Here, in Gaiman's own words is the reason behind allowing choice: "Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child's love of reading. Stop them reading what they enjoy or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like – the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian 'improving' literature – you'll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and, worse, unpleasant."
I think we have some of that generation right now, a result of NCLB, AP classes, and perhaps well-intentioned adults who feel compelled to make kids "eat their veggies" when it comes to books. Read the classics; you'll thank me later seems to be a rallying cry. My rallying cry is instead, go ahead and read Harry Potter for the umpteenth time; you'll still be a reader later in life. It has certainly worked with my own residents of the back bedroom. And I know it has worked with some of the thousands of kids who passed through those middle school classrooms eons ago. They are still readers.
What I adore, though, is that P.L. Thomas took Gaiman's speech one step (or perhaps more like a mile) further and suggested Gaiman replace Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education. You can read his blog here: http://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2013/10/17/neil-gaiman-should-be-u-s-secretary-of-education-things-can-be-different/. This is PRECISELY what the leader of education in America SHOULD be saying: let kids read freely. Trust kids, trust teachers, trust books. Instead, there is incredible mistrust. Give teachers formulae so that they can figure our how to narrow the selection of books for kids (by making them read book beyond their grade level mind you, something that confounds me no end). Make kids do close readings of texts in ever more rigorous and complex forms; make them write across texts so we can show them what they do not know (remember, test scores are expected to be low because of the new, improved standards and assessments). And for heavens sake, do not treat books with any respect. Give them new genre classifications never before known (creative nonfiction anyone? Bueller?). Favor one type of book over another. Damned what the kids might want; we outside of the classroom know better.
Is it about trust, isn't it? Giving kids choice lets them know we trust them. Giving teachers options lets them know they are trusted. CCSS seems to fly in the face of such trust. It's a shame really. A study long ago by George Norvell (1950) of more than 50,000 secondary students. Guess what? HE FOUND THAT STUDENTS DISLIKED MUCH OF WHAT THEY WERE FORCED TO STUDY IN SCHOOLS. Surprised? Study after study after Norvell garnered similar results. One of the findings from Norvell that has received little attention (and thanks to Dick Abrahamson for making sure his students got this info) is that we have a few opportunities to match kids with books. If, as teachers, we strike out in terms of offering them a book they like, they will not come back to us for recommendations. If a 4th grade teacher, then, fails to match a kid with a good book, what is the likelihood that kid will approach the 5th grade teacher and so on?
There are other places to get recommendations, of course. Perhaps we can explore those in future blog posts? For now, though, let's be about TRUST. Trust kids, trust our colleagues, trust the books. Better yet, share the books with those we love and trust.