For years, teachers, librarians, and booksellers have worked to encourage reading by creating booklists that link a popular title to read-alikes: “If you liked Harry Potter, try Diana Wynne Jones’s Chronicles of Crestomanci series,” or, “If you liked The Hunger Games, try The 5th Wave.”
Now Gene Luen Yang, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, wants to turn that practice inside out. Instead of leading readers to books in the same genre or format, Yang is spearheading the Reading Without Walls Challenge, a program designed to help readers find books they might otherwise never choose on their own.
“He wants to create some ‘If you like... ’ lists that lead readers to the opposite of what they’ve already read, and show them there are all sorts of different ways to read outside your comfort zone,” says Shaina Birkhead, director of programming at Every Child a Reader, a literacy organization affiliated with the Children’s Book Council.
Readers (of all ages) will be able to complete the challenge in one of three ways: by reading a book about a diverse character, or about an unfamiliar topic, or by trying a new format – like a graphic novel or an audiobook instead of a printed book.
Beginning this fall, 25 schools and libraries from Maine to California will participate in a pilot program, designed to gather feedback about what additional resources and materials might be needed in order to roll out the program nationally in summer 2017, Birkhead said.
The institutions participating in the trial run were selected from among the nearly 300 that requested an official event with Yang after his appointment earlier this year as National Ambassador. Only 10 visits over Yang’s two-year term could be accommodated. K.E. Hones, a San Francisco librarian who runs programs for teen mothers and others who have been unable to stay enrolled in a conventional high school, signed up for the pilot because she is always looking for ways to encourage her students to read more, and for her young moms to instill the reading habit in their babies and toddlers. “I think any reading at all is important for these students who have not necessarily had access to libraries during their school careers,” Hones said. “Reading Without Walls seems like a fun and non-threatening challenge. They can explore fiction or nonfiction that they haven’t read before and maybe find a new interest.”
Rich Farrell, who teaches fifth and sixth grade at James Ward Elementary in the Bridgeport neighborhood of near southside Chicago, was one of the lucky winners – Yang is scheduled to visit the school in February. But Farrell is also excited to be part of the pilot program this fall. His school has no library; he takes his students on “walking field trips” to a nearby branch of the Chicago Public Library where they load up on Harry Potter, comics, and everything Yang has written, even Yang’s graphic novel set, Boxers & Saints (First Second, 2013), which Farrell admits is a “little over their heads.”
“I have kids who really do love reading and love Mr. Yang’s work but they often revisit the same books over and over again,” Farrell said. “Some of them have read all the Harry Potter books – no joke – four, five, six times. So, for me, this challenge will be a way to introduce to them a structure that will help them branch out.”
Each school or library in the pilot program will be supplied with a small poster created by Yang especially for Reading Without Walls, and certificates for students who complete the challenge.
Every Child a Reader will collect feedback from participants and will finetune the program in time for the 2017 summer reading season. Birkhead envisions there may be a need to create shelf talkers, reading lists tailored to specific needs, and other resources.
The Reading Without Walls poster and certificate will be distributed to independent booksellers through the Indie Bound October Red Box. Librarians and educators may request free copies by writing to: Reading Without Walls Poster, Children’s Book Council, 54 W. 39th St., 14th floor, New York, N.Y. 10018 (include a self-addressed mailing label). All materials are also downloadable at www.cbcbooks.org/reading-without-walls/
Yang took over as National Ambassador, replacing Kate DiCamillo, in January. His graphic novel, American Born Chinese (First Second, 2006) was a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the Michael L. Printz Award. Boxers & Saints was also a National Book Award finalist and won the L.A. Times Book Prize. A recent comic, the “Glare of Distain," which appeared in the New York Times Book Review, recounted an episode from Yang’s childhood about his tense relationship with a boy of a different ethnicity. “When our class visited the school library, Nikhil and I were surrounded by windows into the lives of other classmates, but never each other’s,” Yang wrote. “Would things have been different between us if we’d been able to find the right windows? If, say, Uma Krishnaswami’s Grand Plan to Fix Everything, or Mike Jung’s Geeks, Girls, and Secret Identities had existed back then?”
And even now that many more books about diverse characters do exist, there has to be a way to encourage kids to read them. Farrell, the Chicago teacher, says he hopes the Reading Without Walls Challenge is just the beginning of a dialogue with his own students. “I’m hoping that they get a window into how someone else lives and that maybe reading outside their normal interests will open up lines of communication,” he said. “Anything that gets them talking, and seeing the world through a different lens, is a good thing.”