Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 12, 2008

Measures and Letting Go

Last night in my favorite library I overheard a favorite librarians on the phone. “Hi! We wanted to let you know that your Sponge Bob book is here! It’s all ready for you to pick up!”

Now over the years I’ve had many conversations with Sully, and she’s never mentioned Sponge Bob as one of her favorite literary characters. But you wouldn’t have known that from her cheery tone. It was a reminder that sometimes reading matters more than the books we choose. I was already feeling a bit uneasy thinking about the first day of my children’s literature course, when I’d passed out handouts with the first lines of some classic picture books and novels, and asked students to work in groups to identify them. As I’d hoped, most had fun locating and remembering and assessing the power of some first lines, but I think there were a few students who hadn’t read many, perhaps any, of these books and just felt left out.

I hope they’ll learn that they have as much as anyone else to bring the class as they give first looks at some books that are familiar to others, through reading them years ago, or familiar with a twist: known through cartoons and movies. When I drop the titles of books I mean to say – try this, you’ll love that – but I can imagine that to some it might feel like pounding: here’s the name of something else I should have read. In Notes from the Horn Book, teacher/writer Robin Smith writes about being trained in college to sneer at series, and low these decades later, she is still embarrassed by what she calls the snooty attitude she brought to the first classrooms where she taught. I see her point — that the kids brought her around to remembering her own early love of Nancy Drew — even while I want to say: Robin, okay, you can let that embarrassment go. Most teachers come to feel we move between and around standards. One of my daughter’s friends who’s an English major, a sophomore in college, wrote to me that she’s struggling through Joyce’s Ulysses, a task I managed to avoid in my own English major years. My daughter just sent her Twilight, the best-selling vampire novel, and Liz said, “This is the worst thing I’ve ever read and I can’t stop.”

Best, worst, well of course in academia we do judge, but we have to step out of that, too. I just had a routine medical exam where the technician told me that Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are was a favorite childhood book – and I thought: classy taste. Then she added, while scanning my organs, that there was another book, whose name she can’t remember, about the importance of brushing her teeth and washing her hair which she’d cherished. That one’s not on our list, but, aside from hygiene, the fact that she took a book to heart is what matters. Reading is opening doors, and none of us want to get stuck in just one room. Sometimes you may want to wrestle with James Joyce. And sometimes you want a book about vampires and thwarted love.



  1. Well said, Jeannine – I love the reading values in this post. In the midst of our first week of school, I had a study hall teacher walk one of my 7th graders down the hall to my classroom and say, “Show her what you were reading.” It was a graphic novel – I don’t remember which one and it doesn’t matter, frankly – and she stood there, tapping her foot. “Is THIS what he’s supposed to be reading for independent reading?” she wanted to know.
    Well…um…yeah. If it’s what he chose, then it’s what he’s “supposed to be” reading. She was disappointed but walked him back to class reading all the way. I think our desire to impose our own reading values on kids is one of the factors that leads them to abandon reading for pleasure as they get older.

  2. very nicely said! 🙂

  3. Kate, thank you for reading. And for your seventh grade haven, which means so much to us all.
    On one hand, we’ve got more graphic novels in libraries. On the other hand, there are all those tests, and at least one study hall teacher who taps her foot.
    You’re the best!

  4. Thank you, and thank you for all the great things you do to nurture love of words and pictures. It really really matters.

  5. Reading is opening doors, and none of us want to get stuck in just one room.
    I love that, Jeannine. It’s exactly right.

  6. Thanks, Jill. Hope your revision is moving along well.

  7. My son brought home several reading lists this year–NOT, thank goodness, here’s your AR reading level and these are the books you’re allowed. Instead, his teacher had printed off several lists, probably from libraries on the web, with books good for middle-school students–there’s a mix of “classics,” some books specifically by YA authors, and even a few Agatha Christies!! So far he’s picked The Lord of the Flies…shudder!
    I don’t really have plans to try for an MFA, because I so enjoyed getting OUT of school, but I do find myself wondering if there are programs out there that would support me as a student, given the choices I’m making about my writing. I get a twinge and wonder if I’d “qualify,” and then, of course, in comes the reverse snobbismm in my own psyche, with a kind of well, fine, then attitude. Definitely some letting go to be done here. 🙂

  8. I’m with shuddering at Lord of the Flies. But hope he “enjoys” it. It’s certainly memorable anyway.
    Re MFA: do you ever consider one of the non-residency programs with specialties in children’s writing? People seem to love the Vermont one in particular. It does seem great in that you can get 12 days, I think, of deep conversation, thinking, critiquing, then go off on your own for six months, with an advisor to follow through. And everybody is serious about and in love with the genre.

  9. I’ve heard people talking about that Vermont program–I think I need to loo at it!

  10. I’ve heard so many great things about it. It’s quite an investment, but then it has deepened many peoples’ writing and shaped careers.
    Not to mention that you’d be only a few easy hours of driving from where I live in western Mass!

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