Mind The Gap
Last week, during a professional learning session with a group of middle school teachers, we provided copies of the inspiring resource Passionate Readers by Pernille Ripp. As we read the section “Teacher as a Reading Role Model,” one question that made us stop and think was, “What are your own book gaps? What do you not read?” We circled around that question for quite a while, pondering how our own reading preferences may inadvertently cause us to be gate-keepers when building classroom libraries, recommending books, and presenting book talks. We realized we all have preferences and gaps and if we don’t recognize and address them, we are unintentionally narrowing the impact we have on readers and by missing opportunities of getting the right book into the hands of a student because we are missing entire genres.
Pernille Ripp believes, and we agree, that if we don’t acknowledge our own book gaps, we become more of a genre lover than a book lover. This is okay in our own reading lives but not as a teacher of readers.
As a team, we identified our own reading gaps and tried to address them:
Jill: I naturally gravitate toward realistic fiction and historical fiction. I love to read books, both fiction and non-fiction, that are window reads for me, so I would say I definitely seek out characters and authors who reflect a wide range of experiences beyond my own. I like poetry, especially when it is contemporary. I also enjoy graphic novels, but again, I tend to select more realistic plots.
It has been my habit for many years to keep a list of the books I finish. This is helpful when I am asked for book recommendations, but it also allows me to look back and see what might be missing. I recognize that my reading life has a number of gaps: fantasy, dystopian, adventure titles do not appear on my reading list unless I make a conscious effort to seek them out. Recently, I tried to close the gap a bit with these choices:
The Girl with the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke- a combination of historic fiction, magic, and time travel.
War Cross by Marie Lu- a futuristic cyberthriller with a main character who is a hacker and bounty hunter.
The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline- an apocalyptic story set in a future Canada that has been ravaged by climate change and pollution and where Indigenous peoples are being hunted for their bone marrow.
Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart- describes the events that unfold when the adults at The Slabhenge Reformatory for Troubled Boys are killed, the boys are left to fend for themselves.
Melissa: These days, I definitely prefer realistic fiction. I enjoy the characters of this genre, who are often imperfect, relatable, and facing believable problems (c.s. Lewis is quoted as saying, “We read to know we’re not alone”). I also appreciate how recent YA realistic fiction speaks to issues that, historically, were deemed inappropriate (i.e. suicide, sexual assault, racism, LBGTQ). However, I do realize that students also use reading as a way to escape their world, and are often drawn to books such as dystopian and fantasy, while other times they choose to read as a way to inform themselves about the world in non-fiction books. As such, I have been trying to close my gap by reading the following:
Refugee (historical fiction) – follows three kids in three different time periods (Nazi Germany 1939, Cuba 1994, Syria 2015) as they journey with their families to find refuge.
Hidden Figures (non-fiction) – tells the story of four African-American female mathematicians at NASA who helped achieve some of the greatest moments in space.
York (alternate history) – three kids try to solve the greatest mystery of the modern world: a puzzle and treasure hunt laid into the very streets and buildings of New York City.
Some Kind of Happiness (combination of realistic fiction and fantasy) – tells a young girl’s story when she is sent to spend the summer with grandparents she has never met, and unearths a long protected family secret.
Lighter than My Shadow (graphic memoir) – Katie Green shares her battle with anorexia, her family’s struggle to support her, and a tragic treatment plan that leaves her a victim of sexual assault.
Kelly: I have always enjoyed coming-of-age realistic fiction books since I was a teenager. I like stories with strong character development and complex problems/relationships that do not always have a fairy tale ending.
Last year, when I was participating in the book relay, I started to realize how huge my reading gaps were once I started reading outside of my comfort zone. I rarely, if ever, read fantasy, science fiction, horror, any novel where one of the main characters is an animal or a creature, or graphic novels. A few titles that I would not normally consider that I enjoyed are:
Maybe A Fox by Alison McGhee and Kathi Appelt-a story about a young girl, Jules, who is dealing with the loss of both her mother and then her sister. While she is reeling from her sister’s death, a young fox is born who is of half the spirit world and half of the animal world who can sense that something is wrong. At the end of this novel, these two worlds collide with a beautiful ending.
Some Kind Of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart-is a Western set in the 1800’s about an recently orphaned boy, Joseph, who had his beloved horse, Sarah, taken away from him by a man who had no right to do so. As he sets off on an adventure packed journey to find Sarah, he meets a lost young boy, Ah-Kee, and their friendship is one you won’t forget anytime soon.
Some Kind Of Happiness by Claire Legrand-I know Melissa already mentioned this one but it is so good it deserves double recognition. This is a realistic story about a girl named Finley who is wandering through the swampy mess of family, depression, and divorce countered with a parallel fantasy story. It took me awhile to embrace the fantasy part of this story (each chapter starts with a 2 or 3 page excerpt of a story filled with fairies, trolls, a queen, etc. in the mythical forest of Everwood) but once I was about 1/3 of the way through, I actually started to enjoy this part as much as the realistic story. I would consider this to be a great “Intro to Fantasy” novel.
Took: A Ghost Story by Mary Downing Hahn-a horror story about a young boy, Dan, who has just moved to a rural area and is told about a legendary witch who lives in the forest and steals young girls for 50 years at a time. Dan dismisses this story until his little sister, Erica, goes missing and he has to put aside all he believes in order to find her. This is a fun novel to dip your toes into the world of horror/scary stories.
The Lost Boy by Greg Ruth-is a graphic novel that is centered around a mystery that the main character, Nate, has to solve along with the help of his friend, Tabitha. Nate and Tabitha travel into another world and meet mystical creatures in a classic good vs evil tale. The artwork is stunning in this novel and I struggled to slow down and appreciate it because I am not accustomed to reading at the pace graphic novels demand in order to make meaning from the drawings.
Taking the time to consider our reading gaps allows us the opportunity to narrow them and also serves as great point of discussion with students. Reader to reader conversations with students can help narrow our reading gaps, as students love to recommend their preferred genres and titles. And by modelling an openness to reading outside our preferred genres of writing, we are in turn encouraging students to do the same.