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My Personal Reading Influences

June 18, 2012

Willow said, “If I were going to give you a writing assignment, it would be to go deeper into what you love reading, and why. How do you choose what you read? ”

And, man, this is another hard one for me.  Maybe because I am not that deep!  I definitely have likes and dislikes when it comes to books, but the influences vary to a great degree.

I think the first thing you all should know about me is that I love children’s literature.  I have never taken a class or anything, but it has been a passion of mine since I was in college.  I can spend hours in the children’s section of Barnes and Noble looking at all of the picture books.  My job used to fit that passion.  Teaching young children gave me the best excuse to go to the bookstore and browse and buy a whole lot of books.  I always attended the break-out sessions that highlighted books when I went to my beloved Summer Literacy Institute, and then ran straight for a bookstore.  And, if I had a new unit to plan?  I would buy any book that was relevant to the cause.  I have MANY books in my basement that my kids now enjoy.  Many that they have grown out of in fact.  I also have favorite authors.  Chris Van Allsburg is my all time favorite author.  I have all of his books (unless he has written any recently).  I love his art, and his sort of spooky/weird, mysterious/dangerous tone.  He is awesome.  As I learned more about children’s lit in my career, I fell in love with Cynthia Rylant.  Her books are so divergent and yet every single one of them are beautiful.  Who doesn’t love Henry and Mudge?  But really it is her picture books that I especially love.  As do my kids.  I truly believe you never grow out of them.  The Bookshop Dog holds a special place in my heart, but The Old Woman Who Named Things takes my heart in a different direction.  Another love?  Mem Fox.  She touches me.  There are so many authors that I love, but those three off the top of my head have made me look at books critically.  The writing is beautiful.  When authors write picture books every word counts.  There can’t be any excess.  These authors can choose words and move me, challenge my thinking, make me marvel at what they have created.  (Please know that these are three authors.  I have MANY MORE, but for the sake of this post, my time and YOURS I am limiting myself…a lot.)  I have written two other posts about picture books:  My Favorite Holiday Books and My Favorite Halloween Books.  If you check them out, you will see what a freak I am.  Also, if you love Children’s Literature, check out The Diamond in the Window.  Her blog rocks.

It follows logically that since I have had a love affair with picture books, that chapter books would follow.  I did teach third grade for two years, did I not?  And, teaching first grade required read aloud chapter books.   Well.  That opened up the door to E.B. White (really?  I had been in love with him since my own first grade teacher read us Charlotte’s Web…and my kids circle back to that book all the time.  I don’t know how many times I have read it.  This spring I read The Trumpet of the Swan for the first time with Katie.  It is FANTASTIC.  Geez.  I love E.B. White!)  Ralph FletcherRoald Dahl, Beverly Cleary…and I remember how much I loved Judy Blume as a kid…  There are specific books I read out loud because I loved them so much.  My all time favorite?  A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.  She opened the door to Science Fiction for me.  A new kind of world that might have been possible.  I read A Wrinkle in Time in sixth grade, and all the rest of the books in this series.  I remember reading them.  Being enthralled.  I was reading A Wind in the Door while getting my teeth pulled.  I don’t remember much else about that experience.  I love her quote:  “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”  I feel the same way about reading!  Children’s authors get to the heart of the matter.  My other favorite chapter books?  Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit  (READ THIS if you haven’t!)  The Lion the Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, Fig Pudding by Ralph Fletcher, Hatchet by Gary Paulson, The Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sacher, ANYTHING by Roald Dahl…but my very favorite is James and the Giant Peach.  He also has that spooky/weird, mysterious/dangerous tone…interesting…note to self.  I read The BFG this winter for the first time…Oh, my.  My whole family has read it now, so we can discuss whiz-popping at length.  Do I really need to remind you how much I love Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling?  Seriously.  LOVE.  I still haven’t let Sarah read it.  I kind of want to savor her reading it for the first time.  Yes.  I want to live through my child.  Sue me.

