Out of the Box
I just finished reading Airman by Eoin Colfer, and today’s obsession is flying. I spent an hour on the Internet investigating the invention of kites, balloons, gliders, and airplanes. It is clear that Colfer researched early flying machines and the brave, crazy men who dared to build and fly them. After reading this adventure, I know that the invention of the gas-powered engine was a pivotal link in creating a working plane, and that balsa wood and canvas make a good, light frame for one, but let’s face it, I did not pick up this book because I needed research on planes, and it won’t be the reason the boys in my class will clamor to read the book next year. They will read Airman because they want to fly.
While surfing To Fly is Everything, a virtual museum on the history of human flight, I smiled thinking about the random information I have picked up from a lifetime of reading fiction. Thirty years ago this summer, I impressed my counselor at Girl Scout camp when I approached my horse from the side, not the back, like most novice riders. She asked me if I had ridden before, and I told her, no, I had just read every book Marguerite Henry had written. I got a basic primer on cloning in a college genetics course, but I learned about the ramifications of cloning from Jurassic Park. Unlike Crichton’s thriller, though, the only time I felt white-knuckled terror in that class was the day of the final.
I think reading popular fiction gets a bad rap. In many classrooms, reading books that are “good for you” supplants reading books that are just good. Every book has the potential to teach readers. Reading is the best way to build background knowledge about an endless list of topics. All teachers know that readers outperform non-readers, not only in English class, but in science and social studies classes, too. And those powerhouse readers are not just reading nonfiction.
One discovery I made while working with young readers is that a fiction book often sparks curiosity in a nonfiction topic. Last year, I had a student who knew staggering amounts of information about medieval architecture, armaments, and chivalry. He read fantasy books constantly. From sea turtle migration, to Mount Everest’s summit, to Frank Lloyd Wright, I can trace many of my students’ tangential interests back to a great fiction story they enjoyed.
Nonfiction reading feeds the flames for fiction reading, as well. Fascinated with the bombing of Pearl Harbor? Read Under the Blood Red Sun and witness the event through the eyes of Japanese-Americans. Intrigued by puzzles and riddles? Read Chasing Vermeer and solve the mystery right alongside the protagonists (you can pick up an art lesson, too).
When we, as educators, denounce reading fiction as escapism, and claim that reading nonfiction is the only place for learning and inquiry, we unnaturally compartmentalize the reading experience. What readers gain from reading does not fit into neat little boxes, any more than life does. Reading is complex because readers are.
Do I read for entertainment? enlightenment? education? Yes, yes, and yes. I read for all of these reasons, often at the same time. Ultimately, I think there is only one reason to read—to get answers to our questions—be they emotional, spiritual or intellectual. In this way, every act of reading is an act of inquiry, even when all we want to know is, "What happens?"