Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres. I feel its importance extends well beyond a narrative. It is a means of connecting a past life to a current reader. However, I know that historical fiction gets overlooked by young readers because they may fear it will be dry and boring (perhaps like their textbooks?). Reader's advisory is essential to connect kids to historical fiction. If you begin to tell them the story--the real story--they often want to learn more. I have compiled a list of my favorite historical fiction book for each age range, and why I feel that they can be teachable books for all who read them.
Author: Marty Crisp
Grade Range: PK-3
Why? This book, which shares about a cat on the Titanic, sounds simple in its story. But it can teach children as young as preschool about the historical sinking of the Titanic. It also helps younger readers start to understand the impact of social class on travel, and in this case, survival.
Title: Out of the Dust
Author: Karen Hesse
Grade Range: 4-8
Type: free-verse poetry
Why? Out of the Dust is written in the poetry form, and it enlightens the reader to the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Both areas are covered lightly in history books, especially the Dust Bowl. But Out of the Dust uses a family to demonstrate what it was like to live during this time in our country.
Title: I Survived Series
Author: Lauren Tarshis
Grade Range: 2-6
Why? The I Survived books are such important historical fiction works for kids, I had to include them all. As dark as it might seem, kids are fascinated with disasters. It is very normal and natural, and it is part out of fear and part out of the unknown. Lauren Tarshis has created a series of books that places characters in some of the greatest disasters in history. These books teach kids about these disasters--from what precipitated them to their outcome. This series rarely stay on the shelves in my library, and they take historical events and create suspenseful works that keep the young readers coming back for more.
Title: Salt to the Sea
Author: Rita Sepetys
Grade Range: 7 and up
Why? In this book, Rita Sepetys (who also wrote Between Shades of Gray, another quality historical fiction YA novel), brings to light the period of time near the end of World War II, where the immigrants in the story are caught between fleeing Germany and fearing the alternative, the Soviet Union. The characters are working to reach the ship, Wilhelm Gustloff. History has already taught us that the ship is the greatest maritime disaster of all time (and if students don't know that, which I did not when I first read the book, they will learn about it by the end of the story). But, of course, that is dramatic irony in this story. There are many books about the horrors of the Germans during World War II, but few that explain how the liberation by the Soviets left for little relief in Eastern Europe. Between that component and the shipwreck (that many history classes skip over), it is a book packed with learning opportunities.
Recently, I was reading an article about some remarks that were made a few years ago on the Senate floor regarding children with special needs in general education classrooms. The words “old school” stood out to me in the article. Throughout my career--both in the library and in education--I have heard people say, “Well, I’m old school, and I think it should be done this way.” That phrase has always been said so emphatically by those who say it, that it was seemingly said with pride. But it wasn’t until this article that I began to think of using “old school” and education together, and how concerning that really is.
When I was a young teacher and I heard those words, I would often think, “Am I doing something wrong?” I mean, I didn’t even know what old school was; I hadn’t been around long enough! And the idea straight rows of silent students sounded pretty miserable (both for me and for the students). I would hear it in connection with curriculum writing--”I’m old school, I think every high school student should read____.” You can fill in the blank with any book that is considered part of the canon. The hardest part of that conversation was trying to convince people of the modern fiction that will never be read if we only stick to classics. Not only will those books be missed, the classics don’t always connect with kids. But it was the “it has always been done so it must be good” mentality.
Change is hard. Updating is hard. When I started at the North Manchester Public Library last year, I had to hire a circulation manager in my first week and a new children’s librarian within my first three months. Because we are our own people and our own team, we didn’t do everything the way it was always done before. Some of that was because we didn’t even know how it had been done before. Some of it was that we were able to pull-in experience from our own work backgrounds to make improvements. Our intention was always to do what was best for the library. However, we were met with resistance from various people because it wasn’t the way it had always been done. Even though we were doing what we saw as improvements, they were unhappy that there was change.
