For the Love of Reading
Melanie Shoffner, PhD
You’d expect nothing less from a former English teacher and current ELA educator. After all, I’ve chosen a profession grounded in engaging with text; I’ve spent the greater part of my life considering what and how and why secondary students and preservice teachers read. I teach that books offer doors to different worlds, windows to diverse experiences, and mirrors of readers’ identities (Bishop, 1990); that reading challenges understandings, beliefs, and perspectives (e.g., Bruce et al, 2008; Thein et al, 2007); that diverse texts disrupt “the historic violence and the erasure of marginalized communities” (Ebarvia et al, 2020, p. 100); that reading can develop empathy and critical thinking (e.g., Alsup, 2015; Vogt et al, 2016). I don’t need to convince this audience that young adult literature can expand and challenge and connect and disrupt, even if we spend a fair amount of time trying to convince others.
But I must confess, these aren’t the reasons determining my text selections. They are often the outcome and they are sometimes the provocation but they aren’t the founding principle of this book club. My goal is less sophisticated, perhaps, but just as important to me: I want my nieces and nephews to love reading.
Reading has always been my escape: my window, my skylight, my rope ladder, my invisibility cloak. Growing up, I found secrets in old clocks and befriended black horses on deserted islands. I explored tesseracts and wardrobes, Welsh mountains and New York art museums. I confronted racism in Mississippi, fear on a mountain, despair from a rope swing. Those adolescent novels offered doors and difference and difficult thinking but I didn’t recognize that at the time: I just knew that I loved reading them, and I wanted to read even more.
So, when I gave my then-4th grade niece Drama, it wasn’t because Raina Telgemeier’s book included LGBTQ+ characters. She was struggling with reading – “The words are getting harder and I don’t understand them” – but she liked graphic novels and had just read Smile. When I gave my then-12-year-old nephew March, it wasn’t because of its exploration of the Civil Rights Movement. I had just spoken with Andrew Ayden and Nate Powell at the ELATE luncheon, and I was excited to share this book I’d learned about with my history-loving nephew. And for the record, when I gave Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to another niece years ago, it wasn’t because I thought she should run away to wizarding school (although I would have been very supportive if she had).
If you’re wondering about Aunt Melanie’s Book Club choices this year: Lauren Wolk’s Echo Mountain for my now-12-year-old niece and Ruta Sepetys’s The Fountains of Silence for my now-16-year-old nephew. Why? Because these authors weave compelling, complex stories. Because Wolk’s writing is beautiful Wolf Hollow’s “The year I turned twelve, I learned how to lie” may be one of the best opening lines I’ve ever read]. Because Sepetys’s history is fascinating [having spent a semester in Spain recently, I was enthralled with her exploration of the Civil War]. Because the life on Ellie’s mountain and the view through Daniel’s camera cause us to question truth and loyalty and love. But most importantly, I chose them because I love them – both these stories and these kids.
Alsup, J. (2015). A case for teaching literature in the secondary school: Why reading fiction matters in an
age of scientific objectivity and standardization. Routledge.
Bishop, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives: Choosing and Using
Books for the Classroom, 6(3), ix–xi.
Bruce, H. E., Brown, S., McCracken, N. M., &Mel Bell-Nolan, M. (2008). Feminist pedagogy is for
everybody: Troubling gender in reading and writing. English Journal, 97(3), 82–89.
Ebarvia, T., Germán, L., Parker, K. N., & Torres, J. (2020). #DisruptTexts. English Journal, 110(1), 100–
Thein, A. H., Beach, R., & Parks, D. (2007). Perspective-taking as transformative practice in teaching
multicultural literature to white students. English Journal, 97(2), 54–60.
Vogt, M. T., Chow, Y. P., Fernandez, J., Grubman, C., & Stacey, D. (2016). Designing a reading
curriculum to teach the concept of empathy to middle level learners. Voices from the Middle, 23(4), 38–45.
Melanie Shoffner is a Professor of Education at James Madison University (Harrisonburg, VA) and current editor of English Education. Her research and writing examine preservice teacher development, teacher dispositions, and reflective practice.Her most recent work is the co-edited book Teacher Representations in Dramatic Text and Performance: Portraying the Teacher on Stage (Routledge) and the co-authored TCR commentary “Questioning Care in the Academic World.” She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or @ProfShoff.