Yes, Audiobooks & Graphic Novels Count: Accepting Students’ Diverse Reading Choices


By Cindy L. Rodriguez

A reader’s experience, even with a shared text, is dependent on so many things, including background knowledge, interest in the subject, interest in reading in general, and engagement in the moment. I’m sure we’ve all experienced this subjectivity of reading, how one person can have a completely different reaction to a book than another. As a teacher, I’ve gained a whole new level of understanding about the reader’s experience.

When I taught middle school language arts with regular-sized classes, I experienced a typical range of responses from students. When I became a reading specialist, however, the response to reading was more consistent. My students are what’s called reluctant readers. Many of them hate to read, and they all score well below their peers on reading assessments. Of the 27 students who receive reading intervention with me this year, 85 percent are of color and almost half are Latin@. In 2010, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development’s article, “The Latino Education Crisis,” stated Latin@s are the least educated ethnic group. More recent statistics indicate both good and not-so-good news. The Latin@ dropout rate has dropped significantly, but remains higher than other groups. Meanwhile, the number of Latin@s in college has tripled in ten years, but Latin@s lag behind other groups in obtaining a four-year degree.

Each school year is an opportunity to change these statistics by helping students become better readers.

When I ask my students why they don’t like to read, their most common answers are these: It’s too hard. It’s confusing. It’s boring. It’s too long. I just don’t like it. I can’t connect to it. I have better things to do with my time.

My job, then, is to help them become better readers and hopefully love a book or two or more. In other words, I have to find ways to alter their previous reading experiences. I have to help them find books that aren’t too hard or boring or too long. Books that they can connect with and think are worth their time.

In some ways, this should be easy because libraries have thousands of books to choose from, but this is what happens when I take my students to the library: Some wander around aimlessly with a “get me out of here” look on their face. Some are enthusiastic, which is great, but have no idea what to do. I ask about their favorite author or genre, but they don’t have one. If I keep asking questions, I’ll usually get enough information to guide them to the right area. But, then they are faced with a wall of books and don’t know where to start.

Once, I gave a girl a specific title to find and told her to check the spine for the author’s last name. After a while, she called me over and said the book wasn’t there, that all of these books were written by FIC.

I share this not to make fun of her–because it really isn’t funny–but to shed light on the reality that some middle schoolers don’t know how to navigate a library or the world of books in general. They haven’t read enough in their lives and/or their reading experiences have probably to this point been mandated by school curricula. As a result, their identity as readers doesn’t exist at all or has been completely shaped by others. This is partly due to what they’ve been told “counts” when it comes to reading.

Lowriders in Space_FC_HiResOne boy told me he liked cars, but the library had no books on cars. Hmm, really? When I showed him the nonfiction area filled with books about cars, he said, “But these aren’t stories.” And then, I got it. He didn’t think nonfiction counted. Maybe he has been told this, or maybe he’s been encouraged to read fiction more often. I don’t know, but his desire to read nonfiction about cars was derailed somewhere along the way. Happy ending: he checked out two nonfiction books that day and the librarian ordered Lowriders in Space. So cool (the book and our librarian). And yes, I assured him, graphic novels count, too.

Here are things my students have said:

I like audio books, but that’s cheating.

But, it’s a graphic novel.

But it’s nonfiction.

It’s too short. My teacher said it has to be at least 200 pages.

I don’t like this book, but my teacher said I have to finish it.

These comments pain me.

Because if we say audio books don’t count, then aren’t we negating the tradition of oral storytelling?

If we say graphic novels don’t count, then aren’t we negating the entire field of the visual arts?

If we say something is too short, aren’t we invalidating the short story, the novella, poetry, books in verse, non-fiction articles, or picture books?

If we tell someone to finish an independent reading book he dislikes, then isn’t it no longer independent reading? We’ve taken away his ability to choose what he wants to read and drop what he doesn’t like.

