I Want to See YA Books Treat College Applications More Realistically

When I read YA books, I sometimes get the sense that authors are not very familiar with today’s college application process. So often, they make it seem incredibly easy, as if all the protagonist has to do is pick their top school and apply. There are few mentions of “safety schools” or stories of rejection. And money? Somehow, all the protagonists who mention needing financial aid or scholarships seem to magically achieve a full ride. Are authors and publishers out of touch with the changing college landscape? Or are they simply desirous of giving characters a happy ending, no matter how realistic is it? Either way, I am not on board. I want to see stories of high school seniors going through a college application process that more closely resembles what actual teens may be going through.

One of my main pet peeves with how the college application is generally depicted is that so many protagonists seem to be intent on applying to Ivy League schools. I do not have any statistics on this, but Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia seem to be featured heavily. Other prestigious schools like Georgetown sometimes also appear. I do not know why this is–perhaps authors are just choosing schools with name recognition? But I would love to see authors feature more local schools or community colleges or even just schools they made up. Because it is not realistic that all these YA characters seem to be getting into such high-ranking schools.

It is not easy to get into an Ivy League college. A student cannot simply “work hard” or “get good grades” or “ace the SAT” and automatically get admitted into a top school like YA makes it appear (assuming the books mention grades at all). 43,330 students applied to Harvard’s class of 2023 and the school admitted 4.6%. Yale admitted 6.3% of applicants to the class of 2022. And Princeton admitted 5.8% of applicants to their class of 2023. Someone could be valedictorian, president of six clubs, and a star athlete, and still not be admitted to their top college choice with those odds. But YA books continue to write plotlines where protagonists dream of going to Harvard–and they almost always make it.

YA books also tend to make it appear like getting scholarships and financial aid is rather easy–and that these scholarships will inevitably cover the full cost of tuition. I do not think I have ever read a YA book where the protagonist was agonizing over taking out student loans or sad that the scholarship they received would barely make a dent in their tuition. In real life, however, I know plenty of people who received scholarships–sometimes multiple ones–and still graduated with debt. For perspective, the data from the class of 2018 shows that about 69% of college students took out loans. And the average student loan for the class of 2018 debt was $29,200. This means about only 31% of students will be loan-free or debt-free, but YA protagonists somehow always seem to be among this minority.

YA books also tend to ignore the details of actually applying to college. There is the agony, of course, of taking standardized tests, writing the application essay, filling out a bunch of forms, and trying to figure out all the financial aid papers. There is also the issue of application fees. Students normally need to pay just for the privilege of having someone look at their materials. Harvard, for example, currently charges $75 to apply and Yale charges $80 to apply. It would be refreshing to see some YA protagonists get upset about these outrageous fees, or go through the process of trying to apply for a fee waiver. However, I have not yet seen a single book even mention that these fees exist.

I understand that authors probably want their books to end somewhat happily, for the most part–YA readers usually want this, too. However, I think it would be not only realistic but also helpful for YA books to depict the college application process more accurately. It would give teens a clearer idea of what to expect, which would be particularly helpful for those who do not know anyone who has recently applied. They would have a clearer idea of the chances of getting into a prestigious institution, the cost to apply to a lot of schools, and the cost of actually attending. Financial literacy is not really taught in schools and many students probably are not equipped to calculate the return on investment of their college educations. It would be good for them to at least start thinking a little bit about the possibility of having to take on tens of thousands of dollars of debt–and about whether their career path will actually enable them to repay it. Because, for most students, the chances of getting a full ride to their top choice is not anywhere near as likely as YA books make it seem.

What do you think? Do YA books depict the college application process accurately or realistically?

Should Library Summer Reading Programs Stop Awarding Prizes?

Every year, most libraries across the U.S. offer summer reading programs. These initiatives are meant to help prevent the summer slide, which is the loss of academic gains students can sustain over the course of the summer if they do not keep reading or engage in learning activities. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to be most at risk, since they are less likely to be able to participate in learning activities such as going to summer camps or museums. The hope of libraries is that they can encourage children and teens to continue to be excited about reading, even when school is out, by offering incentives: so many pages or minutes read typically results in the participant winning a prize or perhaps a raffle ticket for the chance to win a prize.

