Reading Without Walls: Fostering Diverse Reading Interests (Grantee Research Outcome)

By Mary Ellen Shu

    Reading Without Walls: Fostering Diverse Reading Interests (Grantee Research Outcome)

    About the Author

    Mary Ellen Shu
    Library & Learning Resources Technician
    Spring Valley, CA, US
    1 Article Published
    Mary Ellen Shu

    A graduate of UC Berkeley and UCLA (Master of Social Welfare), I worked as a psychiatric social worker with children and families in Los Angeles. As our own family grew, I enjoyed being a stay-at-home mom and became very involved as a PTA volunteer in developing and raising funding for arts education programs. For a short time, I worked for The Institute for Arts Education here in the San Diego area. As a District library technician for 14 years, my personal goal has been to use the library to support and enhance the educational objectives of teachers and the District. I’ve had the privilege of working on a number of Educational Foundation grants at La Presa Elementary, La Mesa Dale, and Casa de Oro. The majority of these projects have focused on arts education, nutrition, literacy, and celebrating the unique and exciting diversity of our school communities.

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    Project Summary

    In 2016, graphic novelist, cartoonist, and teacher, Gene Yang, was appointed the National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature. He chose his platform, “Reading Without Walls” (Yang, 2016), to challenge America’s youth to read a book about a character that did not look or live like the reader themselves, a book about a topic that the reader knew nothing about, or a book in a format that the reader normally did not read. Casa de Oro students, third through sixth graders, were invited to participate in this challenge. The project goal was to explore whether or not participation in the project would lead to more diverse reading interests among our students. Forty-one percent of our students took the challenge by reading at least one book fitting the criteria. Post-project surveys and interviews showed that students enjoyed meeting diverse characters in books, learning about new topics, and trying different genres. All expressed interest in continuing to read diverse books.

    Project Context

    During the 2018-2019 school year, Casa de Oro’s school population was comprised of African American (14.9%), Asian Pacific Islander (4.3%), Hispanic (55.4%), Middle Eastern (5.4%), Mixed (7.6%), and White (12.4%) students. Given such a diverse population, it was crucial that we provide our students with opportunities to promote understanding and acceptance of others in order to build community. Secondly, like other elementary age students, our Casa de Oro students had definite preferences for certain types of books to the extent that some students only read particular genres or authors. For all students, but especially these highly selective ones, this project was a fun and meaningful way to expand their reading horizons. Finally and equally important, it was imperative that we develop innovative and creative reading programs to complement classroom learning and motivate our students to become better readers. Recent scores had shown that only 53% of our Casa de Oro students, grades 3 through 6, met the California Standards for reading. This project helped me, a practitioner researcher, to provide evidence whether or not Reading Without Walls was effective in fostering diverse reading interests in our Casa de Oro students.

    Research Goal, Method, and Outcome

    Project Significance and Goal

     “To build a foundation for college and career readiness, students must read widely and deeply from among a broad range of high-quality, increasingly challenging literary and informational texts” (Common Core, 2019). It should not be surprising that given the critical importance of building strong literacy skills in children and the adoption of the Common Core State Standards in 2010, numerous studies have explored varied facets of literacy. The Reading Without Walls project challenges students to read a book about a character that does not look or live like the students, a book about a topic that students know nothing about, or a book in a format that students normally do not read. Therefore, for the purposes of this grant, the research of two literacy areas was briefly reviewed:  (a) the reading interests of today’s American children and (b) the importance of diversity in library collections for children.

    In 2016, Scholastic, in conjunction with YouGov, conducted its biannual reading survey. Over 2,700 children and parents throughout the United States participated. Amongst its many findings: 89% of children ages 6 – 17 agreed that their favorite books were the ones they had picked out for themselves; children liked books that made them laugh with characters who were “smart, brave, or strong” or who “face a challenge and overcome it” (Scholastic & YouGov, 2016).

