Writer in Residence

Teaching the Value of a Good Book

By Brian Wilkinson

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The joy of writing often comes when an author finds a reader out there in the world with which to share and enjoy what was created. With the amount of quality material out there, this should be a piece of cake. There is a challenge, however, in not only matching up a book and an audience, but in creating that audience in the first place. It can be a challenge to convince people, especially young readers, to dive into a world that they often come to associate with work and school rather than relaxation and pleasure. It's a challenge worth taking, though, for the opportunity to elevate them in some way. It could be through education, entertainment, enlightenment, or many other ‘e’ words as I seem to be on some sort of alliterative tangent. It really doesn't matter how it happens so long as we teach the next generation the value of a good book.

I’ve been a high school English teacher and librarian for more than a decade and have had the honour and privilege of introducing young minds to new worlds and new concepts. I’m one small part of a great school filled with teachers like myself who do all they can to inspire our students. My English department is absolutely incredible in the work they do. I think our students are in good hands thanks in part to the work put in by good teachers.

In my school, we do this work through classes, through book talks in the library,  through literacy programs, through novel clubs, and even through a 20 minute period each day where students are encouraged to stop what they’re doing and just read. There’s no quick shortcut to making teens today into avid readers. Not with the constant noise from phones, the Internet, and gaming consoles all blaring away at them. All of the teachers in my school work hard at it, and though I can’t speak for their individual methods, the way that I’ve found that works best for me in encouraging others is through expressing my own passion for reading.

220px-Life_of_Pi_cover

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

This is Part 1 of how one could go about teaching a book. It’s a really simple approach. Instead of pressuring a class to read X amount by X date, I get excited about the stories as they unfold. I remember teaching Life of Pi, a difficult book even for a seasoned reader, but I started it in the middle when the boat first sinks and Pi rescues Richard Parker, a huge tiger, before even thinking about what it is he’s just done. It’s an exciting scene that promises action, intrigue, and high stakes. I got my students excited before I wound back to the start where we see the build up to that point. It bought me time to further invest them in the story. By the end of that book, the kids not only read it and learned about the imagery, symbolism, and deeper messages, but they also enjoyed it. I'd catch them talking about it and debating what was happening. They were invested. That happened in part simply because I liked it.

People’s feelings on any given topic can be infectious. If you watch a comedy special at home alone it may still be funny but you might not laugh out loud. You go to a club and the mood of the room makes whatever is going on even funnier and the laughs come. Same thing with watching a movie. It’s almost always better with a crowd at home or in a movie theatre. It becomes a shared experience. So why not do this with a book?

Part 2 of this whole process is exploring depth in reading. A lot of reading (and fun reading at that) can be surface level, as in what you see is what you get. But the good stuff and the true enjoyment comes when students can look beyond the surface to see what’s really going on. Once you show them how to explore imagery, symbolism, themes, and recurring ideas, they get really excited. It becomes a treasure hunt of sorts. Yes, there’s a lot of hand holding in the beginning, especially when it comes to Shakespeare, but learning is a cumulative effect and not meant to be based on the strength of any one particular poem or book. There’s no real shortcut to doing this part. I can’t just yell ‘look for imagery!’ and walk away. I need to find it and show them how to dig it up for themselves. Sometimes they get carried away or a bit confused, but the ideas and effort are there and gradually I get to step away and watch them figure things out for themselves.

Part 3 is all about the truth in reading. In book talks, I tell students that learning how to read a book (and no, not just the words but the meaning) unlocks countless doors in life. We learn about ourselves, other people, inequality, joy, suffering, different cultures, different ages, different places, and all of the things we might call ‘other’ or 'similar' that exist in the world. It’s how we grow, we learn, and we evolve and that once you know a thing, you can’t un-know it. It’s the greatest weapon there is against ignorance and untruths. It’s how you fight fake news and misinformation. It’s how you develop compassion and understanding. It’s how you see the world for what it is, good and bad all together, and how it might be different if we just work a bit harder on improving ourselves and the world for those around us. Reading teaches us new words and ideas. It makes us better people.

Part 4 is about driving home the need for reading. This is where things can get mixed up and some can get put off reading entirely. Many parents looking to instill a love of books in their children miss the passion part. They get wrapped up in the concept of literacy being the end goal instead of an appreciation for why it’s important to need books the first place. My father often used to encourage me to get a job that paid money instead of fed the soul (or ideally, both) and my mother pointed out to him that it was the artists of the world who gave everyone something to enjoy when the work was done. Art was the thing he spent money on. It was what he needed at the end of a day.

With the best of intentions, students are often driven towards ‘respectable’ careers like law, medicine, technology, business, or the like, and the arts are placed on a lower tier. Yet what is a common denominator in all of these fields? Words and their importance. People writing books, textbooks, movies, manuals, comics... art. These items are part of the DNA of all of these people and their influences, and likely take up a significant amount of shelf space in their homes or workplace. We need this creativity to drive our culture forward. We need dreams to inspire us.

Part 5 is simple and both the beginning and end of the lessons. It's discovery and the need to find things on your own once you have the skills in place. One activity I give is for students to pick any object at all and compare it to a basic idea. Let’s see… how does a tree represent life? How is learning like a pencil? Why do we travel? The point here is to get them to think outside the box. To discover connections that may or may not have been intended by myself, by an author, or by anyone, and find the threads that might bind and connect anyway. If they’ve done the reading and found the passion, then the creativity comes through. It applies to all aspects of their life and learning. They go away excited, intrigued, and full of wonder.

And that’s (in part) how one might teach a book.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.


Brian Wilkinson attempts to juggle multiple careers as an author, high school teacher, and librarian. He currently lives in East York, Ontario, with his wife and two children, who served as the inspiration for the main characters in his first novels, Battledoors and Paramnesia. Brian was born and raised in Guelph, Ontario, where he attended the University of Guelph and received a BA in English Literature. He continued his writing career by earning a diploma in Journalism from Humber College, and applied those skills by working as a reporter for the Toronto Sun, the Toronto Star, and EYE Weekly, as well as serving as a co-publisher for the comic news site ComiXfan, and an editor for Humber Etcetera, where he won a Columbia Scholastic writing award for first-person column-writing. He was even lucky enough to realize a lifelong dream by writing for Marvel Comics when he co-wrote X-Men: The 198 Files. Brian feels like he is the luckiest person on Earth. He gets to be a dad, a husband, a teacher, and a writer. Not too bad, huh?

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