Reading Like a Russian Doll: Thoughts on Rereading, Growing, and the Power of Words

Recently I became a new dad.  Again.  My daughter Iris was born a few months ago, and by doing so she became my third daughter.  Livi is six and Lexi is four, so when Iris was born…yes it all came back to me.  Well, sort of.  It has now been four and a half years since we had a newborn in our house.  And I must admit, something feels different this time.  Perhaps it’s because so many life-altering events have taken place since that last birth? Por ejemplo, four years ago I took a job in New York City as a Staff Developer for the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project at Columbia University.  In doing this, I uprooted my entire nuclear family to pursue a passion.  We sold our house.  We squeezed into a tiny New York City apartment for an entire year.  Then, I decided to leave that job.  So we uprooted the family again, loading up a moving truck and moving to Connecticut.  Then once in Connecticut, we moved again– to a different part of Connecticut.  My children started in a new school.  And on and on.  Through these last four and a half years, I have lived through changes, experiences that have left their mark on me for a lifetime.
So now I have a new baby. And it feels different.  I’m thinking it feels different because, well, I’m different.  And I think about what this means to me as a reader.  The late Louise Rosenblatt, a famous teacher and researcher, once defined reading as a transaction between the reader and a text.  Each reader brings his/her experiences, beliefs, background knowledge, opinions, and life wisdom to the text.  And those things, all of them, are constantly expanding and changing—both in depth and in breadth.
So when we pick up a book we’ve “read before”—think about how different “the transaction” (as Rosenblatt calls it) is going to be!  Yes, it is the same words there on the pages.  But it’s not the same reader.  It’s really not.  That reader is older, changed somehow, different, wiser, more affected…there is always a difference between who the reader was and who s/he is now.  So, consequently, that is going to make the transaction qualitatively different.
When kids pick up a book they have read before, how do we often react as adults, teachers, and mentors?  “You’ve read that before, choose something else.”  If you recognize yourself in that advice,  allow me to offer an alternate perspective:
(1)    Encourage rereading- Especially when some time has passed, encourage it! This is not the same boy or girl that read this book before.  Understanding that, do not discourage rereading—cheerlead it!
(2)    Be excited and roll out a path s/he will want to go down— This might sound like, “Oh, I can’t wait to hear what you think of Tuck Everlasting this time.  Remember how old you were last time you read that book?  You have learned so much about life since then.  I’ll bet you’ll think about Winnie and the Tuck family in a whole new way now!”
(3)    Connect- Have you ever seen a movie more than once? Listened to a podcast or TedTalk more than once?  Stared at a painting more than once?  Replayed your favorite Prince record?  Chances are, your thinking has changed somehow by these repeated interactions with the movie, talk, or art piece.  Most of us understand that repeated exposures (readings) of a known “text” can yield new, different, and sometimes much more sophisticated understandings.  That’s not because the text has changed– it is because you are different!
The importance of arriving at new understandings in what we read and reread cannot be underestimated.  As writers and researchers Kylene Beers and Bob Probst write about in their important book, Notice and Note (2013), “…It is imaginative literature that offers readers a chance to think about the human issues that concern us all: love, hate, hope, fear, and all the other emotions, problems, situations, and experiences of living” (p. 17).  Wouldn’t we want our young readers and writers to evolve in their thinking about these issues that define the human condition?  One of my mentors once taught me that a way to let a book leave its impression upon you is to think, ‘How will I live differently because of this book?’  As a classroom teacher, I remember including this notion in a lesson during a unit on writing literary essays.  Garrett, a lanky athletic eighth grader who struggled in reading raised his hand one day.  He had just reread Gary Soto’s “Marble Champ” (from Baseball in April, 1990).  “Mr. Ball,” he said, “I never knew you could live differently because of a story.  Now I know someone can be good at sports and school.  I guess I never thought that was possible.”  Rereading texts can allow for deep reflection that helps us anchor moments of real growth in our thinking about the world and who we are inside it. 

Author Madeline L’Engle once said, “The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.”  Sandra Cisneros explores this same idea in her seminal short story, “Eleven” from Woman Hollering Creek, when she writes (1991), “Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one” (pp. 6-7).  We might say that each one of those layers of us, rings inside us, or old versions of us still lives; but when we reread a story or book, it is the latest most recent version of ourselves reading it.  And therefore it won’t be the same.

