About "Dear Will"

{Dear Will} is my own twist to the Newbery project, a challenge or pledge to read all Newbery award winners from 1922 to the present usually within a year's time. Rather than read the books and record my random thoughts or attempt to professioanlly review each title, I chose a much more authentic audience for myself, my son.

It's true, as my first letter says, that the inspiration came from none other than The Book Whisperer herself, Mrs. Donalyn Miller. Serendipity brought her to my classroom door that day after I had pined over the 2012 NCTE call for proposals, desperately attempting to dream up a totally rad teaching demonstration when my teaching enthusiasm has been slowly trickling away.

She began by talking about conversations with colleagues about what makes a reading community so invaluable to the classroom and the professional. Questions loomed such as "What do we think a reading community offers?" "Why are professional reading communities so important to helping the classroom's own community flourish?" "What role do technology and social networking sites play?"  All very engaging and exciting questions!

At one point in our conversation I realized that slowly over the past couple of years I had lost some of my enthusiasm for reading. Why was this? I told Donalyn when I lost having someone to read for, I lost some of my passion. Without students to read with everyday and to read for, my community had dramatically been altered.  Without an opportunity to pass along a book, I was sepia tone Dorothy sitting longingly on the fence; I want technicolor rainbows.

I still read. The past year, however, my reading titles turned away from young adult thrillers like The Hunger Games and authors' blogs by John Greene and Libba Bray, to more appropriate titles for a new parent like Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child and blogs featured on Mamapedia.com or Babycenter.com.  My reading "Northern Star" shifted, naturally, but with the loss of a reading community, so did much of my reading pleasure.

In the English classroom I read three-four times a day for 15-20 minutes (not counting the hour or more in the evening in bed or at the gym).  I poured over pages of books, often with a certain student in mind who I could hook with a tantalizing title.  I gleaned their pages for beautifully crafted sentences to inspire writing lessons, character study examples, reading workshop mini-lessons, or just a really cool excerpt for read aloud for my students to enjoy. 

Once I had identified what had happened to my reading life, I had a decision to make.  I needed to make my own community that would inspire me to read until the time comes when I am back in an English classroom.

I've participated in adult book clubs; even today I have been invited to join two more!  Don't get me wrong; I love reading adult literature and engaging in discussion with my peers.  I may choose to join one or both.  But, I needed an audience closer to my heart to inspire a new kind of reading journey.

This is where I arrived at "Dear Will."  There is absolutely no one closer to my heart than my son (sorry honey :-) ).  As I once was with my students, I am so eager to share the wide world of reading, imagination, storytelling, and adventure with him.  We are already up to our eye-balls in board books and picture books.  We have our nightly routine of reading the same three books, multiple times, before bedtime and many more throughout the day. 

Choosing to read the Newbery Award list was a decision I made as much for myself as for Will.  My own reading life seemed to skip over this chapter.  From late elementary through middle school, I would not have considered myself a reader.  I was too consumed with other parts of childhood like tree houses, bicycles, puppies, and bestfriends.  These evolved to Saved by the Bell, boyfriends, and shopping at The Limited, but not books.  Not until high school did I dive back into reading on my own for pleasure. Regardless of the lapse in my reading life, I still consider myself to be a lifetime reader.

In her book, Making the Match,  Teri Lesesne (2003)  describes the five stages of a lifetime reader (Donelson and Nielson, 1999):
  • Reading for unconscious delight
  • Reading autobiographically
  • Reading for vicarious experiences
  • Reading for philosphical speculation
  • Reading for aesthetic experience.
These stages don't work like one-way streets, once your down one it's nearly impossible to come back the same way.  Rather, the stages are guideposts.  Readers tend to follow them in a common progression, but all readers know that on any given day, we read for any and all of these purposes.  A lifetime reader reaches these stages intrinsically, rather than having been assigned to read. 

I just happened to move through these stages a little later in life than I would have liked.  The Harry Potter series really took off while I was in college, and I found myself, already an English major, reading for unconscious delight once again.

It dawns on me now that perhaps one of the attractions to young adult literature is that the timing of my own reading stages just didn't match up with my childhood.  The landscape of literature today is so vast, how can I not wander around on my own as an adult?  This is the phenomenon, after all, of 30-something adults devouring YA novels (hem, hem...the 35 year-old career woman madly in love with Edward Cullen)...

"Dear Will" is a remedy to many personal and professioanl needs:  developing a reading bond with my own child, sharing the experience of reading with other readers, continuing a reading community, revisiting some of those reading stages through the lens of childhood experiences, and giving me a reason to write again.

As I blog about each Newbery, on no certain timeframe--this is not one of those pledges to read an insane amount of books in a year--I will take my time.  (Here's a secret:  I'm a painfully slow reader....)  I consider books to be my friends.  It takes time to form relationships with them, some longer than others.  I want to live in each book, breathe it, dream it, and then take my time writing about it. Nor will I review them in the academic sense of the word.  I will write a response that is organically evoked from each unique title with my son in mind.

"Here I give you the key that will open the door.  When you return, you too will understand the reason for my enthusiasm."  HendrikVan Loon, The Story of Mankind

For more information regarding the history of the Newbery Award and award winners, visit http://www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/newberymedal/newberymedal