Lessons from the Children’s Section

Shelving is the neverending story of library work. You can unload cartful after cartful of books in the stacks, and when you turn around, there will be another shelf of returned books waiting.

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The easiest books to shelve are reference materials; they’re enormous, so you can spot the five-inch-wide empty space waiting for any given book practically from across the library. Of course, reference books all weigh a couple of tons, give or take, so perhaps the best books to shelve are adult fiction—small enough to carry in one hand, read often enough not to kick dust in your eyes, and interesting enough to distract you with cover blurbs while you’re searching for the right spot on the shelf.

But my favourite books to shelve are the juvenile fiction.

They can’t stand up on their own, so you have to keep a hand on the cart to stop the whole row from toppling. The shelves are a mess, because children are happy to chuck Dr Seuss, Patricia Polacco, and Eric Carle all together on the same shelf, never mind alphabetising. You spend more time rearranging chaos than actually shelving, but there’s something magical about the children’s section—something that doesn’t extend to the rest of the library.

In the children’s section, you never know what you’ll find. Jumanji might rest against Goodnight Moon one day and Cinderella the next. Books meant to teach children about serious topics—handling death or loving people with special needs—press against books meant to trigger unbridled imagination. Animals and children and monsters mingle together in a colourful blend in which the population is too diverse for stereotypes and the lines between truth and fiction blur. Illustrated historical fictions make friends with the wildest fantasies, and yet the whole colourful mass whispers one unified message, telling children to love, to learn, to dream.

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In my twenties, I still love children’s books. Over the years, I’ve grown from sounding out The Cat in the Hat to analysing Anna Karenina, but I can still hear the picture books telling me to explore thoroughly, live kindly, and dream vividly.

Green Eggs and Ham still reminds me to give new experiences a shot.

The Grouchy Ladybug still tells me to show compassion.

Harold and the Purple Crayon still promises that creativity can change the world.

No matter where I go, no matter what I learn, these incongruous worlds of colour and rhyme are with me. They underlie the jokes I tell, the choices I make, the dreams I pursue. They live in my memories and shape my ideas. And returning to them now, even if it’s just to put them in order after tiny hands have set them in disarray, feels like coming home, like visiting old friends who welcome me with love and send me back out with that one simple reminder that’s so easy to forget in the chaos of growing up:

The world is big, but not too big for you.

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The Mess of Transitions

Hello, my darlings! I have a treat for you this week: my dear and talented friend Emily is here to talk about transitions and the books that get her through them. I’m constantly inspired, challenged, and encouraged by her writing, and I hope you will be, too.


I’m always caught off guard by how ungloriously messy transitions are. I want them to be Instagram worthy at every turn, but they never ever are. It makes me think I’m doing something wrong: I didn’t plan well enough, or I’m not really ready to make this move, or I don’t deserve it. If I had and was and did, it would be more glamorous, right? The lighting would be better. I would have woken up with enough time to do my makeup. The corners of my books wouldn’t have gotten bent during the move.

I know it’s not true, but I buy the story every time. It’s the one crowding the shelves of every supermarket, eternally on discount.

I’m starving for richer stories, for brave words about messy times. I need a supplement for the weak, over-processed stuff I’ve been consuming.

 During the long interim of preparing to graduate from college and learning how to be a post-college adult, I happened across two books whose words felt so true and nourishing. Their words still echo in my gut, filling me, moving me, growing me, and fortifying me.

Tables in the Wilderness

I read Tables in the Wilderness during my final semester of college. It tells the story of Preston’s college years and his spiritual questioning and formation during that time. College was a time of spiritual upheaval for me as well. Though Preston and I asked different questions and worked them through in different ways, I could see reflections of myself in the words on the pages of this book. I understood the confusion and the shame and the out-to-sea-ness that come with reformulating one’s spirituality.

As graduation neared, I wasn’t finding any of the neat closure or conclusions I expected to have by the time I left college. Doubt does not care about my collegiate time frame, it turns out. But Preston’s book gave me an example of wading along through murky waters, not gracefully, but faithfully. He demonstrated how messy moving through a wild place is, transitioning from certainty to hazardous possibility.

