Sep 27, 2013

Taking it for Granted: Adventures with Young Readers

Pile of books: A Dog So Small, Archer's Goon, Journey to the River Sea, Enchanted Glass, Alone on a Wide Wide Sea, Fly By Night

As I mentioned before, about five months ago I had the opportunity to start a reading group for pre-teens at my library. After a slow start, we eventually managed to get the word out and raise some interest: the group currently has twelve members aged 9 to 12, and we meet once a month to be excited about books together. My kids are pretty diverse when it comes to interests, reading levels, and English proficiency, so instead of running a traditional book club where everyone reads and discusses the same book, I’ve been treating it more as a space for in-depth reader’s advisory.

This is how our selection process usually goes: I present them with a range of books to choose from and tell them a bit about each; they freely decide what they want to read (usually smaller groups of 2 or 3 end up reading the same book); and at the following meeting they tell me — and each other — about the book they read. Usually some of them end up swapping books or at least expressing an interest in what the others have read, and I take this as a sign of success.

I thought it might be interesting to do a detailed post about my experiences with the group, particularly because they tie in with the same theoretical concerns I’ve discussed at length in the past. As some of you might remember, I did my MA dissertation on reading and gender, and last year I did a data project for Lady Business on the same topic. Here’s what I said back in March 2012:
I wanted to research the gender reading gap from a stance that not only rejected gender essentialism, but also embraced the possibility of changing the dominant cultural climate: we can normalise reading for boys and make it comfortable for them to have interests that fall outside hegemonic masculinity. Literacy professionals such as librarians have a crucial role to play here, and as the interviews I conducted show, many already do this.
Now that I’ve had the chance to move from theory to practice, I wanted to take a moment to consider the results and reflect on my experiences. Before I move on, though, a brief disclaimer: I realise that I’ve had it very, very easy to far, and this post is not meant to be prescriptive or self-righteous. I don’t mean to say, “See, change is easy if only you’re willing to make the effort!”, when in reality things are often much more complicated than that. The following are two of the main factors that have made things easy for me so far:

  • The age group I work it. If I worked with older kids, I might have had to put more effort into countering societal pressures and addressing any resulting limiting and prescriptive ideas about how your interests should be neatly aligned with stereotypical gender roles, or else. This isn’t to say these factors aren’t very much present in pre-teens (research shows they’re present even in toddlers), but it’s probably easier for me as an adult to set up a microspace that disrupts these norms and have nine- and ten-year-olds follow along without resistance than it would be if I worked with sixteen- or seventeen-year-olds. (Of course, if your experience tells you otherwise I’d love to hear about it.)

  • The fact that I don’t (yet) work with reluctant readers. This is something that may change in the future, and when it does I’ll be happy to meet the challenge. But the truth is that so far the kids who have come to my group have been kids who want to be there and who already identify as readers. Therefore, their resistance to associating themselves with everything being a young reader tends to signal socially is minimal (in the safe space of the library, at least).

    With that out of the way, here go some thoughts:

    The gender angle

    This tends to surprise people, but I have a lot of boys in my group. At our last meeting, there were seven boys and five girls. Sometimes when people are told about these numbers they suggest that the reason why I get so many boys is that they’re much more reluctant to read, and so their parents pressure them to come. I’m not going to say that’s something that will never happen, but that’s not the impression I get when I work with these kids closely. They’re all very enthusiastic readers, and my feeling is that they may be the only bookish kid in their school or class, and so they come to meet peers who share their interests and perhaps feel less like these interests make them odd. This is as true of the girls as it is of the boys.

    The other question I get is how I cater to boys’ and girls’ wildly divergent reading interests, and my answer so far is that I don’t. This is where all the disclaimers I’ve made above come in: I know I’m privileged to have encountered no resistance. Even though everything in our culture tells them otherwise, they’ve responded really positively to me taking it for granted that reading interests can be shared across gender lines. I don’t ask the boys whether it’s okay to give them a book by a woman or with a female protagonist; I just do it and hope that me treating it as a non-issue will help normalise it.

    So far my boys have been all over Eva Ibbotson and Diana Wynne Jones and Frances Hardinge, as well as Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching. The strength of feeling with which one of my 12-year-olds told me he related to Mosca Mye, with her fierce intelligence and her craving for stories and words, is not something I’ll forget anytime soon. Even if the only thing I achieve is not being one more adult in this little boy’s life who acts as if his willingness to relate to a girl as a fellow human being is somehow odd or suspicious, I’ll consider it a job well done.

