Are devices keeping our teens from reading?

A year ago I was happily plodding along on the treadmill at the gym.  I was doing what I always do – reading – while trudging along at level 4.  That’s grandma pace – don’t judge.  I switched the book back and forth while holding onto the rail but then had to lean it against the touch screen so it was straight ahead of me.  Before I knew it, I was running!!  I jumped off and saw that the touch screen had crept up to 14.  That’s full-sweat, sprinting-up-a-mountain fast.  If you know me, you know I don’t run, but I was — because the book was so good!! I was so completely engrossed that I didn’t even notice  how my legs became independent of my awareness.*

Is that kind of absorption an anomaly?  Would I have done that if I were a teenager?  Actually, I’d be more likely to be on my phone.  Anywhere you see a teen with time to kill, you’ll see them staring intently at their handheld devices.  If they’re not sending or receiving a text, they’re looking at apps, playing games or checking a status.  And it’s not just teens; adults are guilty here, too. Here’s a concern: teens have much to learn yet, like how to read body language and voice inflections, how to think and respond to a conversation, how to engage a real live human.  These are important skills, people!

A whopping 78% of teens have cellphones.  The Washington Post reports that teens spend an incredible 7 1/2 hours a day consuming media.  That’s mind-boggling!!!  After school and sleep and family time, when do kids read?  Additionally, articles have been written about the lost art of patience or how few of us allow ourselves to be still and have nothing to do for a moment without panicking (I’m at a stoplight….I can’t just sit here!! Where’s my phone?)  Following that lead, some adults bemoan that teens will know nothing of being quiet, reflective or patient.  Maybe….but does that define all teens?

While teaching at ZLO (Zacchaeus Learning Opportunities in Whatcom County) this year, I had reason to not worry too much about the demise of our kids at the hands of devices.  What you have to know is that I’m very passionate about books.  When I read a book I love,  I must tell someone about it!  Who better than my eager students?  So, knowing I had some real readers in one class in particular, I gushed about a novel I devoured in two nights.  I handed the book over to a girl who grabbed it before the jealous others and went on with class.  Two days later – two. days. – the book was returned.  She loved it as much as I had and read it just as fast.  This was great news to the other girls who had it on hold at the library and couldn’t get it fast enough.  Sure enough, two others read it in two nights as well.

This didn’t strike me as unusual because I knew the quality of these girls.  (For the record, the boys in this group are just as zealous about books) However, I sometimes forget that more and more kids choose a game or app over a book.  I understand the allure, but personally, I get bored with those.  I want to go away.  I want to meet new people.  I want to see how others react to situations I know little about.  Basically, I want to learn in the most pleasing way I know – through reading.

Thankfully,  I’m not alone.  Reading isn’t just for older people!  Teen fiction has been exploding and if you push aside the vampire and teen lust titles, you’re going to find some fine reading….books so good you’ll be completely engrossed.  Sure, there are books that leave me with a ‘meh’ but I ditch it and grab another.  There’s always another good one waiting to be discovered.  And if you find a great book – tell a teen!  They might be willing to put down their phone and tear through it in a night or two.

* the book was The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.


Moms know best

It was too quiet.  Usually her pencil flew across the page, eager to write with me.  Today, however, was different.  She sat morosely, sniffing, pencil frozen.  I tried my hand at light-heartedness -silence; I showed her my poem in progress – silence; I nudged her with an idea – silence.  15 minutes later, the situation hadn’t improved.  Time to text mom: “Please come now.”  We waited under a heavy blanket of awkwardness.  All smiles, mom came in and daughter burst into tears.  She didn’t want to do poetry and listed the reasons why it was too much to surmount.  Wise and patient, I was privileged to watch this mom calm her daughter, listen to her, empathize with her and then to tell her that she WAS going to do it.  I was surprised, but pleasantly so.  Willing to forgo a lesson that was pushing too many buttons, I set it aside as this mom insisted that her daughter push through her fears and uncomfortable perceptions and work harder.  I was impressed.

So often, I see how we parents are too quick to give our kids a pass on something that the child deems too hard.  In actuality, it is my firm belief that our kids are much stronger and more resilient than we give them credit for.  This mom knew that.  Happily, she’s not the only one.  A few years ago, Terri knew that her son needed one-on-one instruction.  She was right.  Schooled that way, he blossomed and covered two year’s content in one year (and the next and the next).  Pam knew that her son needed a boost, someone to encourage him and hold him accountable.  Laura knew that after a year of single instruction, her son needed a peer group.  Bethany knew that though her son felt he couldn’t work at a certain level, she put him where he’d be challenged and now he’s so proud of the work he is capable of doing.

