So You Want to Read More Diversely

I’m a white, middle-class woman. That comes with certain privileges not given to those who don’t look or live like me. As a way to learn from different viewpoints and broaden my view of the world, diversifying my reading has been one of my primary goals over the past few years.

One of the best things about reading is that it helps develop empathy, and empathy makes us better humans. If you too are hoping to read more diversely, the books below are a good start.

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Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

The title of Trevor Noah’s book comes from the fact that his entire early existence was indeed a crime. He has a black mother and a white father whose relationship was forbidden during apartheid. Noah tells the story of his struggle to find a place as a biracial kid growing up poor in South Africa. Though this book grapples with abuse, poverty, and systemic oppression, it’s also incredibly funny. One of my favorite parts of the book is when Noah talks about how humor in dark times isn’t just necessary, but that it helps tear down barriers between people on opposite sides of an argument. If you’re an audiobook fan, that’s definitely the best way to read this book. Noah narrates and does an excellent job telling his story.

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This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkins

The best word I can use to describe the essays in this collection is “fierce.” I was blown away by the honesty and vulnerability in this book, the author’s first. Jerkins in only in her mid-twenties, so her insights are especially impressive. There were sections of her book that made me uncomfortable because I didn’t want them to be true. I don’t want it to be true that black women are often ignored in the discussion and practice of feminism. I don’t want it to be true that black women will not be forgiven for the same mistakes white women make all the time. That discomfort is exactly why reading diversely is important. This book expanded what I thought I already knew and reminded me how important it is to listen.

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One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

This collection of humorous essays discusses Koul’s unique experiences growing up in an Indian family living in Canada. She wrestles with feeling out of place in her family’s traditions. I loved reading about her life, and especially like the essay in which she travels to India for a family wedding. Koul’s discussion about introducing her white boyfriend to her parents was another highlight for me. If you’re looking for a lighthearted, funny book, this is a great choice.

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The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

I’ve only read a handful of graphic novels because it’s just not a format I like that much. I thoroughly enjoyed this graphic memoir, though, and suggest it even to those of you who might not think the format is for you. Persepolis is about Satrapi’s coming of age in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. She has to navigate all the difficulties of growing up alongside great political unrest in a culture in which females aren’t fully valued. This was an engrossing, eye-opening story that I’m glad I took a chance on.

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The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

While all the other books on this list are true stories, I wanted to recommend this piece of fiction too. Henriquez tells the story of the Rivera family. They move to the United States seeking better medical care for their daughter, Mirabel, who has just suffered a terrible accident. Eventually, a romance develops between Mirabel and a boy who also lives in her family’s apartment complex, but this story is really about the struggles immigrants face as they chase after the elusive American Dream.


I realized while putting this post together that not only are all of these books worth reading, but they’re worth staring at too. How great are these covers? What books would you suggest to someone who wants to expand their literary horizons?

How I Use My Public Library

As libraries have evolved over the years, they’ve become much more than quiet places filled with books. Libraries offer free programming and classes for just about any interest you can fathom. Some libraries have museum and symphony passes, telescopes or specialty baking pans that patrons can check out. Today I want to share all the ways I use my public library. They employ me, sure, but I’m also a patron.

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BOOKS

This one is obvious, I know, but the primary thing I use my library for is books. I have so many unread books on my shelves at home that I have tried over and over again to cut back on library checkouts, but somehow I end up with a towering stack of library books by my bed anyway. I tell myself that this is really a selfless act since I’m helping keep circulation numbers up. (You’re welcome, library.) I definitely place too many things on hold at a time and sometimes check out books just because they’re pretty, but at least library checkouts are free. Thank God for that.

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DVDs

I hardly ever see movies in theaters anymore because a) it’s expensive and b) I’d have to leave my house. Why would I go see a movie when I could check out a DVD from the library and watch it while curled up in my sweatpants and enjoying the pleasant scent of a Yankee Candle?  I also appreciate the fact that if I don’t like a movie, I didn’t waste any money on it or have to put on real pants to watch it. I love things that are free and also allow me to be lazy and comfortable.

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OVERDRIVE

OverDrive is my source for downloadable books. My library adds new releases on Friday afternoons. I refresh the site compulsively until I see the new stuff, overcome with a feeling of exhilaration when it loads. Being the first to check out a brand new ebook when the holds list for the physical book is staggeringly long is one of my favorite feelings in the whole world. I feel like I have actually accomplished something when all I have actually done is click a button.

