Category Archives: Books

Going Broke Buying Books

Disclaimer: There are countless ways to save money when securing books for your classroom library. I, however, often lack the patience for such measured and responsible procurement of texts. This is my story (and possibly my defense should my husband discover just how much I spend on books).


My husband Nick is a dear man. He has to be, to put up with the amount of time, energy, and hard earned cash I devote to this passion called teaching.

In the 14 years I’ve been at this, or rather the 2 years I’ve been building a genuine classroom library, I have probably spent $4, 398,291 (hyperbolic numbers are my favorite, because I’ve never been good at math).

It often happens before I know what I’m doing. Like those poor souls who sleepwalk and end up in the middle of a busy road in their pajamas, I find myself “just putting a book in my Amazon cart so I remember the title,” or “checking Thriftbooks for a minute (or 27), to see what’s new.”

Hi. My name is Lisa, and I buy a lot of books for other people’s children. 

doryThis “problem” sort of took me by surprise. With my head hanging low, I must admit there was a time, not too long ago, when there were very few books in my classroom. There were very few books in my life period, besides the ones I “taught” year after
year. My classroom was rich in many valuable thoughts, inquires, and experiences before workshop, but it was not full of books.

How, as a teacher of literacy, had I allowed my classroom to become devoid of the very tools of reading I kept suggesting to my students would be their salvation in the face of collegiate ambitions, thematic exploration, and aspirations of world domination?

Apparently, it wasn’t important to me.

Ugh. That reflection looks ugly in print.

I didn’t purposefully create a text desert in my classroom, of course. If someone had said, “Hey, Dennis. You teach English. Where are all the books?” I would have smiled and pointed to the textbooks and countless copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Students bought any books they needed for independent reading, and I happily progressed with assigning reading, providing study guides, giving content quizzes, lather, rinse, repeat. This is what I knew. This is what I had experienced myself. This is how I was taught to teach.

But then, one day, a big rock fell on my head. I dreamt of rows upon rows of book ryan goslingshelves lining the walls of my classroom and students clutching copies of countless titles to their bosoms. Ryan Gosling walked into the room and said, “Hey girl. I really love the work you’re doing for public education. Let’s get those kids reading more. Cool?” When I came to, I was blushing, but more importantly, I knew that my students needed more choice. More challenge. More access to books.

Ok. Not really. But the conclusions I came to after some workshop research, training by the lovely workshop team of Three Teachers Talk, and logical reflection about how I wanted my students to view reading, that part is true.

There is still a very important place for whole class novel work in my classroom. There is still a place for short lists of books with a central theme to get kids working in book clubs. There is still a place for the classic and contemporary. But there is also now a place for a lot more choice right in my classroom, always located just a few steps away.

And though we might not want to believe that we have to hold our kids’ hands and walk them to our bookshelves, instead of trusting them to take their own time to go to the library or while away the hours at the local bookshop, at least in the beginning, we do. We need to make the books so wildly available, that kids can’t help but wade through them in the course of our time together.

Think of elementary classrooms. Books upon books, upon teachers reading aloud books. If books aren’t at home, they are certainly at school, and when kids are learning to read, they are showered with books. Why not shower them with texts when we are trying to reignite that love of reading?

Given time to read, talk about books, formative and summative work around independent novel study, goal setting, book challenges, quick writes on choice reading, daily book talks, a teacher who pours passion about books all over their every class period AND shelves of books three feet away, progress in building and rebuilding readers is very possible, and even, probable.

We can teach children to read, but for reading to become a habit, they need ready access to books. We also know, they need choice, choice, and more choice (thank you a million times for your brilliance, Donalyn Miller).

When it comes down to it, we might not want to believe our students evade the reading we ask them to do, but they often do. Many fake read very, very well. Others simply smile, or avert their gaze, or defiantly say, “I didn’t do it” or “I’m just super busy.”

