A Book in Every Hand

“Ms. Schmidt, I need a book to read. What’s good?” I hear this almost daily in my classroom. For my students who read a lot, I have no trouble putting a book in their hands. For those students, I’ve learned their reading likes and dislikes, and my challenge is keeping them in books.

But when the above question originates from those students who are non-readers (and reading because it’s a class requirement) or who like read but only if the book suits their fancy, which is usually really narrow, I’m presented with a different challenge – what book to put in their hands that they will take the time to read?

There are lots of places to look for book suggestions for reluctant readers. In my humble opinion, I find that there are a few problems with the usual suspects. First, they are lists. A slick book cover, title, author, price doesn’t tell me a whole lot about a book. Yes, admittedly, I judge books by their covers. I’m more apt to pick up a book cover that appeals to me. I’m human. I’m also an adult human who has different standards as to what are good book covers than my students  (and yes, for those of you wondering, we do talk about book covers in my classroom, but more about that in a later blog).  To find out about a book on the list, one has to do a lot of clicking on links to get multiple reviews of the book to determine if it’s worthwhile. There are times when I like surfing the net, clicking from link to link to see where the path takes me. There are other times I just want information fast and clicking multiple links is not always the fastest way to get what I need. Goodreads is a great source for readers. In fact, I moderate a YA forum on Goodreads and have made some great reader friends on this site. Goodreads also provides you with lists and reviews, but if I want something quick and easy, it can be cumbersome to manage because there are just so many titles there. In fact I challenge you to not find a title on Goodreads.

The biggest problem with all these places is that if you search books for reluctant readers, you’ll usually get books for struggling readers, books for males, or both. This is when I want to scream and shout and gnash my teeth. I believe the way many adults perceive reluctant readers is wrong. First, reluctant readers can be struggling readers but (and this is a big but) are not ALWAYS struggling readers. I have a large population of kids who prefer to do other things with their time than read because their free time is so limited. I have had a staggering number of students during my 18 year tenure who are so overscheduled they barely have time to do their homework let alone read for pleasure. They will spend their precious free-time reading if, and only if, the book is AMAZING.

Struggling adolescent readers want books, which will make them look like they are the same as everyone else. Reading is no different than clothing trends, music trends, or hobbies. Often books published specifically for struggling readers appear “babyish.” I find that struggling readers will pick up the thickest book off my shelf just to appear like everyone else. The books chosen are often abandoned because it takes the students too long to finish or worse the subject/content/theme is not of interest to them.

Finally, reluctant readers are often classified as male readers. While I don’t subscribe to “boy” books and “girl” books, having had plenty of boys read the Twilight series, Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging, The Diary of Anne Frank (by choice not assigned) and The Mortal Instruments series and a myriad of other books with female protagonists (more about that in a future blog), and plenty of girls who have read The Hitchhiker’s Guide and Tolkien, publishers and others in authority are apt to assign gender to not only reluctant readers but to the books adolescents are apt to read as well. However, not all reluctant readers are boys. In fact, in my experience it’s pretty much a 50-50 split among the sexes when it comes to reluctant readers.

My school librarian is an AMAZING reference; the problem, as you may have guessed, is that she’s not always available.

So about now you’re thinking, just get on with it already (you’ve been warned that I will go on and on and on about young adult literature). So here’s my point. One way to deal with the question that started this post is to read a lot of  YA. But that’s not the only way – or even the best way. I talk to people – all the time. As I just mentioned, my school librarian is an invaluable resource when it comes to YA Lit. I also talk to professors – both those I’m studying under and those at my local college.  I hang out on Goodreads. My YA forum, YA Reads for Teachers (and Any Other Adults!), hosts a range of brilliant and different people. I’ve gotten so many great titles from other middle school teachers, high school teachers, and librarians that it’s expanded my TBR (to be read) list exponentially, and not to single out a group of people but the librarians on this site are so in the know about what’s new and what’s hot. Talking to people isn’t going to solve the immediate problem of putting the right book in reluctant adolescent reader’s hands.

In addition to all of these tips, I have on hand a copy of The Ultimate Teen Book Guide. The Guide (there is a second edition available in the UK and Australia) consists of over 700 titles for adolescents 12 -18. TUTBG is arranged alphabetically by book title (with an author index in the back). Each title is reviewed by either a reader, the editors of the guide, or an author and contains a box listing other books to check out if you like the title listed. There are also annotated lists by genre or interest in the book. TUTBG has become a go-to source for me. My one caveat is to make sure you read the book or are familiar with the author before you recommend a book. Since the guide is designed to meet the needs of teens and not specific grade levels, not all books are appropriate for all kids.

So on Monday when I hear, “Ms. Schmidt, I need a book. What’s good?” I will inwardly groan and confidently put the right book in that student’s hands.

Until next time. . . see YA!

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