The Reading Blues Amongst Beacon Students

By Sanai Rashid

Reading was my first love. Ever since my mom enrolled me in literacy classes at Brooklyn College, where I read books with other four-year-olds, I’ve found a thrill in flipping fluttery pages and watching stories unfold effortlessly before my eyes. In kindergarten, I became obsessed with the Miss Bindergarten series by Joseph Slate. The books revolve around Miss Bindergarten, a border collie dog, and her adventures teaching a class full of zebras, hippos, giraffes, and more. The colorful pictures and rhyming sentences illustrating the communal bond of a school gave me courage for my first day of kindergarten. My mom helped me write a letter to the author, and I was ecstatic when Slate replied with a handwritten note and a photo of his dog whom he based Miss Bindergarten on. Since then, I’ve felt a magical connection to books and authors of all genres. Instead of writing letters to authors  I adore, now I whip up an email or join their book clubs. The world of writing has always beckoned my name, and I am eternally grateful for that.

However, as I got older, I noticed how books were slowly slipping away from the center of my life. Long ago were the days when I read the Harry Potter series at the speed of lightning, bought bookmarks from the Scholastic Book Fair, and went to Barnes and Noble every weekend. When I entered middle school, my days were filled with musical rehearsals, taking selfies of my friends with ridiculous filters, and figuring out my place in the world. I still read a lot, but I had a lot of new hobbies that I enjoyed.

Once high school started, I didn’t read much besides the books assigned by my English teacher. Quarantine cut my freshman year short, and as lockdown rolled on and I had more time on my hands, the one hobby of mine that did increase wasn’t reading — it was movies. I read eighteen books in 2020. While that is a decent number, half of those novels felt like a chore to flip through. I knew my love for reading was there, I just had to find it again. According to a 2018 study from the  American Psychological Association (APA), a third of U.S. teenagers haven’t read a book for pleasure in at least a year. 

I was curious to know if other Beacon kids felt like reading books outside of English class has become a significant obstacle or something they don’t do altogether; so I created a survey. Fifty students from Beacon shared their feelings on the matter and how their reading habits have shifted as they mature in this rapidly changing world. 

First of all, adults need to rest the idea that we Gen Z kids are brain zapped robots that only exist on our phones, laptops, and other devices. Sure we love technology, but we are also one of the most creative generations to date and are continually looking for ways to expand our minds. 80% of students in the survey said they wish they read more. Some of the common praises for reading included that it is one of few relaxing activities that offer a break from screens, and novels provide a nice escape from reality. Student Corriene Gaffney, who’s favorite book is The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, wonderfully said, “I love reading because I love stories.” Several people commented that they don’t go out of their way to read a book, but they find themselves hooked when they actually begin reading a story. This is much like  sitting at the edge of a pool, not wanting to go in, but your friend pushes you in, and once you’re submerged in the water, you realize: “You know what? This isn’t so bad.” 

In terms of genres, fiction novels are the most popular amongst Beacon students, with 38% of people in the survey listing that as their favorite. Not far behind with 32%, realistic fiction came in second, followed by graphic novels, science fiction,  and finally historical  fiction. Nonfiction was not a fan favorite and with the past eighteen months the world has had, it is conceivable that teenagers want to be anywhere else besides this chaos, and fantasy novels offer an escape. No matter what genre teens adore, junior Owen Newman put it perfectly: “The primary reason why I find reading books enjoyable is that they have a way of speaking to the subconscious, opening the minds to new possibilities, ideas, and perspectives.”

Of course, not all Beacon reading is purely recreational. The books we read in Beacon’s English classes are from a range of genres, and when asked if the books students read this past school year have been engaging and thought-provoking, many kids said yes. Ninth graders read  a plethora of coming-of-age stories such as The Catcher and the Rye, Purple Hibiscus, and Drown. The tenth-grade classes read works that reflect our current socio-political climate like Handmaid’s Tale, The Fire Next Time, Between the World and Me, and more. Upperclassmen read books like the Song of Solomon and Great Gatsby. Junior, Surina Archey stated, “The English department at Beacon does a great job at encouraging students to be more active and thoughtful readers, strengthening our ability to identify the deeper meanings within a novel.” 

