I remember my first children’s literature class as an undergraduate majoring in elementary education. I had always been a reader, but hadn’t really thought much about children’s books since I’d read them as a child. I picked up my assigned readings (Bridge to Terabithia and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry) at the university bookstore, and then went right to my room and began to read. I’d had no idea that children’s literature had become so powerful since my own childhood, and I was immediately hooked. I could not wait to share these books with my students once I became a teacher.
The message in the children’s literature class was a strong one. Our children deserve high-quality books: books that change who they are and that help them see the world differently. And I wholeheartedly agreed. From that moment on, I believed that the children’s books that really mattered were those that tugged at your heart. The books that would be most important to my students would be the books that made them sigh, gasp, cry, and live with the characters long after they had finished the book.
When I moved from fourth grade to third grade last year, I was a little anxious about the books. I knew that most third graders were transitional readers, and many of the books they enjoyed were not those “high-quality” texts that I had learned about in my children’s literature class and have loved ever since. I knew I would miss those books that my fourth and fifth graders had devoured. But I dug in and filled my classroom library with series books that seemed to be a good match for transitional readers. Even though I never fell in love with these books, they engaged my students as readers.
At the end of the year, I asked my third graders to choose one book from their third-grade reading life that they wished to celebrate with the class. I gave them this assignment:
In May, we will celebrate our year of reading. Each day, one person from our class will choose something they read this year and we’ll celebrate it together. Pick a picture book, a scene from a chapter book, a nonfiction section, a poem, an article, a post . . . anything that you want to celebrate as a reader this year. It can be something from a book you’ve read on your own or with friends, or it can be one we’ve read together in read-aloud.
Is there a book that you loved?
Is there a book that helped you grow or change as a reader?
Is there a scene that touched your heart and changed you as a person?
Is there a book that introduced you to your newest favorite author?
Is there something you read that made you interested in something new?
On your assigned day, we’ll share your book or excerpt with the class. You can read it aloud or I will read it and you can share with the class the reasons you chose this particular piece or scene.
I had invited students to celebrate one book in past years, but this was my first year asking third graders to do this. I had no idea what to expect from the celebrations. Honestly, in the end-of-the-year craziness, I thought it would be a good way to share books and reflect a bit. But that was about the end of my expectations.
Well, the celebrations definitely exceeded my hopes. The thought that my students put into their choices was incredible, and what I learned from their celebration will stay with me as we move into the new school year.
These books I considered shallow, that were not quite the high-quality literature I know, changed my kids’ reading lives in ways I hadn’t anticipated. Each day as a child shared, I was reminded of the brilliance of the authors who write for young children—authors who know just what a child needs to continue their reading journey.
Max shared the effect of The Chicken Squad. He said that he had never read a book independently that was written in first person and that this book taught him that he could do this.
Julia read James Preller’s Scary Tales and it was the first scary book she’d tried. It set her on a hunt to find more scary books, as she’d become hooked.
Hannah tried the first book in the Whatever After series and realized that there were fractured fairy tales that were not picture books. This book led her to other series and authors who played with stories she knew well.
Drew read A Week in the Woods by Andrew Clements and realized he had the stamina to read longer books. He went on to read more books by Clements, who became a favorite author.
Julius read Magic Bone. He had not been a fantasy reader, but he liked books about dogs, so he had picked this one up. The dog hook helped him realize he could be interested in some fantasies after all.
Ben celebrated The Chocolate Touch because it was the first book he tried because he saw others reading it. After that, he started to pay attention to what his friends were reading.
Melissa shared The Babysitters Club because it was the first book that reminded her of herself.
None of the books that my students celebrated this year were books that received starred reviews in Publisher’s Weekly or were books one might read in a children’s literature course. They were not the books that I love as an adult. Children’s book author Lisa Graff wrote about a similar experience in her own childhood reading in a Nerdy Book Club blog post. In it she says, “It doesn’t take fine literature to hook a kid for life. Sometimes the books that make grown-ups scoff are the very books that children are desperate to gobble up. But after they gobble up those books, if we’re really lucky, they’ll ask, ‘More?’”
As each child celebrated, I realized how often I try to rush my students’ journeys as readers, push them to books they are not quite ready for, encourage them to read the books I love. Through the month of celebrations I came to love these books that I wasn’t so excited about at the start of the school year. I don’t love them in the same way that I love Bridge to Terabithia, but I love them because they are the right books for my third graders.
I learned as I have over and over again to trust my students to make good choices as readers. Now as I work with a new group of third graders I value these books, not because they received awards, or are deemed high-quality literature, or because they changed my life. I value them because they are the books my students need at this critical time in their reading lives. These are the books that meet them where they are and help them grow as readers, changing their lives and hearts.