As the year closes out and Top Ten lists pop up everywhere, I thought I’d get in on the game, but take a different route.
Recently, my friend Danny Bauer shared the first book he remembered reading as a kid – Danny the Dinosaur – and what made it so memorable for him. He also asked our group to share the first book we remember reading. Sadly, I don’t remember a first book as well as he does, which I found to be a pretty big let down. There are a number of books, however, that are memorable for me, but in a different way.
I was a reluctant reader as a kid; not that I couldn’t read well, but I just didn’t care to. While my older brother would devour books in our room as quickly as I am devouring the Christmas candy in our house lately, I was just much more excited to play outside, create artwork, or build something in the playroom. I came to love reading later in life, even becoming the reading teacher when I taught 5th grade.
How did I get there? For some sense of simplicity, here are the ten books that tell the story of my reading life.
Family Circus – When I was younger, my mom would take my brother and I to the grocery store and every once in a while, we could pick out a book from the small book section. I always chose Family Circus. It was funny, not too many words and I could breeze through it quickly when mom said we had to read.
Garfield – In elementary school, the only thing I remember motivating me to read was Book It!, a reading program sponsored by Pizza Hut, which gave you a coupon for a Personal Pan Pizza when you completed some number of books. I was the epitome of how extrinsic rewards backfire. I enjoyed Garfield books, but mainly it was a means to an end; I wanted to put books on my list without completely cheating, and this was the fastest way to do it. The pizza was memorable, the books, not so much.
Calvin and Hobbes – Notice the comic theme here. This was different though. Bill Waterson’s pictures were hilarious, but the vocabulary was much higher, to the point that some meaning went well over my head. I still have those books and read them, and have used many of them in my teaching.
Fudge-a-Mania – This was a breakthrough book. A chapter book I actually enjoyed. To be honest, I don’t really remember why, but I know I smiled and laughed a lot. I also remember this being the first book I took to the bathroom to read. That, my friends, is a big moment.
Hatchet – Sadly, there is a big gap between Fudge-a-Mania and another memorable book. This is mostly memorable because I didn’t read it, but tried to convince my middle school teacher I had for our independent reading assignment. I failed miserably, on the first question he asked me. Why it is more memorable is that I would later teach this to my 5th graders and love it. This is one of those books that makes me regret not being a reader early on, that makes me envy my brother’s ability to enjoy reading as a kid. I missed out on a lot of good books, although being an elementary teacher allowed me to catch up a good bit.
Catch 22 – Senior year of high school. That’s how long it took between smiling at Fudge and enjoying another book. I actually laughed out loud at this one. Here’s the thing, I was a really good student. I went to a great school and did well enough to get into a great college. I knew how to read a book, get some ideas, and turn it into an A essay. But I didn’t learn to enjoy reading in school. That didn’t happen until college, when I started reading books (not the ones assigned in class) for fun. All of a sudden, Friday Night Lights, Kurt Vonnegut, The Lord of the Rings became enjoyable rather than confusing (why would my brother choose to read those long books with small words) or dreaded (another assigned book that must be boring). Interestingly, when I got on a kick of reading books again, Catch-22 was much less intriguing. On the other hand, I actually enjoyed The Great Gatsby when it wasn’t assigned by a teacher.
Love That Dog – Arguably my favorite book ever. It is also one of the only books I remember reading in class in college and I didn’t even have to read it, the teacher read it out loud to us. Our Elementary Ed professor reminded us all that everyone loves a great read aloud (Yay audio books!) and she made it very clear what I was going to do with my life.
Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings – It is odd to say that I became a reader in college. Again, not the skill of reading, but the love of reading. In 2001, the first Lord of the Rings movie came out. By the following Christmas, I was watching Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone at home with my siblings (10- and 12-years younger). As a college basketball player, our winter breaks were short and we went back to school when almost no one else was there. Outside of practice, we had a lot of spare time. A lot of that was spent on video games, but I also started to read these stories. I was finally devouring books like my brother used to and, with Harry Potter, my love for children’s literature grew.
The Dot – After teaching for a few years, I found this book on a used book table at the end of the school year and it quickly jumped to the top of my list as my favorite picture book of all time. Along with it’s companions, Ish, and SkyColor, Peter H. Reynolds captures a great deal of what I believe about children – the struggle to love learning, growth mindsets, and the power of children as inspiration for others. The book was written 15 years ago, at the time I was diving deeply into my journey to become an educator. I have loved sharing it with my students, just on my own or as part of International Dot Day. I even got to visit Reynolds’s book store this summer and received a personalized dot of my own in the mail a few weeks ago. Other books might fall off this list eventually, but I can’t imagine that happening to this one.
Essentialism – This is the least remarkable and will probably be the first to fall off of my list for another, more important one. My sister gave it to me two days ago because she thought I might like it. Last night, I sped through the first 50 pages as it matches the story-telling, self-help genre that has attracted my attention recently. As I try to become a more focused human, this one will help me on that path and then give way to another book with similar style and substance.
I still surprise myself with my love of reading, from where I was as a kid. I’ve read over 40 books this year so far. A handful have been graphic novels; maybe a little because my goal was 50, but I also because I’ve come to really enjoy these, especially historical fiction graphic novels. (Of course this is a couple years after giving a few of my former students guilt trips about only reading graphic novels as independent reading.) I can now appreciate my sweet spot for reading, which includes children’s picture books, educational nonfiction, self-help, young adult, humor. I’m proud of my eclectic list and would gladly share it with anyone.
I recently heard a book critic reviewing a poetry book and he mentioned how many people say to him, “I just don’t like poetry.” His response was, “That’s crazy. That’s like saying you don’t like music.” No one really dislikes poetry, or reading, or music. They just might not have been given the right book at the right time. My goal as a teacher was to help find the right book for the right kid at the right time. I don’t want them to miss out on all the books that I did, although I’m not disappointed with my journey either. Maybe there are students out there that need time to be reluctant and get lost on their journey to becoming an avid reader. I know I was lost for a long time in the world of reading, but I’ve found a path that is mine, and maybe a few others won’t mind sharing it with me.