Allison's Book Bag

Posts Tagged ‘book round-ups

Perhaps because my dad surrounded me with books as a child, I grew up wanting to be a writer. As such, I made up stories about characters from radio shows, responded to picture prompts from teachers with the longest stories in my class, and imagined stories about my dolls. When opportunities arose, I also entered essay and poetry contests for students, and contributed to our school newspaper. No doubt, it also helped that during my teens my dad enrolled in a creative writing course and encouraged me to take one too. Still, during my youth, I didn’t know anyone other than my dad who liked to write, and certainly didn’t know any published authors.

Books were my main source of inspiration and information. When my husband suggested that one way to review books from my childhood would be to compile round-ups, my first thought was to review the books that have most influenced me. Doing this would let me to share something of myself with you. With school upon me again, it also seemed like an appropriate time. Soon I will be talking with my students about writing and helping them compose their own works. Enjoy this round-up of beloved books from my childhood that encouraged me in my dream to become a writer.

LITTLE WOMEN

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.”

Everyone is no doubt familiar this opening line. It comes from the first book in this round-up: Little Women, the beloved classic of the four young March girls. Meet sixteen-year-old Meg, the plump and matronly oldest sister; Jo, the awkward and rambunctious tomboy; Amy, the spoiled and artistic blond; and Beth, the quiet and reserved youngest sister. With their father away at war, the girls grow up under the watchful eye of Marmee.

Despite the absence of their father, the family is close knit. The Marches sing together. They help the needy, even to the point of giving up their Christmas breakfast to help a starving family. Not being rich themselves, they produce their own plays and a family newspaper for entertainment. Under the moral direction of their mother, they also learn many life lessons. I embraced many of the principles myself such as refusing to let the sun go down on my anger.

Of course, the March family is not perfect, which is why we love them. Meg succumbs to vanity a party when she borrows a dress that is far too stiff with a train that is far too long. She also fears during dances that her earrings will fall off. Jo refuses to forgive her sister Amy for an act of vengeance, until a skating disaster reunites them. Amy receives the strap at school for ignoring a rule about candy. And Beth loses a beloved bird during a disastrous week when the girls experiment with idleness. Even the one who most often instills moral guidance, Mrs. March, admits that it’s taken her over forty years to only partially cure her anger.

While the entire family is creative, Jo is the writer amongst them. This is my main reason for liking her best. We’re both always reading. Jo also likes to receive books as presents. My dad gives me at least one book upon each special occasion. Jo is attracted most to homes where the owners have libraries, to the point that she visits her Aunt March solely because of her huge library and feels that the boy next door (Laurie) is rich less for his money and more for his library. To this day, I cannot easily walk past a library or bookstore. If I venture inside, my husband almost has to drag me out. Jo most typically cites examples from literature to prove her points. In high school, for a computer programming project, I created a lengthy literature quiz. The places I most desire to visit are literary (or nature) spots.

We also both regularly write! Jo writes plays and contributes news to the family newsletter. Growing up, I entered writing contests, wrote the longest stories in class, and kept a diary. As an adult, I wrote plays for my dad’s students to act out in their class assemblies and for a local animal shelter to use in their educational curriculum. I also create family newsletters. Jo loves sharing stories about what happens in her life. My husband often teases me after a lengthy explanation by quipping: “That was a lovely story.” Unlike Jo, others tend to correct my spoken grammar rather than the other way around.

ROOM MADE OF WINDOWS

“I’m ashamed of you.”

Julia’s mom says this to the main character Julia Redfern, in the second book in my round-up: A Room Made of Windows. On its heels is her brother’s admonition: “You’re a selfish kid. Why couldn’t you let her go and have some fun?”

Julia’s father died at war and her mom is dating again. On this particular night, fourteen-year-old Julia tells her mother off for not taking her to attend a play. Her mom explains that it’s a play for adults. Besides, no one had promised Julia that she could attend. Julia feels that is a lie. Moreover, she’d bragged about attending the play and will be embarrassed when her friends find out the truth.

When her mother and ‘That One’ (her despised boyfriend) leave, Julia escapes to her room to vent. She pours out her feelings in her Book of Strangeness, where she also compiles lists. Then she turns to her story. Julia’s so excited when she finishes that despite the late hour she heads out to mail it. Her best friend’s drunken father intercepts her, steals her envelope, and refuses to return it until neighbor Rhiannon Moore appears.

A Room Made of Windows contains lengthy chapters that are heavier on character development than action. In the first half of the book, Julia has met with an editor about her story, gone out with her family to celebrate her publication success, and lost her two cats. Otherwise, most of the other happenings amount to interactions between characters. These people include Julia’s family: her mom, her brother who’s a history addict, her grandparents with whom the family’s moved in, along with aunts and uncles. As for Julia’s friends, there is Addie and her dysfunctional family, Leslie who writes poetry, and Rhiannon who’s a retired pianist. There’s also her mother’s boyfriend: Phil.

Despite the book’s slow pace, I grew up loving it because of how I much identified with Julia. We’re both sensitive. When Phil reprimands her for standing too close to the edge of a balcony, Julia lashes out at him for trying to take on the role of a father. I become similarly defensive if reprimanded. When Addie’s grandmother orders her to stop playing their piano, Julia trudges instead of hustling off. If hurried, I tend to make impulsive decisions or to freeze like a deer in headlights. Julia is also passionate. When waiting to hear the fate of her submitted story, a “mingling of eagerness and anxiety would sharpen painfully in her stomach”. When her cats are missing, Julia felt “a sick, hollow ache in the place in her middle where she knew and felt all sad or disappointing or enraging or terrible things”.

Of course, the way I most identified with Julia is in her desire to become a writer. Julia loved words and kept lists of them. Growing up, I devoured both the dictionary and the thesaurus. Unlike Jo March, Julia and I often incorrectly use or invent words. For that reason, I relate to Julia’s sentiment: “It was always awful to have to use words you weren’t sure about, to have to use them in front of people and not just in your own head, and see everyone tickled inside themselves.” Julia also wrote stories and would think them out, down to the last detail, before going to bed. To my regret, this latter habit becomes less ingrained the older I become. Julia also influenced me in that for awhile I kept lists of words and strange events and tried turning dreams into stories. Even though my habits have changed here too, like Julia I do view writing as my special work. I intend to keep working on it and making grow. And I’m pretty sure that my feelings and pains will help me as a writer.

HARRIET THE SPY

“Well, I’m going to be a writer. And when I say that’s a mountain, that’s a mountain.”

This line is from one of perhaps the most famous aspiring writers in juvenile fiction. Harriet M. Welsh is a spy who is also a writer. When readers first encounter her, Harriet is telling her friend Sport how to play Town: You make up and write down the names of people, make up what they do, and then write down their stories. If Harriet were real, I bet she’d play The Sims (a computer game that allows players to create families and control actions.)

“It won’t do you a bit of good to know anything if you don’t do anything with it.”

This advice comes from Ole Golly, who takes care of Harriet. The next time you hear a screaming kid, think of Harriet. One of the more controversial characters in children’s literature, she isn’t a particularly nice girl. Harriet runs through the house, slams doors, and yells at adults. She is opinionated, recording blunt facts about her neighbors but also ridiculing even her friends in her journals. She’s also rude. Once she interrupted a family dinner to scream: “I’ll be damned if I go to dancing school!” Harriet is no more of a role model than Greg Heffly of Diary of a Wimpy Kid fame, but remains as popular and as loved.

Shortly after readers are first introduced to Harriet, she starts sixth grade. Some of the book’s action occurs at school. Her class nominates an officer, whose job it is to monitor students when the teacher is out of the room and, for some reason, to also serve as the editor of the school paper. Her class votes on a suitable Christmas play and pick one about Christmas foods. Some action occurs on Harriet’s spy routes. She observes: Mrs. Agatha K Plumber who is a theatrical lady that refuses to leave bed, the Santi family who run a grocery store, Harrison Withers who owns twenty-five cats, and the Robinsons who never talk to each other. In the light of mostly absent parents, the most stabilizing forces in Harriet’s life are Ole Golly and her friends Sport, whose dad is a struggling writer, and Janie, who is an aspiring scientist who might build a bomb to blow up the world. In the second half of the book, Harriet’s life is turned upside down when she loses those stabilizing forces.

Except for the fact we were both only children, the dominant way I identify with Harriet is that she wants to be a writer. As with most authors, she loves books. Harriet also keeps a notebook and never goes anywhere without it. She uses it to take notes about people whom she watches so that she can remember them. She has fourteen notebooks. While I do keep a notebook, mine are more sporadic and objective. While I also do not have a route, and am not sure anyone should, I do like to sit in parks and stores to watch people. In my notebook, I describe how people look, but mostly have fun capturing conversations on paper. Harriet’s practice of keeping notes has inspired many an author.

UP A ROAD SLOWLY

Read my earlier review here.

ANNE OF GREEN GABLES

Read my earlier review here.

EMILY OF NEW MOON

“Emily didn’t know that was being pitied.”

This observation is made by Lucy Maud Montgomery in describing her favorite character of mine: Emily of New Moon. Emily lives with her father and caretaker Ellen Greene in a house in the hollow, which is situated in a grassy dale. Emily doesn’t much care for Ellen, but she loves her father.  She also has the company of her cats, the wind whom she calls Wind Woman, and the trees for whom she also has names. In the opening chapter, her father is sick. Once he drifts off to sleep, Emily slips away for a twilight walk.

“Do you know that your pa has only a week or two more to live?”

These words of Ellen greet Emily upon her return from her glorious walk. When her father awakes later, he berates Ellen for having revealed this truth to Emily in such a hurtful way.Then he shares memories with Emily of her mother and of the Murray clan.

When he dies, Ellen still doesn’t offer Emily comfort. She informs Emily that her relatives are coming to the house to decide who will raise her. Emily expresses the wish that her relatives will love her. Ellen denies her even this hope, calling Emily a strange child because she lives in her imagination as well as advising Emily that people don’t love strange children.

Upon their arrival, the relatives pick Emily apart in her presence, meaning they argue about who she looks and acts like down to whose forehead she has. Emily declares to their faces that they make her feel like “scraps and patches”. Her relatives order her to leave, but Emily hides under the table to hear her fate. When the relatives begin to criticize her father, Emily gives herself away by rushing out and yelling at them in her father’s defense. Tired of her outbursts, the relatives draw straws to determine who should take her. The rest of the book is about her life with the “winners”.

Although I love Anne of Green Gables, Emily of New Moon is my favorite creation of Lucy Maud Montgomery. Both girls are imaginative, outspoken, and passionate. Yet unlike Anne, Emily is more introverted with darker moods and less social grace. Perhaps for these reasons, Emily is often rejected for her differences, rather than embraced and loved like Anne. Therefore, I feel more akin to Emily.

How does Emily act like a writer? How am I like her? Although often forbidden access to them, Emily loves books. She’s also an imaginative child. In her mind, she transforms the ground into fairy kingdoms and the sky into palaces of the gods. Upon my most recent visit to my home province, my husband and I took treks through the hills and woods that I had explored as a child. I remembered how every spot had held adventure for me in my imagination. Emily needs to capture everything she sees and feels to paper. Sometimes I do, while other times I feel content to compose writings in my head. Emily keeps journals, writes letters, and composes poems. Although I grew up requesting diaries for presents and writing letters to pen pals, poetry only became a past time for me when I discovered the Emily series. I don’t know if anyone could stop Emily from writing, but she also loves to receive encouragement for it. I consider myself blessed that both my dad and now my husband have long been my biggest supporters in my goal to become a writer.

RASCAL

“It was in May 1918 that a new friend and companion came into my life.”

This statement refers to Rascal. It is the introduction by Sterling North to the memories of his childhood. In the first chapter of his fictional memoir, Sterling heads out with his dog Wowser and his best friend Oscar to the woods and across a creek. In the process of digging at a rotten stump, Wowser frightens a mother raccoon. Sterling takes one of the young that she leaves behind. Oscar’s mom shows the boys how to feed a raccoon.

Thus, begins the adventures of a boy and his raccoon. School is out, giving ample time for both to bond. In the midst of exposition about his family and ponderings about how God could have allowed his mom to die, Sterling shares how Rascal learns to eat and fend for himself without a mother. For example, Rascal figures out how to catch fish. Sterling describes how Rascal becomes part of their household. Rascal is even allowed to eat at the table, where Rascal is dumbfounded when a piece of sugar melts when he dips it into a bowl of milk. And Sterling explains how smart Rascal is. Rascal is quick to learn how to unbolt the front door, so that he can come and go at night.

The two head off to Indian Ford, which has a bridge with girders where boys would dare themselves to dive. It also had a secret fishing place. At the latter, after being pinched several times, Rascal catches and crushes the head of a crayfish. After Sterling also catches some fish by wading into the water, boy and raccoon share a soft drink. Rascal develops a fondness for strawberry but not the lemon sour.

Shortly after this adventure, one of Sterling’s older sisters comes to visit. She hires a housekeeper, makes home cooked meals, and orders Sterling to remove the canoe from the living room. By the way, raccoons were not the only animal Sterling had brought home. His sister was none too happy to also discover a crow that liked to shout in church and even some skunks. You might think her visit would have changed their life but, soon enough, Sterling’s sister returned to her home. Then Sterling resumes his fairly independent life, which is far from lonely or boring, because of the critters he brings home.

Rascal might seem like an odd choice to include in a round-up of books about authors. Indeed, the book and others like it probably far better inspired one of my many career ideas that didn’t pan out: that of being a naturalist. Yet there’s one scene which has stuck with me. When his aunt Lillie talks with Sterling about his career choices, she doesn’t think he should be a doctor. He is too tenderhearted. Instead she suggests that his Mother would have wanted him to write. “Then you could put it all down …. the way it is now … You could just keep it like this forever.” Although I aspire to be a novelist, I also create family newsletters and keep day journals, pet journals, and trip journals because I wish to keep a record of our family’s life as it is.

How about you? What was your dream job? Did books inspire your choice? If so, what ones and how? Aside from their encouraging me as a writer, all of the above books would also fall under my list of favorite novels to read. If you haven’t read some of them, borrow them and let me know what you think. If you have read them, what did you think of them? If you liked this round-up, add your ideas about what other themes you’d like me to explore. Then come back next week for another round-up, this time of books for young people on how to become a writer.

Growing up, I studied the inside jacket blurbs of books to learn everything I could about an author. If the bios provided were too short, I sought one in an encyclopedia. These days, I lean more towards online articles or even full-length autobiographies. This fanatical attraction of mine to authors might have something to do with my dream to be one. As such, you might not share the same interest.Yet many online readers do like to know about authors for the same reason many movie viewers like to hear commentaries. Authors can provide insight into how a novel came to fruition, along with how they feel about their characters and how they established their settings, and perhaps even provide trivial details about their story. It’s also just fun and fascinating to find out more about the person who wrote the story that I just finished. For all those reasons, I eagerly await the day when novels come packed with special features the way DVDS do. In the meantime, I enjoy researching into author biographies to provide you with some tidbits of info about the novelists whose books I feature.For my next review, I will feature a round-up of beloved books from childhood that encouraged me in my dream to become a writer. During the week itself, I will post mini-biographies of the authors of those novels. Save the date of my round-up: August 14!

Author #1: What famous writer resisted a publisher request, because she did not think she could write an interesting story for girls?

Headshot of Louisa May Alcott (November 29, 18...
Image via Wikipedia

In eighteen sixty-eight, a Boston publisher asked the struggling young to write a book for books, because it would have widespread appeal. He was right. When Alcott eventually decided to try, the result was the instantly success and now beloved classic Little Women.Read more of her biography at the Louisa May Alcott website. There, you can also see a photo of the home where Little Women was penned, read information about how to take a tour of the historic Orchard House, and purchase merchandise related to Little Women. Teachers can find educational programs and study kits.If you feel ready to test your knowledge of Louise May Alcott and her book Little Women, check out these quizzes from The Literature Network:

Author #2: Where was Eleanor Cameron born?Canada! Now although Eleanor Cameron was born in Canada, she lived most of her life in California. Her parents moved to Berkeley early in her life. She then lived in Los Angeles until she married Ian Cameron. They moved to Pacific Grove, where she lived for the rest of her life. For some reason, I thought she was British. Ah well.

Eleanor Cameron

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Eleanor Cameron is known best for two sets, one being the Mushroom Planet books. Even as a child, I did not readily take to science fiction. So, this is not her favorite set of mine. Yet having learned of the origin, I am intrigued to reread them. Apparently, one day her son David, an avid Doctor Dolittle fan stood at the side of her table and told her what he had dreamed of: a story about himself and his closest friend, and how they would build a little spaceship and go off and find a planet just their size, just about big enough to explore in a day or two. And so, at her son’s request, the five Mushroom Planet books were born.It surprised me just as much to learn that Cameron was in her sixties when she began writing realistic fiction. One of the results, the Julia Redfern books, are among my favorite books for they featured an aspiring adolescent writer. Cameron’s last children’s novel, the final book in the Redfern series, was finished when she was seventy-seven. You can read an extensive biography of Cameron at Old Children’s Books and my review of one of the Julia Redfern books here on Sunday.

Louise Fitzhugh

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Author #3: What author received criticism for her book about a rude and opinionated heroine who also carried a notebook with her everywhere?In 1964, Louise Fitzhugh published her first novel: Harriet the Spy. She was an only child. Her parents divorced soon after her birth and her father won complete custody, on the grounds that her mother was unfit. Biographies about Fitzhugh suggest that the loneliness of her youth influenced her writings. Her life was unusual in other ways too. For example, she attended an all girls’ school and later three universities, without obtaining a degree. Although she was married briefly, she dated girls after high school and wrote a book about two adolescent girls who fall in love. While this manuscript was rejected, Harriet the Spy became a classic. After only a handful of picture books and novels, Fitzhugh died in her forties of a brain aneurysm. For more info on Harriet the Spy, check out the tribute Purple Socks site.Author #4: Who won a Newbery Honor for her book about the Civil War?Irene Hunt! I couldn’t find much about her except that, after she received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, she worked as a teacher. A number of authors seemed to have this background. Hunt taught French and English in the Illinois public schools and later psychology at the University of South Dakota. She retired from teaching in 1969.Growing up, she loved to listen to the stories that her grandfather told of his childhood during the Civil War. From these stories came her first novel, Across Five Aprils. It was named a Newbery Honor book in 1965. Only two years later, she received a Newbery Medal for Up a Road Slowly. One of my favorite books from childhood that encouraged me in my dream to become a writer, I’m still looking for information regards its origin.Author #5: Who is a famous literary orphan?

Lucy Maud Montgomery ca 1920 – 1930

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Anne of Green Gables! The inspiration for Anne came from a scrap of paper that Lucy Maud Montgomery kept from a young age, describing a couple that were mistakenly sent an orphan girl instead of a boy but had decided to keep her. Montgomery used a photograph of Evelyn Nesbit from New York’s Metropolitan Magazine as the model for the face of Anne. In also drawing upon her childhood experiences growing rural Prince Edward Island in writing Anne of Green Gables, Montgomery made Prince Edward Island famous across the world. Since its publication, Anne of Green Gableshas sold more than 50 million copies.When Montgomery was only two years old, her mother died of tuberculosis. Stricken with grief over his wife’s death, Hugh Montgomery gave custody of Montgomery to her grandparents and eventually moved out West to Saskatchewan. Montgomery grew up with her strict and conservative grandparents in Cavendish. Montgomery credits this lonely time of her life, in which she created many imaginary friends and places to cope with loneliness, as what developed her creative mind.Following the completion of her grade school education, she attended Prince of Wales College in Charlottetown. Completing a two-year program there in one year, she obtained her teaching certificate. Upon later leaving Dalhousie, where she studied literature, Montgomery worked as a teacher in various island schools. She also began to have short stories published in various magazines and newspapers. A prolific writer, Montgomery had over one hundred of her stories published from 1897 to 1907 inclusive. The following year, she published her first book: Anne of Green Gables.An avid fan of Montgomery’s novels, most of her life story is familiar to me. When reading recent biographies, however, I discovered that Montgomery underwent several periods of depression during her adult years while trying to cope with the duties of motherhood and church life, her husband’s attacks of melancholia and deteriorating health, and expensive lawsuits with her publisher. Truly, for much of her life, writing was her one great solace. You can read more about this troubled but beloved author at the Lucy Maud Montgomery Institute website.Author #6: What author survived a near-paralyzing struggle with polio in his teens?

Raccoon

Image by fatedsnowfox via Flickr

Sterling North! Born ina farmhouse on the shores of Lake Koshkonong, North grew to young adulthood in the quiet southern Wisconsin village of Edgerton. When North was eleven, several of his uncles wrote extended biographies about their parents and their pioneer farm life. This writing effort occurred at the same time as the setting of Rascal and may have been inspiration to North who often drew upon his own life for his books.After graduating from Edgerton High School, North began his writing career. He wrote for The Chicago Daily News, The New York World-Telegram and Sun, and for many magazines. North’s most famous work, Rascal, received several awards including the Newbery Honor. It was also made into a Disney movie.Additionally, it was made into a 52-episode Japanese anime entitled “Araiguma Rasukara”. Rascal’s popularity led to many Japanese children requesting raccoons as pets. Japan became such a big buyer of raccoons that North American raccoons are now a serious alien pest in Japan.You can read a fuller biography about Sterling North at the Sterling North Society. The society also features tours and related merchandise. To read more about Rascal’s popularity in Japan, check out: Go Jefferson. The page also provides photos and related trivia.

Over the past year, the focus of Allison’s Book Bag has been changing. Originally, I had the lofty idea that hosting a book review blog would encourage my elementary resource students to read. That goal did not quite work out as I’d planned. My students were more interested in filling up our classroom white board with recommendations than in posting them online. In the meantime, my online readership grew. In response, I began paying more attention to the books featured at Good Reads for young people. As I bounced around in my selections, my reading adventures grew: I won advanced reader copies of books by new authors, borrowed books through inter-library loan, and began to seek out books from other cultures and regions. Always alert to literacy communities, I discovered Book Blogs and stumbled upon further reading adventures: I received review copies from small presses, participated in book tours, and began experimenting with how to best promote my posts. The latter isn’t strictly connected to reading, except that I started interviewing authors partially as a means to promote my site. As I dabbled in reading selections, I began to wonder about my focus—if I even had one. I also began to realize how fun and enriching it has been to expand my reading horizons.

Books can help us find our place in the world: For example, thanks to Anne of Green Gables, I realized the importance of a kindred spirit and ironically also coveted red hair. When I found my kindred spirit, thanks to Ellen Tibbits I wanted her to be my twin. Thanks to Charlotte’s Web, my dad had to struggle with a teen vegetarian. By the same token, thanks to endless nature novels I grew into an adult who loves animals. As a young person I didn’t know anyone else who wanted to be a writer when they grew up. Therefore, fiction that featured aspiring authors helped me understand my internal desires. And, although young adult books were in their infancy in my youth, the social issues books for this group awoke empathy within me for misfit teens and thereby influenced my decision to work in special education. As enjoyable as modern fiction can be, I still love the classics. For that reason, my husband suggested that I share round-ups of them. Over the upcoming year, look forward to reviews of books that helped shape me.

When the world becomes too much to bear, books can help us escape it: Some of my favorite memories of growing up are of adventures which my friends and I concocted based on storybooks. For example, my childhood friends and I loved to dress up as gypsies and pirates. Never mind that these lifestyles sound less than glamorous when one reads about their real-life counterparts. In college, my best friend and I often trekked through the back woods and streams near our college. We imagined ourselves as Taran and Eilonwy from the Prydain Chronicles or as Theo and Mickle from the Westmark Trilogy, both fantasy sets by Lloyd Alexander. If you haven’t figured out yet from my reviews, I’m addicted to fantasy for young people. Growing up, I used to create fancy clothes during baths made up of bubble bath and soap. Even today, whenever I travel by plane, I imagine how much fun living in the clouds could be. This past year, I have enjoyed discovering examples of modern fantasy. You can continue to expect reviews of fantasies, from the old to the new.

Books are also often our first window into the broader world to which we all belong: Yet as an adult I have often limited myself to books about my ethic group, social class, and interests and profession. Seems I had forgotten that as a child I learned much of what I knew about Aboriginals from reading biographies of Emily Carr, who sketched and painted much of their culture. In the same token, my awareness of Jewish life comes from the Bible and from The Diary of Anne Frank. In a different vein, after reading Helen Keller’s story I tried to understand her world by walking around blindfolded. Although there are very few animals that I dislike, I grew up with a special attraction to wolves from books such as Julie of the Wolves, Kavik the Wolf Dog, and Never Cry Wolf. I longed to see the vast prairies because some of our Canadian authors had so effectively portrayed them in their novels. Visiting England in high school felt like a dream come true, because so many of my beloved books were written by British authors. In the upcoming year, I plan to also seek out cultural, regional, spiritual, and other special interest books.

