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My Reading Problem

One of my many dirty little secrets is that I’m a very intolerant reader. I detest bad writing, and since “bad writing” is subjective, I find myself filled with a lot of detest a lot of the time. Most of what I pick up I end up putting down, sometimes violently, sometimes by hurling it across the room. Shortly after signing my first book deal, my editor, Kate Miciak, sent me a list of books she suggested I read. I distinctly remember tearing one of them in two and flinging the sections in opposite directions – something that, as an author, I am not proud of, because I know how much effort goes into writing a novel, and I am willing to entertain that – subjectively – that effort is still tremendous, even if the product offends me to my core.

Over the last several years, in fact, I’ve been reading less and less fiction, and more and more nonfiction. For obvious reasons, I find it easier to suspend my judgment when reading nonfiction.

I am not proud of this, actually. To write, one must read, and that means reading fiction. It is, in fact, a shortcoming I am actively seeking to address, and if there is a resolution for this new year, it’s that: I may not become a more tolerant reader, but I will read more.

As an aside, I have a suspicion that I’m not the only writer who suffers from this. We’re a terribly judgmental lot about our work. I just have a chronic problem in not knowing when to shut the hell up about it.

Paradoxically, I have become something of a connoisseur of children’s literature. This happens when you have two childrens, and you read to them regularly. This is why I am such a tremendous fan of Mo Willems. Aside from his tremendous talent as an artist and storyteller, he consistently delivers books that never condescend to children. I’m also a fan of his somewhat subversive stealth campaign — his books rely as much, if not more, on visual storytelling (comics) as on the root text.

Still, most children’s books suck, and there’s no getting around it.

Which brings me to Katherine Paterson‘s The Great Gilly Hopkins, which most certainly does not suck. I’d not read her stuff before. I managed to miss The Bridge to Teribithia in all of its incarnations. She was unknown to me. I purchased the book based on a chapter of it I had read in an anthology of “Stories for Girls” that my daughter received over the holidays. My daughter fell asleep — and being four, I don’t blame her — but I was engaged enough to seek the novel out.

Outstanding. Not a whiff of condescension to be found within. Beautifully written, and Paterson’s control of voice is enviable — she flies effortlessly between limited third and first within the space of paragraphs, and it works flawlessly.

Four’s young for the book, too young, as it requires a better grasp of the world and a more evolved sense of empathy, but my soon-to-be-eight-year-old is just right for it, and I’m putting it in his hands when he gets home from school.

53 Responses to My Reading Problem

  1. speakerwiggin

    I’m an aspiring writer who doesn’t read as much as he should. I also am trying to rectify this. (Well, I read TONS of comics – but I’m trying to read more books without pictures than I normally do. I’m near the end of one now, actually! yay!)

    But even though I’m picky, I’ve yet to be violent to a work of fiction.

    Wait, I take that back – I did just burn One More Day.

    But apart from that, nope.

  2. taliabriscoe

    Wumby Flappy!

  3. rachel_edidin

    Tony Millionaire, who writes and draws Sock Monkey, has the best take on children’s books I’ve ever read:

    “Some philosopher — I don’t remember who — his theory was: You’ve got to give kids really beautiful children’s books in order to turn them into revolutionaries. Because if they see these beautiful things when they’re young, when they grow up, they’ll see the real world and say, ‘Why is the world so ugly?! I remember when the world was beautiful.’ And then they’ll fight, and they’ll have a revolution. They’ll fight against all of our corruption in the world, they’ll fight to try to make the world more beautiful. That’s the job of a good children’s-book illustrator.”

    Or a children’s book writer, I think – all the more reason to be intolerant of the garbage.

    Apropos to nothing, my favorite Katherine Patterson book remains Park’s Quest.

  4. aj

    *laughs* You know I have to say that I’ve paired down my reading a lot in recent years and found myself mostly leaning towards the Young Adult stuff. And I will say that, as a reader and a girl, Jacob I Have Loved was an extremely formative and informative book for me. Katherine Paterson is lovely and painful to read, and there are very few of her books I wouldn’t recommend without reservation.