I’ll put it this way, my dentist hands me floss, but I don’t use it as often as I should. There. I said it. I am a college educated, do-gooder, who knows she should floss…every day. I do not floss every day. I know my teeth will suffer for it. I know when I go to the dentist I feel bad for having to say that I could probably floss more. I know it’s with the best intentions for my own self interest that the professional tells me to do it, but…I don’t do it. I’m just super busy.

Perhaps a bad analogy, but our students don’t always make the right choices when it comes to reading. They prioritize other things. If my dentist were handing me floss every day, chances are good, I’d get in the habit. Should he have to? No. Should I just do it on my own because I know it’s good for me, of course. But, I’m flawed. We all are.

So, at least for awhile, I’m going to care enough about my students teeth, er, reading habits to make it highly visible, readily accessible, and as entertaining as I can.

The payoff just this week is real:

  • Josh is a super smart kid who hadn’t been devoting time to reading. He, like so many others, used to love to read, but had fallen out of the habit. With our 10-15 minutes of reading a day, and my suggestion that he add just 10 minutes before falling asleep each night, Josh is back into books. Major texts, in fact, and just book talked The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss to our a class. A little bit here and a little bit there, made the reading a habit again. I bought the book and handed it to one of his peers who flew through it too.
  • I saw Brianna standing at the bookshelf yesterday morning. Sort of swaying back and forth. I skipped over (ok, I was skipping in my head, but I was excited to help her find something magical).
    “What are you in the market for, my dear.”
    “Uh…I’m not sure. I just read Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain. It was really good, but I might be over nonfiction for awhile.”
    “Makes sense. How about a really good story? Try this. Oooo! And this…and I had someone read this one last month. And…this (The Help). Have you read this one yet? Take a look at the reviews in the front from past readers. This is a great book.”
    Brianna was 20 pages into The Help and picked up the book between activities in class that day.
  • The somewhat shocked and surprised smile on JJ’s face when, after book talking Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things: A Novel last week, I put in his hands a copy of her incredible new release Small Great Things. He had asked for my copy a few days later when he finished his latest read, but it had already been checked out. He looked crestfallen. When I saw it yesterday on the new release cart in the library, I checked it out, and hunted JJ down during our resource period. “Wow. Thank you!
  • And this…You might remember Nathan from a few weeks back after he finished A Dog’s Purpose:
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    I was at Barnes and Noble and used one of my gift cards to buy the sequel A Dog’s JourneyI think this smile is worth the expense:

Truth be told, I’m very lucky to work in a district that has put a huge amount of money into funding the classroom libraries of our English department as we’ve moved to workshop. And there are countless ways to put on your thrifty teacher cap and get the texts rolling into your room, if your district isn’t yet on board with choice reading:

  • Write letters to your local bookstores and appeal to their sense of community pride, favorable Yelp reviews, and goodwill to all.
  • Loiter in bookstores and flash your teacher credentials. Sometimes a pleading jessicasmile and/or a small purchase will secure some free or discounted books.
  •  Apply for grants (Nothing says #booklove like free books…next year).
  • Rummage, thrift, estate sale your way through the summer.
  • Gather some research on classroom libraries and get it in the hands of your administrators. You might be surprised.
  • Ask Shana for books. She loves to give away books to fellow workshop teachers.
  • Befriend authors via social media! Jessica is trying her hand at scoring some Matthew Quick books through Shana’s connection. No shame, Jessica! Twirt (twitter flirt, I believe) away!

You don’t necessarily have to spend your own money on books, but I do. Something inside of me saying that I need more. I need more variety. I need more to recommend. I need more books.

I keep telling my husband that I’m helping to inform, inspire, and impassion the electorate. I’m also in charge of the money, so my little addiction should be able to continue a little while longer. I consider you all my support group in this matter. Thank you for your support.

How do you surround your students with books? What titles have you added recently that keep flying off your shelves? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below. 

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Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of friends at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her latest classroom library purchases were The Hate U Giveby Angie Thomas, American Street by Ibi Zoboi,  and Violent Endsthe story of a school shooting told from various perspectives and written by 17 YA Lit. authors.  Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum. 

