I have been thinking a lot lately about the different ways in which readers respond to books. That’s because my own 11-year-old daughter, who reads about as often as she breathes, is (what I call) a private reader. And it’s a very different thing from most readers I know.
I have my own blog about books. In this Kirkus column here, I also write about books and conduct Q&As with authors. I teach a children’s literature grad course, where my students and I talk and talk some more about the books and essays I ask them to read. All that’s to say that, when I read a book I like, I tend to turn around and yawp about it. Even if I didn’t have my own blog or make my living as someone who writes about and teaches children’s literature, I’d still talk to my friends about the books that I read and love. I want them to know all about them, if they’re interested. If they have questions for me about the book, I gladly dish.
Most of my friends are big readers themselves, and they also love to talk about the books they enjoy. Many of my friends, in fact, are librarians or teachers, and most librarians are pretty forthcoming about the books they read. I also belong to one book club. Books clubs, by their nature, necessitate that readers talk—and then talk a whole lot more—about what they have read.
In my lifetime I’ve met the opposite of the loquacious reader (I’m married to one), but it really took my own daughter to remind me that, as I told author Jeanne Birdsall in my Kirkus chat with her back in May, not all readers will be book club members. There are those who read abundantly yet keep what they’ve read close to their chest. They don’t feel a need to tell you’ve that a) they’ve read a book and b) how they feel about it. And they don’t feel a need to attempt to convince you to read it too. And, thank you kindly for your time, but they don’t really want to discuss it. The words, the story, the book’s essence—all of these things swirl around inside their heads and hearts, and that’s enough for them. They even feel uncomfortable being grilled about it. When she’s finished a book, the best I can get out of my own 11-year-old, who is constantly reading, is this: she’ll tell me on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the best) if she thinks a book is good. Even asking her what it’s about causes her to clam up. She’s never a fan of being put on the spot, even by her own mother, and she blushes when attention is placed upon her. Safe to say she won’t have a Goodreads account one day. I can tell she’s certainly not a fan of the over-enthused reading rhetoric that often gets put to use in schools (“reading is MAGIC!” or “readers are leaders!”; a friend of mine aptly calls this “synthetic glee”). I respect all of this, and I don’t grill her about her reading.
There’s a reason Birdsall and I chatted about this: In her latest novel, The Penderwicks in Spring, one of her characters, named Batty (fifth-grader), suffers a serious aversion to book reports. Birdsall writes:
It wasn’t that Batty didn’t like to read. She loved reading….But for Batty, reading was
like having a private conversation with the book’s characters. Writing a report—making
it all public—wrecked that. She’d tried reading books she didn’t like just so they wouldn’t
be ruined when she had to write about them, but she never could get past the first few
Yes. That. A “private conversation with the book’s characters.” This is something many readers are loathe to make public. When I asked Birdsall about this in my Q&A, she told me: “Absolutely, I [myself] hated book reports then, and now, the idea of joining a book club—and having to cheerfully discuss my private relationships to books in a social setting—is anathema.”
I write about this today, because I’m curious to hear from active and engaged teachers and librarians out there about working with private readers. How do you do it? By all accounts, when my own daughter enters sixth grade this year, she’ll be expected to join a group chat in English class about a book she read over the summer. At the risk of sounding like an unbearable helicopter parent, I preemptively worry about (and cringe over) this. There’s nothing I can do about it. She has to do her best, and she’ll survive. But what about those private readers, like Birdsall, who constantly have their heads in books and for whom reading is a favorite pastime—yet they aren’t fond of making public those private conversations with the book’s characters that Batty speaks of?
I know many caring educators and librarians who are very aware that some students dread book reports. They look for alternative ways to determine if their students have read what they are required to read for school—such as, the classroom chat in which my daughter will be expected to engage. Hey, when an administrator is asking for grades, you gotta deliver. But how can we accommodate the private, even shyer readers? When I worked as a school librarian, I’d do my best to chat it up with these students, while also trying to respect their desire for privacy, but then I didn’t have to give grades based on what they’d read.
For now, I mutter a silent parent prayer at the start of each school year: dear educators, my daughter and other private readers you encounter adore reading. Please don’t equate reticence with indifference. The stories that they read matter to them in myriad ways. They’re simply not going to be chatty about it.
Pictured above: Girl Reading by Mary Colman Wheeler, c. 1882-1905, oil on canvas, El Paso Museum of Art. This work is the public domain.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.