These moms knew best!  What I value about them is that they know their children.  They know when to push and when to back off; when to wait and when to nudge.  Allowing your child to make some of their educational decisions is considerate; but making the tough ones for them based on what is seen in them is wise.

My own son is a little smarty-pants and a fantastic reader (I burst with pride) but he won’t sign up for a challenge.  So, I created one for him.  It was as simple as handing him a fat book with a “Here.  Read this.  I give you a month.”  His eyes gaped at Roots – the most obese book on our shelves.  Other adults, feeling sorry for this kid’s poor predicament, lamented that even they, great readers that they are, hadn’t read that book.  I toyed with the idea of letting him off the hook, especially since it was paired with his lack of verve.  But I remembered these moms I admire and kept the expectation that he would finish it.  Wouldn’t you know it?  He did.  And now I hear him referencing it proudly.  And as for my student who cried over writing poetry?  She dug deep and found that not only could she do it, but she did it so well that her peers admired her for her skill.

My kids aren’t old enough quite yet to realize how their mom has them figured out.  True, they surprise me sometimes, but I want to be the first one to say “You can do this.”  Sometimes we need to give them the mercy of bowing out of something, but more often then not, when all that seemed too hard is said and done, when they’ve listened to their moms, they’ll see that mom was right.

Can you sum up your life in 6 words?

i can’t help it, I’m always on the prowl.  Magazines, flyers, books, sites, the backs of cereal boxes, for pity’s sakes… you name it, if it has words on it, I want to read it.   I scour, wander, search and I find.  Besides my own edification, I want to find an interesting writing assignments for my students, and to that end,  I stumbled across a book on six-word memoirs.  I tore through it, wishing I could know some of these people who so succinctly summed up and shared their lives in this form.


How do you even begin to start when asked to state your life in a mere six words?  Were it me, I could go in a number of different directions.  My health? How about Need replacement body; this one’s broken.  My family? Married kind, gentle, guy; never fight.  Or, Won kid lottery, have three winners.  My career: Best job: teens plus writing, reading.  My hobbies: Chocolate: bake, frost, share, slice, savor.

Here are my favorites:


Curly haired sad kid chose fun.

Tragic childhood can lead to wisdom.

I live the perfect imperfect life.

Working with what God gave me.



Sweet wife, good sons; I’m rich.

Polio gave me a happy life.

We were each other’s favorite person.
There’s an interesting story behind these:

Almost a victim of my family.

Thought I would have more impact.

I fell far from the tree.

It was embarrassing so don’t ask.



Without me, it is just aweso.

It’s pretty high, you go first.

Overjoyed I’m not like my sister.

Well, I thought it was funny.

Now it’s your turn.  I know I have readers who don’t post a comment but I’d love to see your six-word memoir. If you can sum up your life in six words, please do!



Teen titles every parent should read

It was so much fun to be the guest speaker recently for a school celebrating the joy of reading.  What better person to talk about it than a local lady who has been known to hug a few books and generally get quite excited about them?   I alternate my reading between adult and teen books, always on the prowl for a good one.  The teen authors have much to offer, if you can weed through the dark themes that seem to dominate the industry.  Thankfully, there are authors out there who write good stories that are well-told.  I shared these titles with the group and so many moms wanted the list that here it is.

Kathryn Erskine has written an important book here that helps us all understand those with Asperger’s Syndrome. Hearing Katelyn filter her experiences through her eyes is funny and heartbreaking at the same time.  She’s incredibly honest about life yet her honesty isn’t always appreciated or understood by her peers.  Meanwhile, her dad is grieving the loss of his son at a random school shooting.  In Mockingbird, Katelyn needs to navigate school and dad’s confusing (to her) grief but her school counselor and others come alongside her to teach her the nuances that other children know naturally.  A great book that makes kids sensitive to those kids who might seem ‘different’ but they don’t know why.

Bluefish is another winner because it’s simple to read but you just love the characters!  Travis lost his parents and his dog.  Velveeta has a dysfunctional mother but a sensational personality.  When she notices that quiet Travis can’t read, she sets out to help him, but both of these kids need help in other ways, too, and they find true friendship and healing in each other.  It’s sweet but not trite.  My 7th graders love this book as much as I do.

I’ve read The Outsiders more than twenty times and I never tire of it.  Sometimes parents have questioned my choice, but after they read it and their teen raves about it, their mind is changed.  This novel simply changes how we look at people. Do we judge by appearances?  We don’t like to think we do, but…we do!  I encourage my students to read it with their Christian eyeballs. Life is harder for the Greasers, but they have solid friendships and a thoughtful boy who narrates the story.  He longs for people to get along and to understand why others can treat those who are so different from them as poorly as the Socs do.  Readers ‘get’ how they also judge others and they’re inspired to see them as people, not as a stereotype.