However, some students still don’t see themselves in the  characters they read about, disengaging them from the class. Junior, Olvia Ballentine stressed, “The lack of representation in classics can’t be changed, but we can start incorporating better books that expose students to different groups of people. Why do I want to write an essay about a plot, main character, or motif that I can’t empathize with?” As a freshman, the first article I ever wrote for The Beacon Beat was about how critical it is for high school English departments to teach a variety of books featuring characters from all backgrounds and races. Beacon English teachers even weighed in on the matter, which you can read here

So if Beacon students generally like to read, why don’t we do it as often? When I asked how many books my classmates typically read each year, 54% of them said between one to five,  30 % of people read 6-10 books , 6% of people read 11-15 books a year, and just 4% read 16-20 books a year. Only two people said they read 20 or more novels in a given year.

There are many answers to why this is, some of the most common being: too much homework, too little time, it being hard to focus on reading with a short attention span, and the draw of technology. But the most common answer students in the survey said that what steered them away from reading, ironically enough, was English class. After a decade of reading various books in school, students now associate reading as a responsibility rather than a hobby.  

Yet earlier, many people said that the books they read in English class this school year have been engaging and thought provoking. Maybe the problem isn’t the books we are reading as much as how we talk about them. 

Annotations for a theme and character structure, long-winded discussions that only confuse the class, and dreadful Socratic seminars are what come to mind for many students when they see a book at  a  bookstore — if they dare step into one. Reading now seems like a daunting task, where if you don’t understand every symbol and metaphor in the story, then you’re not getting the full picture. One student said they feel obligated to read “high-level books” when in reality they want to read “comics by Raina Telgemeier” or “books like The Fault In Our Stars and Everything, Everything.” Fellow Beacon Beat reporter Clementine Paarlberg, remarked, “Students don’t get the full experience [of reading in class] because it feels forced, and we are stuck doing crazy amounts of unnecessary annotations.”

Of course, everyone is trying their best. Teachers are supposed to teach literature in a way to make it accessible and understandable to their students. A majority of Beacon English teachers do that and even more. My ninth-grade English teacher, Ms. Whittemore, was incredible, and I left her classroom each day with a new token of knowledge. The books I have read with English teachers have exposed me to authors I would have never read before, classic novels help me understand the complex role the past plays in the future and I have become a better writer under such teachings. But looking at this survey, it is evident: high school students do like to read, but we are exhausted, overworked, and stretched way too thin to the point that our previously loved pastimes have morphed into another depressing chore. 

Many members of my survey sighed at how they used to adore reading when they were little, and now it is in their childhood dump, along with My Little Ponies and Legos. But, it doesn’t have to stay like this. Every student reading this should try to read one book a month for pleasure. I know it’s hard and there are a million other things to do. However, the joy and freedom reading once brought you shouldn’t go to waste. 

McNally Jackson in SoHo

My top 2021 New Year’s Resolution is to read more books. The number doesn’t matter, but as long as I am pushing to do better, I will be able to. Apps like Bookly and Reading List  have helped me stay on track with such goals. Perusing my favorite bookstore, McNally Jackson is always bound to be a delightful experience where I find novels I had never even dreamed of. Signing up for newsletters on new releases gets me excited to finish the book I’m reading so I can move on to the next. Lastly, reading before bed always soothes me, and it made me happy to see how many students were carving out 30 minutes before bed to read for a while.

Beacon has an incredible library, and as a library volunteer during C Bands, if you ever need a novel recommendation I am here! Some fantastic reads I am currently raving about are Red at the the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson ( the parent of a former Beacon student) , Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, and Frankly in Love by David Yoon. 

While students can’t change their  English classroom environment overnight, we can all try to be active and engaged listeners in class, participate when we can, and make an effort to absorb knowledge. But on your own time, give reading another go— because deep down, I’m sure you want to. 

When life seems dire, open up a book. Suddenly, a world you didn’t know existed pulls you in by the collar. You’ll never want to leave the reading world again.