Some libraries, however, are beginning to question the wisdom of handing out summer reading prizes. Some worry that giving out hundreds of cheap plastic toys is harmful to the environment, or at least annoying to parents. Such concerns inspired the “Read and Bead” program, in which libraries hand out different types of beads over the course of the summer so participants can create a necklace or a brag tag. Others, however, are more concerned that rewarding children for reading sends the wrong message and prevents them from learning how to enjoy reading for its own sake.

Research on whether rewards are “bad” and can prevent individuals from finding intrinsic motivation to do something that is good for them is mixed. This article from Slate, for instance, explains how some of the early research on rewards is not necessarily applicable to the ways in which caregivers typically use them. Later research, however, suggests that rewards can work because they help form habits, which people are likely to keep up even after the reward system ends. This suggests that children and teens who initially begin to read just for a chance to win a prize might indeed keep reading for themselves after the summer reading program has ended.

Personally, I love library summer reading programs because I think they do do an excellent job of creating excitement around reading. Many start with parties to kick off the summer and then feature big paid performers who attract audiences who might otherwise not visit the library. These events make reading seem cool and even normal–everyone is showing up to the library! Additionally, advertising incentives gets kids to sign up who might otherwise never sign up. They do not already have intrinsic motivation to read on their own and they are not going to get it just because some librarian tells them they should. Sometimes, saying, “But you can win a gift card!” is really what it takes to get someone started reading. Once they are reading, they have the chance to encounter a book they will love or maybe even change their life. But they may never get that chance if adults believe they need to be avid readers to begin reading in the first place.

I do not think offering incentives ruins the reading experience, either. I loved reading growing up and would spend hours each day in the summer curled up with a book. I also looked forward to the summer reading program, both because I loved winning prizes, and because I found it satisfying to list all my titles and see my record sheet grow. It was kind of like a precursor to the Goodreads challenge, which many adults enjoy. Earning prizes for something I loved to do never changed how I perceived reading. I never thought I had to stop reading if I was not going to get something in return.

The people who fear that offering incentives will harm children are coming from a good place, where they simply want the best for those children. However, I think, in this case, as in many others, sometimes the fear may prove overblown. Children tend to turn out all right, regardless of the mistakes the adults in their lives are sure to make. Offering some incentives for reading will probably not ruin anyone for life, but it might open the door to reading for some who might otherwise not try it at all.

What do you think? Should libraries hand out prizes for summer reading programs?

How Do You Change the Library?

Book lovers tend to also love libraries. But, sometimes, we can also see opportunities for improvement. We wish that the library would offer more resources, more books, more programs. Often, of course, libraries wish this, too. They may be prevented from doing everything staff can dream of because of budget constraints and limited staffing. However, the wonderful thing about libraries is that they are meant to serve the community. And that means community members get to have a voice in how the library is run. So, how can you advocate for change? Here’s a list to get you started.

You Have Purchase Suggestions

Most libraries have a form on their website or on site that you can fill out with your purchase ideas. So if you are upset that the library never seems to have the latest releases you want, you can try filling out the form. (If you don’t see a form anywhere, simply make your request at the help desk.) Most libraries will try to purchase what they can–after all, they want their materials to circulate and you’ve just suggested that this title will since someone was interested enough in it to suggest it. To increase your chances of getting what you want, keep in mind reasons your request might be denied: the material is too niche, the material is too old, the material is out-of-print, or the material is offered exclusively through a particular service like Audible or Netflix and the library is not allowed to buy it.

If you are looking for an e-book through Overdrive, Overdrive also has a “recommend” button you can use to suggest purchases. Simply type in the title of the book you want in the search bar. If it is not available, scroll down to the bottom of the page. The book title should be listed there. You click on it to recommend it. That’s it!

As a final note, Hoopla and Kanopy build their own catalogs; library staff are not in charge of purchasing for services like these. So make sure any suggestions you send in can be realistically purchased in the format you are requesting.

You Have Program Suggestions

Some libraries also have forms you can fill out to suggest programs. If yours does not, however, you can make your request in person to the appropriate department or you can send an email to that department. For example, if you think a bilingual story time would be a great idea, contact the youth services department. If you think your library should start a summer reading program for adults, contact the adult services department.

