books I read—one classic of YA lit, one current children’s horror novel, one award-winning historical nonfiction narrative, and the other two I barely remember—they prompted me to go back to reading whatever the heck I want and fill in the blanks with the occasional Wimpy Kid or Flat Stanley.
It’s not that I think children’s literature is somehow less important, but that this job doesn’t require literary expertise. Students don’t ask for my recommendations as much as they seek my attention.
Some jobs call for expertise; this job calls for love.
For some students in the library, the books are peripheral. Sure, they need to check out books so they can take comprehension quizzes and earn points toward their Language Arts grades. Yes, ideally students should find books that spark their interest. Reading should be fun, and I do my best to get the right books into the kids’ hands.
However, I’ve noticed that sometimes choosing a book is about much more than reading. At times the book is a symbol of something bigger, an emblem of something longed for. When you’re a young reader choosing a library book, often it’s about what the book says about you.
Back in the fall, very young students would ask when checking out a book, “Is this mine now?” I’d tell them the book was theirs to read for a couple weeks and then they must bring it back and choose another one. If they’d never borrowed a library book before, this arrangement blew their minds.
For older readers, the book’s value sometimes lies in the cover with the picture of a teen on her phone, the title in swoopy pink letters that signify how very grown up you are.
One day a boy checked out such a book marketed to girls, with a lavender and pink cover. When a girl snickered at his choice, I gave her the raised eyebrow. We don’t judge others’ book choices, whether by reading level or taste. Not on my watch, anyway.
Sometimes the kid chooses a classic they think Mom will like. They imagine pulling the book out of their backpack and taking turns reading to each other before bed. Maybe some reading with Mom before bed would be nice.
I saw actual stars in a fourth grader’s eyes as she told me how much her mom would love the book she’d chosen.
One little boy chose a Star Wars book because his dad loves Star Wars. He was certain his dad would be excited at his choice. I asked if he, the boy, was a Star Wars fan, and he answered with hope in his voice, “Sort of?”
I saw then that it wasn’t about reading. It was about the look on his dad’s face when he saw the Star Wars book casually placed on the kitchen counter.
A library book is about so much more than the content of its pages. Sometimes it’s about hopes or dreams or self-image or ownership, however temporary. It’s about learning to read and reading to learn—and along the way learning who you are in this big world.