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Reading Outside My Comfort Zone

Unlike a lot of readers I know, I do not set volume related reading goals each year. While I don’t fault others who are motivated by these types of goals, they simply do not work for me. In the past, when I’ve attempted to reach a certain magic number of books during a calendar year, I found myself picking titles based on their length, or my ability to finish them quickly, or some other arbitrary reason that I thought would inch me just a little closer to my goal. Rather than picking books based on the kinds of dispositions I’ve tried to instill in my students (curiosity, passion, empathy, etc.), I let the race guide my choices, which left me feeling exhausted, rather than rejuvenated, by my reading life. Also, I’m not a very fast reader, so as the months ticked by, whatever number I’d set as my personal Everest that year, became an ever looming source of stress: not at all what reading should be about.


Now I set other kinds of goals. One year, I set the goal of finishing several series I'd started, but had never circled back to. Reconnecting with characters I loved was fun! That was the year I finally finished Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy.


Another year, I decided to seek out and read books that could potentially help kids deal with tough topics in the news. As part of my work leading up to Fact VS Fiction, I very much wanted make the connection between pleasure reading and the ability to cope with the dark world often depicted in the information we consume. That was the year I discovered Sarah Lynne Reul's The Breaking News and Amy Reed's Nowhere Girls, etc. I still seek out and read books like this, but that year I intentionally privileged those with that slant.


This year, I chose a reading goal to stretch my understanding of, and familiarity with, a specific format: Graphic Novels. Until this year, I thought I didn’t like graphic novels. To be clear, I’ve never been a part of the camp that thinks graphic novels are not “real reading” or that they’re not rich or robust enough to count towards academic goals, I just thought they didn’t speak to me personally. I WAS WRONG. I love graphic novels. I mean, I have some serious heart hands for graphic novels. Graphic novels are my jam! I stan for graphic novels! You get the picture.


But I am getting ahead of myself.


I had two (primary) reasons for choosing graphic novels as the focus of my reading goal for this year. The first had to do with the sheer amount of stories I've heard, or incidents I've witnessed, which include kids being shamed for reading graphic novels. If this is your first visit to my blog <<spoiler alert>> I am a strong advocate for reading lives that are fueled by authentic choice. So even though I didn't think graphic novels were my thing, I have always fiercely supported kids who found them to be their thing. The library I inherited, back in the day, as a brand new school librarian, contained a sum total of three graphic novels - that were expertly hidden where no one could find them, in the nonfiction section. When I left, our collection contained nearly 3,000 books in this format - that now lived in their own genrefied section located right next to the front doors of the library. To be sure, I was all in for readers. BUT having read very few of those books myself, my grumpiness with adults who discouraged, or even forbade kids, from reading them was based more on my professional philosophy, than on a real knowledge of the format. I wanted to change that.


My second reason for choosing this goal had to do with the YA Literature course I teach for Rutgers. One of my goals with that course is to encourage (and sometimes force!) my students to read outside their comfort zones. I get such a thrill whenever one of them says something like, “I never would have chosen this book on my own, but I'm so glad you had us read it!” As readers, it's easy to become complacent. To find our favorite genres, formats and authors… and then never veer very far away from them. But that kind of insular reading doesn't help us serve readers. If we believe reading changes lives, then we must look at every single book talk and every moment of readers' advisory, as an opportunity to match kids with *THE* book that will transform them into readers. And we can only be so effective in that role if we limit our own reading diets to the stuff WE like. The readers I serve now are significantly older than those I worked with as both a classroom teacher and a school librarian, but my role as a conduit to story remains the same. And if I'm going to play that part successfully, I have to practice what I preach.


All of which led me to a year of graphic novels: a format I didn't think I liked, but that I needed to know more about. Obviously, the year’s not over. And, as I hope will always be the case, I'm still learning. But here are my takeaways so far:


Graphic novels:

  • are rich and effective tools for helping ALL readers explore language, perspective, history and just about any other literary element you can imagine.

  • are profoundly engaging, because they immerse readers in a multi sensory experience. Just as sensory rich description activates the same parts of the brain that ignite when our senses are engaged by touch or smell or sound, etc., graphic novels achieve this same magic, but with both words and pictures.