    That being said, if you’re interested in more YA stuff, I’m sure I could dig up my old reading lists for you. (My library coworkers and I would have Caldecott, Newbery, and Rebecca Caudill pre-award reading lists so that we could be informed when the nominations were released.)

    Because hey. Literacy is my crack and I will push it like the gleeful drug what it is.

  5. brother_d73

    I’m right there with you. With as many projects I’ve got going on right now, I don’t have time for what I consider to be a medicore novel, or even trade or comic. Add to that that I can’t seem to walk out of Powell’s with at least three books to add to my already bloated bookshelves, so I just don’t have a time for a book that doesn’t grab me and hold me tight until the ride’s over!

  6. indigi

    Have you read The Plain Janes from DC’s Minx line? I originally came on board for the great Jim Rugg artwork, but I was surprised at how the story engaged me. Pretty great YA type stuff, if you’re looking for any more.

    I read Bridge to Terebithia when I was in first or second grade during the 15 minute silent reading break after lunch, and without spoiling anything, I remember having to be consoled by the teacher cause it’s so sad. I still haven’t seen the movie because I’m too much of a wuss.

  7. kali921

    I am so grateful that my mother read to me all the time as a small child. I blame her for my unceasing thirst for books of all shapes and kinds.

    One of the ones that stays with me always is Margaret Wise Brown’s Wait Till the Moon is Full. I still can’t read it now without tearing up – I used to have my mom read it to me over and over again when I was three and four years old. It has a purity and beauty that I find lacking in most other children’s literature.

    It also forever cemented my adoration of raccoons. Highly recommended – I bet both you and your daughter would love it, if you haven’t read it!

  8. jennawaterford

    I read Bridge to Terebithia for my children’s lit class in college, and I finished it curled up sobbing in a comfy chair — which is saying something because even tearing up slightly when I think something’s sad is a major show of emotion for me as reader/film-goer. But I was a *sobbing* mess. It is an excellent book. Jacob I Have Loved is beautiful, too, and sombre in a beautiful, evocative way.

    Above shout-out to Plain Janes seconded.

    (edited for *points at your icon* TOTH!)

  9. mercuryeric

    As an aside, I have a suspicion that I’m not the only writer who suffers from this.

    I have no idea what you are talking about.

    …what?

    ;)

    -E

  10. mercuryeric

    Wait, I take that back – I did just burn One More Day.

    I had a similar reaction to the final issue of Wanted.

  11. frankbyrns

    Greg –

    My wife — a serious children’s lit fan — says that you should get everything by Robin McKinley, for both your son _and_ daughter. Start with The Hero and the Crown, then The Blue Sword, and go from there. (She reads all of them at least once a year, whenever she feels “not so powerful”.)

    She says that you would like them, as well, given the strong female leads.

  12. stealthbunny

    My elder sister told me over the holidays that she remembered when I was about four or five, I said “I love my books. They take away my mad.”

    Apparently when I was sent to my room with temper tantrums, they got a kick out of listening to the tantrum suddenly off, because they knew I had found a book.

    My sister said my mother walked around glowing for weeks after I said that.

  13. stealthbunny

    I LOVE Robin McKinley!!!

    Outlaws of Sherwood is my favorite retelling of Robin Hood, and Beauty is my favorite of Beauty and the Beast. Bar none for both.

    Although Deerskin is a much harsher subject than her usual (and really isn’t YA, as a warning), it is another of my favorites, and not just because Mckinley can write dogs (and horses) so darned well.

  14. jennawaterford

    McKinley has written one of my all-time favorite books (Sunshine) and two I wanted to throw across the room, I hated them so much (Hero and the Crown, Spindle’s End).

    So I can recommend her, too, but only about every other book ;)

  15. jonlaw

    Yet another reason why I am probably not a “writer”

    Yeah, I just am so opposite. I tend to not be overly critical. I have my likes and dislikes, and something has to be really bad before I am putting it down without finishing it, let alone shredding, burning or other violence.

