Tuesday, April 26, 2011


About a month ago, my fourth grade friends and I finished HOW TO STEAL A DOG. Three or four chapters before we finished, the kids began talking about what we might read next. I really wasn't sure.

J approached me after our discussion. "I think you should read something scary," she advised me. "Maybe a GOOSEBUMPS." She named one of her favorites, telling me that it was one that she was sure all of the kids would love. I told her that I usually didn't read aloud books like GOOSEBUMPS or DIARY OF WIMPY KID, just because kids usually find those books by themselves. I also am not big fan of scary books (or movies), and don't know many good ones, but I would think about it. I knew that DEEP AND DARK AND DANGEROUS by Mary Downing Hahn, had recently won the Colorado Children's Book Award. I hadn't read it yet, but thought it might be a possibility. I promised J I would read that over spring break.

And I did. DEEP AND DARK AND DANGEROUS. was scary, creepy scary. Bad dreams at night scary. And well-written. A book I thought kids would love. At the same time, I was a little nervous that some parents might be uncomfortable with the ghost element. And while I'm not ok with censorship, I also felt like there are so many really good books, that maybe I just didn't have the energy to fight that battle at this particular time in my life.

The Monday after spring break, I put that book in my bag for J. I told her a little about the plot- that it was about Ali, a 13-year-old girl and her four-year-old cousin, Emma, who were spending the summer at a cottage on a lake in Maine. The cottage had been in their family for a long, long time, but one summer, many years before, something mysterious had happened, and no one had been back to the lake cottage for twenty years. Finally, Ali's aunt, had decided to return. The first week back, Ali and Emma were at the beach when they met Sissie, a strange and nasty little girl, who turned out to be the ghost of a child who had drowned in the lake. No one in town seems to know Sissie, but she keeps reappearing in the girls' lives…

I explained to J that I wasn't going to read DEEP AND DARK AND DANGEROUS out loud because I thought some parents might be uncomfortable with the ghost element in the story. I suggested that if she wanted to read the book, and if she thought her parents would be ok with it, I would be glad to lend it to her. J assured me that her parents would be fine with it, and took the book from me.

The next day, J was back. She loved DEEP AND DARK AND DANGEROUS. Did I have any more by that author? We looked for Mary Downing Hahn in our school library, but didn't find any. I returned to TATTERED COVER that night. Bought three more. J finished those within another week. I went back to TATTERED COVER. Found a couple more new ones. Bought those. J read them. This weekend I was at a bookstore in another part of town. Found three more. Bought those. When I brought them to J, she said, "I already read this one, don't you remember? But I don't have these two, so I'll take those." She added them to her stash, and when I saw her in the cafeteria several hours later, she was halfway through one. As of yesterday, as far as we know, J has finished all of Mary Downing Hahn's scary stories. She wants me to bring in PROMISES TO THE DEAD, a Civil War story by this author, that I bought because it had a scary cover. And I'm hoping that might help J's love of Mary Downing Hahn books might help her to make the leap into a new genre- historical fiction.

There is an interesting subplot to J's story, and one that I am still trying to wrap my head around, J makes a point of seeking me out pretty much every day- she stops by my office, or we chat on the playground or in the lunchroom. We talk about the books. Compare notes on which ones are the scariest. J asks if I've brought any new ones. J and I have kind of unconsciously formed our own pseudo Mary Downing Hahn book club. And somehow, other kids have picked up on these conversations. And it's almost like they are a little jealous of this relationship. They are clamoring to get into our club. Someone grabs each Mary Downing Hahn's books as soon as J shuts the cover. Makes a point of showing it to me. Ask if I can bring them books, too.

I've been trying to make sense of this story in my teaching life. I have always worked in an urban setting. Often, my students don't have lots of access to books outside of school and we don't have many kids who come to us as avid, book-a-day readers. I'm always thrilled, then, when I encounter one of those kids. I buy lots of books and can't wait to pass them on. I love talking about books with other readers. I go out of my way to get to know kids and match books with readers.

At the same time, if I'm really honest, the book-a-day kids are not where I invest most of my energy. I spend far more time thinking about my "dormant" readers (I borrowed that term from Donalyn Miller-I love the hopefulness of that label)- finding books they'll love, conferring with them, scaffolding their reading. I go out of my way to make sure those dormant readers are surrounded by great books (and other interesting print). I spend lots of time conferring with them, and getting them off on the right foot.

Thinking about J, and the influence she has had on her class, though, I'm wondering whether I might start next year differently. Instead of working so hard with my dormant readers early on, I might spend more time "going with the goers"- seeking out kids who love to read, fueling those kids' reading fires, and letting sparks from their reading fires ignite the other readers in the class.

I'd love to hear other people's thoughts on this subject…


Heather said...

It sounds like you may be developing a future librarian, book buyer, editor, etc. in J. Excited to see how your change in focus experiment turns out!


Kyle said...

I read this last year. Very creepy things happened while reading it aloud. One could hear a pin drop in my room. Scared the pants off all of us. WAY SCARY! Great Book!!!

Kyle said...

I don't have any read a book a day kids this year. In the past when I have had these they often push the dormant readers. Positive peer pressure is wonderful in a classroom. Most importantly it sounds like J is excited to share a common passion. Looks like J found a soul/bookmate.

Mary Lee said... you've got me thinking. As a classroom teacher, I definitely work the avid readers as a way to lead the others by example. Although I also spend a big chunk of time by the "dormants," coaxing and tempting and trying to find the just right book that will break down the walls of resistance. And don't get me started on how much money I spend so that I will have the perfect book to put into each kid's hand when they finish the one they're in...