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Beyond Hillbilly Elegy: Books for Country Boys

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Bull with a few of his favorite books

I’ve been thinking about one of my former students recently, wondering how he’s doing.  His name was Logan, but everyone–his family included–called him Bull.

I’ve been thinking about him because I had him in class for two years, and it took me a long time to realize I’d been recommending all the wrong books for him.

With the recent popularity of a book like Hillbilly Elegy (which has caused quite a stir here in Appalachia) I’m reflecting on how it’s a book I probably would’ve recommended to Bull.  Like the many other “country” books I’d offered him, figuring the text had a character he could actually relate to, I think Bull would’ve hated it, as many of my friends here in West Virginia have.  I haven’t had a chance to read it, but my peers and students alike who have say it’s too much of a stereotype of Appalachian culture, that it paints Appalachia much too negatively, and that it in no way captures the beauty of our mountains, music, or lifestyle.

I had a hard time getting Bull interested in reading, but boy, he’d write.  He wrote beautifully about the country he lived in, the simplicity of his family life (he showed me videos of teaching his barefooted three-year-old brother how to operate a push plow on their farm), and his love of hunting.

I think no book can capture the kind of love that a kid like Bull has for his own heritage, and I didn’t realize that when I offered him book after book that I thought had a “similar” kind of character for a protagonist.

But, in his reading life, Bull was a different kid last year.  He was a senior, about to enter the real world and acutely aware of his need to be prepared for it.

When I talked to him at the end of last school year, he described his junior year reading life as “shitty.”  I asked him why, and he said, “cuz I was lazy.”  He read two books all year, and when I talked to him about this, he laughed sheepishly.

Last year, he’d read 13 books and was in the midst of his 14th–Monuments Men by Robert Edsel–when I went on maternity leave.  I think he read 17 books by the end of the school year.  Before I left, I talked with Bull about his reading life.  We’d discovered his love of war books with American Sniper.  “My great grand-pap was in Vietnam, and I want to read about what he went through,” Bull explained, gesturing to his stack of books.

I also asked him how he felt about reading.  “It calms me,” he told me.  “It gives me something to do.”

It calms me.  I still remember him saying that to me, sitting in my classroom with the back door open, where a spring breeze wafted in and the sounds of kids eating lunch outside could’ve been a huge distraction.  But as Bull reflected on what reading did to him, the act of thinking about books took him away from our classroom and into a place of relaxation.

I loved watching reading transform Bull.

From war biographies, Bull moved to war fiction, then to books in verse, then to graphic novels, then to a variety of nonfiction titles.  He eschewed books about country life, popular fiction, and YA novels all year.

I’m thinking about Bull now as I reflect on the mirrors, windows, and doors we ask students to walk through in their reading lives.  I’m thinking about him as I reflect on Pernille Ripp’s plea for us to stop grading independent reading.  I’m thinking about how I approached Bull first with books I thought of as mirrors, but he was craving windows and doorways all along.  I’m thinking about how his whole junior year, he got 2/10s on reading logs, and I’m thinking about what a colossal mistake that was on my part.

So, last spring, I asked Bull to compile a list of his favorite books, and the draft has been sitting in my WordPress sidebar ever since.  I share it with you now to remind you that this list, a list for “any country boy,” in Bull’s words, is a list of books set far beyond the mountains of Appalachia–and represents a story that can never be told with an independent reading grade.