I use OverDrive for audiobooks too. I check out books on CD from the library if the book I want can’t be downloaded, but having an entire book on my phone is preferable to trying to shove that large plastic case full of CDs into my already-cluttered car glove box.

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GALE COURSES

Not all libraries will have this subscription, but I’m thankful mine does. Gale Courses offers free 6-week courses on many different topics from writing to programming to gift basket design. (There’s part of me that wants to become a professional gift basket designer now, but I’ll save that post for another day.) I’ve only taken one class before (a poetry writing workshop), but it was a great experience, and I learned a lot. I know I’ve used the word “free” in this post several times already, but how great is it that you can take a class from a qualified instructor for free? That will always excite me.

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NOVELIST

I think NoveList is my BFF when it comes to book sites. I use it all the time, both professionally and personally. If you’re unfamiliar with it, NoveList is a database of books. Depending on the subscription your library has, you might have access to only fiction books, but I’m lucky enough to have access to nonfiction titles too. You can browse book lists, learn more about genres, get help with readers’ advisory, but my favorite feature is how specific you can search. NoveList lets you search for books by tone, setting, and much more. If you want a coming of age book written by a female author that was published in 2005 and got a starred review, you can find it. (I found 25 titles when I did that exact search.) Whether you’re looking for books for yourself or for a patron, NoveList is a fantastic resource.


What about you? How do you use your library? If you don’t, why?

Books for Anxious People

Anxiety is one of the worst feelings I’ve ever experienced. If you haven’t been through it, know that it’s a grating mixture of fear, uncertainty, and unsettledness that combine to create a deep sense that something is terribly wrong, even when it isn’t. I’ve struggled with anxiety off and on for many years, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Sometimes when I’m anxious, I can’t read because my mind just won’t slow down enough for me to process anything. Other times, though, I’m able to find comfort in books. Today I’m sharing a few that have encouraged me. If you’re struggling with anxiety or know someone who is, I’d recommend checking out these titles.

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Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

When Matt Haig was twenty-four, his anxiety and depression pushed him to consider ending his life. He didn’t, and he explains some of the reasons why in this brief but powerful book. Haig engagingly discusses his struggles, able to reflect on his past with vulnerability and insight only gained in hindsight. Despite such dark subject matter, Haig’s writing is witty and joyful. This book is an excellent reminder that things get better.

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Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed

I adore Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, so when I saw this book on the discard shelf at my library for only 50 cents I grabbed it immediately. Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of essays by Strayed from the time she was Dear Sugar, an advice columnist for The Rumpus. The advice she gives in this book isn’t full of warm and fuzzy self-help tricks; Strayed tells the truth with a combination of fierceness, generosity, and kindness that makes this book extremely comforting for me.

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The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom
by Henri J. M. Nouwen

This little green book is one of the most beloved books I own. It’s a small collection of writings that Nouwen, a priest who dedicated the last decade of his life to helping those with special needs,  wrote to himself during periods of great loneliness and depression. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, scared, or discouraged, I always reach for this book. It’s divided up into short sections, some only a page long, so it’s perfect for flipping through until you find the words you need. No matter what my situation, I always see hope and wisdom in Nouwen’s words.

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The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown

Remember a few years ago when Brene Brown’s TED talk on the power of vulnerability went viral? I watched it one night when I was feeling discouraged and scared about the future, and it was indeed a game-changer for me, a person who struggles with vulnerability. I quickly sought out Brown’s other work and started with The Gifts of Imperfection. In it, Brown talks about her research on shame, courage, compassion, and connection. This is one of those books that has my underlining all through it. Brown’s words helped ground me during a time when I felt so much anxiety about my future and gave me helpful strategies to take control of it.  I heartily recommend all of Brown’s other books, as well.

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The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook by Edmund J. Bourne

In addition to struggling with anxiety, I’ve also been burdened with phobias throughout my life. The worst one has been a fear of bees and wasps that got so bad I barely wanted to leave my house in the summertime.  Thankfully, a gifted therapist helped me work through that phobia, but she did tell me I might need a “tune-up” every now and then.

That’s where this book comes in. It serves as a good reminder of how to face and conquer phobias, steps to take to minimize anxiety, and even lists and explains some of the physical symptoms of anxiety, so you know you’re not dying when panic hits. If you too deal with phobias and anxiety, I can’t recommend this workbook enough.


