The Something of Books

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“There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.”

― Ray Bradbury,
Fahrenheit 451

I work in a high school library and made a banned books display a couple of years ago. I chose the words above to be the centerpiece, not merely because of the censorship flowing through Bradbury’s novel, but because I loved this quote on its own. Sometimes when people ask me about my favorite books, I can’t explain why I like something. When I read a poem or a complicated text that I don’t fully understand, I can still find it beautiful and essential. I echo Bradbury’s words in those moments: “There must be something there.“

fahrenheit 451 book cover

Reading is an endless search to find that something. For some, it’s comfort. For others, it’s entertainment. William Nicholson writes, “We read to know we’re not alone.” Realizing there’s someone else in the world who thinks what you think or feels what you feel is a wonderful thing, especially when those thoughts and feelings are dark and isolating.

I think about the link between reading and loneliness a lot since working with teenagers. I feel a unique duty to these kids to be able to point them toward books that will inspire and teach them, but also toward books that will lessen the blows of that still-familiar teenage feeling of aloneness. A fictional character can say to them what someone else might not: “You’re okay. You’re not the only one. Life gets easier; I promise.”

Before I took my current job, I never read many young adult books, even as a teenager. I still don’t consider myself well read in the world of YA lit, but I do have a few favorites that I recommend frequently. When I dipped my toes into the water of YA books, I was surprised at how stellar the writing is and how adult the subject matter can get. I realize that sounds snobbish, but it’s true. I’m thankful for great writers like Sara Zarr, Courtney Summers, and Laurie Halse Anderson, who not only address hard topics but do so with eloquence.

Some of my favorite young adult books

For me, the element of surprise is one of the best things about reading. Not only does surprise open my eyes to whole new genres, but it gives me pause. A beautifully written sentence or paragraph makes me slow down and take note. Sometimes I end up seeing more in the long run by focusing on one small thing. Throughout my reading life, I’ve had my eyes opened so many times to new ideas and unique ways of seeing the world. Whether it’s discovering a whole new genre or reading a line of poetry that invites me to pause and see something ordinary in a new way, those moments of newness and wonder are necessary elements to the something of why I read.

There must be something there. I want each student who walks through the doors of my library to sense that truth. I want them to develop their own reasons for reading. I want books to become a joy and not a chore. Not every student is going to become a reader, but I want even the ones who don’t to be curious about how any character could stay in a burning house for the sake of some words bound together.

5 of My Favorite School Novels

We’re halfway through May now which means the school year is finally winding down. I have about four weeks left until I’m on summer vacation from my library job. Thanks to all of the graduations, tests, and year-end checklists, I’ve thought about school a lot lately, and I’m using that as inspiration for today’s post featuring some of my favorite novels set in a school or focused on students. A couple of these books deal with suicide, so if that’s not a topic you’re comfortable reading about this would be a good post to skip. Let’s dive in!

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Connell and Marianne meet in high school. He’s popular but poor. Marianne is a social outcast, but she comes from a wealthy family full of terrible people. Though these two would never speak at school, they’re brought together when Connell shows up at Marianne’s house to pick up his mother who works as the family’s maid. They soon embark on a romantic relationship that Connell is desperate to keep secret so as not to jeopardize his social standing. Normal People follows Connell and Marianne through their high school love and explores how their bond is deepened and tested throughout college. Sally Rooney has important things to say about class and gender, and her dialog is fantastic. I’d been looking forward to this novel for months, and it didn’t disappoint.

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth book cover

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson

During his eighth grade year, a bullied boy named Tristan kills himself after a love letter he wrote a girl is shared on Facebook. The Most Dangerous Place on Earth tells the story of the students who were involved in Tristan’s life, examines their guilt in the aftermath, and presents a harsh yet realistic look at life in high school. In addition to the students, readers meet Molly, an earnest new teacher hoping to make a significant impact on her students. The novel switches back and forth between perspectives, and I was fascinated by each one. I haven’t heard many people talk about this book, but it’s worth your time and attention, especially if you work with teens like I do.

Dare Me book cover

Dare Me by Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott’s books are adult fiction, yet she writes teenagers so well. In Dare Me, she tells the story of a high school cheerleading squad living in the aftermath of a suspicious suicide. As an investigation into the death begins, the girls form new alliances, bond with their cool new coach, and treat each other with a viciousness masked by pompoms and the perfect routine. This book is chilling and impossible to put down. Abbott is one of my favorite writers, and Dare Me is an excellent place to start if you haven’t read her work before.

The Secret History book cover

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

In the first few pages of The Secret History, readers find out that a student at an elite college has died. The rest of the novel explores why and how. Richard is the main character, and when he transfers to Hampden College, he joins a group studying Greek classics under the direction of a professor the students nearly worship. Donna Tartt explores friendship, morality, literature, and devotion with great care and nonstop drama. The Secret History is suspense fiction at its finest, and one of my favorite novels of all time.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics book cover

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Blue lives with her professor father and has moved a lot for his work. When she’s a senior in high school, she and her father finally settle down, and Blue falls in with an eccentric group of students and their beloved teacher. Special Topics in Calamity Physics has been compared to The Secret History because of its plot, but this book has a lighter tone, though it too involves death and mysterious circumstances. This novel is what got Marisha Pessl added to my “I’ll Read Everything They Write” list. I’ve never read anything else quite like this book. I adore it, and I think literature-lovers who appreciate quirky fiction will, too.


