Saturday, January 10, 2015

Judging a Book by Its Cover

     About six years ago, my school librarian enthusiastically recommended a "great book" she thought I'd love.  Because of her amazing skill as a literary matchmaker, I took the novel from her hands and examined the cover -- Ewwwww!  The only image on a completely black background appeared to be some sort of abstract pulley system, and -- where were the people, for gosh sakes?  In homage to her glorious suggestions from days past, though, I felt bound to pretend I might read this book as well.

     Look over book jacket.  Count to five.  Look inside.  Count to five.  Assume expression of regret that I'd already made my decision for today.

     Smiling, I thanked her for the recommendation and handed back the text, promising to pick it up "next time," much in the way people vow to "get together for coffee sometime."

     Yep.  For a full year, I successfully avoided the 'mind-numbing drudgery' of reading The Hunger Games, all because I'd judged a book by its cover.

     My students eat that story up, mainly because I come across as such a nincompoop.  But when the hooting and jeering dies down, I ask who has made the same mistake.  Nobody?  Back before the movie let the cat out of the bag, I would hold up a copy of The Invention of Hugo Cabaret by Brian Selznick.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

     "Really?  How many of you would choose this book?"

     [chirping crickets]

     "Why not?" 

     "It's too LONG!"  Obviously -- until I showed them the inside:  white space, chapters that are one paragraph long, page after page of illustrations.  Before long, multiple copies graced our library shelves, the result of supply and demand.

      At the opposite end of this "judgy" spectrum is the Rabbit Ears version of Rudyard Kipling's How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin.  My closest brush ever with full-blown mutiny transpired the day I pulled out that book for seventh and eighth grade students.  While Jack Nicholson's performance was sure to delight them -- not to mention the music and sound effects by Bobby McFerrin -- the illustrations were an utter affront to their adolescent dignity. 

How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin (Rabbit Ears edition) by Rudyard Kipling

     "Wait -- no way!  That's a BABY BOOK!"  Sigh.

     Fortunately, I had forearmed myself with the story's Lexile level -- 1030, well within the range expected both of seventh and eighth grade readers.  Projecting Googled evidence onto the screen -- (because if it's on Google, it's GOT to be true) -- the students dismounted their high horses and settled in for a perfectly enjoyable read with more than one vocabulary word to leave them scratching their heads.  Kids.

     While I've long been aware how important a book's appearance is to kids, Jeff Kinney -- that sly rascal -- has spun the knowledge into literary gold with the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.   In my opinion, Jeff Kinney is one of the most brilliant minds in children's literature, not because of his appealing stories and clever illustrations, but because of this one simple realization:  lots of middle school kids don't read because they just aren't ready for tiny print, little white space, and zero illustrations.   From that understanding, Greg Heffley was born, and reluctant readers everywhere found their hero.  (I still occasionally sob into my pillow at night for not having the idea first.)

     Don't judge a book by its cover.  We've all heard and probably repeated that timeworn adage, yet adults and schoolkids persist.  Knowing that can help us lead students to books they'd never choose for themselves.
Author's note:  This blog is dedicated to Sally Odenwald, librarian and literary matchmaker 

Language Arts teachers want their students to become life-long readers, but do we really have the power to effect that outcome?  Click here for The Sustained Reader's take on Cultivating Life-Long Readers.