Good news: Pleasure reading is back (goodness knows why it was ever driven from our classrooms). Bad news: Well-meaning teachers and parents are fretting over the imagined “low quality” books children are choosing to read. In her New Yorker essay “The Percy Jackson Problem,” Rebecca Mead bemoans her nine-year-old son’s obsession with Rick Riordan’s best-selling Percy Jackson series, worried that the “easy gratification” of this rollicking read will dissuade her son from more challenging literary texts in the future. I think Mead has got it wrong.
I’ve worked with enough kids over the years to know that it’s dicey to predict what text will touch and transform a child at any particular moment. As author Alain de Botton once observed: “Most of what makes a book 'good' is that we are reading it at the right moment for us.”
Imagination is boundless. My first grade student Vernon read the entire story “Lost in the Woods” as “Lost in the Desert.” For Vernon, a young Tohono O’odham child, “wilderness” meant the Sonoran Desert where he had lived all his life. He had never ventured outside his desert home and had no experience with the New England woods, but he absolutely understood the terror of losing your way in a vast wilderness and not being able to find your way home.
After Vernon finished the story, I took full advantage of the teaching moment, found a National Geographic article that featured the autumn colors of Vermont, and we discussed the difference between the eastern woods and our southwest desert dotted with saguaro and ocotillo. And we took another look at woods, agreeing that it begins with a “w” and features double /o/ in the middle. But ultimately, what mattered is that Vernon had fully entered the story and made it his own.
In 1938, Professor of English Education Louise Rosenblatt electrified the profession with her explanation that reading is a transaction between the reader and text. Readers bring their own experience, language, values, culture—indeed, every aspect of their life story and psyche to bear on every text they read. Imagination isn’t bound by print and it’s impossible to know what magic a child might glean from a book whether it’s an adult-approved “quality” text or not. Literacy expert Pam Allyn maintains that it’s entirely possible to have a high level cognitive workout with a so-called low level book.
Literacy educators Jeff Wilhelm and Michael Smith studied the out-of-school reading lives of 14 eighth graders who were avid readers of texts often marginalized in schools: Think romances, vampire and horror stories, dystopian and fantasy novels. In their breakthrough book Reading Unbound: Why Kids Need to Read What They Want—and Why We Should Let Them, the authors report that these teen-chosen texts, often rejected by adults as substandard, were rich in interpretative complexity—gateways to worlds beyond what was simply represented on the page. The kids were deeply engaged in the books and discovered on multiple levels—emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and even spiritually—what they needed from each book they chose to read. Through their wide-ranging pleasure reading, they were experiencing transformative moments of growth with books that their teachers rejected.
Listen to 14-year-old Jazzy explain the intellectual pleasure she derives from dystopian novels:
You want to know how the society has come to be so bad, so unjust, or just so plain stupid and you want that to be understandable. You see how it could follow from things going on right now. So you want to rebel. You want to change things… It makes you think about this thing that sociologists call “the shifting baseline” — how things change slowly in crazy directions without you noticing.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t introduce our students to books that we love and believe they might love as well. I followed the Yours, Mine, and Ours rule—books my students chose to read themselves, books I chose for them, and the books we chose together.
But once we fully understand the transactional nature of reading—and the transformative possibilities of all texts (yes, comic books, too)—then perhaps we can set aside our worries about so-called “inferior” reads. Most importantly, we can learn to trust that our children benefit in untold ways from every book they choose to read to satisfy their own stirring curiosities and soaring imaginations.