Thoughts on a Balanced Reading “Diet”

Yesterday, I read a post on Reflections of a Book Addict about balancing your reading diet. I started to comment on it about six different times before realizing that I should probably just write my own post about it, or else risk writing a novel of a comment.

Before I say anything else, I’ll have you know that I agree with the premise: “In Ms. Gati’s 6th grade reading class, we follow a strict reading diet. This is in an effort to facilitate healthy growth of our thinking and schema.” Yes. All good things. But it goes downhill, for me personally, in the next sentence: Favorite or “default” genres, authors, and topics are put into the category of “doughnuts” and “pizza,” while challenge genres, authors, and topics are our “broccoli.”

eat your vegetables

At first, that didn’t bother me. I thought, “Okay, if we’re going with the food thing here, that makes sense.” But then I started to think that it doesn’treally. And here’s why.

If you’re going to classify books/genres as food, classifying your favorites as “junk food” seems demeaning and possibly even harmful to your literary edification. “Broccoli,” to me, describes something nutritious but kind of bleh, while “junk food” is something delicious but with little or no nutritional (or literary, as it were) value. I’m sure there are plenty of people whose literary tastes line up with this metaphor, with Dickens and Hawthorne and Poe in the “broccoli” category, and Nicholas Sparks and Stephenie Meyer filed under “junk food.” But, and not to toot my own horn or anything, what if you’re like me, and one of your favorite genres is classic literature? I’m not comfortable calling Jane Austen, the Brontes, and Oscar Wilde “junk food.” By that logic, trashy romance novels are my “broccoli,” and I should therefore read less Jane Austen and more Danielle Steel to “balance my diet.” Um…no?

I agree with putting it in terms that kids will understand, and “broccoli” and “pizza” is probably a good way to do that. But I still wonder if describing books outside of their comfort zones as “broccoli” will do more harm than good. As a sixth grader, I would be reluctant to read anything described to me as “broccoli.” And frankly, even as a sixth grader, I would be a little insulted to hear my favorite genres described as “junk food.”

Jane Austen =/= Pizza.

Jane Austen =/= Pizza.

Not that I don’t need to branch out from my favorite genres, because I think everyone should do that once in a while. I’m doing it right now, actually: I started The Eye of the World last week, even though I’m not much of a fantasy person. I am, however, the type of person who will begin to avoid a book I don’t like but also refuse to let myself pick up another book, out of guilt for abandoning the first. So in order to keep my interest in reading in general from waning, I’m reading other books that don’t require as much focus and attention (i.e. thrillers from NetGalley) concurrently with The Eye of the World. So far it seems to be working pretty well for me, and I’m keeping my “diet” balanced.

Basically, my bottom line is that I love the idea of keeping a balanced reading diet. I just don’t necessarily like the way it’s presented as “broccoli” and “junk food.” It looks like she’s getting good results, though, and for that I applaud her. It’s wonderful to get kids excited about what they’re reading, and it seems like she’s doing just that. So, Ms. Gati, props for getting your kids to read outside of their comfort zones! I just hope the “broccoli” and “junk food” language doesn’t put them off finding something they truly love.

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6 thoughts on “Thoughts on a Balanced Reading “Diet”

  1. I’m not sure I agree in that classifying your favorite genres as junk food is demeaning. I personally read all genres, but my favorites are the classics, memoirs, “trashy” romance novels, and historical fiction, These would definitely be my junk foods. My broccoli would be science fiction, thrillers, and non-fiction. Throwing the connotation of junk food or broccoli on to those genres (in my opinion) doesn’t necessarily demean them. Let’s look at it from a food angle.

    We don’t always like to eat our vegetables, but we know they’re good for us. And we know that too much junk food can be bad for us. Let’s go back to the book angle.

    I think that reading one genre doesn’t do much for us in terms of thinking outside of the box or learning new ideas. I think that by expanding to more than one genre, it helps us become a more well rounded individual that is open to new ideas. Eating junk food (reading the same genre) isn’t necessarily bad, but if it’s all you do you close yourself off to a world of other treats (books/genres). You’re missing the nutrition (new/other ides) that broccoli (other genres) can offer.

    • I totally agree with your last paragraph–to an extent. It just can’t be denied that there is some truly terrible writing out there (whether because of content or execution or both), and if you generally avoid those authors, I don’t think it can be said you’re “missing out” on the “nutrition” they offer, because they don’t offer any. Of course, this is highly subjective, so I don’t think anyone will ever agree what goes in what category. I assume there are indeed some people out there who read Snooki’s (auto?)biography and found it the height of literature, as disappointing as that may be.