  • Cultural Fiction: One of my favorite discoveries this year has been books by Rita-Williams Garcia. Prior to her books, most of the books I have read from an African-American perspective were similar to those which Rita found herself limited to when growing up:  biographies, historical fiction, or stories about prejudice. Rita Williams-Garcia instead writes about universal social issues such as teen pregnancy and teen violence, while also maintaining a distinctive African-American tone. She also explores universal themes such as friendship and responsibility, while also probing cultural-based issues. Her books reminded me of the multicultural events that I attended at one of our local schools during my student teaching year. Students from different cultures shared their unique foods, dances, and stories. I always found their presentations fun, informative, and fascinating, just as I did books by Rita Williams-Garcia. Now I wish to read books from other cultures too.
  • Regional Fiction: Normally, when I visit my family in Canada, I ignore our regional fiction. Often I’m too quick to read what everyone else is reading, the same way many folks settle for hit songs and blockbuster movies instead of looking beyond the mainstream to find smaller gems. This summer, I decided to push myself out of my comfort zone and borrowed eight books set in my home province of Newfoundland and Labrador. While some focused on historical events, which are educational especially for outsiders, the majority of them told the same kinds of stories found in other books except from the unique perspective of an islander. Besides now wishing to read books from other regions too, I also encourage you to seek them out. After my dad read my recent regional round-ups, he read a few and was impressed with their quality. You might also be impressed, and expand your knowledge of your part of the world.
  • Christian Fiction: I had a similar experience recently with Christian fiction. Although I grew up reading Christian novels, I had drifted away from them because so many of them centered on the conversion experience. While visiting my family this summer, I read one of my sister’s religious books. Granted, If You Only Knew was another conversion book, but it also involved mystery and romance. Moreover, its author Mags Storey had the courage to confront how messy love and faith can really be. When later checking out the local Christian bookstore, my husband pointed out some crime books that had hit the best seller list. To my surprise, the books are also available at our local library. I will be checking them out. Stay tuned!
  • Problem Fiction: In my attempts to broaden my reading selections, I also rediscovered problem novels. My first attempt to find a regional book led me not to stories set in the Midwest, but instead to a novel about mental illness: The Language of Goldfish by Zibby O’Neal. The book reminded me how eagerly I had devoured social issue stories as an adolescent. Through the written word (and after school television specials), I learned about abuse, alcoholism, divorce, eating disorders, mental illness, rape, suicide…. For awhile, these topics fascinated me so much that I studied psychology in university. These days, I see my sister being attracted to similar entertainment. In the majority of issue stories, the problem is essentially one of the main characters. As such, issue novels might be inspiring to people with this particular problem or educational to those who are not, but they also tend to have limited re-readability. Well, at least this is my impression of them. Join me this upcoming year as I test drive a few problem novels.
  • Boy Fiction: Throughout all my own reading adventures, I have not forgotten my students. Despite being aware as an educator that boys tend to read less than girls, I tend to gravitate more towards female-oriented fiction. Glancing recently at lists of books recommended for boys, I realized how limited my guy-lit experiences have been: Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney, The Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snickett, and The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Stewart are three series I have reviewed. Although I have yet to feature them, stories by Roald Dahl or by Neil Gaiman constitute other “boy” books that I have read. (Except for Dahl, the authors were also all recommended to me by boys.) This only totals five authors whose books I could recommend for boys: That number needs to change. While expanding my guy-lit experiences, I probably should take a stab at reading high-interest and low-vocabulary books. Part of me feels that books aimed specifically at reluctant readers are not going to appeal to me. Yet like some of my other reading experiments this year, it’s possible that hi-lo books could also prove to be a pleasant surprise. Beyond that, the composite review that my students wrote of Snakes by Sandra Markle still ranks as one of my most popular posts. I intend to keep asking my students to review.

Now, despite my best intentions to diversify my reading selections, I know there will be limits. Beyond what I have in my personal collection, I plan to review only those books that I can borrow or receive for free from a publisher. Thus, once I start searching for regional books (or even Christian books), I expect to face the same dilemma as some of my readers encountered in trying to find regional books. This is where online reading communities can play a role. Have you read a book that you think others might enjoy but for whatever reason has limited recognition and/or availability? Post a review of it at Amazon or at a reading community such as Good Reads. You can also recommend it here!

Of course, just because one seeks to expand their horizons does not mean they are open anything. I personally do not wish to read books that cross certain moral or religious lines. As part of my review policy, I state: “I do not review books with excessive profanity or violence, or explicit sex.” Beyond that, even if I am fairly liberal with my reading, I will avoid books that directly oppose my beliefs. For example, while I certainly read a ton of books that are not specifically Christian, I have no interest in reading books which are opposed to my faith. What if read a book for review purposes that makes me overly uncomfortable?  I will either not review it or else note my objections to it in my review.

My goal for the next year will be to introduce you to books from a wide variety of lists. If you have stuck with me this far in this post, you might find of interest that I have added new categories and book lists to the right-hand column that reflect this reading focus. When applicable, the categories designate books by culture, region, or special interests. As for the book lists, they include links to guy-lit and to hi-lo books. If you find yourself getting lost, just turn to my blog navigation page. I have no idea how difficult obtaining books in some of these categories might be, but do look forward to discovering new literary gems. As I have since January, I also intend to keep seeking out author interviews, which are serve a similar function that audio commentaries does for movies.  I hope you will join me in my continuing adventures with reading!


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