I had an English professor who used to say, “There are two types of people in the world, those who divide the world into two, and those who don’t.” Usually I tend to think that making either or distinctions doesn’t adequately capture a situation, but for the sake of this post, I’m going to succumb to the temptation. I am going to break teen readers into two camps: voracious and reluctant readers.
I think we all know voracious readers. Chances are many of the readers of this blog would consider themselves to be part of this camp. At the high school where I am a librarian, I am fortunate to have many voracious readers. They check out books ten at a time, and come back to me with full reviews, asking for more. These also tend to be students whose families will take them to Borders to buy books, so they have healthy home libraries as well.
Reluctant readers are trickier to define, and to serve. I took a great class with Jenine Lillian, and she presented it this way: if you ask a reluctant reader to make a list of his or her ten favorite things to do, reading isn’t on it. These are not poor readers, or poor students. Reading just isn’t at the top of their To Do list. Many of my students fall into this camp. They come to me not because they want a book, but because they have to have one for independent reading. Some tell me that they don’t like to read, but I can’t help but wonder if there were more books that they liked, would they like to read more?
What I’ve noticed is that there is a difference between what the voracious and reluctant readers choose to read. Most of my students want real life stories, be they gritty tales like those from Ellen Hopkins, more romantic Sarah Dessen-fare. I have boys who reminisce fondly about Holes --arguing with an English teacher about its literary merit -- but have yet to find a group of characters as relatable as the boys at Camp Green Lake. I have a student who has dutifully renewed An Abundance of Katherines at least four times, slowly making his way through it during our school’s SSR time. Another gives me updates on his progress through Fat Kid Rules the World. When these students read books, they want books about kids like them. Kids who play basketball or skateboard; kids who get crushes. Their life, only magnified: wittier, more intense, more real.
Of course there are many books that my reluctant readers enjoy, and I work very hard to match kids with books. When I succeed, the feeling is amazing. What I want is more, more, more. The word I hear through the author grapevine is that publishers want this kind of book, too, but say it won’t sell. And I guess to a certain extent that’s true. I mean, it only makes sense to meet the desires of the bibliophiles who will read -- and buy -- dozens of books each year, rather than the kid who keeps one book in his backpack for months on end. But here’s the other way of looking at it: If you build it, they will come. If more books are published appeal to reluctant readers, maybe those readers won’t be so reluctant.
In the end what a librarian hopes to build -- a lifelong reader -- will serve the publishing business well in the end. Because when a kid finds one book that speaks to them, they are more willing to try another.