The Nutritional Value of Dessert Books

Let them have their cake and read it, too!

One spring day, I dropped into a second grade classroom during reading workshop. Kids were hunkered down in reading spots, comfortably engrossed. Their teacher, an energetic newcomer to the district, came over and whispered apologetically, “I’m letting them read their library books.” She explained that while she ordinarily prompts children to put library books directly in their cubbies, this time something had possessed her to let kids bring them into the classroom and read them right away. Wouldn’t you know that would be the moment an administrator walked into the room?
After reassuring the teacher that I thought it was a splendid idea, I conferred with students about their choices. Mickey excitedly held up High School Musical: The Essential Guide and told me that she loves watching the show with her parents. When I confessed my ignorance, Mickey gave me a quick tour of the book, reciting favorite features of the DK compendium. “What are you thinking about as you read it this time?” I asked. “I’m working on script,” Mickey replied. I assumed she was referring to a teleplay embedded in the book, but instead she pointed to a cursive heading alongside a photograph of the beloved character Jason Cross. “Because I know this is Jason,” Mickey explained, “I can figure out the cursive letters.”
Later, the teacher explained that she generally seeks to match kids with “just right” books within the reading workshop—mostly early chapter books—for independent practice. While she appreciates kids’ passion for their library books, she fears that some, like the Star Wars Character Encyclopedia David had selected, are too dense or challenging and that others, like the joke book Vincent had picked, are too frivolous. She noted that some of her colleagues refer to selections at both ends of the complexity spectrum as “dessert books,” ones students may enjoy after they finish their just-right main courses.
Since this conversation, I have been pondering the “dessert book” metaphor. It hinges on the presumption that some books, like their confectionary counterparts, lack nutritional value. If you enjoy them too much, they mustn’t be good for you. I’ve noticed that alluring, non-narrative nonfiction texts are most frequently deemed “dessert books.” Even when we don’t use this particular term, we often tell children to set aside compendia, how-to books, joke books, atlases, and coffee table books until they have amassed enough eyes-on-print time in narrative texts.
These actions taken by diligent teachers are understandable. Our district seeks to close the knowing-doing gap around voluminous, high-success reading by ensuring that kids are well-matched each day with books they can read and want to read. Richard Allington (2012) defines volume as “the combination of time students spend reading plus the number of words they actually consume as they read.” Accordingly, teachers carve out time for kids to read every day and earnestly channel them into accessible and continuous narrative texts in which to accrue the nourishing word count. 
And yet. My own early reading history is rife with Red Sox baseball card stats, Seventeen magazines, World Book Encyclopedias, Guinness Book of World Records, and adult coffee table books. During the energy crisis of the 1970’s, my father shut off the heat in rooms we didn’t use often, including our living room. After school most afternoons, I would grab a Ring-Ding from the fridge door, don my parka, venture into the chilly chamber, lie on the sofa, and pore over The New Yorker Book of Cartoons and The Best of Life until my mother called me for dinner. New Yorker cartoons fascinated me--particularly the racy ones--even though I didn’t understand all the captions. In The Best of Life, Nick Ut’s iconic photograph of a girl about my age fleeing a napalm attack provided a window into the war that I otherwise grasped only dimly via snippets overheard on television news.
This poring-over of highly intriguing, expository reading material piqued my curiosity, taught me about the world, and ultimately made me a more engaged and skillful reader. For sure, this type of reading differed from the way I processed narrative fiction books in school—plowing through linearly from cover to cover and digesting a lot of print along the way. But it was valuable nonetheless. In addition to the stream of “just-right” books from which I fished in school, I had access to a wild river of text at home because my parents had magazine subscriptions, a World Book Encyclopedia, and a coffee table piled with alluring tomes. What they didn’t have was a need to micromanage my choices.
It seems to me that the healthiest approach to the conundrum of how closely to regulate a child’s independent reading diet is to adopt an inquiry stance around his/her selections. Rather than act as a book warden, dismissing or postponing children’s choices out of the gate, why not kid-watch, confer, and respectfully probe before assuming a book has limited nutritional value? Consider the following:

  • The word “riveted” literally means “joined or fastened.” When kids are riveted to a particular book and keep it close (perhaps checking it out of the library repeatedly as Mickey did), explore its allure. What draws the child to this book? What does she love about it?

  • Does the book reward the child’s background knowledge? Does it build new knowledge about a topic he finds irresistibly compelling?

  • Knowledge is power, and surprising information about high-interest topics is social currency in the classroom. Does the book help the child become a maven in a niche that delights his peers? Scheuer and Beecher (2017) note that, “As children discover something interesting or even gross, they just need to share this discovery and call over a friend or two.”

  • Does the book foster curiosity and lead the child to seek additional information through texts and conversation? Scheuer and Beecher observe that, “As children get excited about a topic, they want to talk about it…Reading nonfiction collaboratively encourages children to spend more time with a book than they might have done on an individual level.”

At the 2017 Scholastic Reading Summit in Seattle, Dav Pilkey cited his mother’s loving acceptance of his unorthodox library book choices as the key to his development as a reader. As the covers of his picks flashed on the screen (The Truth about FonzieDynamite Magazine: Meet the Sweathogs…), Dave emphasized that, when it comes to a child’s book choices, “Love is the key. Love leads to habits. Habits lead to skill.” Dav closed his talk by asking why adults so often itch to take books out of kids’ hands: “When it comes to kids’ reading, there are no guilty pleasures.”
Life is short; eat dessert books first now and then!
Allington, Richard L. (2012). What Really Matters for Struggling Readers: Designing Research-Based Programs, Third Edition. Boston: Pearson.
Scheuer, Mary Ann and Beecher, Alyson (2017). “Beyond Reading Levels: Choosing Nonfiction for Developing Readers.” School Library Journal, August. 

About Annie Ward: 


Annie Ward is Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction in the Mamaroneck Public Schools (NY). She is the co-author of From Striving to Thriving: How to Grow Confident, Capable Readers. Follow her on Twitter @AnnieTWard