Free kids from reading lists and they thrive

A few summers ago here at Nocturnal Librarian I wrote about the tyranny of summer reading lists. I argued then that kids should be free to read whatever they want in the summer instead of being made to choose from a list, because reading is more appealing when we have the freedom to decide what we want to read. Turns out I was on to something. The Washington Post reports that a series of studies have shown that when it comes to countering “summer slide” — the loss of skills and knowledge during school vacation — the freedom to read anything they like is a tremendous boost for kids. Those granted this freedom performed better than kids who had to read what their teachers chose.

One paragraph from the story really caught my attention: “For one class, researchers ran a book fair, where each student picked 13 books to take home at the end of the school year. The fair featured a broad range of selections — fiction and nonfiction, classics and newer works — and students eagerly passed the books back and forth, reveling in the opportunity to pick those matching their personal interests while chattering with one another about familiar stories. (An adaptation of Disney’s “Frozen” was especially popular.) Many also chose works considerably above or below their reading levels so they could share with siblings.” The kids in this class were in second grade in Rochester, New York, and an eye-popping 96% of children from their school qualify for free or reduced lunch.

What struck me, besides the tragically high level of poverty? First, the scene: I can recall many a book fair when I was in elementary school, and how exciting it was to pick books knowing I could take them home and keep them. Second, the image of kids “chattering” and “reveling” not over tablets or computers or video games, but books. And third, that strong desire kids showed to “share with siblings.”

This affirmed for me everything I already know to be true about reading: it’s a joy, when it’s allowed to be. There was no book report or test looming after the fair, the kids just knew they could pick a whole armful of books to read. And they couldn’t wait to share their choices, with each other and with their families. Books are meant to be loved not just by one person, but many. The communal experience of hearing a story together, or reading aloud to other people, is a pleasure just about everyone in America experiences either in school or at their local library, if not in their homes. These kids were not only going to read to themselves over the summer, but to others.

I also wondered whether the researchers considered taking kids to get library cards? Or directing families to the summer reading program at their local public library?  Don’t get me wrong — I love that these kids got to own books, and I wish every kid could. But it seemed very obvious to me that libraries are schools’ best partner in helping low income families keep their kids reading during summer break.

Books on the Nightstand, one of my favorite podcasts, has a Summer Reading Bingo card on their site. I might try it. Or I might throw all suggestions to the wind and just read whatever strikes me this summer. What are your summer reading plans?

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2013 Reading Resolutions

As both a librarian who loves readers’ advisory and a book review columnist (The Mindful Reader), I read a fair number of books. At our neighbors’ post holiday bonfire last weekend I was a little embarrassed when someone pointed out that I read around 2-3 books a week most of the time (which I blog about at bookconscious) and other guests seemed to find that pretty odd. I’m often reading one book for the column and 1-2 others at the same time. Someone asked me whether I really retain what I’m reading at that pace.

I muttered something brilliant like “I think so” but a better response is “it depends.” If I’m skimming something so I know whether or not I want to recommend it to library patrons, say a craft book or a genre I don’t usually read, maybe I don’t remember everything, but in that situation, I’m not trying to retain it. If it’s a book for the column that deserves a review but I don’t love (I try to cover books that appeal to a wide range of tastes, not just my own) I do read mindfully, but I also tend to let the book go as soon as I’ve written about it.

If on the other hand, I’m reading either for research or for pleasure, I take my time, unless of course the book is page turner. And I think I do retain what I’m reading, even if the details (like all details in my mid-40’s mind) are sometimes hard to recall perfectly. Retention aside, I’ve heard Paul Harding speak a few times and he advocates slow reading because the experience is better, you notice more, you can enjoy the beauty of a good book if you’re not rushing it.

