Monday, December 19, 2016

Reluctant Readers: growing readers in an increasingly digital world

I manage the children's department of the main library in my city, so I spend a lot of time talking and working with kids, mostly ages 12 and under, as well as parents, teachers, and caregivers.
I'm using this forum to introduce a series of blog posts to help parents, caregivers, educators, fellow librarians--anyone who is interested--in building literacy skills for children.

This post is going to specifically address reluctant readers in the older elementary grades. I'm looking at primarily 3rd through 7th grade students, but the reasoning and methods I use to help a fourth grader is the same I use to help a kindergartener or a high school student. Literacy is more important now than it has ever been, and addressing literacy needs in our communities is a focus that is evolving and reinventing itself with every new technological innovation that appears.

So the question that I get no less than four times a week is:

My child doesn't like to (or won't) read. How can I encourage him/her to read without feeling like I'm pulling teeth?

No matter how much you would like for it to be, the answer is never just thrusting a book into the hands of a child. You're gunning for failure if you try. It isn't about what books you like, or what you think is good for them, or what you think they should be reading at a certain age or in a certain grade. It's about what THEY like, what they WANT to read, and what they are CAPABLE of reading.

These children are Reluctant Readers. They've likely never been exposed to books that speak to them at their level or engage their imagination. Maybe they come from a home where reading for pleasure isn't a priority. Contrary to popular belief, that's FINE. Not everyone is passionate about reading! However, reading is fundamental to success in building critical thinking skills at a young age. Since children are required to read for school, they will struggle to understand the importance that reading has in their success in school (and beyond) if they don't have support at home. Seeing family members reading reinforces the importance that literacy has in the home, as early as infancy. So if this is your family, consider picking out a book to read together, as a family. Make the book choice as a family. It can be a picture book, non-fiction book, chapter book--the purpose is to read and think and discuss what your reading. There's no right or wrong to it. Refresh your memories about what happened the last time you read or in the previous chapter. Talk about what you're reading now or what is happening in the current chapter, and discuss what you think might happen next if that's possible. This requires setting aside regular, committed time, and while it doesn't have to be every single day or for an extended period of time, it does have to be consistent. Just remember--if you can set aside time every day or week to watch a particular show on television or Netflix, then you have no excuse for not setting aside that same time to do family reading. If you can do this with your readers when they are young, you're much less likely to have a reluctant reader on your hands.

What do you do if you already have one, though? Think about and try to understand why they might not be interested. For example, a lot of children only read what is required of them in school, which (let's be honest) is quite often not fun. I was always an avid reader, but after reading Great Expectations in the 8th grade, I refused to read Charles Dickens ever again. To this day, I still cannot stand his books. So I LITERALLY FAILED one quarter of English every single year from 9th through 12th grade because I refused to read Dickens. Now, I made it up during the quarter we spent on Shakespeare, which I loved and always aced, but it shows a point that many adults forget when trying to get a child to be excited about reading. Kids are every bit as stubborn and opinionated as adults. They know what they like and won't they don't, so don't discount that when you're looking for things that interest them.

Some children don't want stories at all. If you have a kid that is constantly link-clicking through Wikipedia online, you've got a realist on your hands! Fiction or storytelling isn't going to be their thing. Nonfiction has a dedicated audience all its own, and you can't pay a child who loves science to read a fiction story about goofball kids making trouble in their school or home.

Or can you? After all, most required reading in school is fiction, and they have to read it in order to get through the class. So how do you bridge that gap?

Take advantage of your public libraries or school libraries; get your kids their very own library card and encourage them to check out multiple books at once. If they only check out one book, they might read four pages of it, not like it, and then not pick it up again. If that's the only book they took home, you've put in valuable time but your child still isn't reading. Let them check out four or five books. It's okay--they're free!

For Reluctant Readers, the key is motivational material. I'm talking about books that are fun, quick, and sneakily get kids to read an actual chapter book, from beginning to end. The goal is to make readers comfortable and able to follow a narrative, understanding the critical steps that advance the plot, all without the readers realizing that's what they are doing. Here are some good examples of motivational books (and these are just a few!):

Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Combination illustrated/chaper book)
The Magic Tree House
Dork Diaries (Combination illustrated/chaper book)
Junie B. Jones
Amulet (Graphic Novels)
39 Clues
Bad Kitty
A to Z Mysteries
Infinity Ring
Big Nate (Easy Reader, Chapter Book, Graphic Novel)
A Series of Unfortunate Events
Fancy Nancy
Nick & Tesla
Who Is...(Who Was...) (Nonfiction, biographies)*
I Survived...*
Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales*

Note that the books I listed above are, for the most part, series books. Of course there are motivational books that are stand-alones, such as Wonder, The Giver, and most anything by Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary. I simply chose to go with series books for this blog because most children get very attached to characters. The paperback series aisle is the most popular section in the children's department at my library. For those lovers of non-fiction that I mentioned earlier, the titles listed above that have an asterisk are good examples of either nonfiction books, or fiction books based on real events or people. The I Survived... series is a fantastic example of one way that you can bridge the gap between fiction and non-fiction reading.