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Bittersweet

I made my way through Bittersweet the summer after graduation. From the first essay I read in her first book, Cold Tangerines, I have been captivated by Shauna’s candid truth telling. Bittersweet moves through the breadth of experiences a person will encounter in her life: job loss, the deaths of loved ones, moving to a new city, fighting to create meaningful contributions to the world.

A few months ago, I wrote about what this book taught me about making time for creativity. Another valuable lesson I learned from Bittersweet is to always always say something when a friend or acquaintance is grieving the loss of a family member or is just going through a rough season. As Shauna says, it is worse to say nothing in that situation than it is to embarrass yourself by saying the wrong thing. I have found myself calling up this reminder multiple times already in my post-college life.

It carries over to other areas as well, I think. I put so much pressure on myself to say the right thing or act in just the right way in a new situation that I sometimes stop myself from saying or doing anything at all. A big part of life is just showing up, even if you aren’t completely prepared—showing up for your friend who is mourning, showing up for job interviews you don’t feel quite qualified for, showing up in the handyman’s voicemail inbox for the fourth time that week asking that he please come look at the leaky ceiling.

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For nearly nine months now, I’ve been in the transition out of college. It’s messy beyond belief, and I’m glad for the few voices who stand in the mud, unflinching, saying, “Me too.”


Emily is a product of the prairies of Nebraska—equal parts poetry, flowers, and wilderness. She studied professional and creative writing at Taylor University in small town Indiana, and is now learning to balance a part time job, graduate classes, and apartment life in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
She blogs at expressionsofarestlessmind.wordpress.com and tweets at @emsimily.

#Readwomen: This Is How You Say Goodbye

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I’m writing a day late, not because I finished the book a day late, but because it’s been two days and I’m still not sure what to say. If Wild felt like going along on a journey, This Is How You Say Goodbye felt like peeking in someone else’s window.

Victoria Loustalot writes of her father, of searching for a deeper understanding of him through a trip around the world—one he talked about during her childhood but never made. I read in a haze of bewilderment, caught up by the evocative phrases and relentless emotions but constantly amazed that what seemed outrageous to me could be commonplace in someone else’s life.

Emotions are universal; I’ve felt insufficient and confused and lost. I understand those. But causes are not. I will never understand the type of family Loustalot describes. The feelings that drove her across the world—I can believe her descriptions, but I can’t feel them myself.

And, I suppose, in some ways that’s the point of the book—a daughter searching around the globe for clues to help her understand how her father felt. People are complex; relationships are more so. Somehow, we find ways to understand each other even though we can never really feel what another person feels. And even though we’ll never completely understand, there’s something beautiful about trying.

This book captivated me like a beautiful song in a different language, or an abstract painting I can’t quite wrap my mind around. And perhaps that’s how people are, too—not exactly understandable, but all the more worthwhile for being complicated and contradictory. And maybe that’s all I needed to learn from this book, after all.

#Readwomen: Wild

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If you’ve been following me, you know I’m only reading women authors during December.

And last week, I spent a whole day trying to get over Wild

This is not normal for me. I mean, a book’s ending is always a goodbye. There’s that tumult of excitement at seeing the last few pages slip by; that rush of sorrow at the journey ending; the bewilderment at the prospect of closing the book and moving on with impossibly mundane things like taking out the rubbish or washing the past few days’ worth of coffee mugs.

But then I move on.

Except I didn’t with Wild. After a few days, I had to force myself to begin the next book on my list, but my heart remained caught up in a tangle of words strung along a mountain trail on the West Coast.

It moved me deeply. I felt a strange closeness while reading it–an illogical closeness, because the author and I have almost nothing in common–and yet I, too, have said goodbye, overcome fear, and learned to forgive, so really, I suppose, we have everything in common. None of the experiences, but all of the emotions.

Wild touched my soul because I let it. I’ve always analysed everything, perhaps afraid that if I don’t filter to catch perspectives I disagree with, I might change without knowing it–that I might become someone I don’t want to be, unconsciously. So when I take in someone else’s words, I weigh and judge them.