So, we’re sometimes telling readers that their choices don’t count, they aren’t good enough, and this, then, is coupled with the reader’s feelings that reading is boring, hard, and not worthy of his or her time.

So what does that leave us? Classes like mine with students who have had limited, difficult reading experiences.

But, don’t worry, this story has a happy ending.

After 15 years of teaching, but especially after the last five as a reading specialist, I have learned that the reader’s experience is diverse, and therefore, we must learn to accept diverse reading experiences.

What I mean is that I think we’re willing to accept that a reader’s experience is diverse based on personal history, background knowledge, interest, and skill, but we don’t often accept diverse reading experiences, especially with younger people.

Two young children lying on the grass outdoors wearing headphones reading togetherFor example, I’m never told by anyone not to listen to audiobooks, so why should I tell a student it’s cheating?

Ninth graders often read Of Mice and Men, which is 103 pages, but we tell a middle school student she can’t read a book less than 200 pages. Why?

And believe me, I am well versed on the Common Core State Standards and well aware of how competitive schools and the workplace have become. I know the statistics that tell us if a child is not reading on grade level by the third grade, he may never read on grade level without the proper intervention. I understand the push for rigor and the expectation that all people read certain books in high school and college.

At the same time, though, what most studies tell us is that the number one thing that affects a person’s lifelong reading skills is independent reading–self-selected reading that supplements, complements, or challenges in-class reading.

And when people read independently, they should be protected by the Reader’s Bill of Rights.

So, if we want all children to develop an independent reading habit, we have to allow them to truly self-select reading material and we have to be okay with their choices. If they want to read a graphic novel or comic book, fine. If they want to listen to an audio book, awesome. If they want to read an 85 page book, go for it.

Chances are if they do these things, and feel successful, they just might do it again and again and again. And then maybe they’ll start reading longer and more complex things, and they won’t see reading as hard or boring or not worth their time. Maybe then they will be able to navigate the library and decide on a favorite genre or author. Maybe as they get older, they will graduate from high school, reducing the dropout rate even more. Maybe more will earn four-year degrees. And maybe they will then read to their children, who will become avid readers, too. And a simple thing adults can do now to help this along is not to say, “That’s too short, too easy, or doesn’t count.” Instead, support young readers’ diverse choices and allow them to develop their own reading experiences.


cindyrodriguez2Cindy L. Rodriguez is a former journalist turned public school teacher and fiction writer. She worked as a reporter at The Hartford Courant and researcher at The Boston Globe before becoming an educator. She and her daughter live in Connecticut, where she teaches middle school reading and college-level composition. Her debut contemporary YA novel, When Reason Breaks, released with Bloomsbury Children’s Books on 2/10/2015. She can also be found on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

Let’s All Make the #WeNeedDiverseBooks Campaign an Ongoing Movement

By Patrick Flores-Scott

#WeNeedDiverseBooks. The trending hashtag is a channel for conversation around the huge problem of a lack of diversity in children’s literature. The problem has been noted in many recent articles and so have the reasons we need more books by diverse authors and books with complex, real diverse characters.

For many years I was lucky to be a public school teacher in very diverse schools. At different points I was both a general education classroom teacher and a reading specialist. As a classroom teacher, I was able to seek and find the books I wanted my class to hear and read. More often than not, these books had main characters of color. I had the time, energy, resources, and relationships that helped me find great books that my students loved.

My students, however, especially my reluctant readers, were not going to work so hard to find a book that would reflect the cultural, racial, socio-economic realities of their community. They were going to pick the available book, the one closest to their hand when it was time to leave the library, or the trendy book that made them look like they were in the reading “know.”

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Author Angela Cervantes posted this picture on Twitter during the #WeNeedDiverseBooks Campaign.

