In the midst of my classroom prep this week, I came across the binder of letter-essays that my 9th graders wrote at the end of the year. In this binder are 75+ letters that described their favorite independent reading selections. As I paged through their letters again, I couldn’t help smile at the way my students wrote about their favorite titles with such enthusiasm, even tenderness. Kylene Beers and Robert Probst remind us that close reading is the distance between the text and the reader. What was clear in these letter-essays was exactly that closeness―an intimacy that comes from a deeply felt experience. I cannot wait to share their letters with my students this coming year.
As for the titles themselves (above) . . . there was an interesting mix of expected and unexpected favorites.
Some thoughts as I look at the list:
- While some titles received multiple votes―All the Bright Places (6), The Maze Runner (4), Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock (3)―I was surprised by the how many different titles were represented. It reminded me yet again of how personal reading preferences are, and how important it is to expose students to as many titles as possible. You never know, after all, which one will be “the one.”
- With the exception of a few standouts―The Maze Runner, Legend, I Am Number Four and a handful of other titles―most of the fiction selections were realistic fiction. What’s interesting to me is that at the beginning of the year, when I surveyed students, few students listed realistic fiction among their favorite genres. Instead, they listed fantasy, dystopia, action/adventure titles, and many series. This was especially true among my boy readers. But at the end of the year, in their reflections, several students wrote about how independent reading this year gave them the opportunity to see that realistic fiction wasn’t as “boring” as they had previously thought. I wonder if this shift is also reflective of what Appleyard (1991) sees as the shift from Reader as Hero―as in many high fantasy, adventure books of later childhood―to Reader as Thinker―as in more realistic fiction as well as non-fiction.
- This year’s overall favorite author was Matthew Quick (sorry John Green!). Three of Quick’s titles―Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, Silver Linings Playbook, and Boy21―were chosen as student favorites, and I know many more students would have listed these same titles as their runner-ups. Quick’s books seemed to have particular interest for my boys.
- Speaking of my boy readers, non-fiction ruled the day for many of them. I had several boys in each class who moved through the same cycle of non-fiction titles―Unbroken, Lone Survivor, American Sniper, No Easy Day, and Argo―but each of those boys chose a different title as their favorite. Again, another reminder that the more related titles I can offer students to grow their reading branches, the better.
- Before I jump to the conclusion that only boys like non-fiction, I had a few girls list non-fiction titles as their favorites. A title like The Glass Castle didn’t surprise me, but what did surprise me were titles like No Easy Day and Outliers. Two girls who had read Outliers couldn’t stop raving about it. My only wish was that I had introduced them to non-fiction titles earlier in the year.
- Although only two graphic novel titles made the list―This One Summer and Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb―that’s two more than I’ve had in any other year.
- So many of the titles chosen featured characters dealing with some emotional heartache, characters who felt different, hopeless, or ostracized. If there’s any truth to the adage you are what you read, then the books students are reading can be revealing. And if there’s one thing that reading YA literature has done for me, it’s put me back in touch with what it means to be an adolescent. As much as I might otherwise want to forget those years, remembering what that experience was like―and reliving it through characters like Theodore Finch and Leonard Peacock―helps me to see and understand my students beyond the faces sitting in my classroom.
- I made a special effort to increase the number and regularity of my book talks, with the hope that this would introduce students to a greater number of titles and produce higher volume in reading. I also doubled the size of my classroom library to give students immediate access to their next “goodread.” Were these efforts successful? Judging by the list above, I think so. 85% of the titles listed were ones that I either booktalked or had available in my classroom library. Would some students have found these title regardless of my booktalks? Probably. But I know many more would not.
I’m sure there are many more things to say about this list, and if you are reading this and see any patterns, please share in the comments. As I look at the list, I know that aside from what is present, I also need to think about what is missing… ethnically diverse titles, for example. Hmm…