  1. Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell – “This was an amazing book.  It was a true story of a Navy SEAL, and his whole team got attacked in an ambush and he was the only one that lived.  Just the things that he gives you is like standing in war–it’s just amazing how something can give you so much detail that it seems to be real.”
  2. Article 5 by Kristen Simmons – “It was the end of the world basically, and there are a few kids running away from the people who were going to kill them.  It was also a really detailed book so I could imagine what the new world looked like.  I liked that book a lot.”
  3. Perfect by Ellen Hopkins – “This book was all about everything people give up to be perfect.  The whole time I was reading it, I just thought, nobody’s perfect–what is wrong with these people?  But it made me understand everybody else better.”
  4. The Auschwitz Escape by Joel Rosenberg – “Hitler ruled this book.  It was about war from a prisoner’s point of view, and it gave lots of detail about what he went through and what Hitler forced him into.  I would never have wanted to be part of World War II as a soldier or a prisoner.  That was some crazy shit.”
  5. Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson – “This one was really hard to understand compared to the other WWII books I read.  I picked it for my challenge book, and it was about what happened in Russia during World War II.  It taught me more about writing than about war, honestly.”
  6. Watchmen by Alan Moore – “This was my first graphic novel and I liked that it was and was not about war, at the same time. It was kind of about the cold war, but through the fighters’ eyes and not the politicians or the history books.”
  7. The Blind Side by Michael Lewis – “Well this book was nothing like the movie, but I wanted to read the book after I saw the movie.  It’s about a football player that came right out of the Bronx, basically had no mom, and he just went from clear down to about nothing to making millions of dollars a year playing in the NFL.  I got inspired by him how you can come from nothing to the NFL and you can do anything you put your mind to.”

Bull now works for the water company here in West Virginia, still lives on a farm…and still reads.  And the song of his reading life is so much broader than a hillbilly elegy.

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or join her for the Slice of Life Writing Challenge here.

Booktalk this now: THE PLOT TO KILL HITLER by Patricia McCormick

The story behind the story.  At this year’s ALAN workshop (you should go!!! free books!!!! lots of authors!!!!!!)  I heard Ryan Graudin, author of Wolf By Wolf, talk about her research of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  

 

Dietrich who??!!!

 

Oh, you know, this guy who was part of a larger group planning to publicize Hitler’s misdeeds to the broader world and to kill him.

 

Ryan’s book is all about an underground resistance that planned to kill Hitler.  Her book is fantasy.  

 

The Plot to Kill Hitler, Patricia McCormick’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is as real as it gets.

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Whom this book is for.  Readers who have a basic, elementary school-level understanding of Hitler and concentration camps know enough to follow this story from beginning to end: McCormick takes care of readers from there.

 

The topic is heavy, but the short chapters and brisk pacing make this 150-page piece perfect for middle and high school readers as well as mature elementary school readers.  If your school already does a holocaust unit, this book will provide a new point of view.

 

More sophisticated readers will make connections between Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King and can debate the relative merits of a pure nonviolent approach to more direct and retributive forms of protest.  One of the most fascinating parts of this book for me was seeing how Bonhoeffer, a deeply religious emotional young man, transformed from a social justice scholar and Gandhi acolyte to a subversive and aggressive warrior.

 

How to booktalk it. Not too much preamble.  Just read the 2-page prologue out loud to the class, where Bonhoeffer knows he is about to be captured by Nazis and races to hide his incriminating papers in a ceiling panel and leaves a deliberately fake diary to throw the Nazis off his path.

 

You should also know… I struggle to match quality middle grades nonfiction with readers.  Some of the most fantastic middle grades nonfiction titles require a lot of patience and background knowledge.  Some are so laden down with information that there isn’t enough of a story to keep readers going.  Other terrific nonfiction titles are awkwardly sized and aren’t easy to carry down the hallway.  This book avoids all of those possible pitfalls.

 

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York.  Despite her observations that nonfiction books tend to be harder to carry around than fiction books, she has seen students lug around the 10-pound “Hamilton” book — you know, the one with all the pictures of the original cast.    Since you were asking, she won lottery tickets to see “Hamilton” during its first week on Broadway.  Really.  Twitter handle: @HMX_MSE

5 Middle School-Friendly Fiction Books About 9/11

I was still a teenager in 2001, and an immature teenager at that.  On 9/11 I wrote a poem in my diary about watching people jump to their deaths on television.  By September 13, 2001, I was back to writing in my diary about getting the silent treatment and missing allowance money.  I didn’t have a way to process 9/11 back then. 

So it’s no wonder to me that I seek out middle school-friendly books about 9/11, because a middle school book about 9/11 is exactly what I needed when I was… you know… in middle school.