I read Wonder in two days.  Three teens I recommended the book to read it in two days and my hubbie read it in an afternoon.  It’s not because it’s simple or brief, it’s because it’s so good!  Once you have it in your hands, you want to just keep going!  Auggie enters fifth grade as a first time public schooler because he’s had so many facial surgeries.  A number of voices tell the story of his school year and how his face might be different but his rockin’ personality totally wins people over.

The Wednesday Wars is part of my reading curriculum and I recommend it to everyone.  Holling begins 7th grade thinking his teacher hates his guts, but as the year goes on, he and she bond through a variety of experiences and she becomes just who needs to grow into a wise and thoughtful young man.  Along the way, Holling has hilarious adventures and learns not just about himself but also about his friends and family, all with their unique quirks.  This has a beautiful message but kids are so busy laughing and commiserating with Holling that they’re more than happy to read it.

Happy Reading!!  If you have a recommendation for me, please let me know!  I love to find great fiction.


Atticus still gets it right

My 10th graders and I just finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird.  It was their first read, my 7th or 8th….and it doesn’t get old.  Some say it’s a civil rights novel; others know it’s way more than that.  When a novel is written that well, you can glean out of it for years. That’s what I’m doing today.  I’m thinking of the people who could benefit from being reminded of Atticus’s advice, and that is to try walking in someone else’s shoes for awhile.  Oh how much better our interactions would be if we try to imagine what a situation is like from their point of view.

If you’ve read the book, you might remember that feisty Scout could scrap with the best of them.  The nanny/maid Calpurnia was too strict with her, her new teacher Miss Caroline was mad that she came to school already knowing how to read, her brother Jem didn’t want her hanging around him at recess and Walter Cunningham got her in trouble at school so she shoved his face in the dirt at her first opportunity.    Life is rough for a 6 year old.  So, she pours out her troubles to her wise and gentle father who listens quietly and doesn’t reproach her.

I know a few people right now who are facing a relational conflict.  I bet they wouldn’t mind a turn on that swing, getting kind advice from a man known to millions as calm-headed and wise.  Thank goodness we can be reminded of what Atticus told Scout that day – and spent the novel trying to teach his kids – if you only try to think of what the other person is experiencing, you might not be so upset.  It’s hard for us to do that.  Don’t we think we’re always right?  How could there possibly be another way to look at it, after all?

Last month I was in a crowded Aeropostle, squeezing my way through a narrow gap to get a different size shirt for my daughter.  I had been shopping too long, was too warm, felt light-headed and thanks to low blood pressure, kept having to take deep breaths.  Those breaths sound like irritated sighs apparently, b/c I heaved in a good amount of air just as I was squeezing by a mom and daughter, stroller in tow.  The older woman gave me quite an acidic, dirty look.  I so wanted to say, “Lady, don’t assume my breathing has anything to do with you. (way to assume the worst, btw!)”  But it’s not so easy to explain an odd health issue like I have, in a crowded store at Christmas time,  so I let her think what she wanted to think.

I’m not always good at this but I try to remind myself that in their shoes, things undeniably look different.  And most often, people’s responses to us have less to do with us and more to do with them.  (Glass half empty, anyone?)   My husband is particularly good at slowing down, stopping to think, giving the other the benefit of the doubt – and believing that something else might be going on that is affecting things.  I think he and Atticus would have been great friends.  Meanwhile, I still have plenty of Scout moments where people just don’t make sense, life seems unfair and I need a calm and patient listener.  Thankfully, I’m reminded again to practice walking in another’s shoes and hopefully, I can play ‘Atticus’ to someone else who’s tempted to rub someone’s face in the proverbial dirt.

Why it’s better to read fiction

…if you want to understand people better, that is.  I get how reading non-fiction is great, too.  I spend plenty of time reading articles, biographies, cookbooks, memoirs…I read a lot!  More than a couple mothers have bemoaned to me that their child reads too much fiction and they’d love for me to encourage them to read books in sciences or history.  I can do that, but will not encourage them to read to the exclusion of reading quality fiction.  It educates us better than most of would ever guess.  I’ve always had that inkling but couldn’t articulate it until I saw the latest research saying reading fiction helps us understand each other better than any other method.

The good news is when you are reading a work of fiction, it’s not just an indulgence, it’s boosting your social skills.  Even a few minutes a day will boost your empathy and emotional intelligence.  Literary fiction focuses more on the interior life of a character which makes the reader infer their intentions, motivations and thoughts.   This is so important!  As we read, we are practicing real-world skills we all need to be better to each other, more kind, more understanding, more forgiving.