    Over the past few years I’ve become increasingly drawn to the idea of alternative spaces; of creating little pockets that disrupt the cultural norms I’d like to see challenged as a form of resistance. I discussed this earlier this year in relation to International Women’s Day, but it goes for other things as well. Sometimes fighting for the things you care about is daunting and exhausting and leaves you feeling like you’re emptying the ocean with a bucket. So I find it helpful to focus on what I can do, no matter how small it is in the grand scheme of things.

    I can’t solve the whole problem of how we socialise our boys to view women as a subhuman special interests group; of how we model the idea of “girl cooties” in a million little ways. I can, however, make a conscious decision not to do this myself and then act with deliberation. I can create a small subversive space in their lives, where the fact that we’re all human and of course it’s okay to enjoy reading and to talk about feelings and to cry when you read Michael Morpurgo and to read stories by and about women is normalised, and then for one hour a month we can all live by it. This won’t necessarily undo layer upon layer of social pressure, but maybe it will be transformative in its own small way.

    What about the girls?

    One of the things I remember writing in my dissertation is that the focus on the “boy crisis” could easily end up sidelining all the issues surrounding girls’ literacy, and this is risky because unfortunately reading is not prestigious for either gender. The social pressure to hide the fact that you’re bookish and smart because it’s not “cool” is very much there for girls too. So even as I try to implement transformative models that normalise reading for boys, I take care not to make them the exclusive focus of my concerns and end up ignoring the girls. My lovely, smart, shy girls are every bit as worthy of my thoughtfulness and attention as the boys, and my main goals for the group — to undertake a long-term reading development project and to create a space that celebrates and normalises reading — very much include them.

    Taking it for granted, part two: yay for reading

    As I said before, my reading group is not an outreach project specifically designed to capture kids who wouldn’t be reading otherwise. It probably goes without saying that I think such projects are invaluable, but I also believe in the worth of working with non-reluctant readers and giving them the attention and support they probably wouldn’t be getting elsewhere.

    Having said that, I try to make no assumptions about their reading habits, because I just can’t predict when I will have a kid who shies away from reading and whose parents gently prodded them to attend — and on the day that happens I’d like them to feel welcome and have fun and hopefully want to come back next time. So my strategy so far has been to take it for granted: reading is fun and a positive thing, but this doesn’t have to translate into specific reading achievements because every child is different (I’m careful to tell them it’s always okay not to finish one of the books they take home, or to put it aside and pick up something else). Hopefully if I model this enthusiasm about books and transmit the idea that there is a book out there they’ll have fun with and we’ll try our very best to find it together, it will slowly make it true even for the ones who weren’t quite as keen when we started out.

    Be team reading

    Many of the books I’ve suggested to them so far have been books I know well and am passionate about sharing with other readers, but I make a conscious effort not to unwittingly communicate that these are the only books I’m an advocate for, or that they’re expected to enjoy them themselves. This is, of course, reader’s advisory 101, but it can be hard to remember it in practice, especially when you get excited. I’m an adult who works at the library and they’re children, so of course they see me as authoritative and my words carry weight. Saying “you might enjoy this” rather than “this is great!” can make a world of difference in terms of internal pressure, and “it’s okay if you don’t like it and want to read something else instead; come back next time and tell me about that other book!” is never ever superfluous information.

    It does make me happy when my kids connect with books I’m enthusiastic about myself, but when my newly-minted young Frances Hardinge fan tells me about his passion for Chris Ryan, I listen with just as much interest. Every win is a win for team reading, and that’s the only team I’m on.

    Kids are individuals

    A bit of a Professor Obvious statement, I know, except the amount of sentences I hear that begin with “kids like…” kind of suggests otherwise. My “no gendered assumptions” approach goes for everything else, and I do my best to work with the individual child I have in front of me; to find out the best way to reach them and cater to their unique interests. The individual rapport I establish with them matters to me both personally and professionally, and listening goes a long way towards achieving that.