Are there any books you turn to in tough times? I’d love to hear about them.

Favorite Horror Novels from Someone Who Thought She Didn’t Like Horror

As a person who hates being scared and is easily startled, I’ve never understood the appeal of horror novels. I love a good suspense story, but stories that are too violent or just plain scary aren’t for me.

I was going to do a post called “(Almost) Horror Novels” about books I found extra-creepy, but as I was looking up the books I wanted to discuss on NoveList, I realized I could strike the “almost” from the post’s title. Based on NoveList’s genre descriptions and reviewer commentary, these books could accurately be described as horror novels.

In an article for NoveList, librarian Sarah S. Davis defines the horror genre like this:

“The goal of horror is to inspire fear. Horror manipulates our deep-rooted anxieties and brings them vividly to life on the page. These fears could be material — clowns, wolves, vampires — or they could be intangible, like solitude, poverty, and failure. Escalating tension pits an everyman against his own mind in a clash that is often more psychological than physical.”

I’ve read many books that made me fearful, had escalating tension, and messed with my anxiety. Today I’m sharing four favorites.

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Final Girls by Riley Sager

Quincy is the only survivor of a horrifying massacre. As a sole survivor, she’s automatically added to a group of women the media calls Final Girls. Each girl was the only survivor of a brutal crime, and as the book progresses, we learn more about what those crimes were. Quincy can’t bear to think about the night of the massacre, but she’s forced to when another tragedy occurs, and one of the other Final Girls shows up at her door.

This novel is dark, twisted, and there were a few violent scenes which I had to skip. But even though this story made me squirm, I read it straight through. If you like this type of fiction, I bet you’ll read it that way too.

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Providence by Caroline Kepnes

Jon and Chloe were best friends in middle school. Chloe was beautiful and had the attention of the popular kids, but Jon was the target of their scorn. As he walked to school one day, Jon was kidnapped. Four years later, Jon wakes up alone and reads a note from his abductor saying he’s been in an induced coma. When Jon reenters his life, he realizes he has an unwanted power: he can give people heart attacks and kill them. Until he’s cured, he can’t be around his parents or Chloe, who he’s in love with.

Kepnes tells this story in alternating chapters between Jon, Chloe, and a detective nicknamed Eggs who wants to know why healthy people are dying of heart attacks. Providence is as much of a love story as it is a detective novel. It’s as much of a science fiction tale as it is a work of suspense. It reveals the horror of someone who would abduct and manipulate a teenage boy just as it shows the horror of loving someone you can’t have. So far, this is one of my top novels of 2018. Don’t let the offbeat plot keep you from giving this book a try.

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The Monk by Matthew Lewis

Speaking of offbeat plots, we’re going from 2018 back to 1796. This gothic novel is difficult to summarize. There’s a monk, of course, named Ambrosio. There’s a woman and/or demon who tempts him. Eventually, Ambrosio sells his soul to the Devil, which is never a good move, in my opinion. In the NoveList description of this book, they call it “an extravagant blend of sex, death, politics, Satanism, and poetry.”

Based on that description, I probably never would have selected this book on my own, but it was assigned to me in a college English course. My professor was giddy that the Catholic university I attended let him teach this, and perhaps some of his enthusiasm rubbed off on me because I ended up engrossed in this sordid tale. If you like your fiction a little weird and disturbing, give this classic a try.

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Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Ashley Cordova is the 24-year-old daughter of reclusive Stanislaus Cordova, a movie director known for his cult classic horror films. One night, Ashley turns up dead in an apparent suicide. Scott McGrath, a journalist, doesn’t believe Ashley killed herself. He knows the Cordova family has a lot of secrets and he recruits a couple of scrappy strangers in his quest to get answers.

Night Film is one of my favorite novels of all time. I’ve never read anything like it. The prose itself creates such a spooky atmosphere, but Pessl includes images in the book depicting things such as websites and photos pertinent to Scott’s investigation which add even more interest. This book got a bit of buzz when it was released in 2014, but I never felt it got enough praise for its originality.


What (somewhat mild) horror would you suggest I try next time I want some literary excitement? I’d love some more recommendations.

My Reading Autobiography

Recently, I read an article called “Are You a Reader?” by Karin Perry. Perry discusses how librarians read and how they can help kids become readers. One section of her article was especially fascinating:

“One way Dr. Lesesne and I get our MLS students thinking about their reading lives is to assign a Reading Autobiography. We ask them to think about how they interacted with books during various times of their lives. By understanding what made them like and dislike reading, they will be more aware of what and what not to do with students.”