    Davila and Patrick (2010) found that girls like funny, scary, adventure-based fiction as much as boys and also prefer genres such as romance, realistic fiction, and poetry. Boys are more likely to read informational materials about dinosaurs, snakes, videogames, sports, cars, and trucks. In terms of genres, boys are more likely to read fantasy, horror, science fiction, crime/detective stories, and war fiction. They also have a stronger preference for comics, graphic novels, joke books, and the “gory & gross” genre of which Captain Underpants is a prime example. Boys choose books for information and for entertainment, not for story or literary quality. Indeed, several favorite book series for boys have been banned from many school libraries (Boltz, 2007).

    At the same time, a growing body of research highlighted the importance of diversity in children’s literature. Almost thirty years ago, Bishop (1990) coined the metaphor “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors.” Bishop described books as mirrors in which readers can see themselves and as windows offering views of different worlds. The windows become sliding glass doors through which readers can enter a new world. Bishop stated that children need such books that can help them understand the multicultural nature of the world. Bishop (1994) also edited a book on a multicultural booklist for Grades K-8.

    In their article, “How Common Core’s recommended books fail children of color,” Gangi and Benfer (2014) employed Bishop’s metaphor of “mirror” and “window” books, emphasizing the need for all children to have access to both. Their research indicated that when children have access to books that are primarily written by and about white people, it is white children that have a much easier time making connections to themselves and their community. These experiences, in turn, help them to become more competent readers. At the same time, “window books” allow children of the dominant culture to see others who look different and live differently (Gangi & Benfer, 2014). Indeed, diverse library materials allow children to develop an appreciation for the cultures of others (Naidoo, 2014).

    Writing about the Common Core State Standards and diversity, Fenice B. Boyd (2013) stated that children who do not see characters like themselves in the books they read believe they are not worthy of appearing in books. Simultaneously, children who read books with characters like themselves will conclude about their classmates who are not represented in stories that those who are different are not worth writing about.

    These literatures point to the importance of diversity in children’s readings and support the significance of Yang’s Reading Without Walls platform, especially given the demographics of our school. As primary school educators, our role is to build in our students a strong foundation of literacy skills. Our challenge is to not only nurture a life-long love for reading but also help students experience and understand books that introduce them to new ideas and diverse people. The Reading Without Walls project addressed these needs. As Yang explained, “Reading is a fantastic way to open your minds and hearts to new people, places, and ideas” (Library of Congress, 2017). At the same time, our project intended to support students to build early positive reading habits needed for college and career readiness. To meet these purposes, elementary students were introduced to new as well as existing books in the library and were encouraged to read books to increase reading and expand their interest in diverse books. This research sought to find whether the intentional planning and activities utilized would help strengthen students’ reading interests and broaden their attitudes toward new and different readings.


    Participating Students

    At Casa de Oro as of September 2018, there were 51 third grade students (24 boys; 27 girls), 35 fourth graders (20 boys; 15 girls), 39 fifth graders (21 boys; 18 girls), and 30 sixth graders (20 boys; 10 girls). These 155 students included: African American (17.4%), Asian Pacific Islander (4.5%), Hispanic (60.6%), Middle Eastern (4.5%), and White (12.9%).

    By the conclusion of the Reading Without Walls project in June 2019, 64 students (41% of the total third, fourth, fifth, and sixth graders) had participated. Of these 64 students, 21 were third graders (14 girls and 7 boys), 17 were fourth graders (7 girls and 10 boys), 19 were fifth graders (12 girls and 7 boys), and 7 were sixth graders (4 girls and 3 boys).

    Student participation varied in the number and engagement in reading and/or writing as follows: 30 students participated by reading and writing about one book; 14 students read two books; 3 students read 3 books; 6 students read 4 books; 4 students read 5 books; 1 student read 6 books; 3 students read 7 books; and 3 students read 10 or more books.


    To increase the likelihood of students participating in the project, new books were ordered to add to our library collection. Diverse biographies about John Lewis, Katherine Johnson, Amalia Hernandez, and others were included. STEM titles about coding, architecture, drones, and robots were added to the library’s outdated science and technology sections. Books from a wide variety of genres were also purchased.


           Acquisition of new books and pre-survey. Once grant funding was received in the fall of 2018, over one hundred new books were ordered for our library collection. All students, grades 3 through 6, completed a pre-project survey (see Data Collection).

