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Read-Shaming Starts in the Classroom

When Ruth Graham proclaimed that adults shouldn’t read any books that had been marketed as YA, she became perhaps the best well-known literary snob to issue diktats as to what counted as proper reading material.

She is not the only one, however, nor the most damaging. The Bookseller brings us the tale of author Robin Stevens.

Stevens is a kid’s fiction author who has heard from numerous students who were read-shamed:

Stevens told The Bookseller she found the situation "really concerning" in case it discourages children to read at all. She said: "It was an email that a kid of around 14 sent me from New Zealand but I’ve seen it in the UK as well. She was very smart and the teacher said she was too smart and she had to read my books at home.

"Sometimes kids in England have said ‘I love your books but teachers have said they are not high level enough for me’. It’s heart-breaking. Reading shouldn’t be like that. Kids should be able to dip in and out of different things in the way adults do – many kids are reading YA or Malory Towers [Hodder Children’s Books]. Comfort reading is about returning to books as a confident reader. Adults do it all the time – they could read The Essex Serpent (Serpent’s Tail) and The Girl on a Train (PRH) in the same week."

Stevens said the issue is not just with teachers: "It’s systematic. This idea, that if you are clever you should always be reading on a higher level. It is very problematic and just so sad. I’ve been in a bookshop where the adult has said to the child you can’t have that book, it’s for five-year-olds and you are seven but the kid says why can’t I, I want it?’ and they’ll be in tears. It’s sad because if they get told ‘you should not be reading that, you’re too old’ then they lose their confidence. Things like the Accelerated Readers’ Programme [a computerised program that tests reading comprehension] means kids are always encouraged to read a higher and higher level and I don’t think this is helpful. Sometimes parents don’t know what to give children to read and this is why librarians are so important because they can say ‘I think your child would like this’."

Read-shaming starts in the classroom.

Sometimes it’s a school librarian who instills in children that only girls would be interested in a book by a female author about a female character by only inviting the girls to that author’s reading.

Read-shaming starts in the classroom.

Sometimes it is the headmaster who thinks that kids are ruining their minds by reading too much popular fiction and not enough dead white guys.

Read-shaming starts in the classroom.

Other times it is the school administration who teaches students that valuable lesson that only girls would be interested in a book about a female character by a female author by only inviting the girls to that author’s reading (and leaving the boy fans too embarrassed to attend).

Read-shaming starts in the classroom.

With all this emotional baggage placed on whether someone is reading the "right" books, is it any wonder that a quarter of Americans read no books at all in 2015?

image by ZapTheDingbat

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Robin Brooker May 21, 2017 um 12:22 am

I must have a problem then. I’m a 73-year-old male living in the UK. My favourite books are Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass. But, I can’t say that reading fiction is always such a pleasure. The latest flight of fantasy I read was the Conservative Manifesto published in the past week.

Henry Wood May 21, 2017 um 9:46 pm

I too am a 73 years old male living in the UK and some books which I have read, re-read and constantly even now read again, since ever my mother purchased a junior subscription for me to the local "Silver Library" have been the "Just William" stories by Richmal Crompton. I never tire of them and I do not consider it a problem that I like and enjoy such books that the new arbitrators of taste have deemed unsuitable for my eyes.

As I said to BDR in another post, there is also the rapidly advancing problem of "appropriate" authors for "appropriate" books, i.e., you cannot write a book on a subject unless you have lived the life necessary to know about that subject.

There goes "Alice in Wonderland" *and* "Just William"! To the burning of the books they must go!

Incidentally, dear Robin, if you wish to bring up a "flight of fantasy", I shall raise you a single copy of a Conservative Manifesto, against a dozen Labour Wishful Thinkings, *plus* at least 24 copies of Wee Tim’s Dreams and Mutterings, and I’ll bet I win on the 8th June!

Keep well.

BDR May 21, 2017 um 6:38 am

If adults shouldn’t *read* the YA market, that also implies that they shouldn’t *write* for the YA market either, doesn’t it?

Henry Wood May 21, 2017 um 9:09 pm

Well, BDR, as you say:

"If adults shouldn’t *read* the YA market, that also implies that they shouldn’t *write* for the YA market either, doesn’t it?"