By stating that one is “old school” is implying that they are uninterested or unwilling to change. But when it comes to educating our kids, we must realize that the kids we are educating live in an ever-changing world. Being “old school” won’t cut it, because “old school” doesn’t take into account that our current students live in a very different world than students even ten years ago.
This brings me to our genre for the month--historical fiction. “Old school” teaching of history was from a textbook and only a textbook. But there is so much to be gained by teaching history through literature and primary sources. When I was a student in the 80s and 90s, we didn’t have primary sources at our fingertips. Now, they are accessible through databases with the click of a button. I know a lot of students who will never voluntarily read a textbook but can’t wait to curl up with their own book. No, it’s not traditional teaching, but it might meet the needs of this generation better than the methods that we used to teach kids a decade or more ago. Being afraid of change or updates--in literature, education, and in life--only stalls us in a world of inevitable change.
Literature is an important gateway to the past, present, and future. Yes, we can read textbooks. We can memorize facts. But it is literature that puts these things in a human perspective.
When I taught 8th grade English, I taught The Diary of Anne Frank. It will forever be my favorite unit to teach. We would read the dramatic version, and when we started, the students treated it like any other drama that they had read previously. But by the time we completed it, the characters were real to my students. I read that play with approximately 400 eighth graders in the years that I taught, and I don’t remember a single complaint. But my students always wanted more at the end.
I would not show them the most modern Anne Frank film because it was too graphic in certain parts for school, but many of them begged their parents to watch it at home. My students struggled with the fact that the play stops when those hiding in the annex are discovered. They wanted to know the specifics of what happened to Anne in the concentration camps. Those who watched the movie would often come back horrified at what they saw in the movie. It isn’t that they hadn’t learned about the Holocaust, it was that they were personally connected to the characters in the play. It made it real to them. They cared about those characters. They weren’t nameless facts in a textbook.
During my tenure as the media specialist at Manchester Jr/Sr High School, I worked with several of of our social studies teachers to do special reading promotions for historical fiction. These students would routinely tell their teachers that the outside reading was one of the most enjoyable components of the class. But the students were getting a choice in what they were reading, and they were reading stories instead of facts. Both are essential for engaging reluctant and emerging readers.
Historical fiction has the ability to bring the past to life for our students. It has the ability to provide personal connections and experiences. It is an important tool for educating our students about the past. History is essential to teach (we can’t feasibly understand the world we live in without understanding what happened in our past to make it this way), and historical fiction is a beautiful way to teach it. It puts a human element into something that otherwise only exists in a textbook. We hope you take some time during the busy holiday rush to read something from our genre this month, historical fiction, and a take a piece of history and re-learn it through a story.
November 28, 2016
Last Wednesday, I was fortunate enough to hear James Patterson speak as the keynote for the Indiana Library Federation. Mr. Patterson, a man who is on the New York Times Bestseller List more than he isn’t on the list, explained that he doesn’t speak at these engagements for money (he obviously doesn’t need that). But he hopes in speaking to groups about the importance of reading that he will “save a life” along the way.
Sounds silly, right? We all know that reading is important...but saving a life? In last week’s blog, I talked about becoming a better reader by simply reading. But I didn’t touch on an important component of that...access. And that was the message that Mr. Patterson shared. Along with allowing kids to find the right reading material for his/her interests, we need to also provide them the opportunity to find that material.
Those of us who were fortunate to grow up in homes of readers probably never knew a home without reading material. We either had books on our bookshelves or something just as powerful--a library card. But for some, it is not that simple. Not every resident in this state or country has a public library that he or she can get a card without cost. A lot of school libraries are being downsized, consolidated, or cut out completely to save money. I had an administrator tell me a few years ago that while we are lucky to have a school library, “we could survive without it.”
But could we have survived as a school system? Could we survive as a town? Without access to libraries, there are too many residents who would not have materials read. It seems like such a simple message that so many have yet to understand. It is a message that Dr. Seuss says clearly, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.” But to be a reader, you need to have books, and you need to have access to a lot of books.