And, interestingly, all of these books emphasize the importance of connections to others in the face of tragedy — not just our family and close friends, but also those neighbors we never talk to, the strangers in our lives, and the people we don’t even know we know.  

 

Some notable 9/11 fiction books for teen readers include:

 

  1. Nine, Ten by Nora Raleigh Baskinnineten

Baskin’s lyrical, concise book follows four different young teens in the hours leading up to the terrorist attacks on the United States.  The emphasis here is on the importance of community rather than the tragic events, and our characters are removed from Ground Zero.  Given the brisk pacing, the age of the characters, and the gentle treatment of the terrorist attacks, this book is probably a best fit for readers in grades 5-6. However, the topic gives this book significant crossover appeal to a middle school or even a high school classroom.

 

 

 

 

  1. towers-falling  Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes

This book begins in present-day Brooklyn and works backward, as our main character Deja attempts to understand her father’s emotional fragility.  While younger readers will probably be surprised to discover Deja’s connection to the 9/11 attacks, older readers will be able to make reasonable predictions about where the story is heading from the generous hints Jewell Parker Rhodes gives us along the way.  I appreciate this book not only as a 9/11 book, but also as a book that brings in diverse characters, homelessness, PTSD, Islamophobia, and other social issues.  Recommended for grades 5-7.

 

 

 

 

  1.  Just a Drop of Water by Kelly O’Malley Cerrajust-a-drop-of-water

Before 9/11, Floridian Jake Green’s only cares in the world seem to be  becoming captain of
the eighth grade track team and his grandfather’s war medals.  But 9/11 affects everybody, even in this sleepy town, and all of a sudden Jake’s best friend’s father is taken into FBI custody.   Cerra presents a traditional middle school friendship novel introduces tough topics like the unfair detainment of innocent Muslims and the role of war in international relations.  Recommended for grades 6-8.

 

 

 

 

  1. memory-of-things  The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner

On the morning of September 11 Kyle Donohue evacuated Stuyvesant High School, blocks away from the World Trade Center, and walked home to Brooklyn
with a large group of refugees.  On the way he sees a girl with angel wings who seems lost and confused and brings her to his apartment.  This dual perspective story (Kyle’s narrative is straight prose, the girl’s narrative is fractured poetry) is wholly immersive in 2001 period details and is more about people than politics.  Recommended for grades 7+

 

 

 

 

  1. All We Have Left by Wendy Millsall-we-have-left

Hand this book to the reader who wants to be INSIDE the towers as they come falling down.  Readers go back and forth between the story of Jesse, who is 2016 was only 2 years old when her older brother Travis died in the World Trade Center, and Alia, who in 2001 was one of the last people to see Travis alive.  This book is heavy, but its messages of healing and redemption make it palatable to a wide range of readers.  You’ve been warned: bring tissues.  Recommended for grades 7+.

 

 

 

 

 

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York.  Her taste in music is very 2001.  Visit her on Twitter @HMX_MSE

Booktalk this now: THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas

The story behind the story.  I received an early review copy of this book when I attended the ALA Mid-Winter meetings in January and asked extra-nicely at the HarperCollins booth if there were extras.  

 

(Pro tip: Check to see if there are any ALA meetings happening near you and block those days off on your calendar now.  Free books.  Lots of them.)

 

I started reading it about 6:10 AM over breakfast before leaving for school.  By about 6:50 AM I was reluctant to leave the house and get to school.

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The book talk. I told students that this was the rare book that made literally want to drop everything and read.  Starr is at a spring break party when gunshots go off and she and childhood friend Khalil leave the party by car in search of safety.  Police pull Starr and Khalil over and end up killing Khalil in what might be a case of mistaken identity.

 

Why do you think the cops had reason to be suspicious of Khalil?  I asked.

 

Students responded:

Well, he’s a teenager and the people who were at the party were teenagers too.

He was near the scene of the crime when it happened.

Was he speeding away when cops pulled him over ?  (The book makes it clear: he wasn’t speeding.)

