Friday, September 14, 2012

How Important is Reading Fiction? Guest Post

How Important is Reading Fiction?
by Sarah E Anderson

When I was in college I worked in the children’s department of a large chain bookstore. Every summer, during the weeks just before and after the much-anticipated first day of school, parents would pile into the store, looking for books and supplies for their young students. Most of the time moms and dads would bring in the school’s list of required reading. The list featured classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby for older students, and chapter books and early readers by great authors such as Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume for the younger ones.

So, on one particular evening, about two or three days into the school year, I was not surprised to see two frantic mothers come rushing into the store with school-issued lists in their hands. I watched them make their way through the department, picking up books and shaking their heads, growing wearier with every move. Finally, I approached them to ask what they were looking for, and when they answered, I couldn’t believe my ears.

“We’re looking for some books for our first graders,” the moms said.

“Sure, let me take you over to the picture books and early readers. Do you know what their reading level is? What kinds of books are they interested in reading?” I asked.

“Well, that’s the problem. Their teacher told us that we should not allow them to read fiction anymore, and we don’t know what to get,” one of the women responded.

“Excuse me?” I was sure I wasn’t hearing them right. Maybe the teacher just wanted to add some variety and suggested picking up a nonfiction book or two.

“That’s true,” said the other one. “She said that fiction teaches them about things that aren’t real and clouds their brains with ideas that could never happen. She said that you can’t learn from fiction. She said we should only allow them to read nonfiction for the foreseeable future, but we don’t know how to go about making that switch.”

A friend and co-worker had joined our conversation at this point, and she and I just looked at each other in disbelief. What kind of teacher tells six-year-olds not to read fiction? What kind of teacher discourages any kind of reading at all? Reluctantly, we helped the moms find the science and history section, and they spent the next hour in the floor trying to find something both age appropriate and that their children might like to read. I spent the rest of the evening wondering if this is a common practice in our schools.

My mom began reading fiction to me when I was three months old, and I know that is why I developed a life-long love of reading. I learned so much through those stories that “aren’t real.” I fully believe that this is what led to me being able to earn a living as a writer as an adult. I was encouraged to write as well as my favorite authors or better than the ones I didn’t like. This is what led to long summer days, playing in the yard with my cousins for hours; no toys or electronics required, just an imagination. A fictional story I read about treating everyone with respect gave me the courage to talk to my teacher when I found out a fellow student was being bullied in a terrible way.

As kids, my best friend and I devoured Ann M. Martin’s The Babysitter’s Club series. I remember reading entire books in one sitting. Because of those books, we eventually started our own little business. We learned a little bit about being young entrepreneurs and even more about working together as a team. We learned that people with major differences can be good friends. We learned that other girls our age went through some very similar and very different problems. We learned about life and death and various family dynamics. We learned about contributing to our community. We learned about people with unique health issues and disabilities. And some 20 years later, I still reflect on what I learned from those books that are tucked away in my closet somewhere. If I have a daughter someday, I hope she’ll love them and learn as much from them as I did.

Behind every work of fiction is a person who has lived a real life and had real experiences. Because of this, fiction imitates life, but it also puts readers in situations they may never experience. Fiction allows readers to travel to places they have never been and meet people they never would otherwise. Fiction stirs the imagination and introduces readers to new ideas and ways of thinking about life. It inspires, entertains and teaches everything from life lessons to vocabulary. Not surprisingly, multiple studies have even shown that people who read fiction empathize with others better than those who don’t.

The next time a teacher or anyone else tells you or your child that “you can’t learn from fiction,” please do the millions of readers and writers around the world a favor and tell them why they are wrong. Tell them to go read a great work of fiction for themselves and see if they don’t learn a thing or two. Chances are, the greatest lesson they will learn is that fiction can be one of the most educational resources we ever encounter.

BIO: Sarah E. Anderson is a freelance writer and journalist based in Atlanta. Before becoming a writer she spent twelve years working with young children in various capacities and developed a passion for children's literacy. She attended the University of Georgia and Georgia State University and studied acting at the Alliance Theatre. In her free time, she enjoys swimming, hiking with her dogs and cheering on the Georgia Bulldogs during football season.

Sarah writes for The House of Tales. Please visit and follow us on Facebook and Twitter!


  1. This scenario makes you want to weep. Mr Gradgrind, eat your heart out! Hopefully the Year of Reading in Australia has got the mesage through, do you think?

  2. I love this thinking and will pass it onto my colleagues!

  3. @MarjorieI think the message has been spread far and wide, but sadly, some ears remain closed. So many bureaucrats seem only interested in things that can be quantified.

  4. lovely post!!! i grew up on fiction too, and completely credit my love of books to them... and am doing the same for my son... and i come across this myth about fiction so often.. ppl seem to believe that only encyclopedias and books based on real people will teach kids and encourage them... it was wonderful reading this!

  5. As an English teacher on hiatus I know there is a push to increase non-fiction at all levels to address literacy issues, critical thinking, analytical skills. Some say that the historical push for fiction has made college entry difficult. But, to eradicate fiction altogether is short-sighted, foolish, and faulty. Fiction provides an escape to new worlds, it opens the doors to possibilities. Bureaucrats seem so focused on data points that they've forgotten that children grow up and need to be creative, they need to wonder, they need to think about worlds, ways, machines that don't exist.
    Fiction is a useful point of entry to difficult subjects for students to understand and discuss, from sexuality to war. It can be a lifeline for a student who feels alone. Should we do away with teaching All Quiet on the Western Front because it's a fictional account of World War I? Toss out House on Mango Street because Sandra Cisnernos didn't really live on that street? Speak is fiction, but so many of my students read it and related to its protagonist, to the pressures she felt that it created class discussions (and private conversations) about girls, drinking, rape, and peer pressure.
    As my daughter and son learn to read, why wouldn't I want them to enjoy Madeline? To read Babar (and open the door to a discussion about imperialism)?
    I hope that parents and teachers continue to teach many genres, including fiction, poetry, drama, non-fiction, biography, so that students will grow into strong adult readers of all types of writing.
    (I realize this blog generally addresses younger readers, but couldn't resist putting in my two cents.)

  6. @Anuradha ShankarThanks for your comment! I truly believe that helping kids love reading is one of the greatest gifts we adults can bestow.

  7. @Mama G Hear! Hear! So glad you put in your two cents! Although the majority of books reviewed at the Book Chook are for younger readers, I believe many issues we discuss here apply to kids of all ages. It horrifies me that there is so much emphasis in Australia on teaching for tests, just as I am appalled over accounts of some North American teachers being forbidden to read to kids. I believe that kids who love reading are better prepared for learning across the board, yet many of the strategies urged on schools seem destined to turn kids away from that love. Where is the sense in that?


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