The Problem with Great Expectations: Should kids be pushed to read more difficult books?

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A parent of one of our middle school students approached me at my daughter’s ballet class a while back.

“I was hoping I might be able to talk to you about my son,” he said, shaking his head and wringing his hands in a way that led me to believe the young man must be a drug addict or serial shoplifter.  “He’s constantly reading graphic novels.  What should I do?” 

The idea that parents ought to “do something” when kids aren’t reading the books that fit our notion of what they “should” be reading is a common one.  Because smart kids read the classics, right? 

I had two answers for the parent from ballet class.

Answer #1:  “Buy him more graphic novels.  Or use inter-library loan to request some new ones.”
Kids who love to read deserve the right to make their own reading selections.  And there’s lots of research to support the idea that reading binges (devouring one graphic novel or fantasy after another) actually support passionate, lifelong reading habits.  I think it’s helpful to consider our own habits as adults who read passionately. When we find an author or a genre we love, we often stick with it for a good while until something else captures our hearts.  Why should kids be any different?

Answer #2:  “If you’d like to see him branching out, look for some more sophisticated graphic novels that might serve as ‘gateway books.’” 
I offered up Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese and Nick Abadzis’ Laika as choices that might lead into other genres and suggested some other high-interest, fast-moving titles that my 7th graders were enjoying, like The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan.

Sometimes, I think well-meaning parents are too quick to categorize books as literary junk food with no value, swooping in to snatch away the graphic novels and vampire romances and replace them with Dickens and Melville.   And really?  It doesn’t work.

As a middle school English teacher, I’m a big believer in offering kids bridges – books that might take them from what they’re reading and loving right now to something a little more complex or challenging, something that might send them off on another journey. 

But there’s a big difference between offering a child a bridge and pushing him or her over a cliff.  If you take a passionate 7th grade reader who’s eating up Sarah Dessen’s YA novels and demand that she read Wuthering Heights instead, you’re likely to end up with a withering reader instead of a more advanced one.  That same student may come to love Emily Bronte in her own time and on her own terms, but when we force the issue, we often lose readers.

For me, gentle nudges feel like a much better approach.  Instead of snatching away Twilight, let your reader finish the series, and then try offering up some titles that are similar in terms of the supernatural romance, but with a bit more depth.  Books like Need and Captivate by Carrie Jones and Lips Touch, Three Times by Laini Taylor fit that bill beautifully.

YA Literature Goddess Teri Lesesne has a new book called Reading Ladders: Leading Students from Where They Are to Where We’d Like Them to Be.  I haven’t read it yet, but I’m so looking forward to it, and based on what I’ve seen of Teri’s blog and conference presentations, this is a title you won’t want to miss. 

 And the key word in all of this?  Leading.  Not shoving or force-feeding.  Leading.  If we respect kids as readers, they come to trust that they can count on us to offer them the right books at the right time. In my experience, that’s the best way to nurture kids to become passionate, lifelong readers.

Those adorable Share a Story-Shape a Future bears on the logo are the work of illustrator Elizabeth Dulemba. For a full roundup of today’s Share a Story-Shape a Future posts, visit Jen Robinson’s Book Page.

A quick post-script for Chicago area teachers/librarians… I’ll be in your neck of the woods to give an author talk at the International Reading Association Conference in April, and due to a change in my schedule, I have time to offer a free school visit on the morning of April 27th if anyone is interested. If you’re in the Chicago area and might like to schedule an assembly/writing workshop for that day, just comment or drop me an email (kmessner at katemessner dot com)

And I’d love it if we could keep this "Great Expectations" conversation going in comments…  For example, middle school ELA teacher Cindy Faughnan ( )  discusses the social aspect of reading in this great blog entry today.

What are your favorite strategies for helping kids find the perfect next book to read?

53 Replies on “The Problem with Great Expectations: Should kids be pushed to read more difficult books?

  1. Excellent answer! And let’s hope publishers come along with us and produce lots of high-quality, challenging graphic novels for them to read! I just read Raina Telgemeier’s ‘Smile’, about teenage angst and getting braces, and Dave Shelton’s ‘Good Dog, Bad Dog’, about canine detectives, and both used fascinating narrative techniques, worth reading for enjoyment and also studying to learn about storytelling technique.

  2. Wise words, Kate! Both of my daughters read when they were growing up. Once was into Babysitters’ Club and graduated to VC Andrews’ type books. The other – well, A Confederacy of Dunces is still one of her favorites. I always kept books around the house and read to them when they were little and also read a lot myself. I think that makes a big difference.