      On the food metaphor: reading Stephen King, to me, is like eating junk food–highly addictive and highly enjoyable. BUT I would still hesitate to call it junk food in a literary sense because I personally believe his works have significant literary value. Therefore, calling Stephen King “junk food” just because I read a lot of him doesn’t really jibe with my perception of his works’ literary value. The same goes for Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde, the Brontes, Fanny Burney, Gillian Flynn, etc. etc. etc. Again, this is all subjective.

      And what about those people (I won’t say those of us, because I eat terribly) who truly enjoy eating vegetables, both literary and literal? 🙂

      Again, I realize this is a very important step for sixth graders to be taking to expand their literary horizons, and I can appreciate the metaphor on that level. But I wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable applying it to my own reading habits with the “junk food”/”broccoli” terminology. And I promise I’m not just trying to weasel out of eating (or reading) my vegetables 😉

  2. I really appreciate the fact that you thought so much about what I wrote. That means a lot, so thank you!
    Each of my students gets to choose what goes on his or her “books to read list,” and they are in now way limited to what titles they select (unless it is of inappropriate content…no “trashy” romance novels in 6th grade :)) I follow a reader’s workshop model. In that style of teaching each student reads a book of his or her choice at his or her own reading level. We NEVER do whole class novels. In my class 15 minutes are spent on a lesson and 45 minutes are spent on independent reading. Students use reading strategies from the mini lesson in their independent practice and I confer one on one with each reader as they move through their books. In addition, I assign 30 minutes of at home reading each day for students (including the weekend). Because of this, many of my students read 2 or 3 books a week! With that many books it is imperative that they be exposed to a wide range of genres. If I had a student only reading fantasy for 9 months and he or she read 50 books, how would they expand their knowledge?
    Thus, the book pyramid was born. For each student the “diet” is different. They have their own likes an dislikes. The food analogy is something they can relate to and ties in to their nutrition curriculum in health class. We have lengthy discussions about their reading “taste” and how that can change as the year goes on. Because books are not literally food, some genres and authors take on new shape as favorite genres. They are really very cute when they write me letters that say things like “I used to hate Realistic Fiction but now it’s like a chocolate chip cookie!” What could be better than thinking of a book as a treat? Stuff like that makes my job worth it.
    The entire purpose of Reading Workshop is to expose kids to as many different types of books as possible and to give them a good amount of time each day to just read (and get one on one attention, which is SO important!) The goal is that they will find authors and genres they never even considered and grow to love them. I would hope that as they grow up they see more and more books move over to their “Potato Chip” pile 🙂
    Again, I really appreciate what you wrote. It got me thinking and reflecting, which is such an important part of growing.

    P.S. LOVE the dinosaur graphic 🙂

    • Your post was really thought-provoking (clearly), so thank YOU! As I said in my reply to Kimberly’s comment above, I think what you’re doing is awesome and since it’s something the kids understand and easily relate to, it works. But in my own reading life, it feels disingenuous to classify authors like Jane Austen and Stephen King (both of whom I believe have great literary value, although very different literary value) as “junk food.” I know I should expand my horizons, and since starting my blog, I’ve been slowly getting better at that. But for me personally, I think I’m going to leave it at that rather than start classifying my favorite/non-favorite genres as foods for the reasons stated above…and also because it makes me hungry and messes with my actual diet. =P

      Anyway, thanks for getting back to me and explaining your model a bit more! It totally makes sense (and I REALLY wish I had had a class like this when I was in sixth grade, omg). It sounds like a wonderful thing you’re doing and if they’re truly expanding their horizons that’s what matters 🙂

      And uh, yeah, sixth grade is about when I started reading V. C. Andrews so I can say from experience that those novels at that age are just…no. XD

  3. I hope you’re going to do a review of Eye of the World. It’s been on my reading list for forever and I can’t seem to get into it.

    I think I agree with you on the food analogy. I don’t think of many books as broccoli reading (unless its the stuff for my grad school).

    I’ve never really be able to read more than one book at once. I wish I could…

    • I will definitely review Eye of the World…I just don’t know when I’ll finish it, haha 🙂 but I’m enjoying it so far! It’s really hard for me to get into fantasy stuff, since I don’t have a lot of patience for world-building in general, but I’m starting to understand what’s going on now, which is good.

      I’ve read up to three at the same time before, but usually two is my max. And they have to be pretty different genres; I couldn’t read, say, a Jane Austen novel and a Dickens novel at the same time. But a Jane Austen and a Ray Bradbury, sure. 🙂

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