Keep in mind that many libraries may have limited staff and resources. So they want to know that if they do the work and spend the money to offer a new program, people will show up. Ideally, if you have multiple people interested in an idea, share that along with your proposal. So if you can promote the program to your parents’ group or if you intend to bring your daycare, let the library know. If your friends also want to participate in an adult summer reading program, get them to contact the library, too.

You Have Other Great Ideas

Sometimes you might have an amazing idea you think the library can implement. In this case, you have to consider who your audience is–that is, who has the ability to make the change you are suggesting. You can contact the appropriate department, the director of the library, or the library board.

The library board is typically comprised of a group of community members who set library policy and have control over their budget. Their meetings are open to the public and there should be a time set aside during the meeting for public comment. This is the place where you can suggest big, system-wide changes. Think something like going fine free. Even the library director cannot make a policy change like that without approval from the board.

Showing up in person for a big proposal will likely be more effective than dropping a note in the suggestion box. It shows that someone cares enough to show up and that they are not likely to go away if they are simply ignored. (I’m sure we have all had our emails ignored.) However, everyone has time constraints, so you can also consider email, snail mail, or social media as other ways to contact the library. Just make sure you follow up!

Have you ever contacted your library with a suggestion? What was the response? What tips do you have?

Should Public Libraries Close Their Buildings During the Covid-19 Pandemic? I Think So.

When libraries began closing their buildings and transitioning to digital services in March of 2020, many library patrons were initially supportive. However, as the months go by, an increasing number of people are wondering why the libraries had to close while grocery stores could remain open. Aren’t libraries “essential,” too? However, I believe there are some key differences between retail stores and libraries that make library workers understandably reluctant to open their doors.

Library patrons tend to stay in the building for long periods of time.

When people go to the store, they typically walk in, get what they need, and leave. They are generally not in close contact with anyone for an extended period of time. In contrast, many library patrons stay in the library for hours, if not all day. Patrons who are homeless, for instance, will often arrive when the building opens and leave when it closes. Adults will spend hours using the computers, whether that means searching for and apply for jobs, watching YouTube videos, or playing a movie. Students will hang out after school for hours until their parents come pick them up. Schools remaining closed and going virtual would make it even more likely that a large number of students would be at the library all day, using it for free childcare or homework purposes, while their parents work.

Since we now have evidence that the coronavirus is primarily airborne, that it can stay in the air for up to three hours, and that it can potentially be spread by air conditioning, it is understandable that library employees would be concerned about opening their buildings. Even if they tell patrons they can only stay in the building for a short period of time, who is keeping track? And will a patron nicely get up and leave after an hour if, say, they are still in the middle of trying to apply for unemployment? It really does seem safer to keep offering curbside when possible.

Library materials get returned and used by different people.

Stores are a little different from libraries in that most people touch what they want, buy it, and keep it. Libraries, however, encourage browsing. They are also built on a model where a bunch of people share the same item. To account for this, libraries started quarantining returned materials, usually for three days, though I have friends who say their libraries will quarantine materials anywhere up to a week. New information, however, has led my library to start quarantining for four days instead of three. New studies tested glossy pages on things like board books and magazines, causing recommendations to change.

Libraries had to take time to consider how to handle issues like the safe return and circulation of materials. And they had to consider that our understanding of the science behind the virus is currently in flux. I think it is therefore valid that they would close their doors, if necessary, to keep the public safe while trying to figure out best new practices.

Libraries are communal spaces full of things patrons like to touch.

Libraries are basically built to be full of germs, if you think about it. Their whole purpose is to gather as many people as possible into the space and then encourage them to share equipment and resources. Libraries had to close to have time to do things like remove all their shared toys from the children’s play area, rearrange the furniture for social distancing, replace furniture with models that can be more easily cleaned, and so forth. They also need time to think about things like how public computers can be safely shared, if they can feasibly acquire enough cleaning wipes and hand sanitizer, and so forth. They also have to contend with the reality that, again, the virus is primarily airborne. Disinfecting surfaces and hands helps because people do have a tendency to want to touch their faces. But it is not really going to protect anyone from something floating about in the air.

