Reviews that Made Me Want the Book: April 21
Wednesday Afternoon Visits: April 22

The Book Whisperer: Donalyn Miller

Book: The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child
Author: Donalyn Miller
Pages: 240 
Age Range: Adult (non-fiction) 

Book WhispererI must start off by admitting that I can't be fully objective about this book, because I'm actually mentioned in it (which is very, very cool, isn't it?). One of my blog posts is reprinted, my list of why you should read children's books as an adult. Donalyn was also gracious enough to acknowledge me for linking so regularly to her blog, The Book Whisperer. Thanks for which are completely unnecessary, of course. I link to her posts because nearly all of them are about topics that I want to share with my readers. And they are all well-written and heart-felt. Just like the book. So really, it's not so much that I want to review this book, as it is that I want to ask everyone, especially teachers, to please read it. But I'll do my best to give you a bit more detail.

Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer is a manual for teachers on how to raise kids who enjoy books. Donalyn is a sixth grade language arts and social studies teacher who has had tremendous success in turning even initially resistant children into avid readers. She sets ambitious goals for reading in her classroom, and her methods have paid brilliant dividends. The Book Whisperer is the book that she wished she had to read herself, when she first started teaching, her attempt to share her methods with other teachers, so that they can help grow readers too.

I believe that The Book Whisperer is a must-read title for reading teachers, especially for elementary and middle school-age kids. I also think that anyone who cares about raising readers, whether teacher or not, will enjoy The Book Whisperer.

Donalyn begins the book by describing her own development as a reader, before moving on to her early learning experiences as a teacher. She defines the types of readers that she has observed, using positive, rather than negative terminology. Thus "struggling readers" become "developing readers", and "reluctant readers" become "dormant readers" or "underground readers". Then she explains her current methods, including ways of finding time to prioritize reading in the classroom, and ways of building classroom libraries. She discusses her requirement that each child read 40 books (broken into a series of genres) during the classroom year, both reasons for this and success rates, and her own responsibility as a reading role model. She also discusses her recommended changes to (or elimination of) other common classroom techniques, such as the month-long whole-class dissection of a novel. Some of what she recommends is common-sense, while other sections will be more controversial. But everything that Donalyn says is backed up by a) her actual classroom experience and b) the high test scores recorded by her students.

 The Book Whisperer is extensively referenced and indexed, and contains examples of forms filled out and letters submitted by students. There's also an "Ultimate Library List" appendix, compiled by Donalyn's students, which is worth the price of the book all by itself. There are lovely quotes about the joy of reading at the start of every chapter, and fun asides, like a list of "Unusual Places to Read by Mrs. Miller's Class".

But if you ask me, what makes this book truly special is Donalyn's genuine passion for creating readers -- it comes through on every page. I must have 50 post-it flags on my copy - quotable passage after quotable passage. Here are just a few of the many, many examples that I could have chosen:

"We have worked so hard to develop systems to teach reading, yet I claim that we have no grounds to systematize an act like reading in the first place. The only groups served by current trends to produce endless programs for teaching reading are the publishing and testing companies who make billions of dollars from their programs and tests. It is horrifying that the people who have the corner on getting children to read--children's book authors, parents, and teachers--get the least credit monetarily or otherwise." (Introduction)

"These days I share with my students what no literacy expert could ever teach me. Reading changes your life. Reading unlocks worlds unknown or forgotten, taking travelers around the world and through time. Escaping the confines of school, reading helps you pursue your own education. Through characters--the saints and sinners, real or imagined--reading shows you how to be a better human being. Now, I accept that I may never arrive at teaching paradise, but as long as I hold onto my love of books and show my students what it really means to live as a reader, I'll be a lot closer than I once was. Finally, this was my epiphany." (Chapter 1, There and Back Again)

"I believe that dormant readers have a reader inside themselves, somewhere. They simply need the conditions to let that reader loose, the same conditions that developing readers need, hours and hours of time spent reading, the freedom to make their own reading choices, and a classroom environment that values independent reading. Children love stories, the escape of falling into unknown worlds and vicariously experiencing the lives of the characters. Their attachment to story arcs in video games and television programs bears this out. What students lack are experiences that show them that books have the same magic." (Chapter 2, Everybody is a Reader)

"Are we teaching books or teaching readers? I would rather have my students read books of questionable literary value than not read at all. Once students find at least one book they like, and receive approval for reading books of their own choice, it is easier to move them towards books you suggest." (Chapter 4, Reading Freedom)

The Book Whisperer shows, page after page, example after example, that despite all of the things that our educational systems do that kill the joy of reading (see Kelly Gallagher's Readicide for more on that topic), it is possible for teachers to light the spark, and turn kids into readers. Not easy certainly (Donalyn has a particularly supportive principal), but possible. And that is cause for hope. The Book Whisperer's afterword, written by Donalyn's Principal, Ron Myers, is a call to arms for the "reading revolution" of the reading whisper movement.

I'd like to close by quoting teacher Sarah Mulhern's conclusions about this book at The Reading Zone. Sarah said:

"This is a book that MUST be put into the hands of every teacher in the nation. And we NEED to get it to those who make policy in this country- from state senators to President Obama himself. This book must be read, it must be discussed, and many of the ideas absolutely must be implemented if we are going to reverse the sad course our educational system is taking this century." 

I agree! I hope that many of you will read this book, discuss it, and take action. Our children deserve all the help that we can give them in learning to truly connect with books.

Publisher: Jossey-Bass
Publication Date: March 16, 2009
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher. Please not that quotes are from the ARC, and may differ slightly from the final printed book (which I do intend to purchase a copy of).
Other Blog Reviews: Book Chase, Once Upon a Time, The Reading Zone

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.