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On Being Book Shamed in Middle and High School

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Jessi Lewis

Staff Writer

Jessi Lewis has her MFA in fiction and an MA in Writing and Rhetoric. She was one of the founding editors of Cheat River Review and now works to bring her own fiction, poetry and essays to eyes each month.     Twitter: @jessiwrit

I’m hoping the world is kinder to young readers now.

In middle school years, for some reason, it made sense to not want to seem smart, driven to learn outside of class, or act remotely outside of expectations. I remember trying to graduate from Nancy Drew books into Young Adult, but having no friends to really talk my books over with. Most readers read secretly. This is a great fault of the book reading world– reading opens wide when you’re discussing it with others, but it can also be considered a sign of seclusion and introversion.

I remember being fourteen and having a specific place for my novel of the time so that it could sit in my backpack’s inner pocket and hide. I remember being sixteen, fully entrenched in high school and holding my class books along their spines in my left hand so that my novel could be hugged on the inside as I walked. Nobody could see my books. These were self conscious times, but I find that even now, there’s something about reading that can make people find you “odd.”

It’s important to pay attention to what it means when a kid’s books are knocked out of his hands, or when someone is judged for carrying novels from gym to Chemistry. High school kids yell in hallways, and they almost always yell unfortunate things. Those years were tough, and books, unfortunately, made you stick out.

I try now, as an adult, to understand what it is that makes some teens and pre-teens find book reading ridiculous. I try to look back and grasp what it was I felt books gave to me in my life that was also worth hiding away. Even though I’m all grown up, in a coffee shop, when I’m reading a book and enjoying myself, it’s clear that most people assume that my reading is not for enjoyment, but for a college class requirement.

When you live outside of a reading/bookstore hub, like myself, there is a certain privilege to having the time to read. It’s odd for many people to read anywhere other than a plane or on a beach, which are also pastimes of those privileged with time and money. There are so many non-readers out there that I think glide under the radar, people who have not been exposed to the value of an alternate book-plot reality– the escapism of it, or the part of it that connects us better to what we have in reality.

I struggle to understand most, I think, when I talk to college students in my required general English classes who can’t justify reading at all. They can’t get into the writing, finding it dull in relation to television. And yes, I know HBO and AMC are awesome right now, but this is only a half excuse. (Especially since Orange Is the New Black and Game of Thrones came from somewhere else…). I wonder if these kids were the ones who laughed at the readers, or the ones who were too afraid to take on the weirdness themselves.

I have great faith that this mentality is changing. I have a hope that I will have a kid who goes to school with a book and won’t give a damn who sees it. There are a series of resources that have changed viewpoints in the last ten years: tiny libraries, podcasts,, Goodreads, online groups like Book Riot’s, movie-books inspirations, and especially the great influences of Harry Potter on kid-reading-culture and the upswing of Young Adult literature. I’m hoping that modern parents have already noticed an improvement and the optimistic future for pre-teen and teen readers.

Is there a chance? Has it gotten better to be a teen reader?


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