           Author invitation. On January 18, author, educator, Dr. Virginia Loh-Hagen from San Diego State University visited Casa de Oro. Meeting with our third through sixth grade students, she spoke about how she became a writer and teacher. Dr. Loh-Hagen introduced the Reading Without Walls project by addressing the importance of reading diverse books and read one of her recently published books to the students who greatly enjoyed her motivational presentation.

           Introduction of new books, encouragement of reading, and book review. New books were introduced and the Reading Without Walls challenge began after this. Students were encouraged to participate by reading a book about someone who looked and lived differently from the student, a book about a topic that the student knew little about, or a book of a different genre. After a qualifying book was read, students were asked to fill out a simple book review (see Data Collection). Incentives were offered: weekly drawing for ice cream and bookmarks and certificates of participation were given. In addition, at the end of the year, names of participating students were placed into a jar for a drawing of new books, gift certificates, and other book-related items.

           Continued encouragement of reading by school staff. Over the next several months, our upper grade teachers, principal, and school librarian continued to encourage students to participate. Many students spent extra time in the library during morning and lunch recess to explore different reading possibilities.

    When the Reading Without Walls challenge ended in May of 2019, all participants were recognized with special acknowledgement given to three students who completed at least 10 books.

    Data collection

           Reading interest. To determine whether or not participation in this project would lead to more diverse reading interests in our students, we conducted an initial survey of our students, grades 3 through 6. All students filled out a written survey that asked:

    • What kinds of books do you like to read? Funny, scary, animal, realistic fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, informational, graphic novel (comic), or other?
    • Who is your favorite author and why?
    • What topics would you like to know more about?
    • Do you like to try books that are different from the ones you usually choose? Why or why not?

           Book review. As students completed their selected books, they filled out a book review that included: 

    • What is the title and genre of the book that you read?
    • If the selection was a fiction book,
      • What was the plot?
      • What was your favorite part?
    • If the selection was a nonfiction book,
      • What did you know about the topic before reading the book?
      • What did you learn about the topic?
    • How is this book different from books that you usually read?
    • Did you like the book and why?
    • Would you recommend the book to others?
    • Do you think you will continue to read different kinds of books and why?

           Interview. In June 2019, ten students from each grade – third, fourth, and fifth — were randomly selected for an interview. In addition, seven sixth grade students participated in the project, and six were interviewed. Students were asked to elaborate on the following post-project survey questions:

    • Why did you participate in the Reading Without Walls challenge?
    • What was one of your favorite books?
    • Will you continue to read different kinds of books and why?
    • Are there additional genres that you would like to explore?
    • Students answered the above questions and were encouraged to elaborate. The narrative data was analyzed by eliciting the patterns across all students’ response to questions. All data was kept confidential with the results of the study focusing on patterns found in the group of students, not in regards to individual students.

    Results and Discussion

    Analysis of the data showed that participating students benefitted from this project in the following ways:

    (a) Of the 64 participating students, 21 (33%) initially reported in their pre-project surveys that they did not like to read books that were different from the ones they usually chose.

    • “I think they’re [different books] boring to me and scary.” (3rd grade girl)
    • “The books I read is fine.” (4th grade boy)
    • “I tried once [reading different kinds of books] and I didn’t like it.” (5th grade girl)

           After participating, all 64 students, including the 21 aforementioned students, reported that they would like to continue reading different kinds of books.  

    • “It was fun reading something new. Now I know I can read other types of books!” (3rd grade girl)
    • “Reading without walls is fun, and it’s a great way to explore.” (5th grade boy)
    • “I get to learn new things about things I did not know.” (6th grade girl)

    (b) Students’ choice of genres was analyzed using the 36 randomly-selected interviewees as a small sample size. The most popular genres were graphic novels (22 students), humor (21 students), and scary books (18 students). In the post-project interviews, all 36 students indicated interest in reading and exploring additional genres. For example, only 2 students initially noted that they enjoyed reading biographies, and only 3 chose poetry. In the interviews, 16 students expressed interest in reading biographies and poetry.

