By Carol Jago
A writer’s best friend is the English teacher. I don’t mean the teacher who taught you grammar or the one who force-fed you Julius Caesar. I’m talking about the English teacher who puts your books in students’ hands. Without this Pied Piper even the juiciest new novel can languish untouched and unread. Employing a curious combination of authority and charm, English teachers entice their charges to pick up a story and sample what’s on offer. You need them.
“Chloe, I just read this book and thought you’d like it,” I scribble on a Post-It note stuck to The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. I do it quietly. No one else in the classroom notices, but in a matter of weeks the charming and heart-breaking story about love in a time of cancer has made the rounds of all Chloe’s friends. In a few months the novel reaches that tipping point where other students feel left out if they haven’t read the book all the cool kids are talking about. A bestseller is born.
Speaking of tipping points, why does anything with Malcolm Gladwell’s name on the cover immediately take up residence on the best-seller list and rest there for months, even years? Thank English teachers. They are the ones who first read “Black Like Them” in The New Yorker in 1996 and wondered if their students might find the young writer’s style and message compelling. Essay by essay — I see “The Sports Taboo: Why Blacks Are Like Boys and Whites are Like Girls” as a tipping point — Gladwell’s writing crept into the curriculum. His work now appears in most college composition textbooks and Outliers is a staple on high school AP Language course syllabi. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Gladwell excerpt appear on the AP exam a few years hence.
But how to reach those teachers who might promote your book? The good news is that English teachers are always looking for the next Harry Potter or Hunger Games. They want to “sell” students on reading as much as you do. Twitter groups like #engchat and #titletalk convene on Twitter once a month to share ideas about books new and old that are working for their students. A few uber-readers: Teri Lesesne @ProfessorNana, Donalyn Miller @donalynbooks, Franki Sibberson @frankisibberson, and Paul Hankins @PaulWHankins, to name a few, influence a great many others with their recommendations. Word of mouth, buzz, continues to be an enormously powerful method of disseminating book news where online or off.
Another avenue for new books to travel from you through English teachers to a wider audience is the adult book club. No one is more likely to belong to a book club than an English teacher. Think about The Help, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Cutting for Stone, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. These are all novels that book groups nation-wide loved. Over time, those titles began appearing on high school reading lists. I know that whenever I had a book I hoped to have adopted into the Santa Monica High School curriculum, I first introduced it to our English Department’s book club. If the novel was a hit like Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I could be sure it was well on its way to classroom libraries. Teachers recommend books they know.
The bard said it best, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves.” We all have a stake in the digital generation becoming readers. Let’s work together to make it happen.
Carol Jago has taught English for 32 years. She is past president of the National Council of Teachers of English and author of With Rigor for All: Meeting Common Core Standards for Reading Literature (Heinemann).
DISCUSS: What Makes a Children’s Book Great?