Knowledge is power, and we can’t gain that knowledge without being readers. When Mr. Patterson was talking about saving a life, he meant it. If a child becomes a reader, and learns from being a reader, the opportunities for that child are limitless. There is so much out of our control right now in this time of political transition within our country. There is a lot of unrest, and a lot of uncertainty. And many of us are asking, “What can we do?” We can continue to lobby our politicians to make sure that we have tax dollars to support our school and public libraries. We can encourage our kids to become readers. Because readers become thinkers, and knowledge is power.
November 13, 2016
We have a knack in education for killing a love of learning. It is certainly never done intentionally, and most teachers would agree with this statement. It is the consequence of poor legislation and a system of over-testing put in place by politicians who have never stepped in the classroom. Hence, the joy that is created when a young child learns to read is overcome by high expectations and mandated reading material. Yes, kids should be challenged, but sometimes those challenges drive struggling readers away from all reading.
Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction, Glenda Ritz, spoke to librarians at the Indiana Library Federation Conference in the fall of 2013. I loved her speech so much that in March of 2014 I was able to secure her to speak to our entire student body at Manchester Junior/Senior High School. Superintendent Ritz, a nationally board certified librarian, told her audiences of a poster she proudly hung in her library in Indianapolis, “Ten ways to become a better reader: read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read.” So simple. So powerful.
But keeping kids reading when they are struggling isn’t easy. Keeping kids reading when they are only reading materials that they are assigned isn’t likely to happen. When I was in college, I did not read every line of material that was assigned to me. But I always read the things that I was interested in, or the articles that I was able to find on my own.
As an English teacher and an English department head, I felt the pressure that no student should leave high school without reading books from the cannon. I wanted them to head off into life with a good basis of information and reference. But, more than anything, I wanted them to be lifelong readers. It was and always will be a difficult balance.
I would encourage all parents and teachers to really consider what they are encouraging or pushing their children and students to read. Are they getting choice? Do they enjoy it? If it is a battle, then we all need to look at what they are reading. I have a son who is above reading level for his age, and I have a son who is still struggling to learn to read after years of trying. But my rules for them are the same. We read the books that they are assigned first, and then they can pick whatever they want and we will read it. Sometimes I have to read it, sometimes we share the reading, and sometimes they read it to me. I am sure you can guess which book is their favorite to read each night. It isn’t the one that they received as an assignment.
I had an amazing tennis coach who used to tell us that we would get better by “playing people we could beat easily, playing people who we were matched evenly with, and playing people who would beat the pants off of us.” I tell students that it is the same with reading. It takes reading of all kinds to grow as a reader and to enjoy being a reader. It is so simple, just read.
I never understood the importance of pictures in a child’s journey to becoming a reader until recently. My oldest son, Bryce, is on the autism spectrum. If you are familiar at all with autism, you know that visuals are so important to those on the spectrum. Words can be confusing for him, but pictures allow him to connect. It isn’t just for those with special needs, however. We all use images to make connections and stretch our imaginations.
I am a librarian and a former English teacher, so I love words. I love the sound of words; I love how you can connect words together. But the cliche phrase “A picture can say a thousand words” is true. And it isn’t just a thousand words. It’s a thousand combinations of words. My boys have been reading books to me since they were very little. Now, were they reading by the typical reading definition? No. But they would tell me the story using the pictures. They loved it. They felt empowered by doing it. I loved it because it allowed their creativity to shine.
They were utilizing the pictures on the page, and they were developing the story with those pictures. No, it wasn’t the perfect word for word story that the author wrote, but it was an imaginative re-telling of the story that was written. For my kids, it developed conversation, creativity, and a love for reading.