It is not easy to rethink your entire business model in two weeks. I support libraries closing their buildings if it gives them the time they need to remodel for increased public safety. As libraries reopen, patrons may start to see new signage, sneeze guards, rearranged furniture, and more. That all takes time to put in place.

Conclusion

I admit that the closure of my public library has been difficult. The library is the main place where I acquire all the books I read and the movies I watch. Without it, I was left wondering how I was supposed to stay home and keep busy when I had few resources available to me. The e-books were not initially a help, since the waitlists on certain titles were reaching up to six months long. However, I don’t value my desire to read new releases or to watch movies as more important than the lives in my community. Keeping the library buildings closed helps protect not only the library employees, but also everyone who would naturally gather there, assuming it is safe to stay and browse or use the computer for hours, either because they do not see the pandemic as a real threat or because they that assume that, if the building is open, that must mean being there is safe. I am sad the library buildings are closed, of course, but I understand and support it.

What do you think? Should the library buildings have closed? Should they still be closed now?

Unpopular Opinion: I Don’t Really Care about Star Ratings

Star ratings are the subject of intense debate and agony in the book blogopshere. Reviewers struggle over the decision to rate a book four stars or five. Goodreads users lament the lack of a half star rating. A reflection about someone’s personal journey through the anguish of selecting stars–and based on what kind of criteria–seems to pop up every view weeks. However, even though Briana and I moved to providing star ratings here at Pages Unbound a few years ago, I admit that do not attach much importance to them. For me, the review of a book reveals far more information about a book and is significantly more useful feedback than stars.

Here’s the thing: star ratings are intensely personal and highly subjective. Some people consider three-star ratings to be a good book. Some people think it is average. Some people think if it’s below four stars at all, it’s bad. And no one agrees on what the stars should even account for. Are the stars supposed to measure “objective” things like prose style, plot pacing, and character development? What if a book seems objectively bad–flat characters, tortured prose, silly premise–but is somehow still so exciting the reader can’t put it down? Can you account for its weird appeal despite its flaws? And what if you pick a middle grade book and decide it’s not for you, someone older than 12? Can you give it a bad rating even though the target audience might like it more? Even if a reviewer has a detailed breakdown of their star system somewhere on their blog–which readers who follow along in their feed may or may not see–a breakdown will never account for all the factors that could go into selecting the number of stars.

To me, star ratings are more important on a site like Goodreads, where they are aggregated into a total star rating casual viewers may use to pick or pass on a book. However, when I read individual reviews, I may not even look at the star rating. If I do, it’s generally just to see at a glance if the review will be positive or negative. (I consider three stars and up positive.) I don’t sit there and try to dissect why the reviewer chose one number of stars over another. I just read the review to find out what parts they thought worked and which parts they didn’t. I think reviewers may be comforted to know that the average reader probably isn’t as worried about their star system as they are.

I think reviewers stress over stars because they want to be fair to books. They do not want to deprive a stellar read of a star it “deserves” or mislead readers into thinking a book is better than it is. However, in my opinion, that’s what the review is for. Because star systems are personal and apparently unknowable, the review is there to explain. As long as the stars accurately indicate the review is either positive or negative, I don’t think there’s much need to agonize over them. I know I don’t agonize over my own.

What do you think? Do you stress about stars? What’s your rating system?

Should Public Libraries Be Political?

Every so often, you may read or hear about a library that received criticism for “being too political.” This might occur during Banned Book Week, when a patron complains about the library promoting “bad” materials. Or during Pride Month, when a community member insists the library “should not take sides” by marketing certain materials or holding certain events. You may have even seen it during the recent protests, when some people objected to libraries sharing anti-racism resources. These critiques often come from individuals who see the library as apolitical–the library is supposed to provide access to objective, reliable information, and so should not be allied with any specific political party or ideology.

And, this is true. The library should not be promoting specific political candidates. They should not be engaging in behavior that erodes the public trust in their ability to provide accurate and unbiased information. However, the library, by its very existence is necessarily already political. And this is something the public sometimes may forget.