That certainly seems to be the way things are going all around the world – please see:

This "appropriate" / "misappropriation" BS seems to be rapidly gaining ground everywhere, whereby you will only be allowed to write about things that you have personally experienced.

There goes the "Merchant of Venice"! Misappropriated by some Shakespeare fella who should have known better but we’ll teach him now! And as for him writing about Scottish people! Well, really! He should get himself right back to Stratford toot-sweet

Bring the books! Bring the fuel! Bring the matches! Social Justice Warriors have the permanent cure!

W May 22, 2017 um 8:29 am

Yeah, suuuure that’s why adults don’t read. "Shame". Not laziness, disinterest, disdain for knowledge or preference for video.

The examples you gave in the body, those are read shaming. Criticizing what an adult chooses to enjoy in their free time, yeah read shaming. A teacher telling a kid they have to read something more challenging for a classroom assignment… that’s teaching by requiring challenging material. When your job is to make sure your students learn then you have to challenge them.

The original article seems pretty self serving since the author is taking on criticism of his own work. That quote "she had to read my books at home" doesn’t mean don’t read them it means they don’t count as schoolwork.

Al who’s been reading above and below grade level forever (my Mom taught preschool, she got us started loving to read before we started going to school at all) May 22, 2017 um 12:07 pm

Seriously, Nate? How much of this is real, orchestrated, systematic 'read shaming,' and how much is 'people are jerks'?

Robin Stevens seems to be inflating the bog-standard exhortation to read at a higher level into a conspiracy to stop kids from reading books that aren’t at a higher level. Saying that doesn’t make it so, and neither her examples nor yours make the case.

Yes, Read Shaming is a Bad Thing, but lets put the blame on the individuals who do it, and not blame the system for something else that isn’t the same thing.

Robert Nagle May 23, 2017 um 11:04 am

Let me argue for the other side.

My high school freshman nephew was assigned to read Divergent for English class. The Lexile score for that book is 700, which puts it in the acceptable range for 5th to 7th graders. (The themes are more adult-oriented though).

This person was behind on reading, but not THAT behind. There’s also a lot of research showing that willingness to read "challenging texts" is linked to improved reading compehension and test scores. I didn’t find out about it until it was too late, but I was profoundly disappointed that the teacher chose an easy text (not to mention a piece of crap) all because students would be more likely to read it. Occasionally, it’s ok to assign easy texts or below level texts as a kind of break, but the teacher spent a 3 week unit on it.

The natural progression is for children to do a lot of reading on their own and then gravitate towards more difficult texts. But videogames, I’m afraid, has crowded out a lot of time for reading. Therefore, it is important that kids be a little more selective about what they read (and teachers as well).

I suspect what was going on is that teachers required students to do some outside reading and wouldn’t count certain books towards that assignment. Sure, most reading teachers agree that giving students the maximum amount of leeway with respect to what they read. But a teacher also needs to make sure a student is being suitably challenged.

When students haven’t been exposed to different varieties of texts, not only does it hurt their performance on standardized texts, it makes the burden of having to read college level texts the more arduous.

Robert Nagle May 23, 2017 um 11:08 am

As a postscript to my previous post, before reading Divergent, my nephew had to read Romeo and Juliet (presumably because reading a Shakespeare was a mandatory rite of passage for that school). He was utterly bored by that and couldn’t make head or tail of it. Instead of having two assigned works which were totally inappropriate, couldn’t a teacher have picked two books which were more at the level for high school freshman? Or better, assigned a variety of stories at all levels.

Cate May 29, 2017 um 5:43 pm

My kid attended a school that used the AR system, and he was a very high level reader. The funding for that program was to support lower level readers, so they had very few tests for the higher level books. I gather that the schools must pay for each test. In any case, that left my kid with Gone With the Wind – not very appropriate for a 5th grader, along with other books geared to older readers. And although this shouldn’t matter, let’s face it, it does: all the books at the higher level were "girl" books. It was a poor experience for him. He was an avid reader – he should have been able to read whatever he wanted, even if it was below his capability.

hludens May 30, 2017 um 8:48 am

"Hooked on Books" Let ’em read anything to encourage reading.

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