Students need to be able to accidentally stumble their way into a great book that reflects their own background or one that opens their eyes to new characters and communities. They shouldn’t have to work for it. They shouldn’t have to fight for it. Kids have enough on their plate. Yes, some students are going to research authors, seek out new books and reading experiences, challenge their school librarian and make demands. Most fifth graders, however, are just struggling to make it through the day. They end up with the default book… and given the math of the situation, they’re going to walk out with another book by a white author with a white main character. Is this a tragedy? In the moment, no. That default book might be a great one. But this scene takes place over and over each day in most schools in the country and that great book–if the student is lucky–may just be another in a long line of books that reinforces the notion that great books are written by white authors and that white kids are the ones worthy of books written about them.  This notion is a toxic one, regardless of a student’s background.

Children’s books are a piece of a larger pie. A lack of diversity in film and television reinforces the notion that white stories are more relevant than non-white stories. The make-up the Senate (97 out 0f 100 are white) reinforces the notion that non-whites do not have a role in the highest levels of politics. Yes, there is the President, but his cabinet is made up of 70% white males. Kids see this. They see thousands of African American college athletes and they know that, in the vast majority of cases, these athletes are led to battle by white coaches. They know that the percentages of Black and Latino men in prison are crazily out of proportion with the population of Black and Latino men. Kids see all this. They take it in. The perceptions become realities for them.

My wife and I are the proud, exhausted parents of two rambunctious little boys. Their grandparents are Mexican-American on their mom’s side. My parents are white. My dad is from the U.S., my mom a Spanish-speaking Latina from South America. We will raise our boys to be proud of all that they are and proud of all the Latino, Caucasian, African-American, Asian and mixes of the aforementioned that make up their diverse extended family. While we will do our best to teach that the content of one’s character, not the color of one’s skin (one’s gender, sexual orientation, physical ability) is what is important, television, our political and judicial systems, sports…. And even the make-up of CHILDREN’S BOOKS, will send messages that complicate, skew, and even deem our parental message well-meaning, but just wrong.

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The Oakland Public Library in California posted lots of great pictures like this one on Twitter during the #WeNeedDiverseBooks Campaign.

What do we do about it? The #WeNeedDiverseBooks Movement (Can it please be a movement? We need more movements around here.) is a potentially very important call for change in the children’s book world. Now, we need to push for intentionality. Gatekeepers need to have their feet held to the fire. The Movement (!) needs to push publishers to set goals that trend their books in a more realistically diverse direction. It needs to push the industry to hire editors from diverse backgrounds and to hire and support diverse interns and entry-level assistants who can have the power to move books off the pile and into editors’ hands. The Movement needs to hold publishers accountable.

Institutions which support writers and illustrators, like my beloved SCBWI, need to recruit underrepresented writers to their conferences. (And to check out the percentage of white male panelists and speakers compared to the percentage of white male attendees.) Groups like SCBWI need to be pushed to intentionally foster and mentor a more diverse writing community.

The movement needs to push us published authors of all colors and stripes, to mentor diverse up-and-comers, to include pro-bono school visits to underfunded schools, and to write real, complex, fallible diverse characters who live the entirety of the American experience.

Members of The Movement need to request diverse books at their bookstores and libraries. We need to post reviews on Amazon and Goodreads and library websites. Members of the Movement need to advise book bloggers and to follow and support blogs like this one. We need to give diverse books as birthday presents and to talk about our favorites on the bus, at work, in line at the bookstore…

Members of The Movement need to push our political leaders to support the health, education and welfare of our future readers and writers.

Publishers, agents, bookstore workers, librarians, teachers, authors… there are bunches these folks out there doing the positive stuff that will make change possible. The Movement needs to support them and it needs to push for intentionality in those who mean well, but have not yet made the move to change.

PatrickFS1Patrick Flores-Scott was, until recently, a long-time public school teacher in Seattle, Washington. He’s now a stay-at-home dad and early morning writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Patrick’s first novel, Jumped In, has been named to a YALSA 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults book, an NCSS/CBC Notable Book for the Social Studies and a Bank Street College Best Book of 2014. He is currently working on his second book, American Road Trip.

Jumped In was featured in Libros Latin@s on Thursday. Click here to see the overview.