What are your favorite school novels? What should I read next based on these books? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for reading!

Small and Low-Cost Library Changes That Make a Big Impact

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Sometimes when I think about changes I’d like to make in the school libraries where I work, I think about new furniture, cool technology, fresh layouts, and shelves packed full of new books. It’s fun to imagine these things, but it’s also unrealistic given my schools’ annual budgets. Instead of making over the entire library and purchasing every new book that’s released, most of the changes I’ve brought to my libraries have been small but effective. Today I want to share a few of those changes with you in case you need some free or low-budget ideas that have a significant impact.

Read the rest over at Teen Services Underground.

Reading Recap | April 2019

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Today’s reading recap is the shortest one yet since I only read one book in April. It was a stressful month for a lot of reasons, including this one, so I didn’t have the mental capacity to read like I normally do.

The book I managed to finish is one I’d been looking forward to reading for months, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s about mental health which is perfect since May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental health is a subject I care a lot about since I’ve struggled with anxiety and phobias throughout my life and know many other people who have walked that road, too. Thanks to medication and a stint in therapy, my anxiety is under control. Hope and healing are possible.

And now, the recap!

The Valedictorian of Being Dead: The True Story of Dying Ten Times to Live by Heather B. Armstrong
Rating: 4/5

WHAT’S THIS
BOOK ABOUT?

This book is a candid account of Heather B. Armstrong’s struggle with suicidal depression and the medical treatment that saved her life. Armstrong’s doctor referred to her a clinical study at the height of her illness, and she decided to go for it since it seemed like her only hope. During the trial, Armstrong received anesthesia ten times until she was nearly brain dead, an experience she compares to shutting down a computer in an attempt to get it working again. The results of the procedures are astounding and fascinating.

WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT 
THIS BOOK?

If you read Armstrong’s blog, you’ll know she’s capable of being hilarious, profane, and deeply poignant all in the same paragraph. Her trademark style is present here, but the book is cohesive and structured well throughout. Armstrong makes complex medical information easy to understand and shows incredible vulnerability when describing her struggle to live a happy life. The love she feels for her mother and two daughters is beautiful to witness. You’ll be rooting for her on each page.

WHO SHOULD READ
THIS BOOK?

Anyone interested in mental health or those who have been affected by depression.


April’s Blog Posts

8 of My Favorite Short Books

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Last month, I wrote a post about my favorite long books. I’ve been in a reading slump this April, and sometimes when that’s the case, I want to pick up something short. These past few weeks have been stressful for many different reasons (like this one), so I haven’t had the stamina for a long book.

With that in mind, today I want to share eight of my favorite short books. (I define short as being less than 250 pages.) If you too are in the midst of a reading slump, maybe something on this list will spark your interest and help you get your momentum back.

The Pleasure of My Company book cover

The Pleasure of My Company by Steve Martin
163 pages

This brief, sweet story is about a man named Daniel who lives alone and suffers from OCD. He only leaves his house to go to Rite-Aid, and to get there, he has to use sloped driveways since he can’t step over curbs. A psychiatry student named Clarissa visits Daniel regularly in an attempt to figure out what’s going on in his head. When her abusive ex-husband shows up and threatens to take away their son Teddy, Daniel steps in and tries to save Clarissa and the boy. Through his relationship with these two, Daniel starts opening up and being able to embrace the world around him. Steve Martin narrates this audiobook, so if you’re a Martin fan like I am, that’s a great way to read this gem of a book.

Glaciers book cover

Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith
174 pages

Glaciers is a novel about a day in the life of Isabel, a twenty-something library employee working with damaged books in Portland. She lives a quiet life, loves anything vintage, and has unrequited feelings for a man at work. If you like books that dive deep into a character’s head and emotions, this is the novel for you. There’s not a lot of action or plot; instead, readers are allowed into Isabel’s head as she reflects on her past and thinks about her future. Glaciers is a charming, well-written delight of a book.

Dept. of Speculation book cover

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
179 pages

Though I’m happily unmarried, I love reading novels about marriage, especially when things aren’t going very well for the couple in question. Dept. of Speculation is about an unnamed woman known throughout the book as “the wife.” She and her husband used to write long, reflective letters to each other in which they would consider their lives and the world around them. In this novel, the wife is reflecting on her role as a mother, spouse, and lover of art and culture. I can’t believe how much depth Jenny Offill was able to reach in such few pages. Dept. of Speculation is a tightly constructed, excellent book about female identity and longing.

