Friday, June 02, 2023

Read What You Love, Part 1 by Karen S. Wiesner

Read What You Love, Part 1

by Karen S. Wiesner

In this three-part article, I talk about what conditions, if any, cultivate or discourage a love of the written word as well as about the importance of reading what you love, regardless of your age, the genre or content appropriateness, your gender, or what's considered your "level". In the last two segments, I'll also review two of my favorite Young Adult book series that any fan of the supernatural should love as I much as I do.

I don't know when I started reading as a child, though I suspect it wasn't as soon as I would like to brag it was, if anyone in my family could actually recall such a thing. For as long as I can remember, every catalog, magazine, even the TV Guide, as well as literally anything that had words on it (shampoo bottles, cereal boxes, telephone directories, maps…), I devoured. We didn't have many books lying around our house. I suspect those we owned had been left there by the previous home owner. We had a very old dictionary that lost its hard cover binding long before I dug it out of a junk pile--and read it front to back. Hey, maybe that aided the reading comprehension I seemed to have grasped very early in life.

I also unearthed one of what had to be the very first Nancy Drew novels published (a cloth hardcover!) that had, once upon a time, fallen down the well, been retrieved, and dried, making the gray cloth shrink, and the pages stick together until I carefully freed each one so I could read it.

I reread that book and the dictionary until I started grade school and discovered an entire world open to me through the school library. I was in utter awe. From the time I got to school each day, I went to the library whenever I could between classes. From Kindergarten and on, the elementary school librarian let me help her in the library, checking books in and out, reshelving those returned, getting brand new selections ready. She even let me have early access to each of those. I knew where everything went in that little library in no time at all based on the decimal number classification.

All my years in that school, I loved it when the librarian read books to us. I was utterly lost in the fictional world of those stories as me and my classmates sat on the reading rug. I barely noticed how uncomfortable it was to sit on the floor, I was so enraptured. I didn't want her to stop until she read the very last word of each book.

The librarian saw my love of books in how often I was there and the sheer number of books I checked out on a weekly basis. I got over my extreme shyness, at least to a certain level, because I saw a kindred soul in that kind lady. She never questioned whether I understood what I was reading. Instead, she asked me how I liked it, and we talked about those books all the time. From my introduction to the library, I always checked out books that interested me, regardless of genre and the suggested age level, which I can't imagine I even noticed back then. Even that young, I suspect I wouldn't have cared to be told reading material was beyond my age group or comprehension level, let alone appropriate for me to read. In fact, ever harboring a bit of the rebel, I would have taken it as a challenge.

I swear I read every single book in that teeny-tiny library before I graduated to the middle and high school that were in a single building. That new library was triple the size, another whole new world for me to explore. I was quick to set myself up for working there when I joined Library Club and became an aid to the librarian. I might not have read all of those books in the years I was there, but I sure made a dent in them.

As I got older, I fully realized there were actually age-related guidelines and categories for books. Additionally, comprehension determined what levels of books a person could or should read. I think those standardized tests we took, where I excelled almost to the extreme at language and reading comprehension (and performed dismally in math, lol), made me aware that (and appreciative of) my ability to understand nearly any book I picked up. I was also starting to comprehend that cultivating a love of the written word had more to do with personality and preference, not always (or at least not necessarily) with environment or conditioning. After all, I don't think I ever saw my parents reading, and the only time I remember them reading to me and my siblings was when I was watching for the school bus to pick us up in the morning. While I stood at the window, my mom would read out loud from the library books I checked out in towering stacks for those precious minutes on weekdays.

It's true that some people are just drawn to reading and books while others aren't--sometimes at all--for a variety of reasons, which can include skills, abilities, preferences, and personality quirks (or lack thereof). I don't think environment and conditioning are solid criteria for deciding emphatically that someone will turn out to be an avid reader or not. But that doesn't mean you can't slant the odds in your favor, as I actively did when I was old enough to start having my own children.

