Once again, it’s that wildly optimistic time of year in which we resolve to cultivate healthy habits: practice mindfulness, organize the junk drawer, take up running.
Our reading lives warrant some goal-setting, too. Challenges and lists circulate on social media, focusing on volume
(check out the Goodreads 2017 Reading Challenge), keeping current ( “The 10 Best Books of 2016” according to the New York Times), or literary quality (Lifehack’s “25 Incredible Novels You Must Read at Least Once before You Die”).
As I guide students in setting reading goals, I share my own. This year, I’ll be taking on the challenge issued by Gene Luen Yang, National Ambassador for Young People: Reading without Walls. I love its simplicity; just choose one book in each of three categories.
Read about a character who doesn’t look like you or live like you.
Reading literary fiction helps us to understand others, to be more empathetic. When we encounter characters wildly different from us in a book, the anxiety we might feel about the interaction in real life evaporates. This explains why 6th graders reading R.J. Palacio’s Wonder can imagine what it might be like to have Auggie Pullman’s severe facial deformities without carrying the same sadness he does. It’s why I root so hard for Aristotle in Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. I’m (obviously) not a hispanic teenager, but I relate to Aristotle on many levels. Reading about characters who are different from us allows us to identify what’s universal about our humanity.
Read a book written in a format you don’t normally read.
If you haven’t read graphic novels, think of this new experience like adjusting to the latest version of Facebook. It may look weird at first, and sure, the features may have been moved around a bit, but often there are unexpected benefits, too. Graphic novels cover the spectrum from light-hearted chick lit to explorations of cultural identity. For a thought-provoking graphic novel, check out Yang’s American Born Chinese or My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf.
There’s been an absolute explosion in Young Adult narratives written in verse. My classes devoured The Crossover and Booked, leaving us all eager for more from Kwame Alexander. As soon as I heard Chris Crowe talking about the structure of his latest novel (all written in haiku, with one syllable for each soldier’s death in the Vietnam War), I knew I had to get my hands on Death Coming up a Hill. This format reads quickly but fosters deep questioning. Poetry, after all, is often as much about what isn’t on the page as what is.
Another kind of fresh story-telling popular in YA literature right now is the use of multiple narrators. If you read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl or Girl on a Train by Paula Hawkins, you already appreciate how the back-and-forth can build suspense, but it also helps readers practice empathy when they step outside an event and examine it from different angles. All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely is an especially powerful read for communities (like my own) wrestling with police brutality and social justice.
Read about a topic you don’t already know about.
The world is a vast and curious place, and non-fiction reading allows us to explore it without the constraints of time or budgets. If, like me, you’ve accused non-fiction of being dry, look for compelling stories like Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly or writers known for narrative style such as Malcolm Gladwell or Erik Larson.
As you finish your three Reading without Walls choices, tell other readers! Post a picture of the book cover (include yourself if you’re so inclined) and share it on social media with the hashtag #ReadingWithoutWalls. While you’re at it, tweet me at @marthastickle. I’d love to know what walls you’re breaking down in 2017.
Martha Guarisco is a National Board Certified English Language Arts teacher and freelance writer. Prior to joining the faculty at Episcopal 13 years ago, she taught in Ascension Parish, where she was Teacher of the Year. She earned both her BA in English literature and her M.Ed. in English education from Louisiana State University. One of her particular areas of recent study is literature’s effect on adolescents’ empathy development.