Have you ever recommended a book or done a book talk on a book you haven’t read? I know I have. Always, of course, with the caveat that I haven’t read it yet, but still. I have two examples of how this has backfired, one with minor consequences and another that could have gone terribly wrong.
This year, I recommended Concussion to an athlete in my AP class, for his independent reading. I did so based on the subject matter and its popularity. AJ is loathe to pick it up during independent reading, but at this point (because it’s AP and they use their independent reading for analysis) it’s not practical for him to start something new and still be able to complete the rhetorical analysis work.
Effectively, what my faulty recommendation has done is to reinforce for this student that books are just a part of an academic life that one has to endure to reach a broader goal (AP college credit). Not only did I confirm that reading has nothing to do with his interests or identity, I hit the trifecta by reinforcing for him that teachers are clueless and wasting an opportunity to build his literacy skills. Indeed, I may have set them back. Maybe I should have recommended Junior Seau: The Life and Death of a Football Icon, which appears (appears is key) to explore the same issue but in a much more narrative and less esoteric way than Concussion. Plus, one of my footballers from last year read it.
But using previous student experiences with a text to recommend it forward is, at best, imperfect. Last year, a student was looking for “something edgy” and was willing to try transitioning into fiction from her obsessive poetry reading. So, I recommended a short story collection that a former student with similar interests had found on her own and loved, and which I subsequently added to our classroom library: Heartbreaker by Maryse Meijer. This current student took my recommendation, read her 20 minutes per night and diligently recorded her progress in her reading log, finishing it before we had a chance to conference. But when she handed it back to me she said, “Ms. Maguire, this book might not be for everybody.” She then went on to describe scenes of exhibitionism and lesbian prison sex.
I have become more reluctant to recommend to students books that I have not read myself. For 3TT readers, though, I’ll still take the risk. Here are a few titles I have recently added to our classroom library. Full disclosure: the first two I have read in their entirety; the third, about half.
This Way Home, Wes Moore and Shawn Goodman: This YA novel came out in 2016, but I only came across it recently, browsing the BookOutlet web site (which offers fantastic deals btw). Many students in my district are familiar with The Other Wes Moore, the true story of the divergent trajectories of two African American boys on the same block with the same name. This Way Home tells the fictional story of Elijah, who has pro-basketball aspirations but must cope with a dilemma brought on by the local gang’s interest in his neighborhood team. I HAVE read this one, so I can confidently say it is high-interest for striving readers.
Delicate Monsters, by Stephanie Kuehn: This novel by the author of the award-winning Charm & Strange, which I haven’t read yet, is darker than I expected, and from the very beginning. The -isms that this novel touches on are SO numerous: racism, classism, voyeurism, alcoholism, to name a few. Also included are bipolar disorder, bullying, suicidal ideation and suicide, gun violence, adultery, sociopathy, even Tourette’s and Munchausen’s-by-Proxy. And there is no happy ending. For anyone. Personally, I’m down with the darker, the better. But to recommend for students? Probably more on an individual basis than a book talk. But speaking of book talks, this next one could work.
Pride, by Ibi Zoboi (author of America Street): This YA novel is a retelling of Pride & Prejudice, set in present-day Brooklyn. I’ve read the first few chapters, and I’m hooked (this from a reader who has little patience with the precious world of Jane Austen). What compels me to bring this text into our classroom, though, is the author’s response to a review in WSJ: the review suggested that the book would have limited appeal due to its “heavy use of slang,” ie, Afro-Haitian dialect. If I can do my job right, we might be able to examine excerpts of the text in conjunction with the WSJ review and the social media responses it generated, as we enter our second quarter focus on text analysis.
Sigh. Second quarter, really? Where did first quarter go? And there’s one of the main reasons books get recommended without them having been read, convoluted passive voice intended. I think in the writing of this post I have reminded myself–and I hope, you–to rein in the guilt, for not doing more, for not doing it all. I just asked my 11-year-old child for 5 more minutes to finish this post, and he patiently waits in his room for me to join him so we can continue reading together D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths.