Rights Introduction

I never have time to read but that hasn’t stopped me from finishing a book I’ve loved.

Normally, whenever I finish an exceptional book, I try to force it on as many people as I can. Daniel Pennac’s The Rights of the Reader is the one exception. It resonated so deeply that I a part of me believed it was written for me alone. In reality, I didn’t want to share because finding fault with the book would be finding fault with me.

I didn’t consider myself a reader until late in life. Brian Selznick’s 526 page masterpiece, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, began to shift my belief. It’s wildly inventive storytelling format mixed text passages with long sections of images. The American Library Association’s decision to award Hugo Cabret the Caldecott Medal legitimized alternative formats as “distinguished” among librarians and teachers. Most importnatly, it showed me the power alternative media can have on reluctant readers. The change that would occur as students delighted in the new found confidence that comes from finishing such a hefty story opened my eyes to the powerful transformation that happens when we believe that reading is, in fact, for us. 

All of us, even the most disenfranchised reader, equates books with intelligence. The bedtime story programmed us all. What a shameful feeling it is to fight picking up a book. After reading Pennac’s 10 Rights of the Reader, I saw my early reading life through a completely different lens. I spent hours pouring over my dad’s old Peanuts collection holed away in my grandparents attic. I copied out Bob Dylan lyrics to avoid doing my homework through most of middle school. Mornings spent reading The Boston Globe’s sports section from cover to cover gave me something to talk with friends about in high school— I was a reader all along. I assumed the stuff in class was “real” reading. I never saw myself in the assignments. When Pennac snapped me out of autopilot, I was overwhelmed with the feeling that I had seriously been cheated.

Perhaps the most important function of education is to shape our sense-of-self as a learner. This doesn’t happen through speeches or the occasional triumph. It takes place in the hundreds to thousands of interactions that are as easily forgotten as they are brief. The wisdom in Daniel Pennac’s words places a child’s self-perception first and foremost. From the common sense to the controversial, I’m finally able to release my hold on these ideas without concern for how others might judge them. I’ve just seen these “rights” restore confidence in too many kids to care whether or not they ruffle feathers.


1. The Right Not to Read

You have the right to punctuate a bout of reading with periods of abstinence to pursue another all consuming love. You will be introduced to the world of literature and provided the tools to judge freely whether you feel the need for books or not. While you have the right to reject reading, it is totally unacceptable to feel that reading has rejected you or that you have been excluded from books, even the ones that you can do without.

2. The Right to Skip

If you can’t decide what you’re capable of reading by choosing which bits to skip, you are in danger of others, armed with outsized scissors, making the decisions for you. When you deny yourself the right to skip and read every last word, the long-winded bits, the over-the-top-parts, the repetitive or silly sections, you risk transforming a book you were excited to read into one you don’t want to finish. It is not your duty to read every word. It is our duty to provide you with the critical thinking abilities to make informed decisions about your reading habits, one of the greatest joys of being a reader. 

4. The Right to Read it Again

3. The Right Not to Finish a Book

Maybe it’s the bulk, maybe it’s our readiness to understand a book, sometimes a chemical reaction fails to take place between us and that great story we’ve resisted. You have a choice: either you think that it’s your fault, that something’s missing in your brain, that you’re beyond help. Or, you can decide to explore the controversial idea of taste; draw up your own menu of what you do and do not like. There are 36,000 reasons for not finishing a book: you've been there before, the story doesn't grab you, you don't see eye to eye with the author, the style gets up your nose, the absence of a distinctive voice to keep you reading... It's pointless listing the 35,995 others, including: you just had a rotten week, it reminds you of a person you’d rather not think about, or a broken heart has knocked you sideways. So the book falls from your hands? Well, let it fall. 

Maybe it’s the bulk, maybe it’s our readiness to understand a book, sometimes a chemical reaction fails to take place between us and that great story we’ve resisted. You have a choice: either you think that it’s your fault, that something’s missing in your brain, that you’re beyond help. Or, you can decide to explore the controversial idea of taste; draw up your own menu of what you do and do not like. There are 36,000 reasons for not finishing a book: you've been there before, the story doesn't grab you, you don't see eye to eye with the author, the style gets up your nose, the absence of a distinctive voice to keep you reading... It's pointless listing the 35,995 others, including: you just had a rotten week, it reminds you of a person you’d rather not think about, or a broken heart has knocked you sideways. So the book falls from your hands? Well, let it fall. 