But this time, I didn’t weigh. I didn’t judge. I let the words flow through me; I let them be. Instead agreeing or disagreeing, I listened. I let her tell her story. I let it all be true.

I will never be the same at the end of a book; this is the nature of stories and the nature of life. To remain unchanged is to stagnate. I lose nothing and gain everything by allowing another writer to tell a story as honestly as she can. I lose nothing by reading vulnerably, and I gain everything by letting her discoveries be true. It’s not my place to agree or disagree. It’s not my story.

And somehow, by letting it be her story, not mine, by letting her experiences and insights be valid, I let it became my story, too. Somehow, I found my own peace at the end of her trail. And that, after all, is what stories are for.

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#Readwomen: Why December Is Women Writers Only

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A tumblr post started it. One unassuming sentence: “Would anyone be willing to join me in my journey to read only female authors during the month of December?”

It seemed like a good thing, something to make me a more intelligent reader, an aware being in an oblivious crowd. I browsed my unread books, picking out female names on spines and covers. I made a list of five books to begin with.

And, on 30 November, I read the entirety of Neverwhere.

When people asked about the rush, I said, “Because Neil Gaiman is not a woman, and tomorrow is December.” I explained about reading only women authors—eagerly, then uncomfortably, because when people asked why, I had no answer.

There were feminist answers—Gender equality! 

There were selfish answers—People like socially aware people!

There were buzzword answers—Intentionality!

…but they all felt wrong. As I perused my bookshelves, I found myself thinking, “Oh, that’s by a man? I never noticed,” or, “I don’t know if that’s a guy name or a girl name.” And then, finally, “…does it even matter?”

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And then I decided that it does.

Not because I’m outraged over discrimination; not because I want to even out the field by throwing fangirl points toward women; not because I own a lot of male authors—but because I had no idea which authors I own.

Each book is a manifestation of its writer. The wise things Gandalf said are really wise things Tolkien said. Anne’s imagination was Montgomery’s. Books are the expression of a writer’s identity—their memories, their desires, their philosophies. Knowing who wrote a book is integral to a deeper understanding.

Of course, you can love a book without knowing the author, but you miss a whole world of meaning.You miss that Jane Austen wrote as a woman in a time when women weren’t supposed to write, or that Patricia Park wrote Re Jane from her own multicultural experience, or that Stephen King wrote his most successful novels from within the grip of depression and addiction.

This isn’t to say that every writer’s demographic is central to the meaning of every book. There are a hundred differences between us, and a hundred unifying details, and each of use is more than a single descriptor. More than a gender or a nationality or a skin colour. We’re individuals, and every tiny difference that makes a person unique—all of those form a writer.

So today I started in on Cheryl Strayed’s Wilda memoir, a personal journey, an introspection of exquisite, poetic rawness—a perfect beginning to my quest to understand the authors I read. And for the rest of the month, I’ll be reading only women authors, with the knowledge that they are women, and that in some way, to a greater or lesser degree, in a way I can and yet cannot understand, that identity undergirds every word on every page.

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Reading as a Guilty Pleasure

Talking with a fantastic writer friend the other day, I brought up what I thought was a unique problem: I know I should read more, but at the same time, I feel guilty spending time on books. Turns out it’s not unique; Kate has the same struggle. And, since probably a lot of other people do, too, we decided a joint blog post might be a great way to share some insights on the issue.

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Me: We were talking the other day about how we feel guilty reading, like we’re wasting time we should be spending on something else. Is that something that happens even when we don’t have, say, homework we should be doing?

Kate: Oh definitely, at least for me. I always feel like there’s something I could be doing. Part of that comes from our writing classes, I think. We’re taught to always be writing, always getting more bylines. Reading doesn’t feel as productive, because it doesn’t have a tangible result. Reading is not work. And I’m at the stage of life (wow that makes me sound old) when I’m really focused on my future, building my career. Reading doesn’t seem to fit in, so I don’t make time for it. Even though I should.

