I teach at a small community college in Western New York, and I have been known to walk across campus to an unsuspecting student whose face is buried in a book, and say “What are you reading?”
I wish I could say I do this because I want students to read. But I have to confess that’s not the real reason I stalk student readers.
When I see a student read, it brings me back to my days as a young reader.
I grew up in a tiny town in rural Pennsylvania. Then, of course, we didn’t have Amazon.com or Kindles. Forget any big bookstores. My little town didn’t even have a used book store. So, what was a reader to do?
I didn’t have a lot of choices. The local library couldn’t keep up with me, and when I had worked my way through the children’s room (which contained young adult books, as well), I went back and re-read my favorites, including the novels by Judy Blume. My mother would search out Thrift stores and yard sales where she once found the bargain of a complete Nancy Drew set for $25. On days I was desperate, I would walk up to G.C. Murphy’s to purchase cheap Teen Harlequins.
Then, a miracle happened. Waldenbooks opened only 45 minutes away, and suddenly, I had a whole bookstore full of BRAND NEW BOOKS. Here, I was introduced to the Sunfire series, a collection that explored American history through fictionalized accounts of important events. The stories all featured strong and beautiful women who were caught up in both history and love triangles. I also found Twilight: Where Darkness Begins, a series of horror books that featured teenagers battling supernatural forces. Then, there was my favorite: Chrystal Falls, a series that took place in a mill town in Pennsylvania. The setting was hauntingly familiar to me, and I could relate to the way the fictional town of Chrystal Falls was split among class lines. It was at Waldenbooks that I also fell in love with works of S.E. Hinton, Lois Duncan and Norma Fox Mazer and Robert Cormier – writers who portrayed the world of teenagers without passing judgment.
Today, Waldenbooks is gone, and most of the books I grew up with are out of print. While Judy Blume is still popular, many of my students don’t know my other favorites. Duncan seems to be only known for the horror movie, I Know What You Did Last Summer, that was based (very, very loosely and poorly) after her book. And sadly enough, Mazer and Cormier have both died, with little acknowledgment in the publishing world. (Although, Cormier’s book The Chocolate Wars continues to be challenged in school districts across the nation.)
Now, I watch as my students read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins or Twilight by Stephanie Meyer or any number of zombie books or dystopian novels. Stephen King is a favorite, as is J.R.R. Tolkien. Many like Jodi Picoult. My colleagues bemoan the fact that today, students don’t read. (And as a poet, I bemoan the fact that I can’t get people to read poetry). Other people argue that students don’t read what they should be reading. This is where I have to confess that I didn’t really read what I should be reading (at least my Academia standards) until I got to college.
But, I was always a reader. And I’m always looking forward to what my students will be reading next. I believe we have readers now and we will have readers, although they may be reading ebooks and not physical pages, and they will be entering realms that are a bit different (but yet, somewhat familiar): worlds where zombies have taken over society, dystopian lands full of clones or robots, or apocalyptic places where manmade technology has run amok.