• In Other Words

In the Classroom, Whose Taste Matters?

by Colby Sharp
March 19, 2013
Alexis and Jayla came flying down the hall with concerned looks on their faces and tears in their eyes. The first thought that entered my mind was, “I am way too tired to deal with drama at 8:30 AM on a Monday morning,” but I put on my best teacher smile and said, “Girls, what’s wrong? You two look so sad.”

They looked at each other. They looked at me. They looked at each other. Finally, Jayla admitted, “Mr. Sharp, we have something very, very bad to tell you. You might want to sit down.” Alexis nodded and we headed into the classroom and sat down together at our round table.

Before we get into what they said, let me share with you a little bit about my classroom.

If you walk into my classroom on any given day you will see my fourth graders spread out all over the room reading a variety of wonderful books. You will probably see a couple of girls sitting under a table laughing their way through Andy Griffith’s A BIG FAT COW THAT WENT KAPOW. If you look on the carpet you might see a horde of graphic novel readers tuning out the rest of us as they lose themselves in the worlds of BABYMOUSE, BONE, ZITA THE SPACEGIRL, and SMILE. Keep your eyes open because I have a couple of students this year that pace while they read. We clear a path for them, mostly because we don’t want them to run into us as they devour R.J. Palacio’s WONDER or Katherine Applegate’s THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN.

I describe what my classroom looks like during reading because I want to share how celebrating all texts has created readers in my classroom that not only love books but also love and care deeply about the art of reading. I encourage my students to read a variety of genres: informational, fantasy, realistic fiction, historical fiction, poetry, etc. Students read middle grade novels, picture books, graphic novels, magazines and websites. We don’t discriminate.

Does that mean I’m happy if a fourth grader only reads graphic novels all year? No. However, I’m also not satisfied if a student reads nothing but historical fiction. I have the same conversation with the graphic novel reader as I do with the historical fiction reader. We sit down and talk about how cool it is they found a type of book they love to read, and we discuss the benefits of mixing a few different types of books into their to-read pile.

Sitting at our round table, I looked at my frazzled students and grew increasingly worried. As I listened, I found the situation much worse than I had anticipated.

Alexis and Jayla were at the local bookstore after school on Friday to purchase books for birthday presents. While they were there, they saw a very excited young girl pick up Kazu Kibuishi’s graphic novel, AMULET. They overheard the girl explain to her mom how excited she was to finally find a copy of AMULET, and she desperately wanted to buy it. The mom took the book, flipped through the pages and then threw the book onto the floor. My students choked up as they explained to me that the mom then told her daughter that comics are for babies. They described the girl’s expression as sad and embarrassed.

When they were done, the tears that were welling up in their eyes slid down their cheeks. I talked to them about how the situation made them feel and together we tried to see the mother’s side of the story.

You see, Alexis and Jayla reminded me of the importance in giving students the freedom to choose what they read. I certainly don’t believe teachers would go so far as to throw the books kids are reading on the floor, but I do believe that, as teachers, we don’t always necessarily value the choices our students are making.

It is of vital importance, however, that we do. I hope that by hearing their story, all teachers pause to ask themselves if they are doing everything in their power to help students find a series, an author, or a type of book that they will love. Because by celebrating our students’ unique tastes in books—whether it is historical fiction, fantasy, or graphic novels—we can encourage and cultivate their genuine love of reading.

Come see Colby Sharp at IRA 2013, where he’ll be moderating “The Serious Business of Writing Humor: The Importance of Funny Fiction in the Classroom” on Saturday, April 20, 2013. The panel includes authors Michael Buckley, Andy Griffiths, Laurie Keller, and Devin Scillian.

Colby Sharp is a fourth grade teacher at Minges Brook Elementary in Battle Creek, Michigan. He blogs at and he helps run the Nerdy Book Club Blog. He co-hosts Twitter chats #titletalk and the #SharpSchu Book Club. He can be found on Twitter at @colbysharp.

© 2013 Colby Sharp. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.

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  1. 1 Blake 25 Mar

    Just to put things into perspective, here in France ( the 3rd most active country for comic book readers after the USA and Japan), a recent independant study shows that the greatest number of band dessinée (comic book) readers are young adults (predominantly male) in higher education (52% of readers), and over all, 45% of the readers with 3 years of higher education or more read BDs. 