    (c) A total of 176 book reviews were written. Of these, 29% were about diverse people, fictional and real, who lived and looked differently from the students. Malala Yousafzai, Malcolm X, Mahatma Gandhi, Gail Devers, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Vasya Kandinsky, Harvey Milk, and Zaha Hadid were amongst the many individuals that students read and learned about. Students read about African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and children living in the Caribbean and in England during World War II.

    • “I learned that he [Mahatma Gandhi] was a lawyer.” (3rd grade boy)
    • “I learned that people like Zaha [Hadid, architect] were treated unfairly.” (4th grade girl)
    • “In grade school, she [Beyoncé] was bullied about her looks.” (6th grade girl)

    (d) 32% of the book reviews were about subjects that students knew little about. Students learned about the Buffalo Soldiers, robots, unicorns, dancers, ancient tombs, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, cooking, drones, animal trainers, and the Japanese language.

    • Referring to Buddhism, one 3rd grade boy wrote, “The cause of our suffering is greed.”
    • “They [axolotls] have feathery gills that they use to breathe.” (4th grade)
    • “I learned some Japanese words like konnichiwa!” (5th grade boy)
    • “I learned how to cook new things.” (6th grade girl)

    (e) 39% of the book reviews covered books of different genres than what students usually read. Students explored and enjoyed poetry, many informational books, science fiction, historical fiction, mythology, and graphic novels.

    • “I think reading different books that I don’t usually read is fun and exciting!” (3rd grade girl)
    • “I found out that these books, biographies, are a type of book I love to read.” (4th grade girl)
    • “It opens up doors to new genres of books about other countries and stories.” (6th grade boy)

    Did participation in the Reading Without Walls project result in more diverse reading interests for our third through sixth grade students?  My conclusion, as a practitioner-researcher and a Library & Learning Resources Technician who has been working for 14 years, is a qualified yes. When we launched our Reading Without Walls project in January 2019, 53% of our respondents indicated that their favorite book was one of the extremely popular graphic novel series such as Amulet, Dog Man, Smile, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, or Dork Diaries. With 41% of the students participating in the project by reading and writing about at least one book, our study showed that students were, in fact, exploring diverse books. During this time, I observed that a significant number of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books were remaining on the shelf. In other words, students were checking out other types of books!

    Analysis of the book reviews and student interviews point to the conclusion that students were reading and learning about a wide range of new topics and fascinating ideas from cooking to drones to the teachings of Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi. “I’ve been calmer…even when my brother interrupts me. I’m meditating with my mom or dad now,” reported one boy. Students also read different genres – historical fiction, poetry, informational, biographies – and found that they liked them.

    Project results also showed that by participating in the challenge, students opened their minds to meeting an incredibly diverse group of people through reading. In the project literature review, several authors were cited that advocated for the need for diverse books for children. The books became mirrors in which readers could see themselves; books became windows offering views of different worlds. A meaningful experience was shared by one of the participants during her interview. She spoke about her favorite Reading Without Walls book in which the father, saddled with problems, abandons his family. The student shared, “I’m learning a lot about challenging things people have to go through. The same thing happened to me. My dad walked away…Other people have the same life issues as me. I’m not alone.” The self-validation received by this reader – there are others who have experienced and felt the same way as me…I am not alone – is a testament to the power of books. For the boy who read about Mahatma Gandhi, not only was he inspired by Gandhi, “one of the greatest peacemakers on earth,” he also learned that Pakistan used to be part of India. “My aunt is married to a Punjabi from Pakistan!”

    For the Hispanic students who read about Congressman John Lewis and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the African American students who read about a disabled English girl during World War II, and the students who read books about people who looked like them but faced different life challenges, these books truly opened windows into the lives of others. One boy related, “We read about the church bombing in reading group and the Civil Rights Movement in class. But I learned about John Lewis, the bus boycott, and nonviolence.” These reading experiences provided further depth of knowledge and understanding.

    In summary, the project was rather successful. The visit with the author, Dr. Virginia Loh, was a great way to kick off the challenge. The wonderful variety of new books definitely helped to stimulate the interest of students. The broad parameters of the Reading Without Walls challenge made it relatively easy for motivated students to choose titles. For 41% of the third through sixth grade students, these activities plus incentives enticed students to experiment with diverse reading habits.