Becoming a new dad– again– has been an amazing and educational experience.  I realize the metaphor here is not completely parallel because Iris is her own baby.  She is unique. She is not the same “text”, as it were.  But the process of bringing a new set of background experiences and new wisdom gained from those experiences to her life as I begin parenting her– well, it feels similar to rereading a text.  I’m not the same dad.  And the young people in our lives?  Well, once some time has passed, they are different, too.  And so it will not be the same “them” when you see them sitting down to reread something.  It will be a new reader at the table.  And thus, a new journey with new understandings.

“There’s nothing wrong with reading a book you love over and over.  When you do, the words get inside you, become a part of you, in a way that words in a book you’ve read only once can’t.”  -Gail Carson Levine, Writing Magic: Creating Stories That Fly

Be a Reader Yourself: Lessons from the Branding World

Let’s begin with a short exercise:  What do you think of when you think, “Nike”?  
Take a moment.
Okay, did you think, Sports? Excellence? Michael Jordan? Shoes? Athletics? Expensive?  If any or all of those concepts came to your mind, that is due, at least partially, to a phenomenon called “Branding”.  A quick Google search defines branding as, “a brand name, logo, slogan, and/or design scheme associated with a product or service.” Or, “The act of imprinting or engraving a brand name or symbol onto a product.”  In talking with my wife (who is in this business), she would say your personal brand—at its best—is all about finding what matters to you and telling your story in a way that resonates with others.
But what does branding have to do with being a reading mentor? Three years ago,  Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer, invited my friend and colleague Chris Lehman to write a fabulous post on the Education Week blog entitled, What the Kardashians Taught Me About Reading Instruction.  In his post, Chris makes a fascinating comparison about how and why teachers might brand themselves like the Kardashians have branded themselves.  He writes about how those who have successfully branded themselves (like the Kardashians, love them or hate them) have succeeded in providing visions some can or might aspire to.
The truth is, when we brand ourselves, others begin to associate us with a story, a passion, or a way of thinking.  So when considering how we might become an effective reading mentor for a young person in our lives, we might think about how we might go about branding ourselves.
The best brands are driven by an idea and do not just seek out what’s popular.  Rather, when thinking about how to brand ourselves as reading mentor, it is probably most important to consider branding ourselves as READERS (the way Chris Lehman suggests).  Here are some ways you might consider:
  1. See yourself as a reader– It begins with developing a reading identity.  You might begin, as my colleague Jennifer Serravallo suggests, by jotting down the top five books you have ever read in your lifetime.  Then reflect on your list—what is present?  What is missing?  What does this list say about you as a reader?  You may already see yourself this way…great!  Now, read on…

  1. Help others see you as a reader– This year I have taken on reading as many of the Nutmeg Nominee books as I can.  Currently, I am reading Liesl and Po by Lauren Oliver, illustrated by Kei Acedera.  I make sure my four and six year-old daughters see me reading this book at least sometimes (I generally read at night after the kids are in bed), as this is important for visibility of my brand as reader.  One small anecdote: apparently, there is a Liesl and Po poster on the wall at my daughters’ school.  My wife overheard the girls telling whoever would listen, “My dad is reading that book!” (cue, beam with pride with soundtrack).  The point is to make reading—literally—a visible part of your life.  This adds to the authenticity of your brand, which leads to the next point…

  1. Be authentic One of my favorite authors, Katie Wood Ray, writes books for teachers.  In the following quote, she is talking about writing; but watch as I substitute the word ‘read’ for ‘write’.  I think this works:   Either we can be walking, breathing, talking examples of all we advocate for our students, or we can have them sitting around wondering why we are trying to get them into something that we are obviously not into ourselves.  They see me as someone who [reads], which is how I’m asking them to see themselves, and this is a key ingredient to learning anything.  They listen to me because they can see that I know what I’m talking about.  You can’t get that if you don’t [read].” – Katie Wood Ray, 2012. Oftentimes as adults it is all too easy to take the “Do as I say, not as I do” approach to situations involving the young readers/writers in our lives.  But kids tend to have an astute “bull-puckey” detector; they know when we aren’t being what we profess to believe, and can usually tell when we’re just saying it.  This matters. So working to bring authenticity to your brand by knowing what you’re talking about can go a long way in branding yourself as a reading mentor.  You might:
    1. Read a hot book that kids are reading right now (say, the Insignia series by S.J Kincaid).
    2. Bring up a book or article you’ve read recently in conversations with a young reader.
    3. Make reading a regular part of your everyday routine and broadcast it.  I think one of the best ways to do that is to read something in print, not just off a device.  This way, the translation is much more tangible– it’s clear you’re not on FaceBook, checking email, or texting.