  2. 2 Denise 22 Mar
    It makes me sad that anyone would treat a book that way and that the parent would express such disapproval of a book because it was a comic.  If a student is enthusiastic about a book be encouraging. Let children find books they love. Though you may not care for what a child reads let the child read it. You can always build on that love of reading by offering books on similar topics or written in a similar style to help that child expand their choice of books.
  3. 3 bobbi 20 Mar
    My son seems to be stuck at Garfield and Calvin and Hobbes-he's gonna be 12 and the only other books that he will read are wimpy kids and he has them all.  Don't know what to do now
  4. 4 Janet 20 Mar
    My son loved comics (Disney's Donald Duck and crew) and learned to read on his own with them before age 4.(My husband can and does take the credit for buying the first comics!) We encouraged his interest in reading and pointed to the words as we read to him, but didn't attempt formal teaching. We had been reading road signs and store signs from the earliest age, so he understood "text". Then he got into Goosebumps when he was in about 3rd or 4th grade. I very reluctantly went with his desire to buy them from the book orders. After 15 or so, he had had his fill. "They are all the same." He is now getting a Ph D in history and reads works I could not get through even if I had to, sad to say, but they don't really hold my interest right now. Nancie Atwell has been talking student choice in reading since the mid-80s. I ran a reading workshop for many years in my room. Now Donalynn Miller and the Nerdy Book Club people have taken up the cause. Yes, we share rich literature with kids and talk about books, but some will find great joy in Calvin books the way I adore Zits (I think those authors have my house bugged). But my tastes are wide enough that I will try books people I admire tell me about. The more kids read, think about what they read and experience books through Read Aloud and small group conversation, the more we develop readers. My son never looked at another Goosebumps book once he moved on. I read a beautiful Golden Deluxe Fairy Tale book over and over even in high school. A reader reads. And a teacher models and encourages. Thank you for your work, Colby Sharp. Your kids are very lucky. They have joined the reading club!
  5. 5 Colby 20 Mar
    Mary Lee, that is tricky business. I always pick my words very carefully when having those conversations.
  6. 6 Colby 20 Mar
    Donna, I wish were coming to IRA. I look forward to meeting you one day.
  7. 7 Colby 20 Mar
    Gary, that makes me very very sad. Keep fighting the good fight!
  8. 8 Mary Lee 20 Mar

    Last night, I was the teacher who had to sit across from the parent at conferences and defend my student's (their child's) graphic novel reading. #trickybusiness

  9. 9 Donna Gephart 19 Mar

    Loved this, Colby.  Can't tell you how many times I'm in a bookstore and see a child excitedly choose a book only to have a parent say, "That book's too hard/easy for you" or "Is that your reading level?"  Thanks for pointing out how important it is to let a child choose a book for him or herself and respect that choice. 


    I, too, wish IRA panel.  Sounds like it's right up my alley.

  10. 10 Gary Anderson 19 Mar

    Colby --  Here's a variation on your students' story from a high school setting.  At our book fair last fall, a couple of junior girls were standing there holding copies ofLaurie Halse Anderson's WINTERGIRLS and talking about it.  A teacher walked in and said, "You shouldn't be looking at that. You should be looking at LITERATURE!" I almost collapsed.  This is, of course, a teacher who I've never seen read a book or talk about a book recently read.


    Thanks, Colby, for your contributions and leadership on this issue. 



  11. 11 Colby 19 Mar

    E.S. Ivy, I remember reading those same Garfield comics when I was a kid. I like to think that I turned out okay.

  12. 12 Colby 19 Mar

    Stacey, I think that parents almost always have the best interest of their young readers in mind, but I too have seem my students struggle with the same parental pressure.

  13. 13 Colby 19 Mar

    Kristen Kittscher, please keep writing funny books! 

  14. 14 Kristen Kittscher 19 Mar

    A great reminder and post. "I do believe that, as teachers, we don’t always necessarily value the choices our students are making." <-- I felt this way frequently in English department meetings at my school, as well: people were afraid to champion books that might not seem "academic" enough for inclusion in lists and the curriculum. Now that I write funny books that I think nonetheless have value for students even beyond high-interest reading, I think back to those discussions frequently.

    I wish I could be at IRA to listen in on the The Serious Business of Writing Humor. It is serious business! 

  15. 15 Stacey 19 Mar

    Your post really resonated with me.  The message the parent sent her child was one that didn't value her reading life.  And as you stated, valuing students' choices is important. 


    I'd love to know what you think of kids reading Harry Potter and Twilight before they're ready for it (e.g., parents buy them the books because they can read the words, but they can't really comprehend the story).  This is something I encountered often when I taught fourth grade.

    Thanks for this piece, Colby.

  16. 16 E.S. Ivy 19 Mar

    I agree! Reading is reading. The more a kid reads the more they will naturally challenge themselves. 

    I second grade about all my son brought home were Garfield comics. "It's hilarious, Mom. It's about a cat who loves lasagna, get it?" I didn't get it, but he was reading and that was enough for me.

    By middle school he was reading everything, including the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

    Bravo to you for encouraging your students! (And for being a teacher your students obviously feel connected to.)


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