    On the reading binges…I remember having the library in Thornton CO searching all over creation for the whole Dumas’ series (several books – many virtually unknown that follow D’Artagnan from The Three Musketeers all the way to his demise.) I definitely do the author-binging!

  3. Concerned Parents

    Excellent post! I have loved books all of my life. I am very grateful that I was always allowed to read whatever I wanted to. Your response to this parent was perfect! 🙂

  4. Question

    Great post, Kate! Do you get the problem in 7th of kids trying to read books way above their level? I teach fourth and always co-teach special ed reading and often have kids have this problem (special ed and reg ed). In the case of the special ed kids, I have bought lots of graphic novels and regular books that don’t “look” like younger kid books. In the reg ed kids I am often stumped. I can’t figure out why they continually pick books that they might be able to read fluency wise but have no real comprehension on. I keep having conversations about picking a good book for each kid but to no avail. Any tips?

  5. My voracious 11-year-olds and I are excited about Gareth Hinds’ upcoming graphic novel THE ODYSSEY (Candlewick, 2010). We are Percy Jackson fans and the boys were stunned (STUNNED!) when they began to realize how much of Riordan’s stories are built on ancient mythology!

  6. This blog post needs to become an article in parenting and teaching mag! I am serious.

    When I was young, my siblings and I read comic books. We had a big stack and read them over and over until the new edition came out- and we discussed them. And when our family went to the library once a week, we stocked up on fantasy books, read and discussed those. These weren’t formal discussions, just a bunch of kids who loved to read comparing notes.

    I hope the dad of your student allows that child to continue reading what he enjoys. It’s too bad the dad coudn’t bring himself to read one of those graphic novels and “discuss” it with his son.

  7. Kate, what a wonderful post! I’m convinced that for many middle schoolers, reading is a social experience–they want to read about characters they’d like to hang out with. Just as most parents wouldn’t dictate who their kids choose as friends (provided these choices are generally safe), they shouldn’t choose the characters their kids “hang out with” by reading.

    We all want kids to read for pleasure. I think the surest way to inspire a kid to become a lifelong reader is to allow her to develop her own taste, and to read according to her own interest.

  8. Great article!!

    It’s too bad the dad coudn’t bring himself to read one of those graphic novels and “discuss” it with his son.

    This. I find it phenomenal as my dad spoonfed me comics as soon as I could read. (I am one of the lucky ones, I guess.)

  9. Very wise — and as a mom whose daughter appears to be a reluctant reader, I agree. I’m so hoping I can get E to eventually read graphic novels — or something along those lines — to encourage her to find that joy in reading. Right now, she’ll read very simple books (and she does seem to enjoy them), but I’m running out of them because she reads them so quickly! I guess I’ll have to figure something out when we’ve read all the libraries have to offer….

  10. I was in the library last week, getting some graphic novels for my son. A boy was sitting there on the floor, reading. His dad came and said he could take one but they needed to get something besides a “comic.” He asked me, do you have any recommendations for other books he might like? I asked his age and suggested some, but as I walked to the car, I realized I had failed that boy. And I wanted to cry!!

    I should have told the dad – for free reading at my house, my boys can read whatever they want. I want them to love reading, and if that means graphic novels, that’s okay by me. They have to read enough stuff they don’t want to read in school. And I would have kindly suggested that he let him check out as many graphic novels as he wants to!!

    It still makes me sad when I think about it. But it made me realize that we should all be ready with a quick “spiel” if we are asked or approached about the subject. Next time, I’ll be ready! 🙂

  11. Great answers!

    I love it, buy him more! Exactly! Reading is reading. It’s so easy to get worried about our kids, I understand the mom’s concern. I’m sure you helped reassure her.

    Thanks for the post.

    Melissa Taylor

  12. Re: Question

    I think it’s inevitable that kids will sometimes pick up a book that’s too difficult for their independent reading level, but usually I find they correct that problem pretty quickly if they know it’s okay to abandon a book that’s not working for them. The “five finger rule” works pretty well, too – have them read the first page & if there are five words they don’t understand, then they might want to choose something different.

  13. Actually, Liza, I think that dad really wanted to hear from a teacher that graphic novels are “real reading.” I have that student in my class now, and he’s still happily enjoying his graphic novels, as well as a wide range of other kinds of books!

  14. I agree with you – middle school reading is very much a social experience, and I think sometimes as teachers, we forget that. Thanks for your comment!

  15. Oh, Lisa, you didn’t fail him. I’m sure your suggestions were great, and they probably saved him from being handed something that was really over his head.

  16. This is great, Kate! Thank you so much for getting the conversation started. A PSA – or maybe just a mini-video that schools play at PTA meetings would be a great help, too. The parent who sees themselves may just tweak their approach.

