The Reluctant Reader’s Bill of Rights: The Redux

Waaaay back in the summer of ’08, I wrote a post musing about the formation of a Reluctant Reader’s Bill of Rights.  Using Daniel Pennac’s famous Reader’s Bill of Rights as a jumping-off point, I attempted to draft a document that would enumerate the many acceptable forms of reading (for pleasure) that would help encourage, and perhaps inspire, reluctant readers.  I offered a couple examples including “The right to read graphic novels and manga,” “The right to read non-fiction,” and “The right to not like a book.”  I also asked for feedback and further suggestions and promised an updated post compiling the responses at some future date.  Now that some time has passed, I thought it would be useful to take a look at some of the interesting, often surprising, comments and criticisms and offer a newly updated Reluctant Reader’s Bill of Rights.

Some readers were thrilled with the concept and incredibly supportive, like Julia:

I love this.. especially since I am a mother of a child who reads D&D manuals and enjoys them so much more than the books he is given at school.

Some commenters offered additions and clarifications, like fellow kidlit blogger, Jen Robinson:

I would also add: The right to read books published for different age levels  (or however you might word that to have it be as non-judgmental as possible.) I think that pressuring kids to read more advanced material, because of their age alone, is usually a mistake.

Teachers who found my post were the strongest critics.  English teacher Ben Kline expressed concern over allowing students too much leeway in their reading choices.  Ben stressed the concept of responsibility over rights:

What about the right to just wait until the movie comes out? That seems to be the right reluctant readers invoke the most. What about the implied responsabilities that go along with rights? ……..The right to not read? to never read? you have the right to be illiterate? How can I test for comprehension on pages you had the right to skip?

Fourth-grade teacher and reading specialist, Laura, approved of the idea of alerting readers to their rights and encouraging children to read different kinds of genres and formats.  She warned, however, of the importance of keeping children reading on level:

I do need to comment as a reading specialist, how important it is to direct kids towards books they can comprehend. They need to read at an independent level, so I’m impressing upon you to add to your statement, Read any book you want, that is at your level.” It is of little value to direct students to books that are above their level. It promotes word callers, someone who can sound out and read everyword, versus comprehending readers.

Before offering an updated Bill of Rights, I’d like to take the time to address what seems to me a fundamental difference in philosophy between public librarians and education professionals working in schools.

I think it’s fair to say that all of us want children who are literate.  We all want children to understand what they read, enjoy it, and find meaning in the stories and literature they discover.  We all want children to learn something from what they read- whether that is factual knowledge, enriched vocabulary, a deeper understanding of the human condition (a deeper understand of themselves, hopefully), or even, just the discovery of a great joke.  We all want to see children grow into adults who love reading, who find pleasure in continually expanding their knowledge.

There seems to be, however, a core difference in how public librarians and teachers approach these goals.  Generally, teachers and reading specialists are most concerned with comprehension, literacy, and the ability to test these skills and measure progress.  This is important, naturally.  We cannot expect children to develop a lifelong love of reading if they are not given the proper tools to do so.  And teachers certainly need to be able to chart their student’s development and hold them accountable for their assignments.  As Ben Kline suggested, students in his English class do not have the right not to read or to skip pages.  They, in essence, check those rights at the door.  No argument there- school is school.

But the public library is not school.  When a child walks through our doors, they retain the full power of their (Dewey-given? ha!) reading rights.  In the public library, those rights are inalienable. There is no homework, there are no assignments, and we do not test our patrons.  And we like it that way.  And, we hope, so do the kids we serve.

If a twelve-year-old wants to curl up with an Eric Carle or a Doreen Cronin, so be it.  Enjoy the dynamic paper-collage illustrations and the rhythmic storytelling, my friend.  If a seven-year-old wants to lug that heavy, old, color-illustrated copy of Glinda of Oz over to the puzzle table to examine, will I stop him, saying, I’m so sorry but that book is not on your Fountas-Pinnell level?  No, sir!  Go forth, my young explorer!  If you don’t understand a word, or two, or ten, that’s okay.  You know why?  Because this is your reading playground: the public library. This is where you can experiment with different kinds (even different levels!) of books and materials.  You may be a “green” or an “H” or a “1123” in your school, but here in our playground, you can try your hand at whatever book you like.

Now, if a patron comes in and asks for a recommendation, will I hand a seven-year-old a book five steps above their likely reading level?  Would I give The Very Hungry Caterpillar to most tweens?  No, I’m not sadist.  That would be ridiculous and unprofessional.  We public librarians take great pains in our reference interviews to figure out exactly where a child is reading comfortably, what their interests are, and how we can find that “just right” book to make the reading magic happen for them.  At my library, we work often with parents and teachers who look to us for advice on selecting appropriate books for their kids.  We revel in the challenge of uniting the perfect book with each child.

That said, there is still something incredibly important, essential really, in allowing children of all ages the freedom to roam around the library and discover materials for themselves.  As long as those children are also being given reading materials that are on-level and as long as they are able to build their comprehension skills, then allowing them the opportunity to explore freely doesn’t pose a threat to their schooling.  Children today are tested and quizzed and retested to the extreme.  As early as kindergarten, kids are subject to scrutiny on everything from scissor skills to math reasoning to vocabulary.  Free play has become a thing of the past.  Extracurricular activities are scheduled to the max and friendships are now “playdates.”  My battle cry is this: LET KIDS BROWSE! Rather than pulling a book that seems “too easy” or “too hard” out of their hands, give them another that is on-level.  Let’s strive for more exploration, more discovery, more options, not less.

What better place to allow this freedom, this uninhibited roaming, this laissez-faire browsing than the public library?  In the spirit of LET KIDS BROWSE, below is the updated Reluctant Reader’s Bill of Rights.  As before, I greatly welcome comments, suggestions, and criticisms.  Lemme have it!

Here are the original 10 rights as penned by Daniel Pennac:

1. The right to not read

2. The right to skip pages

3. The right to not finish

4. The right to reread

5. The right to read anything

6. The right to escapism

7. The right to read anywhere

8. The right to browse

9. The right to read out loud

10. The right to not defend your tastes

Here are the additions I’ve offered and crowdsourced:

11. The right to read at your own pace.

12. The right to choose whatever book you want.

13. The right to read graphic novels and manga.

14. The right to read magazines.

15. The right to read non-fiction.

16. The right to not like a book.

17. The right to read books published for different age levels.

18. The right to listen to a book.

19. The right to read in your native language.

20. The right to read online.

21. The right to browse.

Children’s librarians, teachers, reading specialists, what are your thoughts?

photo courtesy of Flickr user KOMUnews.
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One thought on “The Reluctant Reader’s Bill of Rights: The Redux

  1. I have to say that teachers and SCHOOL library media specialists may also disagree on their purpose. As a School Library Media Specialist, I understand my role is different than that of a public librarian. But I still maintain a professional responsibility to the a reader’s Right to Read and Intellectual Freedom laws. I will guide students to books in their reading level, but I too will limit a student’s right to check out any book they’d like…..unless their parents have made their desires clearly known in a letter. I believe my role is to inspire a love of reading….something that sometimes gets lost in “Is that in your reading level? How many AR points is that worth?”

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