When Kids Say ‘I’m not a reader’: How Librarians Can Disrupt Traumatic Reading Practices

Shaming reading choices and judging what students want to read. If students are told that what they like to read (comics, manga and fan fiction for example) do not “count,” they can disengage and lose their identities as readers.

Book leveling, which is often generated by a computer system that may incorrectly assess complexity of theme and language. “We have to be really cautious of the fact that leveling and scores are generated for teacher use, not so much for students to position themselves,” said Torres. When students feel like they’re not meeting their teachers’ expectations or when they don’t feel like where they should be as a learner, that can be a source of trauma.

What can librarians do to interrupt reading trauma? 

Preventing reading trauma begins and centers on student empowerment. “We don’t want students always dependent on us to develop their lifelong reading,” said Torres. To interrupt traumatic practices, librarians can: 

Build an inclusive library. Make sure that your collection is as inclusive and diverse as possible. Genrefying your collection can make it easier for students to navigate and also help you identify gaps in your collection. Additionally, Stivers recalled an activity where she asked a student to find a book cover that looked like her. The student found a book within two minutes. Could your students immediately pick out a book that’s in display that looks like them? Find books that provide authentic and positive representations of your students.

Reevaluate your role and your priorities. “We’re not gatekeepers of books,” said Stivers. “That’s not our role. I would much rather lose a book than a reader.” Can you empower your students to take control of the library and have a say in what’s purchased for the collection? If you’re a white librarian, remember as well that you’re not anyone’s savior, Stivers cautioned. “I’m not saving my kids because I’m pointing them in the direction of Jason Reynolds and Angie Thomas. I’m not doing things for them; I’m doing things with them.”

Take a look at your policies. Get rid of fines, check-out limits, security gates, and punitive policies.

Host inclusive programming. For example, at Stivers’s library, she and her students created a set of guidelines for professional and collection development called the #LibFive, which includes tenets such as “Graphic novels and manga are not extra” and “Show the joy in our stories.” Instead of hosting traditional book fairs where students have to pay for books, her library hosts a True Book Fair, where students are invited to choose books intentionally curated to their interests without any costs. Read what your students are reading. Saying graphic novels count as real reading is only lip-service if you’re not reading those graphic novels yourself. “It’s hard to connect with them in the way that’s going to foster a love of reading,” said Stivers.

Redefine what counts as reading. Julia Torres is a firm believer in teaching skills, not texts. She encourages her students, even those in high school, to listen to audiobooks or read picture books. Find a way to teach important skills like comprehension or critical thinking with the texts that excite and interest students.

Additional tips for creating virtual space

  • Connect students to authors on social media. Encourage students to interact with authors and get inspired to read and write. Apps like Goodreads, Twitter and Instagram can be great virtual spaces for discussing the work with authors and other readers.
  • Attend author’s virtual panels and encourage students to do the same. 
  • Host online read alouds and small group reading instruction
  • Get circulation data and conduct surveys asking students what they’re reading and their attitude towards reading during this time.