Hello, readers and fans of Melinda! My name is Jane Johansen, and I have known Melinda for many years as our husbands went to West Point together. Melinda and her husband are two people whose friendship we value deeply.
When Melinda put the call out for teacher friends to help, I quickly raised my hand. I am an avid reader and love to share that passion with my students. You know those people who wake up early in the morning to work out and everyone is like, “No way, I could never do that”? You should see the looks I get when I tell my students that I get up early so that I have time to read! It is true. I treasure the quiet with a warm cup of coffee and my book in my lap every morning, possibly with a cat or two by my side.
At the beginning of each school year, the first reading assignment I give my class is to write letters to me about their personal journey with reading. In turn, I also write a letter to them explaining that I was a late reader. I remember being stuck at the same reading level all through 1st grade until my mom found me a book that I truly connected to, Hooray for Pig, by Carla Stevens. (Flashback, I was terrified to learn how to swim. Lake Champlain is enormous, dark, and frigid, and I was having none of it until my mom found this book.) If you could see my copy of this book and turn the love-worn pages, you would see that it was read hundreds of times throughout my childhood. This book makes an appearance on my textual lineage time and again.
Connection is one of the keys to finding books that children want to read, and it is a lesson they are taught as readers from their very earliest reading instruction. Look for the connections: to yourself, to the world around you, to other books you have read, to current events…these are the invisible strings that pull readers in and keep them immersed in books. When I have my students think back and reflect on books that they loved when they were younger readers and create their own textual lineage of books, a common theme in their choices is that they felt connected to the characters in these books in some way.
A second key is to find characters that are likeable or unlikeable, for that matter. A character that kids can root for or against. Characters that speak out and up in unjust situations- kids are all about good versus evil and a fair and just outcome. Books like Wonder, by R.J. Polacio, or Because of Mr. Terrupt, by Rob Buyea, both with casts of characters in a common setting where they can imagine themselves being there, too. A setting where characters have space to make mistakes and are given the time to fix them in a realistic way. Reading to understand the world from a perspective other than their own provides young readers with a wider lens on which to focus their gaze while they are lost in those pages.
Finally, in my experience, as readers grow in their abilities, they like to experience worlds that are different than the one they inhabit every day. Fantasy is a great way for readers to escape the mundane and possibly a genre that parents may shy away from – I know I did with my own children. My own deeply rooted dislike of being scared kept me away from prompting my kids toward this genre. However, their teachers and librarians did a fine job of encouraging them, so they are both huge fans. Being a fifth-grade teacher, my students are just crazy about this genre and I have had to grapple with joining the bandwagon, but I have done it. I am just finishing up reading Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always with my class. When I started it, I was nervous and agitated that it was going to be too scary, dark, or upsetting to some of the class. However, it’s been the complete opposite reaction. They are begging me to read more each day than what our allotted time allows for. They are diving so deep into the plot and character development they are blowing me away with their analysis. A good point to remember is that just because you might not like a specific genre doesn’t mean you should not let your kids try it if they are curious; to each their own, as they say.
Learning to Love Reading
Throughout my years as a teacher, no matter which grade level, I have encountered anxious parents who worry about their child not “loving” reading. The advice I have given you here is parallel to what they hear from me. Keep trying a variety of genres, go to the library, talk to your school librarian, check in with your child’s friends’ parents and ask what they are reading, or, better yet, create a book club for your child with friends.
Finally, the most valuable advice I can give you is to never stop reading aloud with your child. Choose a favorite book from when you were young, or take an expedition to the library together to choose a book. Reading aloud creates a bond between us as readers who are sharing a character’s journey. Dive in, snuggle up, and start building memories together one page at a time.
Jane Johansen is currently a 5th grade teacher at Renbrook School in West Hartford, Connecticut. She has also taught Kindergarten and third grade; don’t ask her which is her favorite…she cannot decide. Jane enjoys spending time outdoors, gardening, hiking, running, and of course reading on her front porch. She is also a passionate nature photographer in her free time. Jane lives in Avon, Connecticut with her husband Eric and their two children Emma Kate and Eli, along with their many furry family members.