{Stepping up on soapbox}
Okay. I'm going to deal with the elephant in the room right now. YES. Graphic novels are completely legitimate forms of reading and are an excellent choice for reluctant readers. I will go further into this in a future blog, but for the purposes of this one, remember that children who don't like to read are often just overwhelmed by the size of a chapter book. All those words are intimidating! Once a child has decided that they are just not going to be capable of reading a book that size with that many words, you aren't going to break through to them without a lot of difficulty and angst. Graphic novels break up all of those lines and make the whole process seem far less daunting.

Additionally, it's worth noting that children now live in an age where everything is digitized and dramatized--television, movies, video games, cartoons. Almost from birth, we know how to follow a plot through from beginning to end, even if all you're watching is a 20 minute episode of Bubble Guppies. Most children haven't made the connection that reading isn't all that different from watching television. They are following a plot and seeing it play out, except that it's in their mind instead of watching it unfold in front of them. Graphic novels help readers become more comfortable with the very idea of chapter books. They teach a reader how to follow a plotline from beginning to end, and they serve as a soft bridge into the world of chapter books. I will address this in more detail in a future post, but I'm going to leave that alone for now.
{Stepping down now}

Other things to think about with reluctant readers. Consider the format of the book you're asking your child to read. Books come in hardback, paperback, trade-paper (flexible covers that are larger than your traditional paperback books), digital (e-books), and audio formats. For reluctant readers, I highly recommend either audio books or paperbacks.

Now I know what you're going to say, and I feel you. I realize that hardback books are more difficult to destroy than paperbacks, and kids are HARD on books. The simple reality is that while hardbacks hold out longer, they are also more intimidating. Kids who are already resistant to reading chapter books are going to have an easier time swallowing the idea of reading a thin, paperback copy of Mary Pope Osbourne's The Magic Treehouse series, than the MUCH larger, though identical, hardback version. As a librarian, and as a manager, I'd rather have a shelf full of beat-up looking paperbacks that have clearly been read and loved on repeatedly, and have to be replaced more frequently, than a shelf of hardback books that look pristine and untouched.

Books in audio formats are an invaluable asset to those students that struggle with processing or cognitive disorders, visual disabilities (books in braille are difficult to come by for most libraries!), or students who just have a hard time navigating through words. I know at least four librarians that have dyslexia, and all of them have said the same thing about audio books. Listening to the book, while reading along with the audio, helps students follow along and become used to how words are ordered on the page. Plus, audio books are great options for long car rides!

So now it's your turn. What kind of things have you found to be helpful in encouraging reluctant readers?

PERSONAL PREFERENCE: At the end of each post, I'm going to put my own two cents in for  my personal favorites in helping engage with my families. For reluctant readers, I am a HUGE fan of the 39 Clues series from Scholastic. Fantastically developed characters (the two leads are a brother and sister--appealing to everyone!), action-packed plot lines, and each book is written by one member of a whole team of well known children's authors, such as Rick Riordan, Jude Watson, Linda Sue Park, and Gordon Korman, to name just a few. Rotating authors makes young readers comfortable and willing to pick up other books by those authors (a child might recognize Peter Lerangis' name from the 39 Clues series, and then pick up his Seven Wonders series, which is a more ambitious book to tackle). These books have the main protagonists racing all around the globe, visiting historic cities and sites. Pretty sneaky way of teaching history without the readers even realizing it! Each book in the series is less than 200 pages long, and since they are action/adventure books, they are incredibly fast-paced. There is no better feeling to a child who is a reluctant reader than when they realize that they've read two or three books in a couple of weeks, and had fun doing it!

Coming next: Children's Librarian Series, Part 2--Compulsive Readers

Thursday, October 27, 2016

And this is why I drink

*Reposted from a year ago. Because you just can't make this stuff up.

Tuesday, October 25th: I arrive at work to discover that I cannot get into my office, because there are large computer boxes blocking my door. I am told by a member of my staff that the IT guy came by to install my new computer.