The mission of the public library is to provide access to information and materials to everyone in the community, regardless of where they live, what they look like, or how much money they earn. The library is one of the last truly communal spaces in American society. Anyone can enter the doors without paying a fee and stay there all day, if they so desire (at least pre-covid). They can check out movies, books, games, toys, and music all free. They can surf the Internet free. No one cares who they are or where they came from or whether they have a right to be there or “deserve” to be there. The library is truly open to all–and that is a political statement.

The library’s existence as a political statement perhaps can be most clearly seen in the regular calls by (wealthy) politicians to defund libraries. Politicians often describe the library as an antiquated relic of the pre-Internet days, now doomed to obscurity by the availability of “everything” online. Such statements ignore the critical role of the library in providing information and materials, along with Internet access, to the not-insignificant portion of the population who cannot afford to buy all their books, films, music, and scholarly journals, and who may not be able to afford Internet, a laptop, or a printer at home. They assume that everyone is as privileged as the politician who has not stepped foot into the library since they were a child. They assume that, if someone cannot pay for access to books or Internet, that person does not deserve to have these things at all. The library is a direct threat to the idea that only the wealthy are worthy of access to information and ideas.

The public library is political because its existence says that the entire community deserves access to information and materials, and that the entire community benefits when we work to lift up those who are less privileged than others. The library is political because it welcomes everyone–even demographics some people find objectionable. (Perhaps the homeless population endures some of the worst criticism for their simple existence within the library building.) Some people would prefer that the library cease to exist, or that it continue to exist only in a way that makes them comfortable and aligns with their views of who should and should not be welcomed. But the library works precisely because it is so radically inclusive.

The public library remains perhaps one of the most trusted institutions in the United States. And that is in part because the library is so very good at welcoming everyone and providing them with access without asking questions. You don’t need to be part of the elite or an in-group or a socially sanctioned group in order to use the library. You just need to be. And that is a political statement I hope the library continues to make.

Why Did Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “Little Lord Fauntleroy” Fall Out of Favor? (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks

WHAT IS CLASSIC REMARKS?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

HOW CAN I PARTICIPATE?

Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:

During her life, Frances Hodgson Burnett received more acclaim for Little Lord Fauntleroy than for The Secret Garden.  Today the reverse is true.  What do you think prompted the change?

smaller star divider

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s novel Little Lord Fauntleroy was serialized from 1885-1886. It tells the story of seven-year-old Cedric Errol who lives in New York with his widowed mother. One day, the news arrives that his uncles, like his father, are dead. He is now the heir to his grandfather, the Earl of Dorincourt, and must move to England to be trained to take over the estate–despite the fact that the Earl despises Mrs. Errol for being an American and marrying his son. The Earl is a crotchety old man, known for living only ever to please himself. But the new little Lord Fauntleroy’s sweet temperament and belief in the inherent goodness of everyone begins to change the Earl for the better.

Little Lord Fauntleroy was incredibly popular when it first appeared in print–so popular that it inspired a new fashion, the Fauntleroy suit, modeled after the outfit Cedric wears in the book. No doubt its rags-to-riches theme appealed to the masses, as did its status as a sentimental novel, a novel that plays heavily on the readers’ emotions in order to inspire virtue. Burnett’s story relies on the readers feeling sympathy for little Cedric as he transforms his grandfather from a selfish old man into one capable of feeling love and empathy for others. She does this by making Cedric a veritable paragon of virtue, always saying just the right thing, always seeing the good in others, always thinking of other people before himself. Young and old, everyone loves him. And, oh yes, he’s also a “perfect” physical specimen, “straight” and strong with golden curls. Nineteenth-century audiences would have definitely been in love.

Today, however, the sentimental novel has fallen out of fashion, as has Burnett’s tendency to emphasize the moral virtues of her characters. Little Lord Fauntleroy may appear to many as sickeningly sweet, as may his mother, who, like a good woman of her time, is even-tempered, soft-spoken, prone to going among the poor to do acts of charity, and entirely devoted to raising her son up to be a man of integrity. Burnett wants readers to see Mrs. Errol as honest and kind, but contemporary readers may be just as likely to think of her as stifled and boring.

