Sarah O’Reilly is a high school Humanities teacher at New Liberty Innovation School in Salem, MA, teaching traditional ELA skills as well as dabbling in history and librarianship. Her master’s degree in children’s literature from Simmons College regularly helps her reframe her expectations for herself and her students, as well as providing resources to find the wide variety of books she needs to do her job well.
I just spent an hour digging into two of this year’s issues of The Horn Book magazine in the hopes that the ad that I SWEAR I saw back in August would reappear. I had thought I had seen an ad for a website that reviewed and developed lists of books that would appeal to the populations that I have the most trouble serving through the library – low-skilled young men, especially those of color. Unfortunately, I had no luck, necessitating this post.
When I started at my first-year teaching job last fall, I discovered that my classroom was also the school library – an odd collection with an even odder organization method – and that I had funds to order books and would essentially be fulfilling the role of a librarian, without the degree or training for it. I was THRILLED, genuinely! And then quickly realized how in over my head I was. And still am.
As I got to know my students, I realized how difficult it is to find the “right” book for each student and that the term “reluctant reader” can be the biggest cop-out in publishing and education. That umbrella term covers almost all of my students, for so many different reasons – low-skill, learning disability, gender norms, disinterest, discomfort, and being unfamiliar with the tools many readers use to determine what to read are just a few that come to mind. I am pretty good at finding a book in our library or in the four other local or online libraries I can access for any student who needs one – finding one for an entire class, well, that’s another story. But I have my limitations. My own reading history leans heavily towards romance and fantasy. And while I have enough knowledge and skill to match most of my students with reading material, I almost always fail to successfully engage the low-skilled young men in my school, students who are the least successful in my school – our fault, not theirs – and in many schools in America.
We have the industry-recommended staples for this group in our library – Walter Dean Myers, Matt de la Pena, Hatchet, Holes and The Outsiders, and a plethora of nonfiction of all kinds. But what do I recommend when these standbys, many decades old, don’t capture their attention? I bring articles, I’ve solicited publishers and authors at events for ARCs of books I think might appeal to one of my students. My two proudest moments this year – getting a kid hooked on American-Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang when all I had to go off of was that he’s read a few volumes of Inu Yasha (and didn’t even know it was an anime too!) and getting a student who hasn’t read or written anything for me for over a year to read and respond to analysis questions about Steve Sheinkin’s upcoming Undefeated. But those are two glimmers of success amongst my midden pile of defeat.
I’m going into this year’s library ordering with some trepidation. Where do I turn to find the best books to hook my highest need group? WNDB is great for suggestions but they are often fantasy, romantic, middle-grade or younger. And I’m sorry but I may love The Great Greene Heist and it may be the perfect reading level for my boys but you try giving a book about middle schoolers to a 19-year-old-almost-drop-out. And with limited time and budget, I can’t afford to buy and read all the major publications reviewing new literature. And the internet has let me down.
It baffles me that there is no group or organization that compiles lists specifically for books that have been vetted as appealing to young men at different skill levels. Ideally, I’d find a site that has curated lists of books put together by industry professionals – teachers, librarians, tutors, marketers – that is organized around interests, skill-level, audience appeal, diversity of creators, characters, and readers. Where is the list of books that librarians in areas with high minority populations just can’t keep on the shelves? Where is the list of books that teachers have used to springboard further reading with different reluctant readers? Maybe these exist, and I just haven’t found them yet (please do find them and tell me where they are!). But I feel like reviewers, publishers, even authors, don’t know how to create and then market books for the audience that has the biggest need for books targeted to them in my school. Where is the book on par with “Remember the Titans?” Or a Michael Crichton or James Patterson for readers intimidated by high page count? And if they’re out there, who is supposed to tell me about them? Who is giving teachers or librarians sabbaticals or grants to do this or create non-profit organizations to do it for them?
I am always keeping an eye out for the next book to really grab someone’s attention, but I feel like I keep missing the mark, mostly because my resources feel tapped out and I haven’t struck information gold yet. In this age of information and mixed media, it does and does not surprise me that the world of literature seems to keep leaving my boys behind. And it overwhelms me to wonder what I can do to help them meet up with the rest of the world.
So please, open your brains and your archives; go out and create lists and reviews and send them all to me because I want the young men in my school, in all schools, to see themselves as capable and engaged with the world. I want that for all students, but let’s be honest, we know who we’re letting down right now.