If Beale Street Could Talk book cover

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
197 pages

A few months ago, I started reading An American Marriage. I’d heard nothing but praise about the book, but I realized it just wasn’t for me. I couldn’t get into it, even though I made it halfway through the novel. After I read If Beale Street Could Talk, I realized how similar the plot is to An American Marriage. Both books are about couples who are forced apart when the man is arrested and imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. While An American Marriage didn’t work for me, I loved If Beale Street Could Talk. Baldwin’s characters are well-developed, and their love is evident throughout the story. If Beale Street Could Talk is a compelling story about love, race, and the lengths we’ll go to save the people we love.

Interpreter of Maladies book cover

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
198 pages

When I read work by an excellent short story writer, I’m always in awe of their ability to tell a complete, meaningful story in so few words. Jhumpa Lahiri is an excellent short story writer, and Interpreter of Maladies is a beautiful example of the form. Many story collections can be hit and miss in terms of quality, but I love each story in this book.

When you reach me book cover

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
199 pages

When You Reach Me is a middle-grade novel, a type of book I never read. Something about it caught my interest, though, so I decided to give it a try. It takes place in New York City during the late 1970s and includes three storylines revolving around a sixth-grade girl named Miranda. Her mom is about to appear on the TV game show The $20,000 Pyramid, she and her best friend Sal have a falling out, and she starts receiving mysterious notes, including one that says, “I’m coming to save your friend’s life, and my own.” Somehow, Rebecca Stead ties these storylines together and throws in a bit of sci-fi and references to Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, too. This novel is a beautifully written and engaging story, one I couldn’t put down. I am so glad I gave this book a chance. It was a good reminder that a particular age range shouldn’t dictate what I read. 

Frances and Bernard book cover

Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer
208 pages

When I heard that Frances and Bernard was inspired by Flannery O’Connor and her friendship with Robert Lowell, I was immediately interested as my love for O’Connor knows no bounds. This book is an epistolary novel comprised of letters between the two title characters who are writers that meet at an artists’ colony. Their bond is beautiful, as is Carlene Bauer’s prose. Frances and Bernard is a sweet story about friendship, love, creativity, and connection.

Gilead book cover

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
247 pages

Like Frances and Bernard, Gilead is also an epistolary novel. Rev. John Ames is an older man with a young son, and he decides to write him letters about his life and faith since he knows he won’t be around to tell him in person. Gilead is a masterpiece about family, memory, and God. It’s deeply theological yet also profoundly human. It’s one of my favorite novels of all time and truly deserves all the praise it’s received. This book is a modern classic.


What short books would you recommend? Do you find reading short things helpful sometimes?

On Losing School Librarians

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Last Thursday, I found out that all of the librarians in my school district had been laid off. I’ve been a library clerk in this district for nearly eight years and had no clue this was coming. I still haven’t heard if I have a job next year or, if I do, how that job will change in light of these recent developments. The district claims school libraries will remain open and that students will continue to have access to books and other resources. If we clerks get to keep our jobs, books will be cataloged, processed, circulated, and repaired just like they are now. But elementary students will no longer have stories read to them each week. Middle school students will no longer have a librarian to hand them that perfect book that would make them feel a little less alone, a little less awkward. High school teachers will lose classroom collaborators and students will lose the person who knows just what database they need to use for their assignment. The library is the heart of some schools, and with librarians gone, that will be compromised.

Like so many issues, this one boils down to money. (I should note that teachers and other staff members have been laid off, too.) Logically, I realize that when schools are forced to make cuts, keeping teachers is their priority, as it should be. Having teachers in the classroom is an obvious necessity. Still, it saddens me to know that some people see librarians as disposable. I want librarians to be essential in every school and for others to see their work as crucial to student success.

I’ve asked many questions over these past few days, such as:

  • Do librarians not promote themselves and their work enough to be appreciated and given credit?
  • Do people believe that librarians only check books in and out all day?
  • If school administrators value student literacy, how can they get rid of the people who are experts on the subject?

I can’t answer these questions, and even if I could, I doubt I’d be satisfied. People I care about would still be laid off, programs I’ve seen flourish would still come to a halt, and students who need librarians would still be without them. Other than contacting my state legislators and asking for more funding, there’s not much I can do in the face of the school district’s decision. I can keep talking about libraries, though. I can tell people about the little kids who stop at my desk and tell me how much they love coming to the library each week. I’m happy to share stories about energetic classes who become silent when a librarian reads them a great story or focuses their attention with a fun, hands-on project.

If you too love libraries and appreciate librarians, speak up! Show your support, whether or not jobs are on the line. When you notice a librarian who’s doing great work, spread the word. Use your public library and vote for library bonds. Enthusiasm is contagious, and while it’s not enough to make up for budget shortfalls, it certainly can’t hurt. If you believe librarians matter, do what you can to spread that message.

YA Fiction & Nonfiction Pairs

In the high school library where I work, it can be difficult to get students to read nonfiction. One of the ways I like to promote it is to do a display in which I pair high-interest nonfiction titles with a novel about the same topic. Today I want to share a few pairs with you in case you too are looking for ways to promote nonfiction to your teen patrons.

Click here to read the rest of the post over at Teen Services Underground.