There are so many different reasons we read.  What are yours?  Do you read to learn more about topics you are interested in?  Do you read to savor the beauty of the printed word?  Do you read to become more knowledgeable about the world around you?  Do you read because you love to puzzle out mysteries or study the human condition? Why do you read?

  1. Be passionate– Passion is a key ingredient, in my opinion, to the success of anything. Branding expert Simon Sinek once said, “People don’t buy what you do.  They buy why you do it.  What you do just proves what you believe.”  If we do nothing else in regards to branding ourselves as reading mentors, we ought to exude passion.  Passion tends to be contagious.  Share your why.  Expose it.  Sharing why you’re reading something (as well as what has drawn you to that text) can create a layer of authenticity that allows your kids to connect you as a reader.  In turn, that is going to allow kids to make the connection as to why they might read something.  Young people need to learn that ‘I like it’ is not the only reason we read.

  1. Make it sticky– In his seminal book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell discusses the important factors that have led to the astonishing success of certain brands.  One of those factors is called the “Stickiness Factor”.  Essentially, the stickiness factor is the something that helps to make a brand somehow memorable.  It’s that thing that makes the brand stick in the mind of a person.  On the digital Comprehensive Guide to the Tipping Point, an example is provided about why the children’s television show “Blues Clues” is substantially more appealing than the popular “Sesame Street.”  In our reading context, we might take the following lessons away with us:

    1. Know your audience– When working to develop your brand as reading mentor through conversations, avoid talking over kids’ heads.  Talk at their level in a way they are able to engage. I tend to avoid phrases like, “Well, when I was in school we had to read way more than you guys do and the books were way harder and…”  No.  Adopt an invitational tone in your conversation.  “Oh, that sounds like such a cool book!  I can’t wait to hear more about it!” Of course, converse as you would authentically.  But it might help to engage kids with a positive, invitational tone.
    2. Repetition-  One of the key ingredients to learning anything is repetition.  Your brand will only “stick” if your young readers are exposed to it over and over.  That means it’s not enough to have kids see you as a reader once; it’s not enough to talk to them about a book you are loving just once; it’s not enough to exude your passion for an author just once.  In order for your brand to possess a stickiness factor, it must be repeatedly visible to the audience.
So take a moment.  When the young readers in your life think of you, what do they think?  Okay, that can be terrifying, right? Especially when they are in middle school!  But I invite you to think, “Would he think ‘reader’ when he thinks of me? Would he really?”  If you’ve accomplished that, you have accomplished something big.  Something worthwhile.  And it really is a gift you’re giving your kids.  Statistics now show that the average college graduate reads about one book per year.  One book!  This issue is, in part, due to the fact that kids do not see themselves enough as readers at an early age.  They may have been told to read, but they haven’t been shown to read.  If we can turn ourselves into authentic, branded models of reading, what might be possible is helping to create a lifelong reader.

  • A huge thank you to my friend and colleague Chris Lehman at the Educator Collaborative for the inspiration on this post.

Make Reading a Part of Vacation: 3 Ways to Let Books Join Your Break

To quote a famous holiday song, it’s the most wonderful time of the year!  For many of us, there are variant reasons why this might be true.  Perhaps for some of us, we are celebrating a religious holiday around this time.  For others, it is a time to reconnect with family and friends, touching base through special visits, phone calls, or even digital media.  And for still others it is appreciating the fact that we FINALLY have some down time to rest and read some great books we have been meaning to start reading!  


For our middle school readers, this final point is worthy of consideration.  Reading is a skill learned in use.  So therefore, it is important that our young adult readers have a plan to continue to read over holiday vacations.  Here are a few suggestions from my colleague Katie Gordon on how to develop a plan for vacation reading:


Share your own reading plans-  As I have written about previously, when kids see adults who value reading, that matters.  As my colleague Katie wrote, “We are model readers and our smaller readers look up to us.”  Adults who have a plan for reading over an extended break, or at least can be seen reading, send a message that reading is important and it is worth doing.  Personally, I am looking forward to getting back to my Nutmeg Nominee pile of books that I have been neglecting (curse you, graduate courses!).


