I am fortunate to have a large and varied classroom library. There are books to suit every interest and to fit every reading level. But without question, the most important bookshelf in my room is the little green bookshelf with an ever-growing selection of classics and other great works of literature–books that all children should read.

Unfortunately, sometimes getting them to read these books is a challenge. For years there has been an “as long as they’re reading” philosophy in many schools, homes, and libraries. I’ve been guilty of falling into this way of thinking sometimes myself. The idea is that as long as kids read, what they are reading is of little consequence.

In my opinion, this is a huge mistake.

What’s wrong with this philosophy?

It is the intellectual and creative equivalent of saying that it doesn’t matter what children are eating as long as they eat–that a diet of cupcakes and Doritos is just as good as one consisting of a variety of healthy options. And though families with food insecurity must sometimes prioritize availability over quality, that doesn’t have to be true of books. Especially not the books we purchase and promote for our classrooms.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a fun read. I’m a big fan of whodunits and beach reads. But these makeup only a portion of my reading diet. As a rule, I am very thoughtful and intentional about the books I choose. Left to themselves, most kids will choose books that are fun and easy to read. They will shy away from classics or books they don’t immediately relate to.

The result is that novels that were once staples of American childhood – books like Treasure Island, Peter Pan, Anne of Green Gables, and Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry–are now too challenging for many children. They do not have the skills or the patience for more complex plots or unfamiliar vocabulary. Our kids have become lazy, self-indulgent readers. Not only that, they’ve become uninteresting readers–reluctant to explore new genres, diverse authors, and new ideas. We’ve failed to equip them to read challenging works and have not taught them that the quality of the books they read matters – at least some of the time.

The importance of the challenge

There are many great books that children miss out on simply because they are more challenging than the average bestseller. There are also great books that they won’t necessarily love reading but that they will love having read. Of course, I want them to enjoy reading, but I don’t want my students to think that the only goal of reading is to be entertained. Yes, that is a huge perk. But reading great works can also help children think and grow and allow them to share in the rich literary heritage passed down for generations. It’s such a shame to think that classic works that have enchanted children for ages will eventually be all but forgotten because we’ve let our kids believe they are just too boring or too difficult to be bothered with.

Of course, there isn’t an official canon, no set list of must-read books for children. And not every classic work is right for every kid. But there are countless books, new and old, that are beautifully written, thoughtfully express universal truths and experiences, and transport young readers to times and places they have not yet dreamed of. These are the books I want my students to read. But unless I encourage them, they will miss out on works that have delighted and challenged children for generations.

Getting kids to read hard books

Fortunately for me and my students, my principal and fellow teachers share my goals. At our school, every 6th grader begins literacy class with at least 15 minutes of independent reading every day. On Fridays we conference with our kids about what they are reading and offer suggestions for their next adventure. Recently, after a “book tasting” featuring only classics and award-winning novels, several of my students expressed an interest in starting their own book clubs to share some of these books with friends. My principal readily agreed to purchase as many additional copies of these novels as my students need.

Whether at home or at school (ideally both), this is the kind of atmosphere our kids need if we want them to be well-read. They need access to great books and encouragement to read them. They need to know that not every book worth reading is easy. And most of all they need to know that reading great books is worth the effort and that they are capable of becoming great readers.