Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Power of No

So much of what we do is simple: read a lot, talk to kids about books, brainstorm ways to engage adolescents in the social opportunities a reading community provides. We match kids with books daily (sometimes unsolicited - watch out if you and your child are browsing for books in a public space) and have a pretty good grasp on what will "fit" each child; but sometimes, our recommendations fall flat.

Empowering students to say no is an essential part of building a reader.

In years past, I can remember soft-spoken kids coming to my door, eyes cast down, telling me they didn't like a book. Some started the conversation with the words "No offense" or - even worse - "I'm sorry." It was clear they didn't want to insult us or hurt our feelings; but something needed to change if students weren't comfortable being honest.

I suppose our excitement can be overwhelming. And when we do a whole song and dance about how much we loved a book, sometimes a child can feel a personal responsibility to like it. They think by loving the book, they are loving us and, by rejecting the book, they are rejecting us. Books have allowed us to have wonderfully personal conversations with students. That's how we build relationships and when you analyze the emotional investment at stake, kids can get mixed up and feel unintended pressure to keep something they don't want.

Now the power to say no is part of our schtick. "You'll know before fifty pages. If you get that far in and it's not something you're enjoying, bring it back to me. We'll find you something else. Promise?" Sometimes all it takes is a hallway chat a few days later. "Hey, how are you liking that book? Do you want something else or is it something you want to keep?"

Recently, we've heard kids repeat our dictum: "Life's too short for lousy books."

It's especially empowering to share our rejected titles with students. Several months ago, we purchased a highly-anticipated hard cover book by one of our favorite authors. Five days later, we had both given up. There was such an emotional weight to that decision: It was a failure. We felt gypped by the un-experience - we wanted to like it! - and we felt like we had abandoned someone. I mean, we're educators. We're paid not to give up on people! But there are too many good books to be read. We listened to our own voice: "Life's too short for lousy books" and set it aside.

At the end of the school year, one mother thanked me for "turning her daughter into a reader." In the note, in which she chronicled her child's journey, she mentioned the power of saying no. "You taught her that reading is fun! You told her that if she's been reading a book for awhile and it's not enjoyable anymore, stop and find another book."

Talking about our personal experiences with the less-than-stellar books helps build trust with our kids. They know we don't just *love* everything. We roll our eyes, we get confused, we get bored. We have high standards! Conversations that include experiences when we, too, had to abandon books forges another connection between us and our students. "You know, I started this one, but I just couldn't get into it." Their heads nod, their eyes grow wide, and they offer their own stories of books that failed to live up to the hype.

Gone are the days when kids come to the door avoiding eye contact with their metaphorical tail tucked down. Now they march right in and declare, "Nope. Not this one" or "I'm not feeling it. What else ya got?" The process teaches them to trust their own tastes, confident that *they* are they expert. During these tumultuous middle school years, talking about books is a major step in developing the ability to tell people how you feel. These perfectly imperfect adolescents need to know that telling us they didn't like something won't ruin our relationship. We won't take it personally. By acknowledging their feelings we are empowering them to say no and find something that feels right. Their comfort, their joy, is our goal.