Pack your vacation books – If you are traveling this holiday season, be sure to include books as part of the overall experience.  Even twenty minutes a day can make a huge difference in the lives of our readers!  Check out teacher and author Penny Kittle’s infographic entitled, “Why Can’t I Skip My 20 Minutes of Reading Tonight?”.


Make plans to be “sneaky readers” – Sneaky readers are the kinds of readers who, as Katie writes, “…sneak in a few minutes of reading wherever they are.  Waiting in line…in the cafeteria…stuck in traffic.”  Author, teacher, and speaker Kristin Ziemke wrote the following guest blog for Scholastic on this topic.  Check it out here!


However you spend your time off from school, I wish you a peaceful season of gratitude and renewal.  Happy Reading!


Note:  Thanks to my colleague Katie Gordon for the ideas and inspiration for this post. 

Fall Resolutions: 4 Ways to Think About Setting Goals in Reading

“Welcome back!”  Ah, yes, it’s a new year.  And likely, our students have heard this “welcome” refrain multiple times by the third day of September.  My mother, a teacher for over 40+ years, always told me that for a teacher or parent, the beginning of September marks the beginning of the New Year.  New backpacks.  New pens and pencils.  New binders.  New writer’s notebooks.  New reader’s notebooks.

New.  And it’s exciting!

This is a great time to begin thinking about goals, too. For middle school students, however, this is often not at the forefront of the agenda for beginning a new school year.  I remember my first day of middle school– the agenda for me had only one item and might have looked like this:

Maybe it had something to do with the fact I had been filled with horror stories of “initiations” exacted by eighth graders upon poor, unsuspecting sixth graders entering middle school for the first time (which, incidentally turned out to be 100% fictitious).  It might also have been the overwhelming sense of body image connected to a very new popularity caste system in which “bigger/taller” equated to “more liked” and hence, “more popular.”  Or perhaps it was the fear of how much harder middle school academics would be compared to elementary school.

Hopefully those fears now live in the past, existing only in the memories of the maybe-not-so-good-old-days of today’s parents.  But, let’s face it, that’s probably not true.  Likely, there lurks some sense of anxiety within each of our middle schoolers even now.  So what can we do to help?  Allow me to offer a humble suggestion around goal-setting and the power it can possess to assist in setting a positive path toward a new future.

Most successful people in the world have some sense of the process and power of goal-setting.  Writer Mark McCormack in his book What They Don’t Teach You in Harvard Business School writes about the importance of not only goal-setting when it comes to laying out a path for success, but the vital step of writing goals down.  You can find Ashley Feinstein’s article published in Forbes magazine here. In the article, Mr. McCormack cites a fascinating study that touts the importance of not only crafting goals, but putting those goals into writing.

For our middle schoolers, here are four lenses through which we might encourage them to think about goals as readers (thanks to colleagues Jennifer Kean and Katy Wischow at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project for the inspiration here):

1.  Book Choice— As adults, we know how important a “balanced diet” is when it comes to staying healthy and continuing to grow.  This concept can be applied to reading as well.  As readers, are our middle schoolers consuming a steady diet that includes a variety of authors?  Genres?  Series?  Topics?  Part of our reading lives should always be to work to outgrow ourselves as readers.  One way to accomplish this is by being willing to try something new or different.  Something possibly unrecognizable.  Who we know ourselves to be as readers should not limit our book choices!

2.  Habits— Strong readerly habits empower and support growth in reading.  As adults, we know about the powerful role habits can play in our lives.  So harnessing this lens as a means to support our middle school readers in setting goals can be a positive and productive place to look.  Students may think about setting a goal around any/all of the following:

  • Carrying books everywhere I go
  • Writing about my reading
  • Tracking my reading on some type of log
  • Recommending books to others

These examples of readerly habits can change the life of any reader.  Recently I worked with a student who set a goal around carrying books everywhere he went.  Within the year, this student reported reading on the bus, on family outings, in classes, during the evening…and a transformation occurred within his reading proficiency!  Habits can make a difference.

