Matching Practice to Purpose: To Read or Not To Read a Book’s Back Cover

Piggyback by Robert Duncan (used with permission of the artist)

Whether I’m in a bookstore or library or even online at amazon, I always read back cover blurbs when I’m in the market for a book. And I always encourage students to do so when they’re looking for a new read as well. But when I’m the one choosing a text for, say, a read aloud or a small group, I don’t automatically do it because I usually want students to construct their own understanding of the text, not piggyback on another reader’s interpretation. And I don’t want them to ever think that there’s a single ‘right’ take on a text that others have and they don’t.

To show you what I mean, let’s look at what happened in a second grade room I was in the other day as I helped a group of teachers launch an author study of Tomie dePaola. Given the number of English Language Learners in the school, I’d decided to kick-off the unit with the almost wordless picture book Andy, which I thought everyone could access. The book is about a young child who, while searching for playmates, encounters a group of older kids who have all the earmarks of bullies (or, as the students said, were ‘bad guys’). And I began, as I usually do by introducing a text-based Know/Wonder chart as a means of keeping track of what we were learning and what we were wondering about as we drafted and revised our understanding of the story as we read.

Then we looked at the cover, not to predict (which I also don’t typically do), but to begin the process of thinking about what we knew at the point and what we wondered—and a heated discussion immediately erupted.

“There’s a boy named Andy,” one student said, to which I asked my standard follow-up question aimed to shed light on student thinking: “What made you think that?”

“Because Andy’s a boy’s name,” he said, pointing to a boy named Andy beside him on the rug.

“But he’s wearing pink,” another student said, “and that makes me think it’s a girl.”

“And the shoes and that green thing. Those look like girl stuff,” another student added on.

“Or maybe it’s back in the old days,” said another, “and that’s what boys wore back then.”

They batted ideas back and forth and then we continued reading, with the question of whether Andy was a boy or girl remaining unanswered right to the end. Then I asked the students to turn and talk about what they thought Tomie dePaola might be trying to show us or get us thinking about through Andy’s story, and I hunkered down with a few students to hear what they had to say.

One pair talked movingly about how the story made them think how wrong it was to take someone else’s things, which the ‘bad guys’ had done, while another group thought that if that ever happens, you have to stand up and take your things back the way that Andy did. But while I was listening, one of the students borrowed the book and proceeded to read the back cover.

 “I knew it,” he said. “Andy’s a boy. And the book is about learning letters.”

It had never occurred to me or the teachers that Andy couldn’t read. Nor had any of us seen the book as either a phonics lesson or a story about winning. Yet many of the students were ready to chuck all the thinking they’d done out the window and adopt the blurb writer’s take—and all of the teachers were looking at me to see what I’d do next.

So I asked everyone to turn their eyes back to me, and I told them the truth: that the person who wrote the blurb was just one reader whose thinking was no better or right than theirs, so long as their ideas came from the details Tomie dePaola had provided, which they clearly had. “In fact,” I said, “the blurb writer missed something that we noticed, that Tomie dePaola never makes it clear whether Andy’s a boy or a girl, and maybe he did that for a reason. Maybe he made it confusing because he wanted us to consider something that we couldn’t if we knew for sure. So I want you to turn and talk one last time about why Tomie dePaola might have not made it clear whether Andy was a boy or a girl.”

Many of the students seemed puzzled—by my questions as much as by dePaola’s choice. But one girl raised her hand when we came back to share and directed the class to this page, at which point Andy has reclaimed the letters the big kids took and is heading home.

“Maybe,” she said, “Tomie dePaola wants us to know that it doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl. You’re important no matter what.”

“Yeah,” said her partner. “And no one should ever take your things even if you’re little or a girl.”

I asked the class if they thought that was possible—that Tomie dePaola might have not made it clear just so we’d think something like that—and many students nodded their heads. Then I ended the session by applying that idea to what had just happened with the back cover, telling them that their own thoughts were just as important as the thoughts of the blurb writer, with the meaning they made no less correct because they were smaller or younger.

