By Donalyn Miller, 2020 Conference Speaker
Recently, my husband Don and I went back to our old neighborhood to eat lunch at our favorite Tex-Mex place. After lunch, we spent two hours wandering around Half Price Books. We couldn’t recall the last time we had roamed a bookstore; we had forgotten how much we enjoyed it. We ambled down every aisle—taking our time. We pulled books off shelves for a closer look or commented on beloved favorites we recognized. We chatted with other readers—sharing reading memories and swapping recommendations.
On the way home, we discussed a few books we bought—Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, which I bought because several friends recommended it and a copy of America’s Test Kitchen: Cooking for Two Don found for his already overflowing cookbook shelf. We talked about the joy of lingering in the stacks—holding books, looking at covers, reading dust jackets, skimming chapter headings and back matter, dipping in to read a few pages or examine an illustration.
Thinking about our bookstore trip later, Don and I realized that our book selection behaviors have changed dramatically in the past ten years. Gone are the days when we entertained our daughters with afternoons in the public library or flipped through crates of new releases at the comic book store.
We still read a lot of books, but we discover, evaluate, select, borrow, and buy them almost completely online now. I read reviews and critiques from publications like School Library Journal and The ALAN Review. I trade recommendations with colleagues on social media. I discover books on lists like NCTE’s #BuildAStack or the ALA Youth Media Awards. I keep track of books I have read (or want to read) using Goodreads. Readers can research almost anything about authors and their books online these days. I appreciate the benefits of online resources and platforms that have opened up the world of books and reading to so many, but I don’t think these tools can fully replace the gift of time to browse through shelves of books—at your own pace and for your own purposes—driven only by your own interests and desires. It reminds me of a former student, Hailey, who told me once after a visit to the library, “I don’t find the books, Mrs. Miller. They find me!” I understand what Hailey means—the delicious feeling of discovering a book you didn’t know you wanted to read.
Thinking about my students over the years, I know that many have never wandered a bookstore or a library for any length of time. In some cases, they lack access to bookstores or libraries in their communities. Even when students can access well-stocked school and classroom libraries, we often don’t give them enough time to preview, share, and talk about books they might read. According to Scholastic’s bi-annual, Kids and Family Reading Report, a national survey of thousands of school-age children (ages 6-17) and their caregiving adults, kids consistently report that their parents and teachers underestimate how hard it is for them to find books to read. We presume a fourth grader knows how to find a book in the library. Not always. We presume an eighth grader knows. Not always.
Truly independent readers can successfully self-select books for themselves (Miller, 2013). I imagine most adult readers feel reasonably confident that we could walk into a library or a bookstore and find something that we could read with some level of comprehension and would be interested in reading. We didn’t pick up these skills overnight. Book selection skills come from years of examining, evaluating, selecting and reading books.
Students with wide reading experiences show more confidence and success with their book selection abilities. Students who frequently abandon books or seem disengaged may not possess the book selection skills they need to identify and evaluate books they might read. Kids need encouragement and support for their book choices and lots of low-risk opportunities to explore and self-select reading materials. Take any group of readers, and you will find a variety of methods for selecting books. How can we value what our students know and can do while determining what book selection skills and resources they still need?
When students choose books to read during library visits and classroom book shopping opportunities, they want to talk with their classmates about the new books they’ve discovered and picked to read. Set aside a few minutes before you leave the library or when returning to class. Invite students to share the books they found and also share how they settled on that book instead of others.
I recently led this discussion with a class of eighth graders in Long Island. After selecting library books, Ms. Jones, their teacher, and I invited kids to chat with each other about their book choices and how they picked their books.
I begin with my own example, “Folks, I just finished reading How Long ’til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin. The author is a multiple award winner for best fantasy and science fiction, and I have read some of her other work and liked it. I heard about this book of short stories on Twitter. I would say I picked this book because of its author.” I write “Ways to Find and Choose a Book” on the white board, and scrawl “author” as the first bullet. “You may have chosen your book today because of its author, too. You may have chosen it because of some other reason. Spend a few minutes talking with your table groups about the books you picked today. How did you learn about the book or discover it? How did you decide you wanted to read it?”
After students talk for five minutes or so, Ms. Jones and I invite students to create a list of the resources and skills they used to find books in the library. You will recognize many of their ideas from your own browsing history.
Ways to Find and Choose a Book
Recommendations (online and in person)
TV Shows and Movies
Awards and Lists
Reading the blurb or jacket copy
Reading a few pages
Skimming the book (looking at chapter headings, illustrations, back matter)
Most adult readers have used all of these resources or strategies at some point in our reading lives! Students with fewer reading experiences and practice self-selecting books may depend on one or two strategies for finding books and use them again and again—relying on covers or a quick skim to lead them successfully to a good book. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
After creating and discussing students’ suggestions, you can fill in any resources they may have missed by referring to other books you know they have liked or resources you have shared like library databases. Elementary students may have a less-extensive list more appropriate for their age and reading experiences. Revisit your chart with students before your next library visit and use this list during conferences to support students who struggle with book selection. Challenge students to seek out recommendations, read a few pages, or read outside of their genre preferences. As students practice different methods for finding books to read, their book choices will become more consistently successful and personal.
Donalyn Miller has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas. She is the author or co-author of several books about encouraging students to read and creating successful reading communities at school and home including, The Book Whisperer (Jossey-Bass, 2009), Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013), and Game Changer! Book Access for All Kids (Scholastic, 2018). Donalyn launched the annual Twitter summer and holiday reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter @donalynbooks.