Confused, I respond, "Uh....I didn't ask for a new computer."
Staffer: "Right, but yours is old and apparently is on a list to be replaced."
Me: "But......I don't want a new computer."
Staffer laughs out loud.
I stare at her.
Staffer: "You didn't know this was happening? Really?"
Me: "No. Aw man, I just finished ripping all my music to that computer. I have three years of information that I'm going to have to back up in the next fifteen minutes."
Staffer: "Ew."

Shortly thereafter, I got my new computer, new monitor, new sound bar. It's all shiny and new, and truly, I am appreciative. I was frustrated that my old computer, which worked just fine, was being replaced, when the reference desk computer out on the floor that takes a thousand years to even open a window was not. Not only that, but they wouldn't even approve moving my perfectly good, old computer out on to the floor. Regardless, this is part of working for the government, and I get that. There's a system in place for everything. I guess.

Wednesay, October 26th: I have payroll, an updated emergency contact list, and an updated inclement weather plan all due by noon. I have the department schedule for the next two weeks due by 5, a system wide rotation for Sunday scheduling due by Monday, and a standing paperback order that is due by the 3rd. I am supposed to be leaving at 12:30 in order to avoid going over 40 hours for the week. Moving at breakneck speed, I sit down to slam into all of this, only to discover that my brand new computer is taking twice as long as my old one to do things like boot up and load simple programs. I also have a million files to sort through and find, since all the information that was on my old computer is now on my flash drive and in no kind of order.

I am frustrated, but trying to see the silver lining. I really do like my  new 20 inch monitor.

Thursday, October 27th: My printer, which is approximately the same age as Moses, has not been installed on my new computer. Turns out that the printer is so old that I cannot even download the drivers for it off the internet. I go to find the city purchaser, to tell him that I need a new printer, and discover that the IT guy that started all of this is sitting in the business administration offices. The following conversation occurs:

Me: "Just the person I've been looking for."
Him: "Awesome! What's going on?"
Me: "Do you happen to remember, two days ago, when you came down to install the new computer that I did not want, ask for, or need?"
Him: "I do."
Me: "I am not able to get my printer to work with it."
Him: "Oh yeah! I knew that."
Me: {stares at him with what must have looked like a combination of disbelief and I'm-about-to-rip-your-head-off}
Him: "Yeah, there are no drivers. So you'll need a new printer."
Me: "...................Right.................."
Him: "So you just need to submit a ticket to the help desk, then they'll send it over to me, and I'll be able to put in a request to get you a new one from there. Probably take no more than a few weeks."
Me: "...............................Wrong answer, Buford."

The moral of the story is that, for as many wonderful benefits as there are to working for the government (and I'm not even a little kidding, there are a lot of great things about it), governmental red tape is even redder and stickier than the normal kind. Somebody get me a beer. Or three.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Very short post about a day in the life of a children's librarian


There are no words. Only the melodious sounds of me and my staff banging our heads against the place in our workroom I have set aside for just such activities (see below).

As we do this, we repeatedly say, "I will not pass judgement. I will not pass judgement. I will not pass judgement."

On the other hand.....

New sexy librarian glasses!

You take what you can get, I suppose...

Monday, October 24, 2016

What the hell just came out of my mouth?

This isn't a real blog post, but I wanted to share because I think I might be on to something here. I've decided to write a book. It's going to be filled with nothing but the completely ridiculous and totally inane things that parents find themselves saying when they are talking to their children. Here are a few of my most recent winners:

"Do not put Legos in your sister's food."

"If you would just eat over your plate, you wouldn't end up with honey on your feet."

"Fine, you can have the archery set. On 3 conditions..."

"Plates are not frisbees."

"Yes, well, I'm sorry your shirt got wet, but that's how gravity works."

"I don't know how to explain gravity to you, son."

"I don't know how to explain humidity to you, son."

"I don't know how to explain plumbing to you, son. Just stop putting your head in the toilet."

"Take your feet off of your sister's face."

"My uterus is not a trampoline." (This was directed at my daughter)

My favorite moments are when I'm in the car with my not-yet 6 year old, and he starts asking completely simple questions that I think he should already know the answer to, until I start to respond and realize that the answer is actually complicated enough that even the thought of explaining it to him completely exhausts me.

An example from last week, while driving home from an open house at my daughter's daycare:

My son: "Mommy?"
Me; "Yes?"
My son: "Is it night?"
Me: "Yes."
My son: "Why is it night?"
Me: "Son...................I don't know."

I am a college educated, business professional. I am hardly the most intelligent person I know, but I managed to scrounge up a master's degree while working two part-time jobs and taking care of a newborn. Of COURSE I know why it's night. I can even explain it to you, really. Having to explain planetary alignment and movement though, at that particular moment, brain-fried after spending an hour in a daycare with my son and his 2 year old sister, along with several hundred other brain-fried parents, teachers, and children, all of whom were hyped up on cookie and Capri-Sun benders--nope. Just. Nope.

