Thursday, May 15, 2008

Reading for Pleasure!

Welcome Loyal Perusers!

It's the middle of May, and that means the joys of summer reading are only days away! Joys? Summer reading? "Yechhhhhhhhhhh!" many students gag. But I say summer is the perfect time for reading ... in parks, at campsites, on beaches, in cars, on patios or decks, at libraries or in the comfort of air-conditioned homes. I have a stack of books I can't wait to cut down to size. (I've sworn I won't buy another volume until I have worked my way through these purchases!)

Where to read and what to read may not pose problems for avid readers, but choosing engaging books is frustrating for many adolescent readers. During the school year, required reading is often forced upon them, and while sustained silent reading or monitored silent reading may be part of the school day, choices are often limited and time is also in short supply. The few minutes of class-time reading doesn't allow students to "get into" a book like they can in the summer.

Some schools provide required and/or recommended book lists for summer reading. Each has their places, but I hope teachers also encourage students to reading something different than their usual fare. I used to ask my students to identify a friend who was book-lover and ask them for some ideas. (Rare was the kid who knew no one who liked to read.)

I also hope teachers work hard to convince their students that reading for pleasure is a great pastime. And there is no better season to learn that lesson than summertime. Last November I attended the Utah Council of the International Reading Association (UCIRA), and local author Shannon Hale delivered an entertaining luncheon address that reminded me to emphasize this point. We can often lose sight of this concept as we wade through the drama of the dust bowl in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath or Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

I am not saying I don't like these novels - Mockingbird is on my "Top 10 List," but it doesn't serve my occasional need to escape. Hale, whose titles include Goose Girl, Princess Academy and Book of a Thousand Days, was inspired to write quality books that are fun to read because she realized at one time she didn't believe reading was reading unless the book was a deep and dark classic.

In her "ridiculously long bio," she write, "One tragic outcome of English classes . . . was I believed (and didn't question for some time) that the 'classics' were the only good books around. I stopped reading for pleasure, choosing books that I thought were good for me but were often boring and quite depressing, and so soon fell out of love with reading. I didn't question the only-classics-are-good mentality for many years."

Shannon's reviews of some of those "often boring and quite depressing" novels ignited eruptions of laughter from her audience. My personal favorite was her description of Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. It went something like this: A young man marries his dying mother's old, ugly nurse because he's afraid to be alone in the winter. Miserable, Ethan's life changes when Mattie, cousin to the old, ugly wife, comes to live with the Fromes. After they fall in love and Ethan's wife demands Mattie's exit, the two lovers decide to commit suicide by sledding into a tree. (I'm not making this up! Wharton did!) At any rate, the attempt fails and the two end up as invalids in the care of - yup, you guessed it - the old, ugly wife.

While I believe few schools include Ethan Frome as part of their curriculum, the same point could be made using Wuthering Heights, Jude the Obscure, or Great Expectations as examples. There is definitely a place for classic literature in education, but we must remember that these works were NOT created for adolescent readers. So, as we jot down ideas for summer reading titles, let's keep in mind that we are more likely to foster life-long readers by suggesting books that students might actually find a pleasure to read.

What am I reading this summer? Well, my stack includes Goose Girl and Princess Academy, but there is also Ambler Warning by Robert Ludlum, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, My Father's Secret War by Lucinda Franks, Christ the Lord by Anne Rice, and oh yes, Hugo's Les Miserables - just kidding. I do have it on my "want-to-read" shelf, but I see this work as "winter reading." = )

If you need some ideas to pass onto students, check out Literacy Link-Up's Guy Books or a list of recommended Graphic Novels. If you click onto Novel Links, you'll find links to websites with tons of ideas for summer reading titles. And if you really want to read Ethan Frome, you can find the whole text online.

In the meantime, enjoy your summer reading. I will post blogs during the warm months, too, so drop by if you have a minute and nothing else to read.