3.  Volume & Stamina— Athletes know that a big part of success is doing something a lot in order to build stamina.  Runners run (a lot), basketball players run (a lot), soccer players run (a lot), swimmers swim (a lot)…you get the idea.  The same holds true with reading!  Readers must read…a lot.  In September, this might mean setting small goals and working to meet them– “Today, I am going to read for 10 minutes without looking up.”  Or, “Today I will read 10 pages without stopping.”  Then, “Tomorrow, I’ll go for 12 minutes/pages…” and so forth.  Building stamina in reading can be similar to training for a marathon; and marathon runners do not train by running marathons.  Rather, they typically work up to longer distances as a means by which to build readiness for a big race.  Readers can set goals around reading more and more during school time, or perhaps (more importantly) outside of school.

4.  Comprehension— One last place to consider setting a reading goal might be within the domain of comprehension– what and how am I thinking as I read?  Consider reading my post on “Ways to Outgrow Yourself as a Reader”.  In young adult literature, a genre that has exploded (in a good way) within the last several years, lies rich and profoundly meaningful writing worth consuming.  Readers might set goals around analyzing characters more deeply; they might set a goal to think across texts and deciding where this text fits with others like it; or perhaps they read for whose voice is heard and whose voice is absent.  A comprehension goal ought to be in service of doing new and interesting thinking in texts.

Oprah Winfrey is quoted as saying, “If you want to accomplish the goals of your life, you have to begin with the spirit.”  Let’s help our middle schoolers start this year off with a spirit for reading– choosing books they want to read, finding times and places for reading, and– maybe– helping them set some goals for their reading futures.  It’s off to another year!  May it be a great one!

Some Ways to Outgrow Yourself as a Reader

“The sky has never been the limit.  We are our own limits.  Its’ then about breaking our personal limits and outgrowing ourselves to live our best lives.”  – author unknown

Recently I have decided to take on a new challenge– I have decided to read the biography of Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson.  Now, this is indeed a challenge for me because I tend to shy away from books that are, say, 600 or more pages.  It’s not that I don’t think I can read them, it’s…well, they’re just so long.  And the challenges of work, school, parenting two young daughters can sometimes make finding the time difficult.  But other than reading more books, there is one central goal I continue to pursue: and that goal is outgrowing myself as a reader– over, and over.  It means working to develop a sense of when I have, once again, let a cocoon envelop who I am as a reader, and then acting to do something about it– figuring out a way to burst forth in a way that is new, different, and (hopefully) better.

But how does one do such a thing as a reader?  Let’s come back to Steve Jobs for a moment…

Many don’t know that early in his career as a computer designer, Steve Jobs worked for a company called Atari.  As many of us remember, Atari was the company that created some of the most successful video games of all time.  Take for instance, Ms. PacMan (okay, yes, I have dated myself officially).  Ms. PacMan was a game in which a yellow protagonist zipped around a colorful maze eating light pellets while being chased by nefarious ghosts.  Ms. PacMan was a game that progressed by levels.  And as one became more experienced and proficient in each of the various levels (denoted by types of fruit, such as cherries, strawberries, peaches, etc.), one was able to advance to different levels of the game.  Each level became increasingly challenging, with the ghosts moving a trifle faster, “power pellets” lasting shorter lengths of time, mazes taking on ever-more complex configurations, etc.  It is true that several games, both before and after Ms. PacMan, challenge players to “master” certain levels of play before they were/are allowed to move on.  In each game, whether it be Ms. PacMan or Halo, Lumosity or World of Warcraft, users are presented a certain set of challenges that, in order for a complete experience to be gained, must be met.

Enter text levels.

Several years ago, researchers began devising a way to make sense of different “levels” of books.  Now, working to establish what are called “readability levels” is nothing new.  Different researchers for decades have been working to find ways to define how to measure text complexity (take Fry, for example).  One such research group in more recent years is a company called MetaMetrics.  A few years back, they invented something called “Lexiles”.  Lexiles measure text complexity by running a text through a computer program, which then generates a number.  The program principally measures two factors:  sentence length and vocabulary.  Although this can be helpful at times, one pitfall (among many) of looking at texts through only the lenses of Lexiles is that the following “sentences” would be assigned the same Lexile:

  • I went to the store to get bread.
  • Went I bread store to the.

