Reading Outside Your Comfort Zone (And Booktalking Beyond It, Too)


Ruthie the Riveted Reader

This summer, I was so overwhelmed by new motherhood that I barely found any time to read.  Instead of my usual 40+ books devoured by the beach, perused over afternoon coffee, or listened to while driving to a summer class, I finished maybe four or five books.  I found myself reading Corduroy, Go Dog Go, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar nearly every night…but I missed the solitude of my own reading life.

When I finally got Ruthie to start sleeping, I was ready (and able) to read again, but I wasn’t sure where to start.  Books that used to hold my attention just didn’t anymore.  So, my husband and I started a little game–I asked him to go pick me any book off our fairly full bookshelves.

After a few weeks of reading, I realized something: he was choosing only what he knew.


Just a snippet of our bookshelves, arranged by genre (Jon always goes for the top left)

He selected for me In Cold Blood by Truman Capote; The Big Short by Michael Lewis; On The Road by Jack Kerouac; The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum; Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig; The King of Torts by John Grisham; The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell…are you noticing a pattern?  Jon reads nonfiction, with just a few legal or spy thrillers sprinkled in.  He suggested what he knew.

As I quickly got sick of reading nonfiction (which I faithfully attempted), I started to think about my own booktalks to students last year.  I kept a record of those booktalks on posters that hung on the back wall of our classroom, and I know if I looked at them for genre, I’d find some variety:  poetry, award winners, nonfiction, war stories, thrillers, sports fiction, classics, multicultural literature, and lots of YA.

But you know what I wouldn’t find?

Graphic novels (I only know a few).  Science fiction (beyond the popular dystopian series).  Fantasy (I just can’t keep all the weirdly-named characters straight).  Historical fiction (snooze, good sir).  Horror (I like to sleep at night, thank you very much).

Those just aren’t books I’d pick up on my own.  That means I’m less likely to put them in my classroom library…so I’m less likely to booktalk them…and I’m less likely to reach every student in the room.

Teachers must read beyond our comfort zones.  It’s important that we’re the best readers in the room, as well as the most prolific.  Our students’ reading success depends on our wide knowledge of books.  Conferring–the cornerstone of workshop–does no good if once we know our students we don’t know enough titles to match them to a book.

So, I made it my goal to branch out.  I attempted City of Bones, the first in The Mortal Instruments series, by Cassandra Clare–and I loved it!  Yes, there was talk of daemons and faeries and vampyres and a lot of other stuff with which I was unfamiliar, but I really liked the story.  Next, I tried A Murder in Time by Julie Mcelwain, a historical fiction account of murders in 19th-century England.  Again, I was surprised–I loved it!

Now that I’ve accepted the challenge of reading outside my comfort zone, my next step is to figure out how to learn about good books within genres about which I’m clueless.  I’ll ask students who say they like those genres to fill me in (I remember last year a student was horrified that I’d never heard of Dune by Frank Herbert–“What! It’s like the original science fiction!!”).  I’ll lurk on Goodreads to see what my teacher friends are reading, and I’ll pose the question on Twitter.

I know that if I don’t read outside my comfort zone, I can’t booktalk outside it either–and in that case, I’m disadvantaging students who don’t share my reading tastes.  That’s enough of an impetus to spur me to read something different, but beyond that…a little change is never a bad thing.

What genres are you unfamiliar with?  Share in the comments, and let’s help one another find some great new titles to booktalk this year.



7 thoughts on “Reading Outside Your Comfort Zone (And Booktalking Beyond It, Too)

  1. Ugly Cry Round Two – #FridayReads | September 16, 2016 at 7:38 am Reply

    […] searches off the reservation. I search the room during reading time. Just as Shana suggested, reading outside your comfort zone can offer some big […]


  2. Amy Marshall September 2, 2016 at 2:02 pm Reply

    I read “In Cold Blood” this summer as well and I picked it because it is non-fiction which I hate to read. I can’t say that I loved it, but I did it. I struggle with romances and anything where at some point someone’s rippling abs make an appearance.
    I think that this year I’m going to let students pick books for me to read. What’s the harm, right?


    • shanakarnes September 5, 2016 at 6:27 pm Reply

      I love the idea of having students give you book recs! And I giggled at the “rippling abs”–that’s exactly the kind of book that used to be a fine easy read for me before baby but is now just annoying!!!


  3. Cyndi Faircloth September 2, 2016 at 9:14 am Reply

    This post was so timely for me! New to the 6th grade this year (I’ve been teaching high school for the past 16) and I’m building my classroom library with some books for younger kids. I’m sure I have lots of week areas – I really enjoy fantasy (try The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher for YA and Ganymede by Cherie Priest for some with names that didn’t seem too “out there”)

    I’m weak in sports books, contemporary fiction that appeals to boys (I raised three girls and have lots of “chick lit” that appeals to young women), and non-fiction ideas.


  4. Amy Estersohn (@HMX_MsE) September 2, 2016 at 7:18 am Reply

    What a great and timely post! My weak spots are sports books and epic, non-dark fantasy (like Rick Riordan.) I use audiobooks in the car as an opportunity to branch out a bit.


    • shanakarnes September 2, 2016 at 9:20 am Reply

      Ahhh, I love that you call it “epic, non-dark fantasy” haha. Carl Deuker, Chris Crutcher, and good old Matt Christopher are some of my favorite sports authors. I also love Catherine Gilbert Murdock’s series about a female football player.


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