Adults create stories utilizing photos, as well. Last Saturday, the Cubs advanced to the World Series for the first time since 1945. If you are a die hard Cubs fan, you no doubt have an emotional story that accompanies being a fan. I wrote my story last week (click here to read it). I used the power of words to share why I was a Cubs fan and the emotions that accompanied the victory. The picture shown was taken of my brother, Jeff, at a bar in Wrigleyville on the night the Cubs clinched the pennant. The best part of this picture is that there could be so many different stories to go with it. We could tell a 1000 stories from this picture, and yet they would likely all portray the same genuine emotion--joy.
We are thrilled to have picture books as our #readitglobal genre for November. But don’t be fooled into thinking that picture books are only for young readers. Picture books allow the reader to develop the story on his or her own--to develop his or her own language. This can be done at any age or any reading level. A picture is the foundation to unleash the unceasing potential of the imagination.
The first time I ever heard the word “genrify” I was overwhelmed. I love simplicity. I merged paperbacks and hardbacks together because I didn’t like the idea of having too many sections in the library. So the idea of dividing my entire fiction section by genre seemed outrageous.
I listened to librarians say that they would never go back after genrifying their libraries. But I wondered, “Was it really worth the time and energy?” In the summer of 2014, I started contemplating the idea. I decided to do my own informal survey when school started that August. I counted the number of times a student said, “Where are your mystery books?” Or “where are your sports books?” In those two weeks, I realized that our students often chose books completely on genre. And genres are what allow students to begin to connect--it makes the overwhelming task of choosing a book a lot more doable.
Finally, in the fall of 2014, I did a formal survey. On it, I asked our student population, how do you choose a book? The overwhelming answer was by genre. It was enough to convince me that it was time to give this fad a try. In the spring of 2015, the sophomore class spent nearly a week with me genrifying our library as a class project. We took the entire fiction section in the 7-12 grade library off of the shelves. We split it by genre, reclassified everything in the catalog, and reshelved all of our books. It was a huge project, but at the end of the week we all left feeling fulfilled by it.
The response was and continues to be amazing. Kids feel comfortable searching because they know where to start. Most kids don’t stick to one genre, but it allows them to feel safe and comfortable in a particular area as they begin to search for a book.
The hardest part of getting a student to read is getting him or her in the “just right” book--the book that will keep him or her reading and keep him or her coming back. Genrifying puts the students one step closer to finding what they need to find to become readers. #readitglobal was created to build readers. By featuring a different genre every month, we hope that we are showcasing something for everyone throughout each season. Genrifying was a powerful tool for my library, and utilizing genres in reader’s advisory is an essential component to helping kids succeed as readers.
In my career, I have heard “I don’t like to read” more times than I can count. Ninety percent of those comments were from teenagers. I heard it well before kids had immediate access to technology. I heard it when I was a student in the 1990s, I heard it when I was an English teacher, I heard it when I was a school librarian, and I still hear it as a public librarian. But the truth is, it isn’t reading that kids dislike, it is what they are reading.
Sometimes we give teenagers more credit than we should. Don’t get me wrong…I love teenagers. I love watching kids grow into the person that they will be as an adult. However, I have often told people that when I started teaching junior high, I struggled until I realized that my students were little kids in big kid bodies.
“I don’t like this” is a very common phrase when someone is uncertain or not entertained. Teenagers say that they don’t like to read for many reasons--they are reading books that are too difficult, or they are reading books that they can find no connection or interest in. I was an English major, I love fine literature, but there are many books that I have been forced to read for classes over the years that I struggled with. It wasn’t my reading level that was the problem, it was that it wasn’t my choice of book.
Do we want kids to read the classics? Yes...well kind of...maybe. We could debate that all day, and I could probably argue equally for both sides. But more than what kids are reading, I care that kids of all ages ARE reading. As I would tell my students, it’s like a sport, you have to practice. You can’t get better by not doing it.
So what do we do for the kids who say that they don’t like reading? We look at the reader. What have they been reading? My guess is it has been either too hard or too boring (each reader is different--what is boring to me, may not be boring to you!). So how do you hook them? It’s that simple...choice. Let them choose what they are reading. HELP them choose what they want to read.