In a popular fiction book (what I call “fluff”), the characters do what we expect.  Not so in literary fiction and not so in life.  I hate it when someone makes an assumption on someone’s actions without thinking it through or just settling for their first guess.  I’m sorry, but we’re more complex than that.  When we read, we know the whole story and can see how circumstances and uncontrollable events effect a person.  I want my stereotypes and prejudices challenged and disrupted.  I want my kids’ ideas to be rocked when reading about people who are different from them.

But what I most want is to understand the other people God put on the earth with me.  I’m tired of walking away from or hearing stories of people who are hurt because someone in their world “just didn’t get it.”  I know…it’s often unavoidable, but if you’re a reader of fiction, you’re more often going to get it right.  Recently, my 7th graders and I read The Outsiders, a book I think everyone on the planet should read.  (You’re welcome, Susan)  It teaches so much about people, but early on, Cherry observes to Pony, “you read a lot, don’t you?”  I asked my students what would make her say that.  Their first guess: Because he has a big vocabulary.  Nope.  It was because he listened, asked good questions and didn’t judge her.  He was open to who she was and the rest of the book showed the fruit of those attributes.

So, if you’re looking for something to do this weekend, please find a book, fiction preferably 🙂  It just might bless the people around you as much as it does you.

My 10 life-changing books

These books changed my world, making me see people more keenly, think about issues differently & hold dear some of my previously unclear beliefs. For these I am very grateful.  (See my last post for how to find a good book.)

Roots, Alex Haley  A good book is to be enjoyed; a great book to be felt… and this one delivers.  Some might remember seeing the moving 1977 mini-series but this book taps into so many more emotions.  I remember where and when I read it, feeling outrage at what one man could do to another and ‘watching’ the fall-out that entails.  But the human spirit is strong and can endure so much…I also felt inspired and privileged to have ‘known’ these people even though it was remotely.

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak  I literally hug this book.  It’s true!  I’ve read so many WWII books but this one is so incredibly different that it’s unforgettable.  The writing leaves me in awe as Zusak is a master with words.  I adore the imperfect, interesting characters and appreciate being inside Nazi Germany simply as someone who has no interest in the war but must endure it.  Tragedy changes people and in this book, it’s for the better.

The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton  The only book on the list that I’ve read at least 15 times, I never tire of it.  Each time I teach it there are new nuggets to share.  Hinton makes us compassionate to the outsider and makes us question our own evaluation measures when judging someone such as their appearance and financial status.  Maybe the scruffiest person in the bunch is the most mild-hearted and kind, maybe even more so than the socially acceptable one.

The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls  This is the first book I recommend no matter who asks.  This non-bitter memoir of siblings growing up with mentally ill parents was absolutely fascinating.  Multiple scenes will stay with you long after you put it down. You’ll read with disbelief that these tenacious kids not only survived but thrived.

Peace Like a River, Leif Enger   Enger’s tone is so comfortable, his style so engaging, his characters so real.  This story’s father is hands-down the best representative of a Christian man in fiction.  It’s a prodigal son story in reverse where the father (w/ narrator brother and precocious sister) seeks out the lost son.  God is the invisible travel companion through Minnesota and the Badlands in which faith is just as critical as family. My children still remember me reading winsome passages aloud to them while they ate breakfast.  I simply adore this book.

The Damnation of Theron Ware, Harold Frederic  The provocative title alone had me hooked and this classic from 1896 begs to be read today.  Not only is the writing superb, but the story line is fascinating.  A small-town preacher gets himself entangled in a mess from which he cannot extricate himself and I found myself thinking, how will this be done?  Frederic is a master of leading the reader while paying attention to his characters.  Two of his favorite themes are self-awareness & close-mindedness and this story addresses them expertly.

Hind’s Feet on High Places, Hannah Hurnard  Best spiritual book ever.  This seemingly simple allegory holds truths for anyone.  In her journey, Much Afraid travels where she doesn’t want to go but her Shepherd tells her it’s “safe to follow [my] voice” and she does to the High Places of Love but it’s not easy and each trial brings a new lesson.  When she questions him, he says, “I don’t know anything more exhilarating than turning weakness into strength, and fear into faith and that which has been marred into perfection.”  The author’s personal story of coming to faith and her nearness to Christ is just as good.

A Stranger in the Kingdom, Howard Frank Mosher  I’ll never forget laughing during some chapters and thinking deeply during others, especially when the residents of a small town have to face their “untested tolerance.”  It’s easy to proclaim you’re a tolerant bunch until someone comes along to test it.  Then what?  Only a few in town pass the test and love the stranger.

A Homemade Life, Molly Wizenberg  & Like Garlic for Sapphires, Ruth Reichl  These two books about food and food writing not only left me with serious travel-envy but a re-affirmation that food isn’t something that simply nourishes your body, but it’s what brings people together in myriad ways, evokes sweet memories and connects us to each other.