Partway through fifth grade, I changed schools for the fourth time. Since my family moved in October, my classmates had long settled into their seat assignments when I arrived. I took in the sight from the doorway of my new classroom.
Twenty-five life-sized paper skeletons dangled above the desks. The hovering hosts shifted as the air circulated. Internally, I took a step back.
My teacher asked a sweet girl with pecan-brown hair to help me find my way around campus. At recess, I watched other kids chant rhymes while hopping to the beat of double-dutch. I wanted to crack the rhythm-code of those two beaded ropes. If I can just jump in, I can keep going.
It was a complicated year—but not without its rewards. Eventually, the skeletons came down (they were part of a science unit and not meant to scare off newcomers). I figured out how to maneuver that jump rope entrance. And I was introduced to The Reading Challenge.
Our teacher invited us to read through a list of specific books. Whoever read through the entire booklist by the due date won a prize: admission to an exclusive pizza party—in the school library.
My tweenage mind perked up.
Eating in the library?
With the librarian’s consent?
I adored checklists. At home, we didn’t have much money to spend on “extras,” so eating delivery-pizza would be a treat.
I was in.
As I checked out the novels one-by-one, and examined their covers, questions sprang up: Why is this book on the list? How could it possibly be interesting?
I doubt I would’ve ever read the books on my own. Either I wouldn’t have noticed them, their page count would’ve freaked me out (Redwall is around 350 pages), or my most ruthless criterion—hip cover art—would have prevented it.
I was a preteen. A pre-twelve, even. I gravitated toward my beloved collection of Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-Sitter’s Club series (Books 1–32 plus two “Super-Specials,” to be precise). I saved up my allowance so I could gulp down each new novel in a single afternoon.
The reading challenge led me by the hand, down the hall, to new rooms. When I approached an unappealing door and felt resistant, I thought of my goal, and turned the handle. What surprised me was that once inside a few minutes—I wanted to stay.
I read them on my bed, under the squatty-but-wide window which framed a slice of our giant maple tree. There, between my wall-mounted hot pink phone and the ticking baseboard heater, I turned hundreds of pages. As the tales unfolded in my hands, I sat close to voices, settings, and experiences sharply different from my own.
Delighting in those discoveries over and over with each magnetic book, I developed a perseverance for reading: It’s worth it—how will the next one surprise me?
Later that year, wearing my indigo jean jacket with all the pins on it, I made my way through the school library door. Hedged in by waist-high bookshelves, I bit into my pizza prize, and I left with a willingness to give someone else’s story a chance.
*As much as I loved these books, I still recommend screening them to see if they’re appropriate for your individual reader.