    Why, then, did the rest of the students choose to not participate? Reflecting back to our school demographics, testing showed that 53% of our upper grade students met California standards for reading. In other words, 77% of those students at or above grade level for reading participated in this project. Also, of 31 upper grade students who were designated as English Language Learner students last year, only 11 (35%) participated. So, while the rate of participation was good for a portion of our population, we must then ask ourselves, “How can we encourage the remaining 59% to participate?”  And, how can we nurture and build on this interest in reading diverse books so that it becomes a habit, not simply a one-time effort?

    Reflection: Meeting the Challenge of 59%

    As I read the book reviews and conducted interviews with participating students, I was struck by the overwhelmingly positive student comments about the Reading Without Walls challenge. “Reading different books is fun!” “It’s super good for your brain!” “I like going outside my bubble and reading new things!” The irony of these comments is that for years, as Casa de Oro’s librarian, I have encouraged our students to, first of all, find books and authors that they like, but also to explore and try new books, new genres. Each year, we have had reading challenges. Apparently, for many of our students, the Reading Without Walls challenge, with its breadth of possibilities, an inspiring visit from an author, an enticing array of beautiful new books plus incentives, motivated and excited many of them to give it a try.

    So, going back to these questions: How can we encourage the remaining 59% to participate?  And, how can we nurture and build on this interest in reading diverse books so that it becomes a habit, not simply a one-time effort? My answer, based on this research finding, is that we keep the project going. We have already launched the Reading Without Walls challenge for this new school year. With this early start, students will have plenty of time to enjoy favorite books and authors and explore and read different books.

    Special efforts will be made this year to engage those students who did not participate last year.   Finding “right fit” books often takes more time and effort as does filling out the book review. We also need to be open-minded as to designating what right-fit means for various students. In addition, the library theme for this year will be Reading Without Walls. In planning for the weekly classroom visits, I will specifically select these types of diverse books.

    Our ultimate goals as educators are to instill in our children a lifelong love for reading with the positive reading habits needed for active citizenship, college and careers and to help our children understand and appreciate the multicultural nature of our community. In promoting the Reading Without Walls project, Gene Yang explained, “Reading is a fantastic way to open your minds and hearts to new people, places, and ideas” (Library of Congress, 2017).  If we can help our Casa de Oro students to open their minds and hearts with excitement and wonder to new people, places, and ideas, then we will be many steps closer to realizing our goals.

    Works Cited

    Bishop, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors. Perspectives: Choosing the Using Books for the Classroom.

    Bishop, R. S. (Ed.). (1994). Kaleidoscope: A multicultural booklist for grades K–8. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

    Boltz, R. H. (2007). What We Want: Boys and Girls Talk about Reading. School Library Media Research.

    Boyd, F. B. (2013, January). The Common Core State Standards & Diversity: Unpacking the Text Exemplars Presented in Appendix B. Retrieved August 2018, from Reading Today:

    Common Core (2019). Common Core Anchor Standards. Retrieved from

    Davila, D. & Patrick, L. (2010, January). Asking the Experts: What Children Have to Say about Their Reading Preferences. Language Arts, Volume 87, No. 3, pp. 199-210.

    Ganji, J. M. & Benfer, N. (2014, September 16). How Common Core’s recommended books fail children of color. Retrieved September 2, 2018, from The Washington Post:

    Naidoo, J. C. (2014, April 5). The Importance of Diversity in Library Programs and Material Collections for Children. Retrieved August 10, 2018, from Association for Library Service to Children:

    Library of Congress. (2017, April 7). Gene Luen Yang Launches “Reading Without Walls” Project.

    Scholastic & YouGov. (2016). Kids & Family Reading Report, 6th Edition. Scholastic Inc.

    Yang, G. L. (2016, May 13). The Reading Without Walls Challenge. Retrieved July 7, 2018, from Gene Luen Yang: Cartoonist and Teacher:

    To cite this work, please use the following reference:

    Shu, M. K. (2019, October 2). Reading Without Walls: Fostering Diverse Reading Interests. Social Publishers Foundation. 

    Copyrighted by Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

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