Clearly, in this example, we can see the shortcomings of such a measure used in isolation.  To be fair, there are surely many positive arguments to be made on behalf of the Lexile system; however, the measure is what it is: a measure of sentence length and vocabulary.  Actual complexity of content of text is not measurable by Lexiles.  Take for example, John Steinbeck’s acclaimed novel, The Grapes of Wrath.  This book is assigned a Lexile of 680, which appears in the second and third grade band according to the expectations of the Common Core State Standards.  Most of us would likely agree that we would not want our second or third graders reading (or trying to read) The Grapes of Wrath!

So who is working to measure content complexity?

One such group of researchers looking into this question was the staff at the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project at Columbia University.  These researchers wanted to look at levels of text as defined by the complexity of their content.  These levels are sometimes known as “Guided Reading Levels”, and some of the most respected researchers that have contributed to this work are Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell.  If you are not familiar with these levels, they are essentially designed to assess and match readers to texts using an alphabetic system, A=kindergarten, Z=end of 8th grade.

The researchers from Columbia University wanted to know if different levels of books might present similar challenges– almost like a “level” of a video game might present certain levels of challenge.  In other words, how different is level W from level X?  Are there similarities?  How similar is level R to level S? And so on…

It turns out that after reading a hundred or so books at each level, researchers found that certain levels of books do, indeed, present similar challenges.  However, there are points at which challenges change, become more complex.  What follows here is a brief (far from comprehensive) synopsis of some of the findings of the Columbia research group. Each group of levels shown below, or “band of text” (band means a group of levels) as they are sometimes called, present a specific set of challenges to a reader.  These “bands” might also be referred to as “lenses for reading”, as they provide ways of comprehending text at a higher level than just reading for plot.  One thing we know about young adult literature (YA Lit) is that the stories are about so much more than the plot!  And if we want our young readers to outgrow themselves, one way we might do this is to focus their attention on these characteristics of their books.  The following information is geared toward typical 3rd through 8th graders:

N-O-P-Q level books

In these levels of books, readers MUST be active readers!  They must lean forward and do stuff mentally as they read.  They have to make much more of the book—it’s not all given to them.  Much more inference is required because the book is not going to do the work here.  Readers can’t sit back and “TV-watch” these books.  

In terms of plot structure, it is more complex than previously (say, in books below level N)– I wanted a bike, but I got a friend instead (which is what I needed/wanted anyway).  Plot structures follow a problem-resolution format, versus a problem-solution.  And there are multiple problems in these books.  There will be one main problem, but wrapped around the structure are larger, more worldly issues—like loss of dad who’s moved away.  Readers must become aware of this in this level.

Also, more figurative language appears in these books than previous levels.  Kids can decode the words, but might not get what it means (think about, “I guess we better head back to the drawing board”).  Just because readers can read the words, doesn’t mean it isn’t tricky!  So making sense out of the text now includes these phrases.

Characters in these books are not described directly; rather, readers must infer by creating and revising theories as they read.  Readers may get some information given to them, but they must be active to get more.  Oh, and characters will change in the book, although perhaps not dramatically.

Books at these levels include the Amber Brown series by Paula Danziger, The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, Stone Fox by John Gardiner, and the Bunnicula series, by James Howe.

R-S-T level books

Part of what readers must put together in these books will need to be inferred.  Thus, since the inference load is much higher, readers must stop and wonder, “What might putting all this together add up to?”  The role of setting plays a big, big role in these books.  The story generally doesn’t take place in familiar places like schools, neighborhoods, etc. like they did in the last band.  So readers must work to figure out stuff about the setting. Is the setting is symbolic? Is it perhaps “mirroring” character (meaning the setting and a character are alike in some way)?  Is the setting actually creating the problem?  Readers must become “setting detectives” because this work will pay off.  The setting will bear significance on the depth of understanding in the text.

In these levels, also, sometimes readers encounter full parts and passages that will mean something later; so the strategy is not to just ignore these parts and keep reading, but rather read on holding on to these parts so that they will make sense later.

Important, too, at this level is the introduction of symbolism.   I sometimes call it “baby symbolism” because the author continues to refer back to the same thing over and over (like the suitcase in Tiger Rising).  At this level, it is possible to get the symbolism “right”, as the interpretation of the symbols are meant to be somewhat obvious to readers as a vehicle for delivering a deeper theme or message.  

In terms of the characters, the role of minor characters (characters that are not the main character) becomes much more important at these levels. Readers cannot discount minor characters in these books because they probably will have some important bearing on the story.  They need to be attended to across the book as they come in and out of the plot.

