Good Readers Appreciate Good Writers: Why I’m On the Front Lines Protecting Literacy

Happy National Library Week!

Happy National Library Week!

By Lisa Carroll

Before I start, here are some recent messages in my inbox:

“So you’re going to write something for my website. That’s all there is to it. Maybe something about how libraries still matter for kids and adults in today’s digital world.”
“Well, you can talk about why you became a reader. Why reading is important to you. Etc., etc.”
“How about the fact that I just gave you an assignment?”

In case you didn’t know, writing is hard. I have written. From kindergarten through my master’s degree I’ve completed essays and stories and poems and even a children’s book. I’ve written speeches, curricula, and press releases. But I have to say, writing for a former student has been pretty difficult.

As a middle school English teacher, I never judged my students’ writing from the perspective that I was the preeminent expert on all things written. Sure, essays had to have accurate content. Sure, I could critique the grammar and spelling and syntax of tween writing. However, middle school students hate to be judged. For a middle school student, bearing one’s soul onto a piece of paper is a huge risk. It was through that lens that I read and assessed my students’ writing and encouraged them to hone their craft by writing more. And more. And more.

So now, the tides have turned. I have been asked to write by one of those middle school students. This has been really challenging—this writing assignment has filled 16 virtual garbage cans. Write and toss. Write and toss—because I realize that I’m just like my kids. I don’t want to be judged. But, luckily, Writer’s Bone has been chock-full of “get over your fear and just write” contributions so here I go.

More emails:

“Some things to think about: first influential books, reason you taught English, writers that inspired you that you now share with student, female (or male!) fictional characters you wish you could be, or maybe something about how libraries still matter for kids and adults in today’s digital world.”

I think every English teacher gets into the “business” because we love literature or we love writing or we love both. I should also point out that every English teacher has moments of disillusionment when we realize that not everyone is a book nerd and that our students don’t actually feel the same passion for William Shakespeare that we do.

As a kid I read everything—usually well past my bedtime with a flashlight under the covers (don’t tell my mom)—and I devoured everything I could get my hands on. I started with Beverly Cleary, loved and wanted to be Harriet the Spy, owned most of the Nancy Drew books and displayed them proudly (in order) on my bookshelf, and enjoyed classics like Little Women. I loved adventures like The Jungle Book and Treasure Island. I read everything by Marilyn Sachs (and I just went on Amazon to order Sach’s A December Tale, which I took out of the library repeatedly and haven’t read in more than 30 years. Hopefully it hasn’t lost its appeal now that I’m much older and super-sophisticated).

As a ‘tween I learned about being an adolescent through Judy Blume’s books. Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret traumatized me, as did Forever, because of the idea of S-E-X. As I got older I sneaked a few of my Mom’s books out to the swing set to find out about “real adult stuff” in classics like Endless Love and The Thorn Birds (please, please, don’t tell my mom). As a middle school librarian, I am back in the world of my adolescence. My main staple is tween and teen fiction and I have to say that I love every second of it. I get to read all the time because it’s actually part of my job, and a fringe benefit of this position has been keeping up with my own children as they pass through adolescence. My daughter, who is an avid reader, currently loves the fact that I’m her own private librarian. She used to be easier to please but now that she’s in seventh grade and super-sophisticated like her mom it’s been more difficult to find books in my collection to whet her appetite. She’s working through The Book Thief and Daniel will be pleased to hear that she and her friend plan to get an apartment in New York City and write musicals together. Which I plan to direct.

Every year, Connecticut nominates 10 books per category (high school, teen, intermediate, and elementary) for kids to read and vote on for the Nutmeg Award . I run a reading program called Team Nutmeg and I host a voting breakfast for kids who have read six or more. Here's a stack of Nutmeg books.

Every year, Connecticut nominates 10 books per category (high school, teen, intermediate, and elementary) for kids to read and vote on for the Nutmeg Award . I run a reading program called Team Nutmeg and I host a voting breakfast for kids who have read six or more. Here's a stack of Nutmeg books.

Since taking my current media specialist position in 2010, I have more than doubled the circulation of books despite the fact that our student population has decreased by 20 percent because of redistricting. Why? Because I love to “sell” books to kids. I love to book talk and get them excited about books. I love to gasp when a student returns a book and ask, “Did you love it?” When the student says, “Yes I did!” I turn to the next student in line and say, “Did you hear that? Greatest book ever.” And the student says, “Can I have that book?” and I say, “No, sorry, there’s a long wait-list but would you like me to put your name on it?” And the student says, “Yes! Please!” and I lean in and say, “Well, since you’re my favorite, why don’t I give you this copy?” I’m the world’s biggest hero. Ever. Yeah, that happens. It’s the theater major in me that makes everything a little dramatic.

I am on the front lines to protect and develop literacy in this crazy digital generation. The truth is clear. Reading improves your ability to read. Reading anything. Just working your eyes from the left to the right to see and process letters in words makes you better at the skill of reading. And, being a reader makes you a better writer because you’re used to seeing words organized in ways that make sense. And, writing makes you a better writer. It’s a crazy, vicious cycle but it’s true.

Literacy is a gift that many of us take for granted. I always tell my students that reading is the greatest gift they’ve ever received. The ability to look at little squiggles on a page and to know that those squiggles are letters that make words. And that those words are put into sentences. And those sentences are organized into paragraphs. And those paragraphs can make you laugh out loud, shed a tear, feel anxious or scared or sad for someone’s plight, worry that someone will be okay, and rejoice at a happy ending.

Good readers appreciate good writers and you can’t have one without the other. So thank you to all those writers who have a story to share and have the courage to put it on paper for the rest of us.

You make my job easy and you keep literacy alive.

Lisa Carroll

Lisa Carroll

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