“…I believe that books can save lives.  It’s as simple as that.”

-Michael Cart, “Books Make Life Easier” 

A teacher friend once asked me if I believe everyone needs to read.  He’d known people who didn’t or couldn’t read, yet had led extraordinary lives and contributed to the world.  

I understood his question, and I agree with him. Reading is only one of many skills we want people to have.  Reading isn’t what makes a woman or man. The question has stayed with me.  

If I agree with my colleague, why do I work so hard to entice all kids to learn to love to read?  What is it that I believe books can do for kids?  


Winter break a few years ago my students challenged me to read a “point” for every “point” they read.  The point system we were using at the time measured the number of words and pages read.  One point was roughly equivalent to one hundred chapter book pages.  

Since there were approximately sixty students and one of me, I had my work cut out.  I started reading.  The good news is, over that break, I read one hundred points, with time left over to visit with family and friends, clean my house, and relax.  The sad news is, of course - I lost the challenge – one hundred "points" and all.

Did I say I read one hundred points?  

I rode with young Maid Marion while she saved her father from the clutches of the evil Sheriff of Nottingham.  I shared her bravery and cleverness.  

I gave up my life of modern convenience and stylish clothes in Baghdad and escaped over the mountains of Kurdistan wearing the colorful traditional clothes of my ancestral Kurdish village.  There, I lived in a refugee camp and learned to wear a burkah.  

In a boarding school in 1867 Michigan, I learned how to gather hazelnuts and prepare maple syrup.  

I lived on the streets of London, survived by finding nails in the mud and selling them, and escaped from a workhouse ravaged by epidemic.

I was saved from death in the Nazi concentration camps by a family who hid me under their sink.  

I lived in a small village in Italy, and traveled to America in the smelly hold of a ship.  

I rescued a dragon and fed it chocolate.  

I taught my grandfather how to read.   

In just two weeks, I lived thirty other lives.  I touched down, if only briefly, in twenty other places and twenty other times.  

I think of the schema – layer upon layer of knowledge - laid down by reading “one hundred points.”  Collected experiences piled one on the other in our brains - like so many coats at a party - form a multi-layered lens of knowledge through which we understand the world.  Extensive reading makes the unknown familiar.  The knowledge, possibly even wisdom, gained through reading can be considerable.

In addition to increased fluency and skill navigating complex sentences and varied text structures, the exquisite familiarity with words that comes with reading is invaluable.  Encountering new words, brushed like watercolors onto a story, is so much more illustrative than a dictionary exercise.  

During my winter break I warmed my hands by “the meager fire,” watched a serpent open its “cavernous jaws,” and, as my own brother delivered me to the dungeon, I learned the meaning of the word, “perfidy.”

Does everyone need to read?

The question is still with me.  Does everyone need to walk in other shoes?  Does everyone benefit from an intricately layered tapestry of schema – knowledge - about the world in which we live and the times and places that came before us?  Does knowledge of the world give readers an advantage?  
I continue to ponder the question.

Reading can bring us information, inspiration, inoculations.  It is where we learn, live and listen to ourselves.  Kylene Beers, in her foreword to Teri S. Lesesne’s Making the Match, 2004, eloquently describes the value of reading.

“And each time, kids discover that reading, whether informational texts or novels, can act as a mirror to teach them more about themselves or as a window to show them more about the world.  They learn that a connection to literature … is about measuring themselves against a character to see where they differ, where they match.  They learn to sometimes resist the author and other times to applaud.  They have the opportunity to consider our greatest dilemmas – good and evil, courage and fear, love and betrayal, greed and generosity – within the safe setting of the pages of a book.” 


Books can do amazing things.

Jennica dragged into the reading room one late November day, as usual.  Now in fifth grade, her reading progress seemed to be stalled at second-grade level chapter books.  She was reading Junie B. Jones books - still.  She almost never read at home.  She came to class every day still reading the same page she’d left off on the day before.  I’d tried everything - for three years - to motivate her.

She came to school in raggedy clothes and unkempt hair.  Family members were in jail.  She had only a few friends – other girls whose home lives were also abusive and neglectful.  She’d recently begun to wear her ragged, dirty and mismatched clothes pulled over her shoulder in a suggestive way.  The staff was worried that she was a candidate for early pregnancy. Her test scores refused to budge.  

I was discouraged.  

Until the day Jennica sheepishly flashed her warm, eager smile as she gave up what she’d been hiding under her coat, under her battered Junie B. Jones book.  

“Ah, busted, might as well ‘fess up,” her grin suggested as she showed what she had hidden.  “I’ve been reading this at home - just because I wanted to,” she apologized, as she handed over the large, thick book she’d been clutching. 

Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul.  You’ve been reading this at home?”  I queried.  

“Yes,” she answered.  But only because I wanted to,” she said, apologetically.  “I promise I won’t bring it again,” her tone suggested.  

 “Wow.  Cool.  Just because you wanted to?”  I answered with a smile.  

“Uh huh.  It’s really good.  I have all three Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul books.”

“All three, huh?  That’s cool.  That could keep you busy for a while.”  I grinned. 

She looked at me.

“I think you should read this Chicken Soup book here, at home, and everywhere else.  That’s what reading’s for – because you want to, because you enjoy it.  Because the book you’re reading speaks to you.  I’m not going to worry if these books aren’t “at your reading level.”  It doesn’t matter that they don’t have quizzes.”

During the next month, Jennica went home every night and read sixty or more pages because she “couldn’t help herself.”  This student I hadn’t been able to convince to read sixty easy pages in two weeks was now devouring sixty difficult pages each evening.  She finished all three Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul books in a very short time.  I looked for more.

Nine Chicken Soup books and a month later she’d completed the year’s reading goal - only halfway through the year.  We went to the principal’s office to celebrate. 

 “I’ve been reading Chicken Soup for the Soul books,” she told him as we stood in his office. “I’ve read nine already.  They’re really good.”

“What do you like about these books?” he asked.

“I learn stuff,” she replied.

“Like what? What stuff have you learned?” he probed.  

She answered clearly and simply and without hesitation. Her answer took my breath away.

“I learned there’s a reason to live.”

I can’t think of a single more important thing to learn – anywhere, at any time, for any person.  

I want Jennica to be able to correctly distinguish her b’s from d’s.  I want her to learn to read for and from and of correctly. I continue to work diligently to help her master these skills.  But more than anything else I want this vibrant, battered, soulful young girl to know there’s a reason to live.  

That’s what reading can do for kids.  

Does everyone need to read?

Yes.  My answer is still yes.

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