As an adult, all my reading for pleasure is entirely self-directed. I choose whatever I want! I mostly find books through recommendations from friends, or lists I keep of books I always meant to read, or whatever's next from my favorite authors.
When I was growing up, I chose books mostly the same way, but there was an extra fun element that I miss, which was being assigned a book to read for school and then loving it. In my experience, there is a certain satisfaction and joy that comes from discovering a book that I might not have found on my own.
We know from the Kids & Family Reading Report that for half of children (52%) who have time to read in school, it is their favorite part of the day, or wish it would happen more often. We also know that for low-income kids, reading-in-school time is especially important: 61% of children ages 6–17 from the lowest-income homes say they read for fun mostly in school or equally at school and at home, while 32% of kids ages 6–17 from the highest-income homes say the same.
Here are two examples of powerful reading experiences I had through books that were chosen for me in school:
In second grade, our teacher spent a lot of time reading aloud to us--not just picture books, but chapter books as well. It was through a second grade read-aloud that I discovered Charlotte's Web (E.B. White) and Bridge to Terabithia (Katherine Paterson), two books which I had strong emotional reactions to. I remember in particular when we were reading Bridge to Terabithia, some of my classmates cried--it is a difficult book, but it was the first time I remember feeling such overpowering emotion about something I didn't experience myself. Of course, I've now felt that many times since, thanks to books.
In twelfth grade, my history teacher assigned us to read MAUS (Art Spiegelman) while we were studying the Holocaust. When I opened the book, I thought, "Oh, no, what is this!?" because I had never read a graphic novel before (and had a grumpy teenage attitude). However, I discovered that MAUS was an incredibly beautiful book; not only did I love it then, but I remember individual panels to this day, and reading it inspired my own interest in drawing. MAUS I and II are among my all-time favorite books.
I asked some of my colleagues what their favorite school-reading experiences were, and here's what they said:
Deimosa: Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, and The Joys of Motherhood, by Buchi Emecheta – these books are everything to me as a postcolonial English literature person. Things Fall Apart talks about directly before and after contact in Nigeria, and The Joys of Motherhood mostly takes place closer to the present in Lagos. These books are a great male/female pairing to me; both main characters are doing everything “right” according to traditional ways, but the world around them is changing. Beyond the story, in both books every line of prose is pure poetry, and they become more meaningful with each re-read.
Mike: The Scarlet Letter. The symbolism and storyline was very powerful. One a more fun note: I did not realize how salacious it’s narrative was at the time – maybe that’s why I love shows like Scandal now. Also, Macbeth. I had trouble “reading” plays in my early high school years. Once I got the hang of it, I helped me finally unleash my theater kid and join drama club. I am still an avid Shakespeare fan today.
Speaking of Shakespeare ... Gina: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Tom Stoppard). I am not a huge Shakespeare fan (which is treason to some people, I know) but the fact that Tom Stoppard wrote an entire comedy (or at least, it felt more like a comedy to me) about two side characters in a drama was so interesting to me. My response was something like, “He can do that?!”
Morgan: I’m sure I would have read Edith Wharton at some eventual point in the future – I was an English major, after all — but I am eternally grateful that The Age of Innocence was assigned to me in AP English, because it jumpstarted my lifelong love of her. I still re-read Innocence every year!
Anushka: The first book I remember loving out of the ones assigned to us in class was To Sir, With Love by E. R. Braithwaite. I believe it was the first school-assigned novel that I actually finished reading, or at least the first one I finished reading where I proceeded to recommend it to other people because I liked it so much. It was also one of the first autobiographical novels I’d ever read.
Alex: My favorite assigned reading, which remains an all-time favorite title of mine today, is Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Although most of my classmates didn’t share my love for this book, it certainly fostered an environment for engaging (and sometime heated!) class discussions around each students perceptions of the story. Recently, I was able to relive this discussion with my husband when we watched Life of Pi the movie.
And finally, speaking of teenage attitudes, Brittany: I remember hating, but eventually getting sucked into, Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy when I had to read it for AP English class my senior year of high school. The romantic plot and human drama ended up sucking me in once I got past the 1890’s language!