I want in on this Reading Autobiography project. Today I want to share a few of the books that have either been important to me or shaped me as a reader.

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The Little Engine That Could and Green Eggs and Ham are my two earliest book memories. I recall reading the latter by myself when I was four or five, and I haven’t stopped picking up books since. Reading was a constant part of my life. Well into my teenage years, my mom always took me to the library. We lived in a small Kansas town when I was a little kid, and we’d visit the one and only branch. They sold plastic book bags for a few cents, and I’d get to pick out a new bag every time and fill it up. As I look back, something I’m grateful for is that I always got to pick whatever I wanted. Whether I was six or sixteen, I don’t ever remember my mom hovering around me, trying to get me to read this or that. I was always allowed to choose whatever books I wanted. I believe choice is vital in helping kids become lifelong readers.

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When I started reading chapter books, I thoroughly enjoyed the mysteries of The Boxcar Children. (The weird plot of four kids growing up alone in a train didn’t bother me then.) While I liked Boxcar, I loved The Baby-Sitters Club. There were hundreds of these, and I bet I’ve read most of them. Looking back on this series as an adult, I’m impressed with what Ann M. Martin accomplished. This series is about a group of girls becoming entrepreneurs. They make their own money and demonstrate responsibility. Martin covers topics like divorce, death, and sickness in ways that seem real yet appropriate for her readers. I was thrilled to see this series get the graphic novel treatment since it gives a new generation of kids a chance to discover the joy of the BSC.

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Since the Baby-Sitters Club series was so popular, a couple of spinoff series were launched, including California Diaries. I read these books as a tween, and I could not get enough. I was fascinated by the diary format and knew for sure that California was a whole lot more interesting than Kansas. I’ve never heard anyone else talk about this series, so I’m not sure how popular it was. I loved it enough for several people, though, and still own a few of the books.

Columbine happened around the time I was reading Martin’s books. I still remember watching the news and seeing students flee the school. I was shocked by the violence and enthralled by the stories that came out after the massacre took place. As a Christian, the stories of Cassie Bernall and Rachel Scott mesmerized me. I read She Said Yes and Rachel’s Tears over and over again. (If you want to read an excellent study of Columbine and it’s aftermath, check out Dave Cullen’s Columbine.)

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As a kid, all I wanted to be was an adult. I had a wonderful childhood, but I was more interested in adult matters than most kids my age. I remember my mom reading a Nicholas Sparks book, and I asked if I could read it. She said sure, and I started immediately. I was reading an adult book. I thought that was the best thing that had ever happened to me. Shortly after discovering Sparks, I turned to John Grisham thanks to my brother’s recommendation. My early high school years were full of books about lawyers and people in love dying. I loved every suspenseful, sob-inducing minute.

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In my late teens and early twenties, I wanted depth in my books. I’d moved away from Sparks and Grisham toward anything I thought looked profound based on a cursory glance at the cover when I was at the library. (I found some good books that way, so judging by the cover isn’t always bad.) Two of the books I loved most during this time are Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle and Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. Both of these texts gave me the depth I wanted and spoke to me about art, doubt, faith, and how all three of those can intersect. L’Engle’s thoughts were especially powerful at the time. Walking on Water is still precious to me because that book made me feel seen.

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In college, I majored in English with a minor in history. Being assigned several hundred pages of reading a week between all of my classes was normal. As is often the case, college stretched me in profound and lasting ways, including my reading life.

I was assigned Till We Have Faces in a course on the philosophy of C. S. Lewis and thought I was going to hate it. Instead, I was captivated by the myth Lewis retells and was struck by his powerful thoughts on beauty and longing. I took a poetry class and needed to have a copy of The Norton Anthology of Poetry. I resold a lot of my college textbooks, but I’ve kept this one. In its pages, I discovered my beloved John Donne and found that beautiful poem of Margaret Atwood’s that I analyzed for a paper (this one). In a contemporary literature class, I read Paradise by Toni Morrison. Though I considered myself widely read, I’d never read anything like Morrison before, and I still haven’t. Her voice is uniquely hers.


There are many more books and authors I could have included, but this is long enough already. I’m going to guess that you’ve never read a blog post before that references Ann M. Martin, John Grisham, and Toni Morrison, so you’re welcome.
What books and authors would be included in your reading autobiography?