    If I have a moment with them (when they see me at the library outside our meetings and come say hi [which never fails to make my day], if they’re the first to arrive to a meeting, or while we’re waiting for their parents to pick them up), I ask about their interests. Also, the fact that they’re young doesn’t mean that our bookish conversations aren’t a two-way street. One of the reasons why I’m interested in reader’s development is because I genuinely really enjoy talking to people about books, and library users of all ages are of course people. One of my kids was delighted that I got Michael Morpurgo’s Alone on a Wide, Wide Sea on his recommendation, and hopefully this is a little detail that will help cement the idea that I’m a fellow book lover who is there to work with them, rather than someone whose suggestions come from a position of authority.

    The joy of doing good work

    I know that I still have a lot to learn, that I make mistakes, and that I’ll get better at this whole thing as I gain more experience in ways I can’t even envision yet. Still, I wanted to finish this by saying that doing good work with these kids (by which I mean work I believe in, rather than necessarily work I’m excellent at) has made me happy in ways that surpassed my every expectation. After our last meeting I was walking on clouds — happy in a personal way; in the way you feel happy when something that deeply matters to you goes exactly as you hoped. As I’ve said before, I realise what a rare thing it is in our day and age to have your job be something that’s so closely aligned with the very core of who you are and what you believe in, and I feel truly blessed.

    1. I love that kids that feel different because of their love of reading have a group like that to relate to. It sounds like you're running a terrific book club!!

    2. Saying “you might enjoy this” rather than “this is great!” can make a world of difference in terms of internal pressure, and “it’s okay if you don’t like it and want to read something else instead; come back next time and tell me about that other book!” is never ever superfluous information.

      Oh, absolutely. While I don't wield influence over a group of preteens, I do make sure to bring this attitude any time I'm asked for a recommendation at the store. I had a young woman in last week who I eventually handed a copy of The Handmaid's Tale, and I made sure to tell her that I hoped she enjoyed it and, even if she didn't, she would probably benefit from being able to use it as background.

    3. Those kids are so lucky to have you leading the group. You are doing wonderful work!

    4. aw this post makes me so so so happy! Thanks so much for sharing! <333

    5. *hugs this post tightly* Oh my, how I wish Max and Gray could be in your reading group--though they would be there with some parental prodding. :P

    6. Watching my own ten year old boy reading with his friends makes me agree that there's no need, at that age, to think that books with girl protagonists, and girls on the cover, won't appeal to a boy. At the moment he's reading The School for Good and Evil, because his two reading friends who were girls loved it so much...

    7. What a brilliant post, I read every word and think that what you're doing is amazing. As a grandma one of the things that gives me most pleasure in life is chatting to my 13 year old grand-daughter about the books she's reading. We recommend books to each to each other and I always try to read what she suggests. Now my 6 year old grandson is learning to read and I'm hoping he'll go the same way. He's a good reader and, being a reading family, we're hopeful. Keep up the good work.

    8. I wonder, understanding of course, that your story is anecdotal, of course, not meant to reflect, as you said, the RIGHT WAY TO DO EVERYTHING EVER, but I wonder how you think it would work in a setting that doesn't have the selection bias of kids who want to join a reading group (or even kids whose parents want them to join a reading group)? My own position of viewing this issue (as a parent rather than an educator, as someone in Texas rather than the UK, as someone wiht far less education int he topic) is much different than yours, but my experience has been that the heart of the issue is that many of the children I've met have no interest in reading, and often coem from homes that really don't have much interest either. Even as an adult, and in a workplace that tends towards a more educated general population than the average (though I know this is not necessarily the perfect judge of reading) its remarkably common, as far as I've experienced, for adults to think of reading as a thing one does if one has to (especially men, that I've met).. Additionally, I'm vurious about your statement about this being the perfect age. I recall being in middle grades, personally being the time when gender expectations became very socially important. Is your personal experience different, or your experience of the children you've worked with? Just curious where your impression came from, not in a spirit of disagreement, just wondering at our varying experience of it.

      Thank you, the entry was both inspiring and thought provoking. :)

    9. My son never had a problem reading a book with a female protagonist, but then, when I grew up in the 1960s/70s I never met ANY prejudice against my reading habit. My friends just didn't care if I read or not, let alone what I read. They also didn't care that I was a writer. I don't think they were interested either way.

    10. Kathy: I hope so! They do seem to enjoy it, which makes me really happy.

      Clare: Yes, that's always a good idea. It can be hard to contain your excitement when it's a book you really love, but it's so important too.