Of course, then comes Young Adult Fiction.  I still love this.  The book I read over and over again in middle school was The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton.  This book opened my eyes to LIFE.  Oh, how I loved this book.  Much of YA does open your eyes to see the real world.  The good part for me is that it can cover some heavy stuff…all three of the books I read this spring did…but it is written in such a way that it is easier to digest.  It is still horrifying, and you still see the consequences, but somehow it is okay in the end.  I tend to go to the bookstore and look for the BOOKS YOU MUST READ (or something like that) end cap display.  That is where I linger.  I still have some books that I don’t have the stomach for that are on that shelf, but I can be brave there.  I cannot bring myself to read Lucky by Alice Sebold , but I could get my courage up to read Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson.  The other side of YA is that some books are just fun to read (like candy!).  I have been reading Laini Taylor’s blog for years, and it just naturally followed that I would read her books.  I love Science Fiction/Fantasy books (see above…) and she is such a wonderful author.  She captured me into her worlds that she has created.  See my reviews here, here, and here.  I have not reviewed her newest book Daughter of Smoke and Bone, because I read it when I was on my writing Hiatus.  I LOVED it though and I can’t wait for the next book in the trilogy to be released in November!  Now I need to confess.  I am really NOT that deep.  I tend to read whatever the trend is.  If I hear people talking about it…I want to be in on that conversation.  I read (and loved…cringe…) the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer.  It brought me back to my own teenaged angst.  We did read it for my bookclub as well and then I was ashamed of myself.  I couldn’t wait to share these books with my own daughters until one of my friends said, “I don’t like how it portrays this young girl needing a boy to be happy.”  Ah.  There is that.  So, now I am hording them for my own self.  I read The Hunger Games last summer by Suzanne Collins.  I was duly horrified by the premise, yet I couldn’t stop reading until I was done with all three books.  Now everyone is talking about the [adult porn] series Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James.  I haven’t read them, and I am not even sure I want to read them.  I am sure I will though.  EVERYONE is talking about them.  I feel left out.  But really?  Why read poor writing when there is so much excellent writing out there?  [It must be the porn.]

As for the adult novels, I tend to read what I hear about.  I listen to Minnesota Public Radio a lot and Kari Miller has shows about authors and books all the time.  I heard her hour long interview with Ann Patchett talking about State of Wonder last summer.  It has been on my list ever since.  Oprah’s bookclub was a good source of books, however it became so depressing.  Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone was the first Oprah book I read.  I remember not being able to put it down.  It was an obsession.  I also remember being so depressed when I was finished with it.  I read many of the books that left me feeling depressed.  That is when I took a break from Oprah.  I used to be in a bookclub and that forced me to read a book a month.  It was really good to keep me reading, but some of the books I had no interest in reading.  That was a waste of my time.  Although some were books I never would have read, and I ended up loving.  MiddleSex by Jeffrey Eugenides comes to mind.  I loved the historical novels that we read like Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross and The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory.  I especially loved The Red Tent by Anita Diamant.  My mom told me about One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus and I loved that as well.  The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger is also one of my favorites.  These are just a smattering of beloved books.  The ones off the top of my head.  I know I am going to go downstairs and think…OH NO!  I forgot… and list a bunch of wonderful titles that have changed me and made me a better person.

I really love to read what other people tell me to read, as long as I have an interest.  I tried to read Wicked by Gregory Maguire on several occasions, but I have never gotten too far.  Same with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.  I think if these would have been assigned reading for me I could get through them, and maybe love them, but I have never given them the time they need to plant themselves in my brain.  The same thing happened with The Book Thief  by Markus Zusak and I am so, so thankful that one of my friends told me that I had to get to page 100, and then I would never be able to put it down.  I had started three times and never had gotten past page 40.  So I took her advice.  Now that book is one of my all time favorites.  Last summer my reading department read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot which is non-fiction.  I was so proud of myself that I read a non-fiction book and loved it.  I have also read Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer.  That one, although fascinating, was tougher to get through.  I was assigned by my bookclub, so I did finish it though.  Not so with Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson, however.  I couldn’t get through that one.

So, I listen and am influenced the most by what everyone is reading.  I take suggestions from other blogs and keep a list.  I take suggestions from friends, from over-hearing conversations, and from the radio.  I tend to read the book reviews when I read the paper, and if I am really hungry for a new book, I may just search one of my favorites and look at what amazon suggests.  The other thing I do?  I go to the bookstore and hang out.  I read the titles that the staff has recommended.  I look at the tables of books pulled together.  If I see some that I have read and loved, then I look closer.  My kids also suggest great titles.  Nicholas wanted to read the The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel series by Michael Scott, (it is YA) because he saw an ad in Boy’s Life magazine.  I am really enjoying the series, but we only read a chapter a day.  Oh, and if I like an author, I tend to look to that author for more books.  Dan Brown and Jodi Picoult come to mind.  I have to read one at a time with them, however.  Their books are so similar.

I love reading books that suck me into their world.  I love not being able to put the book down.  I love being swallowed up.  Most of what I love is fiction and memoir.  I love to read beautiful language.  I love a story with a main character who I can become.  I have a special place in my heart for Fantasy.  I love the magic and the other-worldliness.  I also love books that can change me.  When I took a diversity training years ago they gave us several books that we were required to read.  Those books were amazing.  The titles from what I can remember:  The Body’s Memory by Jean Stewart, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, and  A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines.  There were more, but I can’t remember the titles.  These books changed the way I looked at the world.  Last summer I read The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow, and I am still thinking about it.  I love that.

So, dear Willow, I don’t know if I wrote the correct text for your question, but it was fun to revisit so many wonderful titles that I have loved.  If I missed your point, please accept my apology.  And give me another question so I can try again.  Thank you for taking me on this spectacular trip down memory lane!

*Disclaimer:  I wrote this without researching what is in my house or googling books I couldn’t remember entirely.  I am absolutely certain I have left out very important titles and that I will be kicking myself for the rest of my life.*

NOW.  Since I get my best reading material from YOU…let me have it!  What should I add to my list?

  1. June 18, 2012 1:29 pm

    Oh that was fun to read and we share a lot of favorites. I have 2 large bookshelves that hold children’s & YA in our house that are ALL MINE. Mine mine mine! :) BTW, don’t know if you’ve read about this but Three Cups of Tea was bull…he didn’t do the things he said he did, with the money he got.

    • June 18, 2012 1:35 pm

      Yes, I did hear about that, probably on NPR. Was it Jon Krakauer or Malcolm Gladwell who blew the whistle on him? I felt very superior that I didn’t finish the book when I heard about that. (Ha!) And, there you go…Blink….didn’t make my list. Crap.

  2. June 21, 2012 9:07 pm

    I love this sort of post/discussion. Seriously. It’s right up my alley. And I do better writing about it, because in real life I’m all bumbly and awkward and end up more like “books! yay! read!” I so need a real-life book club to hone my skills.

    What WAS it about Oprah books that were totally depressing and disturbing? I remember picking up The Book of Ruth and it rocked my world. I was SO upset by it that I would turn it around in bookstores, in the hopes that people wouldn’t buy it. But I did love She’s Come Undone. I’ve re-read it many times. The good thing about the Oprah books is that it made me try something different (I was in high school) than my very safe, cozy reads. And I would keep trying most of them. One that I didn’t read until I was in my mid-20s was White Oleander, and that one is amazing.

    I can’t believe you just read The BFG!! I was so into Roald Dahl around the 5th-6th grade (and beyond). Super fun stuff – The Witches was my MOST favorite, which is surprising, considering what a scaredy-cat I was.

    I’m so glad you linked to that interview w/ Ann Patchett. I was so blown away by State of Wonder and I would love to hear more about it. I really like Ann Patchett, as a person – I feel like I know her, after reading her memoir about her friendship with Lucy Grealy.

    • June 26, 2012 1:38 pm

      I know exactly what you mean about The Book of Ruth. Ugh. SO depressing. And, yet I too kept trying to read those. The one about the abducted son was awful too. Scarred me for life…Deep End of the Ocean? I also read White Oleander and loved it. I guess it is good that I kept trying…like I said, there were some that I loved that I never would have read otherwise…Million Little Pieces…even with the controversy. I loved that one.

      And, yes. I am still making my way through Roald Dahl. But I love him so much. I don’t know why I didn’t hear about him until I was teaching! I LOVED Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but I had no idea it was a book, or who the author was. Deprived, is what I was. (I still haven’t read Witches. But, my kids get freaked out whenever my feet look square. Have I mentioned I can mimic the Wicked Witch of the West perfectly? They are unsure if I am really a witch or not. I like to keep them guessing.)

      I still haven’t gotten into State of Wonder…only the first few pages…several times. I need to carve out some TIME. I have not read anything else by her either. See? TIME. NEED TO READ. Priorities. Geez.

  3. July 11, 2012 11:24 am

    Meg, I am so pleased to read this post! It’s really neat to hear about the books you love, or don’t, and why you read them. There are some beloved ones on your list here, and many ones I haven’t read and will add to my list. And am excited to go explore “The Diamond in the Window”. I also love love children’s books.

    I had the same experience with The Book Thief; it took me a long time to get into it, but oh how I loved it once I did.

    I’ve wanted to join a book group for years, and never have. Or start one, a bilingual Spanish-English book group, where we alternate books we read, and then talk about them in the language we read them in. Any tips on finding a good book group?

    • July 13, 2012 1:00 pm

      My friend just decided to start a bookclub. She invited the people she wanted to be there, and we began reading books. Because she had a lot of family there, it was awkward at times, hearing all the family stuff all the time. But, it truth, I loved it. I was a new mother…our first meeting was the day before I went into labor with Sarah. It was permission to read a book, and permission to get out of the house once a month. It saved me in so many ways. We always met at her house, but took turns bringing treats. Once I began working, I stopped going. I just have been so overwhelmed trying to parent, teach, and learn how to be a professor. I am hoping that I can go back once I have a handle on things, but it is hard.

      I think you should just start a list of people you would like to be in your book group. Write some sort of expectations (Spanish/English sounds so awesome!) and decide where to meet. Is there a nice coffee shop or restaurant that has a secluded spot? That way you won’t have the stress of hosting all the time, or you could always take turns hosting. Otherwise, I know that book stores host bookclubs sometimes. You could check out your favorite local store. I would love to hear about your process in starting one from scratch!

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