Monday, February 7, 2011

If you're going to take a book out of the hands of a reader...

Greg’s mom came to me this summer with a common dilemma.  Greg, a very bright kid, hates to read. 

My solution: better books. 

My M.O.- stack a pile of my favorites in front of him, read the first chapters until he finds something he likes. 

The result: Greg reads. 

It doesn’t take a whole lot. 

So, they kept me on as a tutor this school year.  The proposition: sit with Greg once a week while he does his spelling worksheets.  Apparently, not getting into a huge fight over homework is worth every penny to have me there. 

Once a month, Greg has a book report on a different genre.  I set up the books.  Greg knocks them down. 

That brings us to the problem... 

I had just finished A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz, and as anyone who has read it knows, it… is… awesome.  Especially, for a highly capable but reluctant 4th grade reader.  Humor, blood and gore, what’s not to love?  Well, Greg ate it up. 

Unfortunately: not the month’s genre.  That would be biography. 
Solution: You Never Heard of Sandy Kofax? By Jonah Winter, Illustrated by Andre Carrilho, an outstanding picture book biography eloquently told and exquisitely illustrated.  Greg and his dad, both huge baseball fans, were psyched. 

The book report: not rocket science; one page, half summary, half reaction.  Perfect right?  Keep the “love of reading” flow, while still adhering to his assigned reading.  Greg can certainly gain an understanding of Kofax’s tremendous determination while still having time to read the book he’s into. 

Well, at least that’s what I thought. 

Greg’s teacher, however, took the Kofax book out of his hands. 
Her problem: it’s too short. 

It’s too short? I wonder if his teacher even took the time to open the book up.

I definitely disagree. You Never Heard of Sandy Kofax? tells the Kofax story through meticulously crafted prose.  And I have a feeling, not too many people who are reading this post would disagree that you can garner just as much of a person’s essence from 32 pages as you could from a 100 page book (Especially if all you’re required to do is write a ½ page summary, ½ page reflection).  And the author included a glossary and source notes!

The teacher's solution:  
She hands him John F. Kennedy: America’s 35th President by Barry Denenberg.  I have nothing against Mr. Denenberg, his Dear America series brings wonderful excitement to non-fiction.  My issue is that the book this teacher handed this student was published when I was in fourth grade (1988).  Now, I know- there’s not too much new to the JFK story.

Here’s what is new.  Today’s juvenile non-fiction treats the reader with much more respect that was expected in 1988. 

As you can see, many pages are a sea of text.  Well written, yes.  Overly engaging, not for me.  I’ve been hearing that kids don’t read enough non-fiction since the day I began teaching.  I certainly understand why.  For a long, long time too much of what we handed our students doesn’t bring the subject to life.

If you look at the final page, notice how this book ends.  There’s not even an about the author.  From further research, I know Mr. Denenberg has done his homework but there’s nothing to inform the reader of this.

So.  Greg’s mom smiles after I finish ranting and calls over to him, “Hey, Greg, what did you think of the JFK biography?”

Greg: “Didn’t read it.”

That’s when his mom tells me not to worry about it.  His dad would help him “ad-lib” the assignment.  Not good enough for me.  It was my recommendation that got Greg into this mess.

My solution:  And the timing couldn’t have been more perfect....

I was just at my favorite independent bookstore, Wellesley Booksmith, and I remember glancing over at the biography section to see this beautiful JFK biography.  I call up Margaret for the name, and drive on over.  It’s snowing (shocker) but that doesn’t stop me.  I have a point to make. 

An hour later I show back up to the house with Kennedy Through the Lens: A look at how Photography and Television Revealed and Shaped an Extraordinary Leader.   Doesn’t the title alone do it for you?

Martin Sandler has done a few of these photo-biographies but this book is pure extraordinary!  The organization of the book is remarkable.  It tells the JFK story relating each piece of his life and of his presidency with a remarkable photograph.  Each page highlights a different aspect of the JFK presidency and Sandler does it justice in one page, summing up the importance of the photograph. Civil rights- Wallace blockading the door; Kennedy’s untimely assassination- LBJ being sworn in.  A one page synopsis encapsulating the mood and importance of each photograph.  The format is engaging, the text isn't overwhelming, and overall, it makes the book not feel as long as it is.  

But my favorite quality of this book, the added information.  Sandler treats his young readers with the utmost respect throughout the story and it fits that he’s included places of historic significance to JFK, further juvenile reading and even prevalent web-resources. 

And just as any adult would expect, just as any teacher requires from their students, Sandler includes not only a list of his source material but even the sources of the photographs. 

It’s the final endpage that leaves makes the most impactful statement.  A inspirational quote from Kennedy…

From the speech he was on his way to deliver in Dallas.  Classy.

Oh, and is Martin Sandler a trusted source?  Here’s his about the author: 

As for Greg?  After I previewed the book with the family, I left one explicit instruction: show your teacher and donate this book to your classroom library. 

How did it turn out?  Even though Greg only had a few days to complete the assignment he got his A. 

As for the donation?  Greg promised me he would… just as soon as he finishes it from cover to cover. 

Honestly, if you're going to take a book out of the hands of a reader, just make sure to replace it with that of the same quality.  


  1. Extraordinarily well-done post, Mike -- I'll be sharing...

  2. Chris shared! And I'm here applauding, too. I have an almost unnatural love for that Sandy Koufax book, so I was hooked from the start. I'll be looking for that Kennedy book, too.

    You taught a hell of a good lesson here.

  3. I genuinely appreciate that you took your time to read this post. Looking back, the post is wrought with a little too much emotion. I know it comes from the right place, as my experiences in school completely skewed my view of reading.

    I graduated with the ability to read but not with the desire. It wasn't until college that I gained an appreciation for literature. As an ed. major I was required to read a great deal of children's lit. At the time it angered my to think of how much I had missed and I don't want that to happen to others.

    I'm realizing that if I'm going to move this mentality forward it has to be without judgement and snarky remarks, just information.

    A special thank you to Dr. Susannah Richards is well deserved opening my eyes to the potential illustrated non-fiction in class.

    Thanks again for leaving your thoughts!


  4. You can be without judgment if you must, but I'm a longtime supporter of snark....

  5. To a Teacher who takes information and puts it into practice!!

    A Teacher of the Teacher