My standard question to students when helping them choose a book, “What do you like to do?” Not, “what do you like to read?” But instead, “What types of movies, youtube videos, etc. do you like to watch?” That is how gage their interests. When you know the person, you begin to know the reader.
Reader’s advisory often gets lost in busy classrooms with chaotic schedules. It is becoming a lost art in a lot of libraries. But it is the personal touch, and allowing choice, that helps readers flourish.
In June of 2014, I attended the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference in Atlanta, Georgia. While I had been a Twitter user for several years prior to attending that conference, it was during that time that I realized the power of social media, particularly the hashtag.
Pound sign, number sign, sharp--whatever you may have called this symbol before--it is not new. Yet, it has been rebranded and is changing how we communicate. In using a hashtag, we are making connections.
Whether you are using #flytheW to celebrate a Cubs victory, or searching #HurricaneMatthew to get the latest on a major storm, when you create or a search a hashtag, you are connecting on topics with people around the globe. Yes, celebrities and authorities in their fields use hashtags, but so do people like you and me. It is the creation of news and information by the user.
The use of the hashtag in education allows us the ability to connect with people that we would never have been able to connect with before. Last Friday, my son, Luke, a first grader, came home after his #readitglobal launch at school and said, “Do you know if I tweet an author, they might tweet me back?” I said, “Let’s try it!” He chose to tweet (on my account) @laurentarshis , author of the I Survived series. Within an hour, she had liked our tweet, replied, and started following me on Twitter. She lives across the country, but we connected with her almost instantly. What did that do for Luke? It allowed him a connection that now has energized him to continue reading, learning, and connecting. And what better skills can we ask our students to develop?
#Readitglobal was created as a means to bring readers together. You can connect with an author. You can connect with a fellow reader. You can have a voice in your own learning and reading experiences--whether you are six-years-old or 66-years-old. You have a platform to share with the world.
October 10, 2016
In August of 2013, Manchester Community Schools provided iPads for every student in grades 5-12. I worked on every facet of that process, and I will admit, I had some reservations about how it would impact reading--would our students not pick up books because they had this new device? A day didn’t go by during that process that someone didn’t say to me, “I bet your circulation numbers go down.” Or, “Kids won’t be reading at all now that they have a device in their hands.” And while I stayed vocally positive, my insecurities were there. What if they were right? What if this was the beginning of the end? I had built a community of readers that I was proud of, and I didn’t want to lose it.
It was an issue I struggled with because, ultimately, I love technology in education. I feel that it is the future. I love how it connects people, and I fully supported the move to give all students technology to help them learn and create. Yet, I knew we needed to be proactive in our promotion of reading.
After starting a corporation reading initiative, our circulation actually increased during that first year of being one to one with iPads. We introduced ebooks to our students, and we gained reading momentum. We meshed our technology and our reading, and we found success. In August of 2015, my Readitglobal co-founder, Bethany Hall, and I knew we needed to raise the bar for our students. We needed something new and exciting for them, and we wanted something that would blend the worlds of reading and technology.
Readitglobal does just that. Authors share letters to their readers about why they write/read the genre that they do. Readers choose books from that genre, and then connect using social media. The #readitglobal can be used on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Readers can follow @readitglobal on Twitter and Instagram, or the Readitglobal page on Facebook. Readers can comment for themselves about what they are reading, or they can comment for their students or children about the books that they are reading together. It allows all readers--authors, teachers, parents, students, professionals, etc. to connect.
Each month (October through March), check back for a new author, a new letter, and a new genre. Each week look on social media or visit the website for a new blog post, including posts from guest bloggers who will share how they use #readitglobal in their personal or professional lives. We hope you will join us for a new season of #readitglobal. Social media is one of the most powerful tools of our time, why not use it to promote something as timeless as reading?
October 1, 2016