      Stefanie: Thank you! I hope so.

      Amy: <3

      Debi: Aw, I wish they could come too!

      Charlotte: Aw. Stories like that make me happy.

      Cath: Thank you so much, Cath. I think being from a reading family makes a huge difference, and hopefully you have lots of wonderful bookish conversations with your grandson ahead of you.

      Jason: Oh, absolutely not "the perfect age" - that's not what I meant at all. I just meant relatively easier when compared to older teens, though I'm open to the possibility that not even that is true, because with teens you can more easily talk about gender theory and societal expectations and make them aware of where the pressure comes from. Honestly, the only thing I'd call the perfect age is the day they're born, and even then with huge caveats, because I'm aware of how deeply ingrained gender socialisation is in every aspect of our lives. But it's probably easier the younger you get them? As for working with non-readers, it would of course require an entirely different approach. I'm not sure what I'd do, to be honest - it would require lots of strategical thinking and getting support from people more experienced than me. I've given this topic some thought over the years, and my suspicion is that we'd have an easier time sharing the joy of reading with people who want nothing to do with it if we didn't elevate reading above other passions and interests quite so much. The broccoli approach (you-have-to-do-it-it's-good-for-you) often backfires, because it makes people defensive and insecure. But how you even begin to tackle that is beyond me, especially when it's at the heart of the very institution I represent. My library offers other media, not just books, but with budget cuts and other financial pressures they've begun charging for everything other than books, which of course implicitly elevates reading above watching films or listening to music. It's a huge problem, and as much as I'd LOVE to be part of a huge outreach campaign that does something to tackle it, I have no immediate solutions.

      Anon: That's good that neither you nor your son encountered any pressure or prejudice :)

    11. This is just fantastic. Great post, and great job with the kids. :)

    12. Awesome post and what a great program. I don't remember my brothers having any gender issues when it came to heroines/heroes or gender of authors. But back in the dark ages, middle grade readers didn't have the wonderful choices kids have now.

    13. Heather, thank you so much! I really hope it continues to go well.

      Beth F: I believe it's largely a self-fulfilling prophecy. Well-meaning adults assume there will be a problem, and so they communicate to the kids that there SHOULD be one - that it's unexpected and outside the norm for them not to conform to gender stereotypes and vehemently reject anything perceived as "girly". So of course that makes them more conforming, because no kid wants to feel like they're "doing" their gender identity wrong.

    14. This is so inspiring! You are doing amazing, important work with these kids. Thanks for sharing. <3

    15. Wow, what you're doing is incredible and soooo important. I'm collecting all sorts of books for my son and I hope that I raise him to know that we're all just people and that it's ok to enjoy something about a girl. I still remember finding my brother's stash of Anne of green gables books, he felt that he had to hide his love from them.
      And I totally relate to the kids are different thing - I struggle with so much 'little boys should like this' stuff. Likes and dislikes really don't work by gender, kids are individuals. It's shocking how often that's ignored.

    16. How lucky those kids are to have you leading their reading group! It must mean the world to them to see you taking their recommendations. And of course I'm sure you must know that it warms the cockles of my heart to hear about kids of either gender eating up Eva Ibbotson and Diana Wynne Jones. :)

      (I swear I will read Frances Hardinge soon. I promise.)

    17. That's amazing Ana! I'm so glad you had the opportunity to start this group. And that you can do it with both boys and girls and see their reactions to what you recommend, interacting with them, exchanging ideas and point of views, while observing how you can create your own subversive space, it's just brilliant. I've also started a bookclub in my school last year, as I've also decided not to have just one book to discuss, but leave it open to their choices. We have "theme" bookclubs. I normally make a display related to those themes, and I make lists for them,but I find the girls tend to make their own choices most of the time. But the thing is that I do work only with girls (teenagers), as it's a girl's only school (and a catholic one at that), so being subversive has to come in different forms.
      But it'd be interesting to have a talk with them about what they think "girls" and "boys" books are and if they think there's much of a different. I'm afraid their whole lives have been spent cementing the idea that they're different. Why else would they be put in different schools than boys then? So it might be hard to make a crack in that wall. Still, having this group going has made me happy more than once so I hope it continues to grow and to improve! Our first meeting for this year is tomorrow!