Experiences like this have made me believe that if you want your students to fully engage in the process of meaning making with a text that you’ve chosen, reading the back cover is counter-productive. It’s another way of front-loading information and providing a reader with access to the text without actually grappling with it.  And for many students, the back cover becomes a crutch that encourages passive reading, while reinforcing the dangerous idea that there’s a single ‘right’ way to see and interpret a book.

I want students to be confident readers, able to stand on their own two feet and construct their own understanding. Of course, once they’ve done that, I might invite them to hear other interpretations. But they need to know that their ideas are as valid as any other readers, provided they’re constructed from the bottom-up from the building blocks of the text’s details.

9 thoughts on “Matching Practice to Purpose: To Read or Not To Read a Book’s Back Cover

  1. Great post! I had never thought about withholding the back cover from my students, but I can see how waiting to read it would really help students come to their own conclusions. Thanks for sharing!

    • I reached the point of not reading the back cover for a read aloud or small group after having too many reading conferences with students whose description of what they were reading seemed lifted from and limited to the back cover. And not doing it automatically has really helped students become better problem-solvers.

  2. Thank you thank you thank you for this fantastic post! I teach children’s literature and elementary language arts methods class. Just this afternoon I was talking to a teacher friend and telling her that I struggle with helping my pre-service teacher students realize that young students can have really complex, deep, interesting responses to books when we (the teachers) set up that environment and expectation for them. This is a fabulous illustration of thoughtful planning and responding to students. I’m going to share it with all of my own students!!

    • And thank you for the great response! I’ve got a quote coming up in next week’s blog from Ralph Peterson and Maryann Eeds’s Grand Conversations about children being natural makers of meaning. Unfortunately, though, we don’t always trust that or we’re not sure we’ll be able to control that in the classroom if we open too many doors. In addition to my own experience, I was inspired to take those risks by both Peterson & Eeds and Peter Johnston, who’s new book Opening Minds is worth checking out if you haven’t already seen it.

  3. I am delighted with the notion of not “reading the blurb” as a prerequisite to a discussion. Since it’s the first thing I do when I pick up a novel, I have always assumed that it would be an important tool for students as well. Your post shows how teachers can explore the possibilities of children’s thinking before ever looking at a blurb. Thanks!

    • I’m sure there are times when I’d make an exception and read the blurb for a particular reason with a particular group of kids. But I do worry that automatically reading the back cover in lower and middle school leads to reading SparkNotes in high school–often instead of reading the book. And if nothing else, not reading the back cover provides us a formative assessment window that lets us see what kids can do on their own.

      • You’ve reaffirmed for me that it’s about being thoughtful in our instruction, not about being cookie-cutter teachers. Which is what your newest post refers to as well in a reflection on “programs.” You also pushed my thinking with not automatically making predictions. It can be so hard for student to let go of those or not look to confirm them, much easier to read with a question in mind – interesting – thank you.

        In our district we just recently adopted the reading/writing workshop (which I feel like we are 10 years or more behind the times, but better late than never), but I find this is the biggest paradigm shift for us. The materials are not our curriculum!

      • Absolutely better late than never! Reading & writing workshop isn’t always easy, which Katy Wood Ray acknowledges in her wonderful book “Writing Workshop: Working through the Hard Parts (and They’re All Hard Parts)”, which I’d highly recommend. One of the hard parts, which you mention in your other comment, is finding good resources. But the rewards and satisfactions for both you and your students are enormous. And there are lots of great professional supports out there, both in print and online, including the fabulous online PD site Choice Literacy, at http://www.choiceliteracy.com, which you should take a look at if you aren’t familiar with them already. Good luck!

  4. Pingback: The Limits of Graphic Organizers, or More Tales from a Second Grade Author Study | To Make a Prairie

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