Was he black?

 

That’s when I covered up all but the first letters of the acrostic so students could read the title down the page: The Hate U Give or THUG.  

 

“Ohhhhhhh,” students said.  “Khalil was probably stereotyped because he looked like a thug.”

 

Building empathy and understanding for the Black Lives Matter movement.  While this book covers a lot of tough teen topics, be ready for readers to proke, prod, and question its support of Black Lives Matter.

 

Be ready for readers to say, “What about all the cops that keep everybody safe?  You can’t be anti-cop.”  And “I don’t understand why Black Lives Matter people have to make it about black people.  What about white people who just want everybody to get along?”  Thomas pre-emptively responds to these readers by giving this book a strong moral core, where there are supportive police officers, kind family members, a grassroots nonviolent community organization, and a terrific white boyfriend along with some villain characters of both races.  

 

Starr is a teenager of the moment.  She’s a tumblr addict, she wants you to know that she considers Beyonce a cousin, she nae-naes and hits the quan.  She embodies contemporary teens in general and contemporary black teens in particular.  In 25 years she’ll appear fuddy-duddy, just as her Jodeci and Juvenile-loving parents are right now.

 

Patience and stamina.  The action happens in the first few dozen pages, and what follows is reaction and rebuilding.  This book felt more slowly paced to me than readalike All-American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely.  Some readers, particularly middle school readers, might find the pace discouraging, so if you include this in a classroom, I’d recommend that readers find a book partner to talk about the book as they read.  

 

Where to buy it.  You can buy signed copies from Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi.  The book goes on sale tomorrow!

 

Amy Estersohn is an English teacher in New York.  There are as many seasons of Survivor as there are books in her To Be Read pile.   Follow her on Twitter @HMX_MSE

What Will You Read Next?

I’m always on the lookout for ways to keep moving my readers forward. To stave off the lethargy that unrelenting mid-forties temperatures and 17 weeks of gray skies (winter makes me hyperbolic) can leave in a classroom. The novelty of a new year, with its resolutions and fresh semester, has succumb to the bleak midwinter pall of third quarter and we need something that says, “If that groundhog claims six more weeks of winter (rat-face that he is), we’re going to need a plan…and a good book or two.”

Well, thank goodness I have an unhealthy addiction to Twitter (Ummm…Cornelius Minor just started following me last night. I’m going to need to step up my game. Significantly).  Years ago, it was Pinterest, but that was back when I had time to scroll and save ‘Best Brunch Recipes to Feed a Hangry Crowd’ and ’19 Ways to Burn Booty Fat’ (not to say I couldn’t still use both).

My scrolling these days, however, is far more literary in focus and professional in nature (19 Ways to Burn Booty Fat for Educators – Conferring as Cardio). Seriously though, Twitter has led me to countless quick write topics, mentor text ideas, blogs to follow, inspirational quotes, professional development opportunities, booklists, laughs, collegial exchanges, and pedagogical articles to stretch my practice. #TrachersWin, #LoveToLearn, #StrongThumbs, #TwitterScrollingSavesLives.

A few days back, Penny Kittle posted this photo:

I quickly screenshotted the image to replicate in my room. This visual reminder of where we’re headed (another book and/or a swing toward spring) will provide the push forward we need. Get it on the wall!

My students needed something to set their sights on, so I asked them to take a look at their ‘I Want to Read List’ and choose what their next reading would be. This wouldn’t just be a goal to finish our current texts, but would also give us something to look forward to.

I encouraged students to take this as an opportunity to challenge themselves outside what they have been consistently reading, either in complexity or genre, and select a book they were excited to get their hands on.

Each student then took an index card, on which went the name of the book, the author, and the date they plan to start this next text.


My aide, an artistic genius, drew the book that would be the center our our display (It even has dozens of book titles written on the first page – I LOVE it, Hailey!) and started arranging the ‘Next Text’ cards around it. The whole back wall of my classroom is going to be a sea of texts we can look forward to.

