In the spring of 2008, I took an Ohio Writing Project class called Teachers as Readers with Sharon Rab. One of the assignments was to compile and reflect on books that made a difference in our lives. We had to keep it to ten, which was a very difficult task. Looking back on the list, I think I would compile a different one today, even though that was only four years ago. However, it's interesting to see which books I chose to include at that time. I wouldn't want to change that. Part of our history is seeing what we write at points of time in our lives. We continue to evolve, but part of writing and reflecting is to show us who we were, who we've become, and who we may be in the future. That's why I love the memoir genre so much. I would encourage you to make your own text set. You could even make a personal one for you and then one with texts you use in the classroom. I think this would be a great exercise for students. I've never tried that before, but I think they would love it. You could do one with them in the beginning of the year and then one at the end to see if they would add to it or keep it the same. It would be an important exercise to explore who they are as readers. Here was mine in 2008:
Personal Text Set
April 26th, 2008
1. White, E.B. Charlotte’s Web. Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 1952.
“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” p. 184
It doesn’t matter how many times I read this line...I tear up. This is my favorite children’s story. E.B. White has an uncanny ability to be funny and yet profoundly, staggeringly poignant at the same time. His themes of life, death, perseverance, friendship, and humor are woven throughout this simple and meaningful story. E.B. White says the theme of his life is “complexity-through-joy.” I can’t help but get choked up through Charlotte’s explanation of her impending death, while chuckling simultaneously at Wilbur’s overly dramatic, comical wailing. Then there’s the line “Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died.” Gets me every time.
2. Paterson, Katherine. Bridge to Terabithia. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1977.
“It was up to him to pay back to the world in beauty and caring what Leslie had loaned him in vision and strength.” p. 126 “’Shhh, yes. There’s a rumor going around that the beautiful girl arriving today might be the queen they’ve been waiting for.’”
I didn’t first read this story as a child. I read it in graduate school at Miami University in Eileen Tway’s Children’s Literature class. I was instantly captivated by this amazing story, and it sealed my love of children’s literature forever. I knew then that I wanted to teach reading, and I wanted my students to feel the same love for this book that I did. I remember last year when I taught this book to a small group of fantastic kids. We had such profound discussions, and a student named Tyler exclaimed, “Wow – this class is deep!”
3. L’Engle, Madeline. Wrinkle in Time. Bantam Doubleday Dell Books, New York, 1962.
“’Oh, we don’t travel at the speed of anything,’ Mrs. Whatsit explained earnestly. ‘We tesser. Or you might say, we wrinkle.’” p. 62
I read this in sixth grade, the grade in which I remember all my favorite books being read. We had a teacher, Mrs. Parshall, who was creative, kind, and loved horses (I read all the Walter Farley Black Stallion books that year). I loved her. I also wrote a book that year in her class. Writing an entire book was the most amazing experience ever. It was about a horse show, and I illustrated and bound it with cardboard and contact paper, and sewed the spine. But I digress...I was fascinated by the fantasy and science fiction of this story. I loved the idea of time travel and good and evil. IT was such a gruesome and fascinating evil force. The kids were heroes – nerdy brainiacs who could save the world. Who doesn’t love that idea?!
4. Goodrich, Frances, Hackett, Albert and Otto Frank. The Diary of Anne Frank Dramatized. Dramatists Play Service, Inc., New York, 1958.
Anne’s Voice: In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.
Mr. Frank: She puts me to shame. p. 101
I was in this play my freshman year in high school. I was Miep – not a very big part (that’s an understatement – it was tiny). She was the secretary in the office where the Franks, Van Daans, and Mr. Kraler were hiding. But that didn’t matter to me. I was the only freshman in the cast. The director of the play ended up being my favorite teacher ever. I was so enamored by the whole experience – the profoundness of Anne’s story, the experience of acting, hanging out with a small group of amazing people – it is an indelible memory.
5. Lamott, Anne. Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith. Anchor Books, New York, 1999.
“So I kept thinking, How much longer am I going to think about my hair more often than about things in the world that matter?” p. 235
The year this book was published was the year I moved from my hometown of Mason, Ohio to Pittsburgh, PA when I was 33. I had never lived anywhere but Ohio, and lived with my husband and two daughters on a three acre lot behind my parents’ house. Needless to say, it was a traumatic move. I joined a Newcomers book club there, and this was the first selection I read in that club. I loved it. I fell in love with Anne Lamott. I connected to her spiritual journey, her lamentations about her curly hair, her struggles over parenting, her musings to understand herself, etc. I gave it to one of my best friends that year on her birthday when we traveled on a girls’ weekend. I ended up loving Pittsburgh and that book club. I was so excited to meet her during this Teachers as Readers class.
6. Picoult, Jodi. My Sister’s Keeper. Atria Books, New York, 2004.
“Kids think with their brains cracked wide open; becoming an adult, I’ve decided, is only a slow sewing shut.” “But I do remember feeling as if something had gone missing, as if the loss of a kid’s hero worship can ache like a phantom limb.”