I suppose since my happiest memories as a child mostly all involved books, I began to read to my son even before he was born. Early on, he discovered his love of books. He started reading on his own when he was only four. Nevertheless, I still read to him all the time, by mutual consent. I don't remember when I started reading things like The Hobbit, Terry Brooks' Shannara Chronicles, and Harry Potter to him, but I know he was still in his early single digits. I could tell he understood most of what I read to him by 1) the discussions we had during and afterward about what we read and 2) how excited he was to get back to the story, just as I was, each time.

Later in life, another thing that struck me was when someone my husband knew asked what kinds of books I wrote. Because that was what I was writing at the time, my husband said science fiction. This person commented about how that genre was for little kids, wasn't it? I confess I was initially offended and embarrassed when I heard this, though of course I concluded eventually that this person wasn't a reader per se and didn't really know much about reading or writing. Commonsense says that most kids' books are written by adults, right? My science fiction was an adult novel series, but I imagine those younger would also enjoy it just as much. Besides, even if science fiction as a category could be relegated to only youth reading it, I couldn't help wondering how anyone would think that age, let alone genre, should dictate someone's reading likes and dislikes. I knew plenty of grown men who still enjoyed comic books and manga as well as grown women who continued to indulge in those "true confession" magazines that tantalized and scandalized them as teenage girls.

I do want to be clear here that I don't think there's anything wrong with parents "censoring" stories that are far too sexual or violent for their children. There's a lot of shocking material that's readily available these days to kids that wasn't anywhere near as accessible in my time. Also, in my day nearly everyone cared about being a role model to kids (not something that seems prevalent in today's world). While freely admitting that I never had any boundaries set on me and probably read a lot of things that weren't appropriate for my age, I turned out pretty good, despite this. My point here, for the most part, is that in the general sense, people should read what they're interested in. It doesn't matter if someone else dubs it too mature or immature, or if it's in a genre that social convention says adults or kids shouldn't be reading. Additionally, I don't think gender should play a factor either. Why can't males read romance novels while females read action/adventure and horror? Read what you love!

I myself am no respecter of age or level dictating what I do and should read. When I was young, I read books that others, even educators, would have (wrongly) assumed were far beyond my comprehension and, yeah, as I said earlier, some that was wildly inappropriate reading material for my age. Now, as an adult, the tables have turned. I read (and sometimes write) books that many would consider far below my level and too immature for someone my age. Oh, the wondrous things many readers are missing, all because of ill-perceived restrictions on age, level, gender, and/or genre!

I was never too young or sheltered to read Go Ask Alice (by Anonymous), Black Like Me (a must-read for every human that I'd read long before my high school teacher assigned it), anything by S.E. Hinton, Janet Dailey, Bruce and Carole Hart, Paul Zindel, and Judy Blume. I even read the occasional Western, which was simply not something girls read in my time.

I will never be too old or mature to love the brilliant works of Dr. Seuss, Astrid Lindgren, Peggy Parrish (and her belovedly ditzy, literalist character Amelia Bedelia), Betty MacDonald, the crazy-fun Robert Munch, Scott O'Dell, Brandon Mull, and Joseph Delaney.

A love of the written word transcends any boundaries. And don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

In the next two parts of this article, I'll post in-depth reviews of two phenomenal Young Adult series I discovered as a 30-something year old adult and would have missed (and been the worse for it) if I cared anything about maturity, appropriateness, genre, and level classifications.

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

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1 comment:

  1. I started reading at age 4 -- taught myself by following the words as my father read to me -- and was reading adult fiction lying around my grandmother's house by the age of 8. I don't believe in forbidding children and teens to read anything. If it's above their level, they'll just get bored or repelled by it. (If there was anything in the house I really didn't want the kids to see while they were growing up, I stashed it away where they would never think of looking. With thousands of books out in plain sight, they hardly had any incentive to search for more.)