Returning to a book that rejected you the first time around, reading it again without skipping, reading it from a different point of view, reading it one more time just to check... But above all, we have the right to read a book again just for the sake of it, for the pleasure of experiencing it all over again, the joy of being reunited with it, to test how close to it we really were. We have the right to desire, to be enchanted by something that never changes and to find fresh wonders each time.

The question isn’t whether I have time to read or not, but whether I’ll allow myself the pleasure of being a reader.

5. The Right to Read Anything

6. The Right to Mistake a Book for Life

There are good novels and bad novels. Bad books were not written to create something new. They were intended to reproduce an existing form because it would sell. These are the books that trade in simplifications (in other words, lies), whereas a great novel is the art telling the truth (in other words, complexity). Bad books flatter our reflexes and dull our curiosity and the reality they claim to describe doesn’t really exist. It’s the literature that offers us quick fixes that casts a simple mold and tries to make us fit into that mold. And at first, you may find these books quite good. Nobody will tease you for that. Nobody will roll their eyes at you in despair for enjoying those books. Nobody will call you a fool for being excited about them.

Instead, we will leave a few good books lying around and resist the urge to ban the others so that you may read both side-by-side. And soon enough, without even realizing it, you will want to keep company with the good books. You will seek out writers and writing styles. You will not just want friends to play with for a while; you will seek out the for-life companions. The quick fix will no longer be enough. The time will come when you ask for something else from the novel, not just instant and total gratification. And we will support you until the moment you are ready to slam the door on the best-seller factory and climb up to breathe the same air as the greats.

The carefully crafted language recorded in a book are the music of ideas. You have the right to feel those words in your mouth and hear their meaning in your ears instead of trying to cram those ideas straight from your eyes into your head. When you read out loud, you lay yourself wide open. If you don’t know what you’re reading- if you don’t understand the words- it’s excruciating, and you can hear it. If you can’t inhabit what you’re reading, the words are just dead letters, and you can smell it. If you saturate the text with your own personality, the author pulls back, it becomes a circus trick and you can see it. 

If you’re really reading…
If you’re drawing on all your knowledge while making sure you don’t get carried away…
If you’re sympathetic to the audience as you are to the work and its author…
If you inspire the need to write while waking your deepest need to understand…

Then the book will open wide and you will no longer be a part of the crowd who thinks they are excluded, free to walk in after the reader. 

The road to knowledge doesn’t lead into this classroom: it leads out of it.

7. The Right to Dip In

There's a kind of reading that is all about the instant and total gratification of the senses. Your imagination swells, heart races; you get an adrenaline rush; you identify with anything and everything as your brain momentarily loses the ability to distinguish between the world of the novel and reality. We will not deny you the pleasure of banishing tomorrow the stereotypes you may over-identify with today. In the clear light of day, infatuation gives way to rejection. The children who share our lives can only gain from our increased respect and sensitivity.

8. The Right to Read Out Loud

It's alright, as readers, to grab a book from anywhere on our shelves, open it wherever we like, and dive straight in, just for a few minutes, because that's all the time we've got. When you don't have time to spend a week at the beach, why not spend five minutes there?

The books we loved best we read because of the people we loved best.

9. The Right to Be Quiet

Reading offers a kind of companionship that takes no one's place, but that no one can replace either. It offers no definitive explanation of your destiny but links you inextricably to life. It's tiny secret links will remind you of how happy you are to be alive, while illuminating how tragically absurd life is. Our reasons for reading are as strange as our reasons for living.

10. The Right to Read Anywhere

Bathroom. Dinner table. Graveyards. Anywhere. 

When someone reads aloud they raise you to the level of the book. They give you reading as a gift.

The rights are either direct quotes or slightly altered summaries of Daniel Pennac’s work. If these ideas resonate with you as well, please support the wonderful work Candlewick Press is doing on behalf of children’s literature and purchase a copy of The Rights of the Reader from your local independent bookstore.

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