    18. I love this post so much. Thank you for being YOU!

    19. In Re: your repsonse about the perfect age - I honestly don't know, to be frank. The perfect age in some way is so difficult to determine,a nd perhaps dffers not only based on the child, but on your relationship to them? This sounds exclusionary, but I rather mean, well, EVERY age perhaps is perfect in some way? At some level, being able to read to my own children at a VERY young age was 'perfect' - but then, a very young child learns social patterns in many ways as a product of direct imitation - of taking the identities of those they love and admire and trying them on, as it were? So, I could see (and have wondered) a librarian reading books at story time, let us say, that have a wildly different message from what the parents reading as having the difficulty of being banished to the realm of 'other' instead of 'self', the way a parent is admitted, if that makes sense? Sort of, the stark difference between the consistently available emulation model making thelibrarian with those 'funny ideas' abotu gender and what not seem more starkly liek an outsider, an other, something to be reacted to instead of somethign to be integrated. IF that makes sense? High schoolers you have reverse that ratio, to an extent, right? Like by that point they WANT and ACHE to think independently, to form identity from the ether, to form an identitya nd decide their self, if that makes sense, but at the same time, at that point having a higher load of learned opinion to overcome, right? Perhaps in that sense your middle schoolers ARE perfect, they are just old enough to begin to question, but just young enough to not be trapped by the answers. I hope I didn't sound like I was contradicting you! Mostly I was just curious, my own relationship wtih the middle grades age group is idiosyncratic and not a good measure - I was more just interested in hearing your wisdom on something I don't understand (despite now having two middle-graders in my house!). So thank you for your lovely response :).

    20. Ana, what a lovely post about reading and kids, and your responses to what you are learning by interacting with them.

      I'm curious too about what role gender plays in what kids read - and who they read - and how adults influence them in what to read. I know my eldest son loved Ursula K Leguin's series so much that he used that nickname as his first email address. And he read all the Chrestomanci series - which features Cat the boy character, but written by a woman. I'd like to think it's good storytelling that drew him, but it's also because his father and I both read widely. Perhaps that is one of the bigger influences for him, but not the only one. It would be curious to see how a child from a home where no one reads, approaches authors of the same sex or other sex.

      I think in the teen years there is a pulling away, and an identification with authors of the sexual preference (more or less) of the reader, though it is not something I am sure has ever been studied.

      As always you have raised many questions for us to think about! I am so proud and happy that you are leading a reading group like this, and helping kids to read more (love all the titles you picked!), as well as letting them tell you what they are curious about in books, too. This makes me so happy. You are encouraging kids who want to, to read, and that's what really matters in the end. After that we can study how they choose the books they do! :-)

    21. Loved this post! I don't have kids and I don't work with kids nor am I likely to seek out a job that does, but that doesn't mean I'm not thrilled to hear about these young readers' enthusiasm, and about your joy in your reader's advisory position.

    22. Thank you for posting about your experiences with the 9-12 reading group. I especially like the way you are so open to observing what happens and willing to take it from there.

      I am writing a memoir about how my life tracked with both the books I read and the books others were reading as I lived. The other day I realized that the year I was 11, in the sixth grade, was almost completely free for me of concerns about girls vs boys. I just was. I think it was the last year I felt that way. And guess what? I had a wonderful teacher who recognized my love of reading and put me in the "independent" reading group. That meant I could read whatever I chose and only had to write a few sentences about each book. It was such a huge freedom for me that I felt free of many other worries as well, including the gender thing.

      So what you are doing with these children is huge and important. It is a little window of time and place where they get to make their own decisions about reading. As we know, those of us who love to read, such a freedom is priceless.

      Can't wait to hear more.

    23. I'm starting a book club, and I've been thinking about some of these things in relation to that, but also in relation to my son. I chafe at how many 'typically boy' books there are, easily found (and that he LOVES), and yet I can't think of ones I'd consider 'typically girl' books. (This is in the board book and early picture book era.)

    24. What a great post! I think it's wonderful you are able to do this, Ana, for the kids' sake. And how cool to see your ideas put to the test!

    25. Ana, you are a gift to the world, and I mean that very sincerely. This book club sounds amazing. At some point will you talk to them about book blogs? It's such a great way to find your next great read.


    Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.