To read (and live) well, I think the key is to be fully engaged,to allow what you’re experiencing to become a part of your not to have perfect recall. When I reviewed The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak on bookconscious I wrote, “In my view, the best books stay with you, working on your own stored memory, fusing themselves with all you’ve read and all you’ve been, incorporating themselves into what you’ll be. Books that last are books that make meaning, that consciously or unconsciously change the way you view the next thing you read, the next idea you consider, the next response you have to the world. ” You could say the best way to read is to make yourself available to that.

So while I’m not making fancy reading resolutions and or joining formal challenges (after falling short of my Europa Challenge goal last year), I do plan to practice mindfully savoring whatever I’m reading for reading’s sake. Work reading is work reading, and I’ll continue to do that as efficiently as is necessary. Although occasionally something counts as both work and pleasure.

I will participate in two community reads in 2013: I’m on the Concord Reads committee and will read whatever we choose for that. And Books on the Nightstand’s Project Short Story sounds both fun and doable. What are your 2013 reading resolutions?

Against best books

It’s the time of year when media outlets are publishing gift guides and “best books of the year” lists. I am contributing a suggestion to my own local newspaper’s holiday book recommendations. And it might sound contrarian, but I’m not recommending a book. Here’s what I’m submitting instead:

I spent days considering what book to recommend. Every time I settled on one, I reconsidered. My idea of the perfect gift book is not going to be yours, and might work for your sister but not for your grandfather, your niece, or your teen. So I suggest the gift of professional reading advice.

This year, wrap a library card application and a gift card to your local independent bookstore. These two places offer what no big box or online mega-seller can: good old fashioned readers’ advisory. In other words, staff who can help anyone who walks through the door choose a book after a few minutes’ conversation. Both libraries and indie bookstores have e-books as well, so this gift works for even your most techie friend. If he already has a library card but hardly ever uses it, pick up or print out the latest brochure on the library’s services and activities, which have probably changed in the past few years. If your gift recipient uses the library regularly, honor her with a donation.

I’d include a short guide to excellent readers’ websites, apps,blogs, and podcasts, like Goodreads, Books on the Nightstand, NancyPearl.com, ReadKiddoRead, or LibraryThing. Visit these sites, copy and paste information about them onto one neat page, and print it on pretty paper. Add a homemade coupon good for an outing with you to the library or bookstore and a treat after, and you’ll give a gift unique to each recipient that no one will return.

A bookish break and more musings on e-reading

The Nocturnal Librarian has been on spring break. I visited family in Austin, TX and had a very good time. Besides good company, excellent restaurants, funky local shoppingUT’s museums, warm sunny weather, and live music, I relished the bookish delights of the Austin area. We shopped at the Austin Public Library Bookstore, Recycled Reads, and the indie bookstore BookPeople, visited the Ransom Center‘s King James Bible exhibit, and saw some of Dr. Suess’s original Lorax drawings at the LBJ Library and Museum and an exhibit of his work at Art on 5th.

On planes and in airports, I saw more e-books than print. On one flight, I noticed my seat-mate reading The Hunger Games on an iPad, (which explained why he was in no hurry to de-plane). As Michael and Ann observed on the Books On the Nightstand podcast (#170), it is increasingly hard to pick up reading ideas while traveling because e-readers make books nearly anonymous. I made a dent in my “to-read” piles and am hopeful some fellow traveler snooped on the titles, because they are both terrific: Homer & Langley by E. L. Doctorow and In the Stacks: Short Stories About Libraries and Librarians edited by Michael Cart.

When I got home I reminded my son, who is home this week, that we now subscribe to the New York Times electronically. He made a very sharp observation which I had overlooked, since my husband and I read the paper in shifts (he departs for work while nocturnal people are still sleeping). You can’t enjoy communal newspaper reading — swapping sections around the breakfast table — with an e-reader.

Reading Resolutions?

It’s the time of year for resolutions or, as Jeff Goins writes at Zenhabits, for “sustainable habits.” If reading more is among your resolutions, one way is to join a reading challenge.