Even as the popularity of Little Lord Fauntleroy has waned, however, another of Burnett’s works continues to be beloved by contemporary readers. The Secret Garden tells the story of Mary Lennox who, after being orphaned in India, arrives on the moors in England to live with her uncle. He is grieving for his long-dead wife and not home very much, so the spoiled Mary spends her time outside, eventually finding her way into her aunt’s locked garden. There, she begins to plant and prune, and soon the power of nature transforms her from a selfish and hot-tempered little girl to a healthy, happy, and pleasant one.

I think The Secret Garden appeals to readers today in part because Mary is not a “perfect” child like Cedric, but rather a plain and spoiled one who likes to get her way and is not very nice to the servants at first. She may be unpleasant to live with, but she is interesting to read about–and, because she is imperfect, she also, unlike Cedric, gets to experience a character arc. Watching her transformation is one of the highlights of the story.

However, The Secret Garden also has wonderful prose that draws readers into the story. Burnett makes nature come alive through her descriptions, and readers may close the pages pondering whether they should not begin a garden themselves. In contrast, Little Lord Fauntleroy spends very little time on scenic descriptions or anything that really grounds the book in a specific place–a good deal of the book seems to be Burnett explaining Cedric’s virtues and how they make everyone love him. The Secret Garden does not suffer from dull patches like this, but remains pretty dedicated to its striking setting, as well as to its plot and to its characters–characters who are drawn more vividly, unlike Little Lord Fauntleroy’s Mr. Hobbs, for example, who seems just a little like a caricature of a “common” grocery man.

I actually enjoy Little Lord Fauntleroy myself, but I can see why contemporary audiences might find it a little too dull for their tastes. Children’s books in particular often tend to rely more these days on fast-paced plots–books focused on boys’ moral qualities are not exactly bestsellers. In contrast, The Secret Garden has a more interesting main character and a more vivid setting, as well as a plot with a bit more action. Tastes in literature change. In this case, the changes left Little Lord Fauntleroy behind.

Why I Love DC’s New Middle Grade and YA Graphic Novels

In early 2019, DC announced two new imprints that would focus on publishing middle grade and YA graphic novels, respectively: DC Zoom and DC Ink. New stories would be introduced in the lines and some reprints would be issued, as well. The stories would not take place in DC’s main continuity, but instead would focus on introducing readers to some of DC’s characters in teen or tween incarnations. Popular authors such as Shannon Hale, Gene Luen Yang, and Maggie Stiefvater would be writing.

Initially, I paid little attention to this new endeavor. I tend to be more of a Marvel fan, after all. Was I supposed to be excited about Swamp Thing? I don’t even know who that is. However, eventually I began picking up a title or two that seemed interesting. Now, I can’t seem to stop.

In every way, the new DC graphic novels seem calculated to succeed. They have proven the perfect entry point to the DC universe for readers like me–people who want to know more about their superheroes, but who have no background knowledge of them and do not know where to start. The stories are generally self-contained, so they are easy to pick up and start reading without feeling like you need to have read a couple decades’ worth of comics to get yourself oriented first. For the same reason, they are also low commitment: you don’t have to worry about committing yourself to twelve volumes for each of the five new superheroes you discovered and now love. And even when the books are not origin stories, they provide enough information for readers to understand the characters and the world.

The graphic novels have also managed to target a segment of the market that many other titles seem to be leaving out. The middle grade titles, for example, often fit neatly in that space between chapter books and upper middle grade, so they are targeting the fifth and sixth graders who are beyond Magic Tree House but not quite ready for something like Percy Jackson. And the YA titles–hurrah!–are actually often aimed at younger teens–the thirteen and fourteen-year-old readers who have largely been ignored by the YA market for years now. If you are looking for YA books written for teens and not for adults, DC is publishing them.

So far, I have enjoyed every title I have picked up from the DC Zoom and Ink imprints. Consequently, I was dismayed to learn that DC has discontinued the lines, but it looks like they are still committed to publishing graphic novels for middle grade and YA audiences–just with different labels. DC Kids will now mark books marketed towards readers 8-12 while DC books will focus on readers 13+. The DC Black Label will be for readers 17 and up. This is great news. Because, as long as DC keeps putting out this kind of quality content, I will keep reading.

Must Reading Always Be Educational?