This book is one of the most memorable books I’ve read because of the sheer shock of it. Picoult’s ability to show you different points of view and pull you into controversial topics is unique. I loved how she changed voice and font as she told the perspectives of each of the characters, and how you were pulled into each character’s story. She also interwove quotes by a character, and you think they’re by one character, but then they end up being another. The ending is unbelievable. I had to call my neighbor, who told me I had to read this book and yell at her. Everyone who I’ve recommended this book to has called me afterward and done the same. Ha!
7. Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Arthur A. Levine Books, New York, 2007.
“’It is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.’” (Dumbledore) p. 718
What can I say about the ending of one of the greatest stories ever? I had to include this book in my text set because this entire series has had such an impact on my whole family. My oldest daughter, Libby, who is now 15, was in first grade when the first Harry Potter book was published. She was an advanced reader, so fortunately, she was able to read it when it first came out, and she stayed on the journey as each one was published. We went to the midnight parties, and waited in line for the movie premiers. When Katie was old enough, she read them all, too. Ed and I also bought our own copies when each one came out because we weren’t patient enough to wait for the girls to finish their copies!! I was so sad when I finished the 7th book. I couldn’t believe it was the end of Harry’s story. I thought she did a fabulous job wrapping it all up, and the connections and stories of each character were genius. I also felt like this had to be in my text set because I believe J.K. Rowling is the force behind the explosion of children’s literature in recent years. I loved an article by Jim Trelease that also credits her to the increase in reading scores in this country. Bravo, J.K. Rowling! I miss Harry!
8. White, E.B. Essays of E.B. White. Harper & Row, Publishers, New York, 1977. “I find this morning that what I most vividly and longingly recall is the sight of my grandson and his little sunburnt sister returning to their kitchen door from an excursion, with trophies of the meadow clutched in their hands – she with a couple of violets, and smiling, he serious and holding dandelions, strangling them in a responsible grip. Children hold spring so tightly in their brown fists – just as grownups, who are less sure of it, hold it in their hearts.” p. 16
I was introduced to this collection by my favorite high school English teacher who was also the director for Diary of Anne Frank. Can you tell he was influential in my literary life? He would read some of these essays aloud to us in class. He also read The Day No Pigs Would Die, which seemed to tie into White’s love for the farm and nature, and his themes of life and death. That was a tragic story! Anyway, my favorite section of the collection is The Farm. His stories are so poignant and funny, just like Charlotte’s Web. I grew up in the country, so my experiences of raising farm animals and working outside were similar to White’s, and I loved the way he described them.
9. Wells, Rebecca. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Large Print Press, Rockland, Massachusetts, 1996.
“Whatever scars Vivi had inflicted with her unhinged swings between creation and devouring, she had also passed on a mighty capacity for rapture.” p. 247 “But when the Ya-Yas chaperoned, they had a tendency to turn the whole event into their own party.” p. 183
I read this book when I was in my late twenties, after I had my second daughter, Katie. I hadn’t been reading for awhile. I read all those classics during my stint as an English literature major at Miami, and then life got in the way, so I didn’t read as much. So reading for pleasure had dwindled. I must have heard about this book through word of mouth because I wasn’t even reading book websites or browsing book stores at the time. I consider this book my re-entry into reading for myself. I read it at a time when I could completely identify with the characters – raising kids, loving friends, trying to succeed at motherhood, being young and married. The book circulated throughout my best friends, and we even called our kids the “Petite Ya-Yas.” (You have to have read the book to understand this.) When I saw the movie, I was struck about how it was mostly about the mother/daughter relationship. I didn’t get that at all when I read the book – to me it was completely about friendship. I read Little Altars Everywhere afterward. I wish I hadn’t. I wanted to love Vivi, and that book spoiled it for me. There have been times when I’ve considered re-reading Divine Secrets, but I’m afraid it won’t be as good as I remembered it, and that will spoil the perfect memory I have of it. Sometimes books hit you at the perfect time and place.
10. Spinelli, Jerry. Stargirl. Alferd A. Knopf, New York, 2000.
“It was during one of those nightmoon times that it came to me that Hillari Kimble was wrong. Stargirl was real.” p. 12 “The echo of her laughter is the second sunrise I awaken to each day, and at night I feel it is more than stars looking down on me. Last month, one day before my birthday, I received a gift-wrapped package in the mail. It was a porcupine necktie.” p. 186
Jerry Spinelli is one of my favorite children’s authors. His writing is so distinct: sentence fragments, repeated words, made up adjectives, bittersweet chapter endings. My students love his books. They can be weird, disturbing, quirky...but they’re always thought-provoking and real. His characters are never perfect, the situations are always sticky, and the reader is always left with something to think about. I can’t read the ending of Stargirl without tearing up.
What are some books that would be on your list?