Do you know what? If I were to write a story about the girl in Winslow Homer's picture, I would say that she was reading a book she chose herself. Aren't those the books we abandon ourselves to--the ones we select as we would choose a friend?
Before I reached high school, every book I read that I truly loved was either a book I chose, or one that was read to me. The first book I remember checking out with my new library card was sitting in a cardboard box by the driver's seat of the visiting Bookmobile. The girl on the cover had a messy ponytail, blushy cheeks and long eyelashes. The cover was so pretty, I had to have the book for myself, though my mother would have to read it for me.
The book was CHARLOTTE'S WEB. I'd never heard of it. Neither had my mom. But she read it to my brother and me every night, and it was by far the most absorbing, wrenching and delightful book I could ever imagine. Picking that book out of all the books in that big truck made me feel like a lucky person--as if I were born with an instinct for choosing the best. I've always liked combing through bookshelves, pulling out volumes that appealed to me for the quirkiest reasons. I've found some gems that way, and I believe it is one of the best ways for children to explore books.
That's why I was thrilled to read in the New York Times about Lorrie McNeill, a middle school teacher in Georgia who has abandoned classroom sets of assigned novels for her classes. Instead, the students may read what they want, including the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS books. Afterward, both students and teachers share their discoveries. Books are passed around and borrowed. Everyone is reading for love! Can you imagine?
Children's writers have a stake in having their books purchased in volume for classroom reading. When our books are on summer reading lists and assigned AR points, we benefit. But do the kids? I doubt it, though this is just my intuition speaking. Observing how often early reading in schools is over-directed has always made me heartsore. It's the same feeling, for me, as seeing a wild bird in a cage with its feathers drooping. I say, go discover! Let your curiosity and your passion be your guide.