Words and Peace blog links to two dozen themed challenges. One that intrigued me is “Books Published in the First Years of My Life.” Sarah Reads Too Much is hosting the Back to the Classics Challenge, and Jillian at A Room of One’s Own hopes to read “books I started but didn’t finish” in 2012.

Last year I reached The Europa Challenge‘s Ami level by reading fourteen Europa Editions. Europa publishes “literary fiction, high-end mystery and noir, and narrative non-fiction from around the world.” I’ve enjoyed expanding my literary horizons, so this year I’m going for Cafe Luongo level.  Like many reading challenges, The Europa Challenge fosters discussion via its blog, Twitter feed, and Goodreads group.

Goodreads encourages members to define their own 2012 Reading ChallengeBooks On the Nightstand “12 in 2012” challenge participants also customize their goals, such as reading twelve books in a particular genre or twelve books they already own. Another challenge posted at Goodreads is “Around the World (in 52 Books)” which sounds daunting but very appealing.

If you’re just interested in making more time to read, emulate Ann Kingman. On Books on the Nightstand’s podcast #161, she mentioned her plan to read for an hour every morning.  “25 Literary Resolutions” at the Los Angeles Times’ Jacket Copy blog, includes time-related ideas. 

A habit I hope to form in 2012 is reading in tandem with my teen, who doesn’t want me to read aloud, but is amenable to the idea of reading and discussing the same book. She has also challenged me to re-read the Harry Potter books, which I am starting today.

What are your reading resolutions?

Sorting out stress

From the reference desk, I have been observing how students deal with end-of-semester stress.  Some admit they are just barely on top of things, others are highly organized.  One night I helped a student find sources for a history paper on the Gulf War. She told me it was due the next morning but that she works better at the last minute.

Knowing your own comfort zone regarding deadlines and planning is a great way to manage stress. But what if that’s not enough? I was intrigued this week by a story in the Washington Post about George Mason University Law School’s “Puppy Day” during finals.  Pets are indeed an excellent help in relaxing. More on that in a moment.

Elgin Community College in Illinois hosts a “Stress-Free Zone,” which provides spa treatments, “back massages, cotton candy and popcorn, tea and hot chocolate, a coloring corner and a Play-Doh table.”  If your school doesn’t provide such amenities, the Independent Florida Alligator offers several DIY stress relief suggestions, including practicing breathing exercises, cooking something healthy, talking with a friend, working out, and laughing.

The hosts of  Books On the Nightstand, Michael Kindness and Ann Kingman, recently asked listeners/readers to share their comfort books. Returning to a favorite genre, author, or childhood story can be a great stress reliever. My grandmother, a teacher and librarian who lived to be 96, swore by mysteries for a brief escape. Our mutual favorite, the Mrs. Pollifax series by Dorothy Gilman, is perfect; the books are short, fast-paced, smartly plotted, and fascinating, with plenty of humor and nothing so scary as to disrupt your already limited sleep.

A new hobby of mine, Zentangle, is a simple way to de-stress artistically. You can check out patterns online (Google “tangle patterns”) or try how-to books. I recommend Totally Tangled or Yoga for Your Brain by Sandy Steen Bartholomew. In no time you’ll be making your own tangles. The results are very satisfying and mind clearing, and you could turn your stress-management into holiday gifts.

I’m enjoying a new app St. Nicholas brought my teens and I that teaches mindfulness meditation. I learned about buddhify at Action for Happiness, and it’s a well-organized and simple tool which I’m finding very helpful.  So far it’s one of the best entry-points to meditation I’ve tried.

Even if you’re not a student, December can feel pretty stressful. I combined two stress-relieving activities before work last night: I rested my hand on my purring cat while using buddhify. I fell asleep, which is not really the goal of meditation, but woke from the short nap feeling better. How are you sorting out your stress?

 

** Welcome Advent Conspiracy visitors! Please scroll down or take the link to “Making Merriment Meaningful,” and thanks for reading.