I’m loving my current read (Shout Out: #3TTTBookClub – Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things), but I too will be adding a card: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.

(A freak and serious arrest of my artistic development in the second grade prevents me from sharing my card with you. Please imagine it’s simplistic beauty and that might help me create something wall worthy)


Let’s Get Excited About Where We Are Heading! What Will You Read Next? Please leave your text choices in the comments below. Happy Friday. 


Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and Honors/Pre-AP Sophomores, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout.  She is a firm believer that a youthful spirit, a kind heart, a big smile, and a good book can ease most of life’s more troublesome quarrels. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum.

Books Can’t Be Bullied

Books: “They don’t get tired and give in, they don’t rearrange their words to soothe their reader’s ego or get a better position on the shelf, and they can’t be bullied”  – Josh Corman for Book Riot.

I’m not going to get political here. I promise.

I’m quite frankly exhausted by, though no less involved in, politics these past few weeks, but when I saw this quote, I knew I needed to explore it. It does (fair warning) come from a pretty politically charged piece that you can seek out and read, if you like, but I first saw this quote completely out of context and feel that it’s a powerful statement in and of itself.

The push and pull of it intrigues me.

I first pictured a book: proud, immovable, and cool. Spine bent ever so slightly, tantalizing a reader with the ideas inside, like the love interest in a dark romance who reads Goethe in tiny coffee shops and spells color with a “u”:

I’ve got what you need, but I’m in charge here. We go at my pace. Turn my pages to see where I will lead you. You aren’t the first and you won’t be the last. 

Aloof in the face of need, careful not to promise too much. If you come to this book looking for fulfillment, it won’t permit you to find it. Too easy. It’s not about you. It’s about the message.

I can also see this book as a soldier on the front lines, battling to retain pride in its themes. Beat down by two star Amazon reviews, milk spilled across its pages, and the misrepresentation of translation, reprinting, and censorship. Not desperate, but insistent:

See me. See what I really am. What I have to offer. I am not what you purport me to be. I am not what others say I am. Think. Judge for yourself. 

But what does any of this mean for our classrooms?

For my students, It means we are going to write about it. I want to know what they think. What identity this quote suggests books have, and thereby what role in our lives? What impact?

See, in an age that not so subtly suggests that books are made better by individual interpretation, I would argue we sometimes give ourselves too much credit.

I might go so far as to suggest that we need books to be a bit immovable these days.

It’s not all about us. What we like. What we need. What we get out of an experience.  Of course, authors need to make money to keep writing books, but on the back of my copy of East of Eden, Steinbeck is casually smoking a cigarette and weaving a tale of good and evil. Is there really so much room for interpretation there? Should there be?

Yes, we, and our students, benefit immensely from challenging conventional thought and learning to build meaning from difficult texts through personal connection, but at the end of that journey, the book remains. The nuance may be up for debate, but the message, perhaps not.

Books offer us a place to see that which does not grow old. The words are pressed between the pages, meaning what they did when they were published. It is we who change and must work to balance how perception influences theme.

Tweets scroll past in soundbites on the screen. Facebook spins and updates with a thousand new ideas with every pull of a thumb. Books remain what they always have been. They cannot be bullied to change with the times. They are timeless, and as such, essential to our survival in the era of eight second attention spans.

So as we bring ourselves to a text, we must be willing to meet it halfway.

It’s not about you, or not only about you.  It’s about the two of us. Book and reader. We can only succeed if we work at this together. 

What better lesson for these times, political or no, than to meet in the middle and align our unchangeable past with the possibilities that carefully crafted ideas can suggest for our future? A book, afterall, still needs a reader.

Let’s produce millions of resilient readers, hungry for truth, who will open books and listen, because a book is always ready to talk, and frankly, we could all stand to listen a lot more than we do.

I’d love to hear your reflection on the quote. Please feel free to join the discussion below in the comments. 

Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and Honors/Pre-AP Sophomores, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout. She is a firm believer that a youthful spirit, a kind heart, a big smile, and a good book can ease most of life’s more troublesome quarrels. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum.

 

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