I feel you on the career thing. With a limited number of hours in a day and a lot to get done, I often skip things that I want to do because I can’t see how they’ll benefit me later on. That’s probably the saddest thing the career drive has done to my reading/writing; I sacrifice what I get excited about for what I think I should get excited about. And when I do have time to read (or, y’know, when I decide to put off other things in favour of reading whether I have time or not) there are SO MANY BOOKS. Do you ever have the problem of not knowing where to start, so you just don’t?

Absolutely, yes! I have such a huge list of books I’m interested in, books people have recommended, books in my genre….it never seems to end.

Do you have a system for deciding what comes next? Lately I’ve been trying to mix it up—read a few “easy” books (read: YA spec fic) and then read one or two “hard” books (read: memoirs, literary fiction, etc.).

I tend to go by word of mouth. What are the people with similar tastes to mine reading and liking? Have I heard about a certain title more than others? Plus, you know, whatever’s closest and easiest to get hold of.

So you just go with whatever’s caught your fancy most recently?

Pretty much. It may not be the most efficient system, but it works. I mentioned earlier that I think  part of my weird fear of reading stems from some of my classes, but what else do you think contributes to it?

One of the big problems is how I was raised. Don’t get me wrong—my parents were fabulous, and they taught me to love books above (almost) all other things; my mum had me reading before I was in preschool, and I read a lot, really early. But because they turned me into a bookworm, there was this problem of me constantly being hidden with a book when I was supposed to be doing something else. Homework, chores—you name it, I chose books over it. So whenever I was reading, my parents would be suspicious, and “Should you be reading or doing chores?” became a really common phrase. They taught me to always think, whenever I picked up a book, Is there something I haven’t finished yet?

Same sort of thing for me. I can remember actually getting in trouble at school for reading instead of paying attention. I can also remember hiding a flashlight in my room and sneaking a book under the covers at bedtime because I was almost done with the story and just had to finish it (although ‘almost done’ was a relative term; if I was hooked on the story, I’d stay up until all hours to finish it, even if I was only halfway through). If I had a chance of getting away with it, I’d pick a book over homework, chores, sleeping… pretty much anything. It’s a weird thing to say I got in trouble for, but reading has a guilty connotation for me now. I can’t help but figuratively look over my shoulder whenever I open a book.

I totally agree. I can remember teachers catching me with a book under my desk; seems like teachers should be excited for students who read, but I remember getting in trouble a lot, despite the fact that reading during class wasn’t affecting my ability to get better grades than anyone and everyone else.

Under the desk or stuck in another book? I used that trick a lot.

Heh unfortunately most of my classes weren’t “have your textbook open” types. I did used to hold books inside my desk in elementary school, back when we had desks, and then slouch and read through the tiny crack that my wrists held open.

Gosh, between reading through cracks and with tiny flashlights, it’s no wonder we need glasses.

Seriously. And the reading-by-the-passing-light-of-streetlamps-on-roadtrips thing? It’s a miracle we can still see at all!

No joke! So how do you deal with your reader’s guilt?

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Denial is a powerful force… Haha just kidding. It helps to consciously recognise it. It helps to recognise that it’s not always a valid guilt. And sometimes it’s true: I do have other things I should be doing. At those times it helps to have a plan. For example, this weekend I spent hours just reading, but I knew what else I needed to do, and I set limits. I was allowed to read a book in one sitting, but then I had to get a certain number of assignments done before I let myself start the next book. And knowing why I’m reading also helps. Being able to specifically say, “I’m reading a recently published book in my genre because it’s important to keep current with what’s happening if I want a career in this field”—that really helps. How about you?

I’ve got a similar system. Almost every writer I’ve gotten advice from starts with the same thing—writers are readers. It’s how we grow. We practice our skill, but we have to study it first. So that helps a little. But I also have to set time aside to read just for the joy of it. I need a break from constantly working; everyone does. But unlike some, who run, or go for coffee with friends, or watch Netflix, I read. I find it relaxing to consume a book for the sake of the story with no ulterior motives. I have to find that balance you talked about, though. I’ll often reward myself with a new book if I can get things done by a certain time. It’s one of my favorite and most effective reward systems.

Do you set a specific time to read or just let it happen when it happens?