Plot structures in these levels are layered, generally following problem-resolution; but now, the story could be told with two different perspectives or two different plot lines.  The way the book is organized around the plot is different now than previously, and more complicated.

Books at these levels include Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White, The Twits, by Roald Dahl, and The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo.

U-V-W level books
Readers need to be prepared for really studying setting to be ready for this level!  Again, the setting is purposeful and meant to bear on the significance of the meaning built into these books.  Also, it is typical that something big has happened before the story has even begun.  Think for example of the classic book Number the Stars about two young girls, one Jewish, one not, living in Denmark during World War II amidst a Nazi invasion.  If readers have no knowledge of the Holocaust, their understanding is severely impacted.

The reader’s stance at this level must be, “I am figuring it out, and I know I don’t know.”   Readers must recognize that they do not know this (main) character, and that that character is unreliable (which means readers will know things that the character  does not know).  In fact, readers should never feel they get this character with certainty!  Thus, readers must be constantly revising their theories about the people in the book.

Symbolism is going to be huge in these books.  Anything and everything could be (and probably is) symbolic (the setting, the characters, names, the weather, objects, etc.).

In terms of plot structure, it is hard to figure out what the main problem is!  Conflicts in these books manifest more like representations of big issues rather than big problems.  Readers must read interpretively, thinking about what issues are being addressed by the author and how the author is positioning readers to feel about those issues.  Think of Auggie in the book Wonder by R.J. Palacio and how issues of society’s treatment of those with physical deformities is portrayed.

Books at these levels include Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare, Becoming Naomi Leon, by Pam Munoz Ryan, and Tangerine by Edward Bloor.

X-Y-Z level books
To be successful at these levels, readers need to have both a curious and knowledgeable reader stance.  Readers need to be willing to engage in the “figuring-things-out” work while they are reading, because, at these levels, readers are the kinds of kids who like challenging books and do not want things spelled out for them so simply.

In X-Y-Z books, readers are expected to draw upon a wealth of knowledge about the world and other books.  In fantasy books, for example, readers need to bring with them a wealth of knowledge from mythology, fables, and/or other fantasy texts, as well as archetypes and classic story arcs.

Oftentimes, multiple genres and points of view are also characteristic of these types of books.  Multiple voices are heard across the story, and so, logically, perspectives overlap and, many times,  conflict with one another.  

Another notable characteristic of these upper level books is the passage of time becoming especially complex.  For example, sometimes entire chapters (not just passages) jump back in time, challenging the reader to construct a mental timeline for the story by configuring events and episodes in a puzzle-solving fashion.

Similar to the former band of text, the narrators of books at this level are oftentimes unreliable.  She or he will proclaim things that the reader is expected to realize are not as the character thinks or has stated.

Finally, there is the sometimes added challenge of how the dialogue in the story is written.  Some stories might contain regional vernacular, for example.  Characters will speak in this vernacular and use vocabulary from another time and place.

Books at these levels include The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper, The Giver, by Lois Lowry, and Hunger Games, by Suzanne Cooper.


Perhaps the Ms. PacMan metaphor fell short.  The point is that it is sometimes helpful to be aware of the different demands texts can place upon readers as they navigate their books.    As parents, mentors, relatives, and caregivers of our middle school students, I recommend we try on these “lenses” ourselves, seeing what opens up for us as we read a few books in the Young Adult genre.  It’s truly amazing how reading in these ways can pay off!  A few recent titles I have read and can recommend would be Home of the Brave by K.A. Applegate (level W) or Wonder by R.J. Palacio (level U) or One Crazy Summer (level T) by Rita Williams-Garcia.  You might also try a new writer, Tania Unsworth, whose first YA novel The One Safe Place I am finding to be riveting!

“Outgrowing ourselves” is a noble goal.  And outgrowing ourselves as readers, whatever our age, can be both challenging and exhilarating.  Many have written about the connection between learning something new and the release of the chemical “dopamine” in the brain.  The brain loves novelty!  And personally, I have found “new ways of reading” to have an exciting and worthwhile payoff.  Try it!  And let these new lenses spark new conversations with your young readers.

“The sky has never been the limit.  We are our own limits.  Its’ then about breaking our personal limits and outgrowing ourselves to live our best lives.”  – author unknown