There’s a lot of advice out there on how to read the “right” books. Sometimes that means adults telling children (or other adults!) comics and graphic novels are not “real” books. Sometimes it means readers telling other readers that listening to audiobooks “does not count.” Sometimes it means articles denouncing all readers of YA books as unintelligent and unable to move on from their youth. Sometimes it means readers of romance being told their preferred books aren’t “serious” enough. No matter what you like to read, at one point or another, it is very likely that you have been told it’s wrong for you to read it, and that you would be better off–more cultured, more educated, more respected–if you would read something else.

At the heart of the reading debates seems to lie a shared cultural assumption that reading is somehow “good” for people. There is an assumption that reading is superior to other forms of entertainment such as watching TV shows or playing video games and more profitable than other types of hobbies. (For example, I once read a post where the writer chastised a grown woman for “wasting her time” by indulging in adult coloring books when she could be doing something valuable–like reading.) As a result, people are expected always to be doing the type of reading that leads to some sort of personal betterment. They are not expected to be reading for fun.

Other hobbies do not seem to inspire quite the same level of shaming that reading does among its enthusiasts. I have yet, for instance, to read an argument decrying all the viewers of Disney+ for wasting their precious time on fictional cartoons instead of relevant documentaries or “important” artsy films. And I think that is because we still, as a society, have this idea that reading is–or should be–inherently beneficial. In contrast, streaming TV shows is seen as just for pleasure or relaxation–no one cares that much if you indulge in a Disney singalong instead of trying to make it through the Top 100 Most Important and Incredibly Cultured Movies of All Time.

However, when we are confronted with arguments about what we “ought” to be reading, we have to ask ourselves first why we are reading. Many people do read to learn new information or gain cultural clout. But many other people read primarily for enjoyment. If a person likes to relax on the weekend with an Amish romance, it does not make a whole lot of sense to attempt to shame them into reading Shakespeare instead. Amish romance is their genre. English renaissance drama is not.

Reading does, of course, have many benefits for individuals. Reading on grade level helps students understand their textbooks and achieve academic success. Reading helps us learn new things, visit new place, and experience new points of view. Reading can help us gain valuable critical thinking and communication skills. There have even been studies suggesting that reading literary fiction makes us more empathetic. But isn’t reading for pleasure and relaxation beneficial, too? We all need time to unwind, or even time to escape. So why do we have to shame people for what they read? What you read is up to you–and so is the value you find in it.

Every Library Should Have a Summer Reading Program for Adults

Each year, practically every public library across the United States runs a summer reading program for children. Age ranges vary, but the typical audience is school age children. The reason is that summer reading programs are generally designed to fight the summer slide–a term used to describe the loss of academic gains by students who do not read over the summer and who do not participate in learning activities such as going to museums. Children who do not read over the summer can lose an average of two months’ of reading skills–and this loss is cumulative. So libraries have stepped in during the summer months to encourage students to keep reading while school is out.

Over the years, however, some libraries have started offering adult summer reading programs, as well. While these programs are typically smaller and receive less attention than the children’s programs, I believe they are valuable for the community. Adult summer programs encourage parents to sign up along with their children and model the practice of daily reading. They send the message that reading is a lifelong habit, something that can be done for pleasure and entertainment, not just something that is done to complete a homework assignment. They let children and teens know that the adults in their lives actually value reading because they do it, too–it’s not just something they force kids to do because “it’s good for them.”

Despite the benefits of incentivizing adults to read and model reading for children and teens, however, many libraries still limit their summer reading programs to younger age ranges. They may, understandably, fear the financial cost of running another large-scale reading program. But most adult programs are not as complicated as the children’s programs and they usually involve far fewer prizes. For instance, while children and teens may have the opportunity to earn a prize for every set amount of hours read, adults may simply go into a raffle for a prize–either a weekly one or one for the end of the summer. These raffle prizes can be donated by local companies, meaning that there does not have to be a large financial cost to offering an adult reading program.

Running adult reading programs shows children and teens that libraries and adults envision reading as a habit for life. Children cannot be convinced that reading is truly valuable if the adults they look up to will not read themselves. Every library should strive to offer the opportunity for adults to model the behavior they want their children to practice. Every library should have an adult summer reading program.

Does your library have an adult summer reading program? Do you participate?