    Although I have done well with some of the early elementary graphic novels (ToonBooks,Bad Kitty e.g.) I have a harder time with the bigger more complicated stories. Something I need to work on!

  17. Thanks so much for contributing to Share a Story, Kate. I loved your point about “there’s a big difference between offering a child a bridge and pushing him or her over a cliff.” Words like yours could really help parents and teachers to grow kids who LOVE reading, rather than kids who find reading a chore. Thanks!!

  18. I love the five finger rule! I will definitely use that, especially with ELL students (I have a lot recently tested out of the program).
    This whole conversation reminds me of my own conflicted feelings about Accelerated Reader. I am not at an AR school, and some days I wish I were, and others I wish I weren’t. My initial reaction to AR was shockhorror, but that was before I had a lot of experience helping students select independent reading. I doubt we will ever get AR, and I can’t imagine how it would mesh with our current situation, since the majority of YA titles are in my classroom not the school’s library. I’m not sure if AR is really offering “bridges” to students. Then again, I am not assessing independent reading in nearly such a rigorous way. What I do is very intuitive and unfortunately not so organized during class time. I worry AR might hold students back, but I also long for some sort of system to function with and expand upon. Can anyone else share with me how they motivate, assess, and keep momentum going without AR?

  19. This is a wonderful conversation, all the more so since I spent today in an all-day meeting to choose the next 15 books that will be this year’s Green Mountain Book Award list.

    In addition to the whole idea of leading v. pushing, we can also help parents to understand that graphic novels are exactly that–novels that tell their stories through a combination of words and images, sometimes highly sophisticated images. They aren’t the old “illustrated classics,” but a genre in their own right. There are readers who prefer graphic novels in the same way there are readers who prefer non-fiction or fiction.

    I also firmly believe in something I heard Katherine Paterson say, kids should be able to read “fluff” (substitute whatever word you want–graphic novels, trashy romances, horror, etc.) as well as literature and Literature, in the same way we don’t deny them dessert. Each has its place.

  20. Absolutely

    I actually wrote a column for my local newspaper about a similar subject recently -forcing kids to read books they have no interest in does not create advanced readers who love books. It stifles curiosity and kills the urge to seek out books; when students are exposed to “the classics” in high school and are bored and unable to relate to the books, they stop reading. They begin to assume that all “good” books must be like the ones they were forced to read in order to pass a class, and so the people who could have become great readers instead refuse to have anything to do with books.

    I really like the idea of building reading bridges with kids and reading -I think that’s a great metaphor for how reading should be done.

  21. That’s funny. Been thinking about this for the whole week now.
    Never ever forced my kid into reading something she didn’t like. She’s fond of Harry Potter, the Magic Thief and Geronimo Stilton. And I’m really OK with it.
    But a few weeks ago, hubby had bought the Jane Eyre BBC series for Christmas and she asked if she could watch. Of course, I said, thinking she’d be bored. She was sooo hooked, she’d watched it at least three times.
    And then, she went to a sleep over at a friends house, and talked about reading with her friend’s parents. The mother was reading Jane Eyre. And she was kind of freaked out it was a book out there with the same story. She asked for it. And started reading right away.
    I haven’t forced. I haven’t told her to read it, or to leave it. But been worried she’s too young for this book. She’s on chapter 15 and seems to enjoy.
    Oh well, she’s a more advanced reader than me at her age. I kept reading Enid Blyton when I was 9!

  22. I am going to come back soon, when I have more time to read through all the comments, but I wanted to put in my two cents.

    I think that the quickest way to turn kids off to reading is to tell them what they should be reading. I let my kids read whatever they love. Even though it means watching my son read the Harry Potter books from cover to cover, get to the end of number seven, finish the last page, and immediately start on page one of the first book again. Over and over again. (What can I say, except I love those books too!)

    I get books out from the library, and just leave them in the middle of my kid’s beds. I don’t talk to my kids about them, or recommend them. If I see my kids reading those books, I’m excited. If my kids give me the books back, and say they started reading the books, but stopped halfway, I just ask what made them stop reading.

    My Harry Potter son picked up your book and read it all the way through after meeting you at your book signing, so maybe meeting the author can be a gateway 🙂

    I think ANY reading is good reading.

  23. I’m not a fan of AR. I think it’s a poor substitute for true reading mentors who can help kids learn to choose books on their own, for authentic reasons, rather than the number of points they carry or the trinkets they’ll allow the child to accumulate. Joy and knowledge are the real rewards of reading, and when we teach kids otherwise, I think we do them a disservice.