I try to fit it in the natural lulls in my schedule. I have busy times and calmer times, so I take advantage of the slower parts to read more. But if I’ve been super busy (like I have been the last few weeks) I might say, “Okay, I’m going to read for the next two hours, just to give my brain a break from thinking so much.” How do you fit reading into your schedule?

I used to just try to let it happen where it happened, but I’ve recently realised the importance of all those little cracks. So I have a three-hour shift at the library once a week, and instead of trying to do homework (I can’t use my laptop at the counter, so that makes it hard anyway) I’ve decided I’m allowed to read for those hours. And those are interrupted hours, of course, because I have to do my job, too, but it gives me a time to pull my book out. I also like to have a book out when I’m walking between classes—that’s five to ten minutes I can be reading—and I keep one in my bag in case of unexpected delays. A meeting postponed? No problem. I have a book. Finished my quiz early? I can read another paragraph or two. Stuff like that.

Agreed. Unexpected openings are the best. That’s one of the reasons I like having an e-reader. I can open up to whatever I was reading in a matter of seconds. And I feel like you can always identify the book nerds like us by whether they’ve mastered the reading-while-walking-and-not-killing-themselves skill.

It’s an important skill. (Back in high school, I had a daily 45-minute bike ride home from choir, so I also mastered the reading-while-biking-on-the-highway skill; my dad was not pleased.) Do you think there’s a hierarchy of types of books that we should be reading? I mean, are there certain books that really should wait till we’re done with all the other Adulthood Responsibilities, or is everything fair game?

I suppose I give higher priority to books in my genre, but I’m not sure if that’s me being responsible or just the fact that I write in the genre I love most. I try not to say that some books are “better” than others (though there are certainly books I consider “worse”). Any story that an author has taken time to craft has inherent value. I tend to gravitate more towards books on writing and books in my genre (fairy tale retellings, fantasy). But again, it’s not generally intentional. Do you prioritize?

Aside from prioritising homework assignments or things I’ve promised to read, I don’t think I do in practice. But I do know I have a tendency to feel I need to justify “easy” reads. Like, if I’m reading nonfiction or literary fiction or a classic, I’m totally cool. Those are accepted as important things to read, and I look smart and educated and stuff. But if I’m reading children’s or YA or fantasy, unless it’s something really well known (anything by Neil Gaiman or Tolkien, for example) I find I have to justify it to myself, remind myself that this is also valuable literature, that just because it’s not hard for me to get into or doesn’t have these huge sweeping “LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT THE HUMAN CONDITION” sentences doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have something meaningful to say. I noticed on the subway in New York over the summer that when I was reading a memoir or literary fiction, I’d hold the book up higher than when I was reading YA spec fic. That’s what got me thinking about it.

Oh yeah, that’s really tough. I read a lot of YA and fantasy (again, because that’s what I write) and it’s hard to feel confident about that. I find myself thinking, “I’m a 21-year old college student; I should be reading something more advanced than this.” But I can’t help but love some of those books. When I find myself questioning the value of kids’ books, I remind myself of the Narnia series. It’s a kids’ series and it’s become a classic. It’s good to remind myself that children’s literature can carry a lot of weight and be very significant in the literary world. But most importantly, I’ve learned that I never have to justify my choice of books. People should never be judged on what they’re reading. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter what you read as long as you’re reading something.

That’s a good point. I think children’s/YA books have a lot more content than people give them credit for, and because they’re written for children, they can’t be obscure about it. They need to have a purpose and get it out there in a way that will be straightforward enough for children to understand, subtle enough not to sound condescending, and entertaining enough to keep kids reading. And I think that’s a huge value. I think looking for the less obvious messages or worldviews in kids’ books helps me see their value beyond just entertainment. So moral of the day: Don’t be ashamed of what you’re reading. Recognise its value. Don’t feel guilty about reading. Life is way too short to pretend not to like good books.

Kate Jameson reads and writes faerie tales and loves hedgehogs. (Hedgehogs aren’t part of her official bio, but it’s true.) You can read her blog at kategjameson.wordpress.com or connect on Twitter with @KateGJameson.

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