So yes. A book filled with this stuff. Filtered in, I could also include pages filled with all of those annoying things that people say to you when you're a young parent that make you want to start punching old ladies in the grocery store. "Enjoy this time, they grow up so fast!" Right, because that's totally what I'm thinking when I'm driving around the interstate at midnight with my toddler who will not stop sobbing but simultaneoulsy thinks that the VeggieTales book that plays 'Jesus Christ is Risen Today' on a loop is the best thing ever. No, dear child of mine. Sleep is the best thing ever. SLEEP DAMMIT.

OH! In the back, instead of an index, there could be recipes on how to make awesome cocktails out of your kids' juice boxes, alcohol samplers, and the countless packages of instant jello that are taking up room in your pantry. IT'S LIKE THE BOOK IS WRITING ITSELF, PEOPLE.

I'm going to be rich. If I don't spend all the profits on booze, that is. To help me deal with the ridiculousness of being a parent. Vicious cycle.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016


Something I hear on a regular basis is that no one believes in Memphis anymore. For all of the momentum we have going, it's just an unsustainable, rundown, burned out city, too tarnished by decades worth of crime, corruption, and (worst of all) indifference, to recover any hope of promise. That's what I keep hearing, from people I know, people who live here, people from around the country, visitors, tourists, people who ran away because they were too afraid to stand up and fight for their home. Sadly, that's what people say about this city.

Do you know something though? Most people don't feel that way about Memphis. The problem with social media and news outlets is that the people who are heard these days are the people who have only negativity to breed. Most people who gripe about how awful Memphis is are people who visited us once, maybe twenty, thirty, even forty years ago, and have no idea exactly what they're talking about anymore. Those of us who have stayed to fight for our city, those of us with pride for our home, those of us who are willing to shout out how much this city has to offer, are simply being drowned out and ignored by the naysayers. It doesn't have to be that way though.

Do you know what I see?

I see my home here in Memphis. I see a city on FIRE with potential. I see a phoenix rising up out of the ashes. I see a generations of citizens that have been itching to stand up and fight for her--not just for her future, but for her history.

What does Memphis have to be proud of?

Seriously, I hear this all the time. Let's start with the obvious, and that is her history. Let's talk about Memphis' role in the Civil Rights Movement. Let's talk about the impact that Dr. Martin Luther King had on this city. Let's talk about how Memphis is the home of the National Civil Rights Museum.

Let's talk about it's place in the history of American music. I'm not just talking about Elvis Presley, although it is absolutely worth noting that arguably the most prominent singer in the history of Rock and Roll, who made millions and could have chosen anywhere in the world to live, adamantly refused to leave Memphis. I'm talking about the role Memphis has played in the development of the blues, it's place in the engine that steam rolled rock music on the radio waves. I'm talking about Memphis as the home of Stax Records, now Stax Music Academy and Museum, where a generation of musicians from all over the world--and of all races--not only worked together for the love of music, but embraced one another, fought for one another, grieved for each other.

Let's go further back, and look at the Yellow Fever epidemic that nearly wiped Memphis off the map, not once, but twice. How a group of priests and nuns stayed in Memphis to tend to the sick and dying, and most of them lost their lives as well. They remain in Memphis, buried in the historic Elmwood Cemetary, and are regularly referred to as Constance and her Companions--the Martyrs of Memphis.

These are just three small examples of how important a place Memphis has had in the development of this country. There is more history--real, important history--in one corner of Memphis than there is in the entirety of many cities of comparable size, but the sad truth is that most people now don't care about history or historical importance. They care about the here and now. So fine, let's look at what Memphis is now. Let's look at the reality of what this city is, and what it has the potential to be.

Memphis is a singularly unique place. It's a bona fide city, with the feel and attitude of a small southern town. There is genuine affection amongst Memphians, even total strangers (often, especially amongst strangers). There is fierce pride in its communities: Raleigh, Frayser, Binghampton, Midtown, Orange Mound, Hickory Hill, and many others. The problem is that the same pride that gives steam and energy to the continued revitalization of those communities seems to be lacking in the larger collective. There is Frayser pride, there is Binghampton pride, there is Downtown pride--there is a distinct shortfall of Memphis pride. We here in Memphis have a tendency, like many places, to fall victim to the mentality that it is "us vs. them." The only time it abates is when it involves sports.