  • are more than scaffolding. While graphic novels have long been embraced as scaffolding for ELLs or readers with learning differences, ALL readers benefit from the gains in fluency, access to new vocabulary supported by visual context, and (perhaps most importantly) the pleasure that reading graphic novels can provide. Indeed, "with graphic novels, students use text and images to make inferences and synthesize information, both of which are abstract and challenging skills for readers." (Morrison 2017)

  • lend themselves to repeat readings. As someone who RARELY reads the same book twice, I reread more books this year than I ever have. What's more, I know lots of kids who do the same thing. I've been thinking about why this is and one reason I've landed on is that because graphic novels tell stories in layers, one reading often isn't enough to peel them all back to expose the heart of the book. And if you loved the first layer, why wouldn't you go back for more?

  • are a format. Not a genre. Graphic novels are comprised of ALL genres. Looking for a mystery? Want some sci-fi? Craving a romance? Don't worry, graphic novels have you covered!

  • hook readers. Full stop.

I’ve never read anything quite like this alternate history anthology that brings to life events from (Canadian) history by retelling them through the eyes of indigenous people. One part non-fiction, one part post apocalyptic dystopian adventure, this book should be in everyone’s TBR Pile!


This Place: 150 Years Retold by Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Sonny Assu, et al.

I’ve never read anything quite like this alternate history anthology that brings to live events from (Canadian) history by retelling them through the eyes of indigenous people. One part non-fiction, one part post apocalyptic dystopian adventure, this book should be in everyone’s TBR Pile!









A Through Life by Tom Haugomat

This beautiful, nearly wordless, graphic novel is a poignant, aching journey through a single life, that leverages perspective in both powerful and heartbreaking ways. I loved this book so much, I’ve read it several times - each time finding something new to love about it. A piece of advice: splurge for the hardcover version of this one. The paper difference alone is worth the extra few bucks.







In Waves by AJ Dungo

One part romance, one part history of surfing, this book is in competition for my favorite book (in any format) of the year! The artwork is exquisite, the story is moving, the use of color as a text feature is extraordinary, and as if that wasn’t enough reasons to love this book, the unpacking of surfing’s rich history provides lessons in both cultural appropriation and radical individuality. I give this book all the stars!





This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews

Stunning. Exquisite. Gorgeous. These words, plus all the other synonyms for beautiful, could easily be used to describe this knock out for middle grade readers! Imagine Stand By Me, but set in the world of some nordic fairy tale, and you’ve got a glimpse into This Was Our Pact. I (triple dog) dare you to read this and NOT find yourself luxuriating in the artwork.







New Kid by Jerry Craft

This book is my not so secret pick for the Newbery medal this year. Note: I’m notoriously bad at predicting those awards, but gosh, I hope I'm right this year! This book tackles everything from code switching to micro-aggressions, all while navigating the complicated world of middle school. What's more, not only is the story of seventh grader, Jordan Bank's, attempt to navigate two very different worlds touching and clever, it's also very, very funny, y'all.






The Jungle by Kristina Gehrmann

Like millions of others, I read Upton Sinclair's The Jungle in high school and it rocked my world! Until that book, it simply never occurred to me that stories could be used as leverage for social justice. That said, the graphic retelling of how immigrants from Eastern Europe were treated in turn of the century Chicago, and how their struggles led to the creation of labor unions, is as beautiful as it is affecting. The use of color in this work is some of the most evocative I've ever seen. Both fans of the Sinclair classic and readers who are new the story will find themselves engrossed by this incredible rendering.


Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks

This sweet story had me at the “succotash hut.” Reading Pumpkinheads is like getting a hug from a pumpkin spice latte - and loving it! I wanted to live in this world and be BFFs with all the characters. PLUS I love, love, LOVE how one character’s bisexuality is seamlessly integrated into the story with the same light touch of another's heterosexuality. I've got all my digits crossed in the hopes that this is just the FIRST graphic novel that Rowell and Hicks create together.




I don't know the exact number of graphic novels I read this year, but I do know that this is just a small sample. But more importantly, I know that I'm a better reader, thinker, teacher and person for having read these books and for pushing myself as a reader. If I hadn't chosen to take this journey, I would have missed out on the experience of discovering and falling in love with each of these beauties. And now, even though I'll set a new goal for next year, I know I'll never stop reading graphic novels. They've become an important part of how I let story inform my life. I don't yet know what my reading goal for next year will be, but I'm looking forward to the adventure and for another chance to read outside my comfort zone.

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