#TeachersTalkKidLit – Nancy Parcels

What makes a book a good book? This is something that I have been asked several times by other people and that I have even asked myself.  Having an 8 year old son we have done TONS of read-alouds.  We have had many successful read-alouds and many books that we could only read a few chapters and then we needed to abandon the book and move on.  Why? What made the books that we couldn’t put down a book that we wanted to keep reading?  For us it was a few things.  


First, the book was relatable in some way.  They were either books about a boy the same age as my son, they had similar interests or were of the same faith.  My son could connect to the character with their struggles, hobbies, or strengths.  This is why we LOVE books that give lots of background information about the main character.  The more my son knows about the character’s likes, dislikes, religious background, hobbies, dreams, or aspirations, the easier it is for my son to want to continue reading to find out more.  


The second concept that makes a book a good book for us is unusual or uncommon language.  The more the author uses rare language, the more my son gravitates towards that book.  What I mean by unusual or uncommon language is that it may use words that we don’t hear anymore, like Old English or slang words from different eras.  It produces images and discussions that usually surpass my imagination.  Even books that are Orthodox faith-based books that use vocabulary that may seem advanced for the target age cause wonderful discussions and learning opportunities. 


Another way to keep us enthralled with a book is imagery! The more descriptive words used to tell us what is going on with the scene, the better.  It gives my son the opportunity to feel like he is living the book.  Giving the reader the full scope of the scenes gives them the chance to feel like they are standing right next to the characters, seeing the scene play out right in front of them.  We have even read a few illustrated classical reads that don’t have pictures on each page, but the pictures it does have are so detailed that the questions, conversations, and thoughts that it provokes are amazing.  


Finally, we love books that have a lesson learned by the main character.  It can be about anything really.  We have read books on our Orthodox faith, friendships, trusting in God, believing in oneself, etc.  While we read the book, we can have great discussions about what we would do differently or what we think will happen to the main character.  Following the character in their journey helps feel like we are a part of them.  Also this helps tie in having something to relate to and imagery.  Having something that we need to follow along closely with means that we need background information. 

Parent choice vs. child choice

I wanted to touch base on books that I would pick out for my child compared to books he would pick for himself.  The books that I pick for him are usually books that I found to have the content that I am trying to teach.  It could be books that are for our history time period or religious teachings.  I also like to make sure that the books have good written language.  I prefer books that do not have new slang words or inappropriate grammar or language.  If I am using a book to teach or reinforce what we are learning, I also want to make sure that the book is giving accurate information.  Now, the books that my son wants to choose are the complete opposite of what I choose.  He likes books that have tons of pictures, slang, and little to no history.  My son loves graphic novels and what I like to call “silly” books.  That is why when I am reading aloud and picking books that he would normally not choose for himself, I try to find books that have something in there that he likes or I make each character have their own voice.  Just something to keep his attention and keep him interested.  I will also try to keep asking him questions throughout the book to keep his attention or go over something he didn’t understand.  

About Nancy

Hello! I am Nancy Athanasia Parcels.  I am an Orthodox home-educating mom.  I have been home-educating for 6 years.  I have also tutored in Math and Reading on and off for 20 years.  I have taught in a Montessori Homeschool Co-op for several years.  We have switched to a classical home education for the last 3 years.  I have taught for 2 years so far at our current co-op.  I have also worked in a library as a librarian assistant in the children’s section for several years.  I have been married to an amazing Chef husband for 11 years.  We have one 8-year-old son and another son to make his arrival in a few short weeks.  We live in South Carolina where we enjoy nature, family time, learning from each other and reading aloud.  

#TeachersTalkKidLit – Jane Johansen

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.

About Jane

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.