“Just Right” Books: So Much More than a Level



I recently worked in an intermediate classroom helping students understand what it means to have a “just right” book in their hands.  Before beginning the lesson I asked them to share how they knew a book was “just right” for them, and received the following responses:

  • “It’s on your level.”
  • “If you are a 3.1, and the book is a 1.4 it is too easy and if it’s a 4.4 it is too hard.”
  • “It’s from the blue bin.”
  • “If I take a quiz on it and get all the points I know it was on my level.”
  • “It’s on my level.”
  • “It’s on my level.”
  • “It’s on my level.”

Every single answer the students gave was related, in some form, to the book being on their level.  And each time it was stated, my heart broke a little.

When I left that classroom I began to reflect on my own school days, realizing I could not recall a single teacher ever telling me my reading level.  As a child, I just read.  I consumed Dear Mr. Henshaw, Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, and The Giver with the voracity of a hungry lion.  Before I ever started school there was not Berenstein Bears book that I could not recite.  And no one ever told me not to read those books.  No one.  No one ever tapped me on the shoulder to tell me a book was above or below, or even right on, my level.  Granted my schooling days took place during the time of the Parrots, Peacocks, and Canaries reading groups and the testing demands were much less than what teachers face today.  Regardless, my weekly trips to the local library and daily trips to the school library left me looking only for beloved authors, breathtaking tales, and brilliant pictures.  Books that had annoying older sisters, and girls with no grandparents, and families with a thousand pets, because we never had a single one.  Books that I had my nose in before it was even checked out in my name. And if they weren’t available in the library I became insistent that my mother just purchase them for me to have forever. I simply could not wait for them. The urge inside me to read them was so intense that I knew myself it was a “just right” book.  

I reflect on my elementary experience for one reason alone–I have come to realize that the vast majority of kids today don’t know this.  They don’t know the joy of perusing an entire library, feverishly looking for a book that speaks to them.  They don’t know their favorite authors because books have always been placed in their hands by an other.  They don’t know who they are as readers because they have never been given the opportunity to shape their own reading identity; it’s always been done for them.  Sadly, the experience most students today will look back on will be one of their teacher directing them to a certain section of the library that has books on their level, while the student hopes from within one will be waiting there that they are excited to read.  Most times they walk away disappointed.

Many articles and much research have been published regarding the unintended consequences of making students aware of their reading level, because by doing so we allow it to deeply shape their identity as a “good” or “bad” reader.  We would also be wise to recognize the role this number plays in limiting our readers.  Boxing them into parameters in which they feel they cannot operate outside of, further perpetuating misconceptions about what it means to live the life of a reader.

After our initial conversation in my lesson that day, I knew my mission for the next 55 minutes.  We began to draft a list of all the ways we knew a book wass “just right” for us other than its level.  I shared with them that as an adult, no one has told me my reading level in years.  I asked them to think about how I know a book is “just right” for me when I walk into the library.  This idea was mind-blowing to some, but as we began to talk through it the conversations became spirited and enthusiastic.  And I left them with this challenge:

“This year, when someone asks you why you are reading the book in your hands, your response is not, ‘It’s on my level.’  But rather, something that sounds like this:

  • ‘It’s by my favorite author and I just have to read all of his/her books.  They’re the best!’
  • ‘This book has my favorite scene in the whole world!  Do you have a minute?  I’d like to share it with you.’
  • ‘Oh, this book.  Well, I’ve read this one six times already, but it just keeps getting better each time. This time I noticed how the author did ________.’
  • ‘I just had to know more about the character in this book, because he/she seemed a lot like me.’”

This is how our students should know they have a just right book in their hands.   It’s visceral.  It’s a feeling in their heart that creates an instant connection to the book–not a number on a report.

Fame: First Day of School Thoughts

fame-logo (1)

“Famous” is not a word generally associated with education.  When we chose our profession as teachers we knew this, but today I wish to challenge that notion.  Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, Famous, brings to mind so much that we are embarking on as we welcome a new year of students.

Famous by Naomi Shihab Nye

The river is famous to the fish.


The loud voice is famous to the silence,

which knew it would inherit the earth

before anybody said so.


The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds

watching him from the birdhouse.


The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.


The idea you carry close to your bosom

is famous to your bosom.


The boot is famous to the earth,

more famous than the dress shoe,

which is famous only to floors.


The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it

and not famous at all to the one who is pictured.


I want to be famous to shuffling men

who smile while crossing streets,

sticky children in grocery lines,

famous as the ones who smiled back.


I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,

or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,

but because it never forgot what it could do.


This job we are in was never meant for fame.  At least not in the way society and politics project it.  Because loudness, and grandeur, and “look at mes” simply have no place in our profession.  Our fame finds itself playing by a different set of rules.  Fame that is instead found through the meaningful, and the quiet, and the purposeful.  In the connections.  In the moments where we never forget what we can do and what we are truly capable of.

Because, really, each of you is famous.

Famous to the kid who speaks no English, but hears you greet him in his native tongue.

Famous to the kid, who, for the first time in months entered a space today where people were excited to see him.

Famous to the kid who was scared until he saw your smile and welcoming learning space.

Famous to the kid who thinks he won’t succeed this year because you’ve already told him of the potential you see within him.

Famous to the kid who hates to read, because today he walked to a desk holding a stack of books just for him and knew his teacher has already started to learn about his as a reader.

Famous to the kid who never speaks out because today you found time to tell him much you hope he finds his voice this year.

Famous. Famous for a million more reasons we will likely never know.

Yes, fame looks a lot different here.  And so the question is: How will you be famous to your kids this year?  Let each of us never forget no only what we can do, but also what our students can do.  There’s so much waiting inside of them to grow and explore. Our mission is to find, bring it out, and celebrate it.  That’s when we can get loud.