    Personally, I think it’s much more effective to fill your classroom with great books, assign nightly reading instead of worksheets, and ask students to talk or write to you and each other about their reading lives regularly.

  24. I bet that was a great conversation at your meeting! I can’t wait to see the list – there are always fantastic choices including one or two that weren’t on my radar but go onto my to-read list right away!

  25. I loved Jane Eyre, too…and like your daughter, I chose it on my own (my friend in 7th grade was raving about Mr. Rochester!) I can’t help but think she might be having a different experience with that book, and a less positive one, if someone had demanded that she read it.

  26. Wow – that means the world to me. Thank you!

    I love your “book fairy” policy with leaving library books on the beds. What a great idea!

  27. Re: thanks!

    Thanks, Teri~ but you don’t need to send one. Now that it’s out, I’m ordering one through my local indie to share at school. Can’t wait to read it!

  28. Gateway books to what?

    I agree in the main with what you are saying. As a junior high and high school teacher, I’ve also enjoyed seeing students’ tastes and reading habits grow naturally, and I can’t say I’ve ever seen anyone hurt by reading, say, all the Nancy Drew books in a gulp or, for that matter, all the Sherlock Holmes stories.

    But you do graphic novels a disservice by implying that their principal merit is in being bridges away from graphic novels. There are simple, shallow graphic novels, and there are complex, mature, sophisticated graphic novels. And in between there are loads of entertaining, satisfying, well-written graphic novels. A student who is obsessed with Fruits Basket this year will, with luck, eventually also enjoy Nausicaa. The personal relationships in Archie and Veronica may grow stale, but there are plenty of graphic novels that explore relationships in a nuanced and complex way.

    The bridge metaphor suggests a linear progress (“My child can already read 8th grade level books; shouldn’t she be leaving them behind and reading 9th grade level books instead?”), when really what we hope for is a broadening, an expansion — that books will be a means by which our students will be introduced to new ideas and new ways of seeing the world and will have their emotional intelligence exercised and educated.

    Graphic novels can easily be as broadening as novels in all the conventional senses (e.g. characterization, setting, plotting, themes, ideas). There are many many graphic novels that are as “worthwhile” to read as the respected books on our students’ reading lists. In addition, graphic novels are an entirely different art form. Kids who read graphic novels are developing a visual fluency that pure prose simply doesn’t tap into. In some ways, we reading teachers are in a similar position to the music appreciation teacher I had in grade school who could not recognize jazz as a worthwhile subject for study, though she liked it personally. In her view, the only appropriate curriculum for our music appreciation class was conventional classical music.

    I think we’re all basically on the same page here. I’d just like to clarify that we can encourage students to broaden their reading experiences by introducing them to graphic novels of “real literary merit” [a phrase that I’d be the first to quarrel with in another context but one thing at a time] as well as by suggesting pure prose books that we think they’ll enjoy. Everyone knows Maus. May I also suggest, just to scratch the surface, Larry Gonnick’s non-fiction, Aya, Klezmer, the Secret Science Alliance, Crogan’s Vengeance, Astronauts of the Future, the Rabbi’s Cat, Smile, Yatsuba, and Azumanga Daiyo?

  29. Re: Gateway books to what?

    I really appreciate this comment. I can see how my discussion of graphic novels in the context of the conversation with that parent could be construed as a suggestion that I don’t value them on their own terms, and I really don’t feel that way at all. Rather, I agree with your argument that graphic novels can sometimes be more sophisticated than their picture-less peers for the reason you explain…the bringing together of both text and image to create a broader kind of fluency. Great point.

  30. Re: Gateway books to what?

    And also…I wish you’d left your name. If I could contact you beyond replying to your comment, I’d love to suggest that you blog about this, if you’re a blogger, or perhaps guest-blog on my site, if not. This is a great conversation worthy of its own page in the universe.

  31. Re: Gateway books to what?

    Thanks for your positive reading of my comment. After I posted I immediately was afraid it sounded too critical or dogmatic. Your original post, and all the comments, do convey an enjoyment of, and respect for graphic novels.

  32. Re: Gateway books to what?

    Great comparison to music! I’m constantly telling teachers and parents that graphic novels are not just “comic books”. They are just another way to tell a story with plot, setting, characters, etc etc. I’ve got an 8th grade student who never read anything, until I put classical comics Shakespeare into her hands. How is the plot, etc of graphic Shakespeare different from the regular horribly hard to read version? It’s not and now this student can think about the issues in a Shakespearean story that she has read. My dad read the New York Times cover to cover every day. I read newspapers online. Time, technology and formats march on.