Memphis is a town that is damn proud of its basketball legacy, whether it's the Grizzlies or the University of Memphis Tigers. When they are winning, the city is proud of the University of Memphis' football program too, which appears to be on an upswing. Sports fans are often fickle, and Memphis is certainly no exception. We're also proud of our food. Memphians LOVE to eat, and we know what equals good food. So anytime a Memphis restaurant gets national attention, or is the subject of a documentary or a visit from one of those tv chefs over on Food Network, you'd better believe it's going to be celebrated and plastered all over every piece of news media, social media, and news print that we can find. During these times, Memphians are Memphians, no matter what suburb or community you live in, no matter what school or church you attend.

If we could only have that sense of pride all the time about our city, and WE SHOULD, because here are a few things that Memphis has to be proud about right this minute--

A city that is steeped in history, that survived years of fiscal mismanagement, political corruption, and social indifference, still managed to score an NBA team and nurture a college basketball program worthy of national attention. A city that was almost removed from the map due to disease in the early 20th century suddenly became an industrial giant, and houses the headquarters for such companies as FedEx, AutoZone, and International Paper, just to name a few. Bass Pro Shops just turned a stagnant arena shaped like a pyramid into a first class outdoor park, shopping center, entertainment venue, and resort. I see a city that suddenly has the attention of corporations and business across the globe, that now want to settle down in our little corner of Tennessee.

A city that grew its musical heritage from just Elvis and Beale Street, and is now known around the world for its depth, inclusion, and diversity across all music genres.

A city that fights for the continued preservation of its parks, and that (despite the currently divisive nature of their arguments) simultaneously prides itself on it's world class zoo, one of the top ten in the nation.

Our city overcame what many view as one of the greatest tragedies of American history, and used it as a means to create something positive out of the horrific; the assassination of Dr. King in downtown Memphis has given rise to the National Civil Rights Museum, and educates thousands and thousands of visitors every year on equality, perseverance, and the work that still needs to be done to guarantee real freedom for every single citizen of the United States, not to mention around the world.

I see a city that is rich with possibilities. Do we have issues that need to be addressed as quickly as possible? OF COURSE WE DO. Everyone does. There is no perfect town that doesn't have its trouble. In the last year, Memphis has gotten attention for its continued problems with youth violence, black on black crime, and shake-ups with its public education system. Those problems are not going to go away, and let's face it--the reason that these issues have grown the way that they have in the last decade is because we spent several decades before the last one dealing with a government that did not care about it's children. Those children grew up feeling neglected by their leaders and with no options for their futures. Those children gave birth to children themselves, and the vast majority have no idea how to raise them.

I am a librarian. I work with children every single day, and have worked with children for the last ten years that ranged from babies to high schoolers. Do not let the news media fool you--there is no such thing as a bad child. Bad children do not exist. Children who need to be shaped, molded, helped, and given a path DO exist, and that has been sorely lacking in our city. Is anyone surprised, after 25 years of city government that cared more about industry than its future, that our children have no direction or idea how to make something of themselves?

They are our future. The children in Memphis, Tennessee today will be our future councilmen, government officials, community leaders, and educators of the NEXT generation. We owe it to every single child in this city to make sure that they are our priority. If you are a citizen of Shelby County, whether you are a parent yourself or not, it is your responsibility to care about what happens to its youth. Stop complaining. Stop casting blame. Start making suggestions on how to fix the problem, because you cannot tell an eleven year old child that he or she is a "bad seed" and then walk away. You have just condemned that child to being the bad seed, because children listen. They listen, and they believe you.

As a librarian in the Memphis Public Library system, we are making it a priority to find a way to reach every single child in our community. We are addressing problems, and reaching out to the schools to offer assistance in any way we can. We just can't do it alone. I am so proud of my city. I am so proud to say that I am from Memphis. I want to see this city continue to gain momentum and grow and thrive and become every bit as outstanding as it can be. If every single person who reads this stood up and offered to do one thing--volunteer to be a mentor, a tutor, become a member of Leadership Memphis, start a support group to help guide wayward youth, SOMETHING--then this city is going to be bigger than anyone can imagine, because our children are going to be the ones that benefit from our involvement. They will lead this city into continued success, if we show them that we believe they can make a difference, and give them the tools to do just that.

I do not believe that Memphis is merely the "liberal stepchild" of Tennessee. I can see its future. I believe that Memphis is sustainable. I believe that Memphis has an important role in our country. Every single day I witness some act that proves to me just how much people want to have pride in where they live. I am committed to being a leader, not a naysayer, for the future of Memphis, and I invite along anyone, ANYONE, who wants to make the journey with me, to jump on for the ride. I am Memphis. I am my city, my home. I will make a difference, because Memphis and I both are hell on wheels, with a path and a goal for the 21st century. No one is ever going be able to convince me otherwise.