Growing up, my sister and I were both strong readers who loved books. For a brief period, our reading paths intersected. I still own a childhood book we both loved, Foods from Near and Far. I’m not sure why we both adored this story of siblings who visit a local produce market with their father. But the book is special to me because it was one we shared.
As we progressed through elementary school, our?reading paths diverged. My sister would read from dawn until dusk if she could, immersing herself in classics like Black Beauty and The Secret Garden.? I read an average amount, preferring to read light-hearted fare like Ramona the Pest and Encyclopedia Brown, or books that taught me how to do magic or tell jokes.
My parents often described my sister as “the reader” and me as “the entertainer.” They meant no harm with these labels, but they still had an effect on me. I started seeing myself as the one who didn’t read, or the one who read the wrong books.
This feeling followed me into middle school years. Yes, I read the classics assigned by teachers (and I still love To Kill a Mocking Bird and A Wrinkle in Time.) But when it came to pleasure reading, my sister continued to consume ever more challenging titles, while I started a pattern of checking out the same dozen or so books from the library.
Today, I can describe in exact detail the cover art on Anne Alexander’s coming of age novel, The Pink Dress (1959), a book I checked out at least 30 times by the 6th grade. Unfortunately, these were the days when you signed your name on the library checkout card tucked into a plastic pocket of the book, creating a paper trail for other kids to see.
“Why did you check out this lame book so many times?” a classmate once taunted. “Are you in love with the boy on the cover?” I was mortified (and in love with the boy on the cover).?My family would ask me the same question — a bit more tactfully — every time I came home with The Pink Dress.
Eventually, I took to hiding the book. I consider it my first experience with “book shame” — a feeling that when it comes to reading, you are somehow getting it wrong.
Peers, parents, and even well-intentioned librarians can inadvertently contribute to a child’s sense of book shame. A friend shared with me her third grade experience:
My librarian was so concerned about me reading so many biographies that she MADE me read the entire Little House on the Prairie series. If I tried to turn in a Little House book, she would quiz me on it! I was not allowed to check out a biography until I proved I had read the other books first. I hated the Little House books, but read every one of them so I could get back to the biography section. For the record, I am a History teacher!
Given my experiences, ?I couldn’t imagine responding to my daughter’s book choices in a way that would upset her. Yet just recently, we disagreed over what to read at bedtime. She had chosen Barbie’s Fairytopia. I have nothing against fairies, but dislike books with toy tie-ins. ?My daughter was genuinely hurt when I disparaged her book as “junky fluff.”
“It’s not junk Mommy!” she protested. “I like it, it makes me happy.”?That gave me pause. I read her the book.
As parents, we need to think about all the ways we respond to our children’s reading styles and book choices. I found some inspiration after hearing about the readers’ workshop approach adopted by some elementary and middle schools in recent years. Rather than assigning entire classes a single classic book at a time, teachers allow students to read books of choice, with journal writing and peer discussion supporting the ?individualized reading experience.
While the model has generated some critiques (e.g. concerns that the classics will be ignored), it has shown promise for motivating reluctant readers and sending students a powerful message: your preferences in books are meaningful.
I want my daughter to get that same message, to understand its OK to seek different things from different books:? laughter, knowledge, escape, or inspiration. Perhaps even the magic of a pink dress.
Speaking of, I recently learned that, according to Bookfinders Annual Report, The Pink Dress was the most sought after out-of-print children’s book of 2008 and 2009.? Copies have sold online between $300-$1200. Apparently many young girls in the 60s and 70s adored the story and checked it out of their library repeatedly, too.
Book shame, be gone!