    Not to say I can’t be critical, but I have a wide tolerance. Possibly why I am so bad at trying to write remotely fictional things, although I spend all day writing official correspondence, official memos, etc.

    That said, let me add my voice to the praisers of Katherine Paterson. She wrote three small books set in Japan at various times, pitched for children. All excellent. Also, she wrote an interesting historical fiction novel about the Taiping rebellion in China, also very good.

    I have plenty to recommend from my shelves, but, given my broader tolerance level, I refrain from bombarding you with recommendations that might leave you less than pleased.

  16. thecomicman

    Two childrens?

    I don’t seem to have this problem. I try to read a lot, and I’ve never wanted to destroy a book. It probably helps that I try to only read things I know I’ll be interested in. I’m on a big cyberpunk kick right now (not coincidentally, that’s what I’m currently writing) peppered with some Hammett and Chandler for good measure.

    My biggest problem really comes in just not having enough time to read everything I want to. My bookshelf is piled high with books I’ve been meaning to read for years.

    You might just have to find what you like and then stick with that, and avoid everything else until you run out of what you like (which may be fairly quick, depending on how focused your like is).

    I don’t know children’s lit from Adam, but my fiancée is a connoisseur. Every time we hit London, she ends up spending ridiculous amounts of money on first editions and out of print stuff. I’ll ask her for some recommendations when she gets back from work.

  17. nealbailey

    There’s actually a video of me online reading the DaVinci Code and it bursting into flames before I kick it about fifteen feet and play flame golf with the remains.

    Don’t sweat ripping one in half. I wouldn’t eat a bad apple just because it took a farmer a year to grow it…

  18. alexg119

    Great Gilly Hopkins is awesome…yeah I read it and I don’t have kids…so?

    Finally read the Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” saga this summer–not sure why that’s considered a kids book…any book that has Angels fighting God is probably a bit deep for kids…reading Forrester’s Horatio Hornblower novels now and really relating believe it or not

  19. hdefined

    I’ve never abuse a book, but I’m a very selective reader – I usually go with authors I know more than those I don’t, less of a gamble. And if I’m halfway through for whatever reason, I usually stick it out. Davinci Code did make me mad, though, but I wanted to finish it just to make sure that the legions of people praising it have no taste.

  20. jpantalleresco

    Try The Tale of Desperaux for your eight year old. Kate Dicamillo is an excellent read, even for grown up kids. Garth Nix is also a great read.

    and alexg119, you should read Kai Meyer’s stuff if you think angels fighting God is too deep for kids…whew! Pullman has nothing on that guy.

    JP

  21. alryssa

    Poor writing was exactly why I dropped Nightwing around issue #93 ;)

    Personally, I never got past the first ten pages of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, even though people rave about it – because I couldn’t stomach the hybridisation of Welsh/English placenames and terms that were completely inexplicable to me (being Welsh, it greatly offended my sensibilities – historically we’ve been, even up until the 1950′s, extremely subverted by English attitudes). It’s a culture thing. So I tossed the book across the room in rage and never thought about trying to read it again.

    Charles de Lint is… well, everyone seems to think he’s awesome too, but frankly I found his prose somewhat clunky and awkward. I read at least four of his novels, thinking it might just be a one-off thing, but while the concepts seem sound and interesting, they don’t seem to quite come off.

    I’ve found a recent fantasy author I enjoy, though – Jennifer Fallon. Her Second Sons trilogy was deliciously complex with its political maneuvering, and unlike a lot of pitfalls of fantasy, she doesn’t get bogged down with explaining the world. She just gets right on with the characters, and they’re all extremely three-dimensional with their own agendas. Highly enjoyable, even if you’re not into fantasy at all.

    As far as children’s literature, I’ve been meaning to get my hands on a copy of a book I read in high school, and though it was aimed at children much younger, I still recall feeling awed by its story and premise, and I think an eight year old would likely enjoy it: Spellhorn by Berlie Doherty. The main character is blind. The author worked specifically with a group of blind children to help create the story, and it was just so different in its approach. Granted, it’s been a very long time since I read it, so I don’t know if it’d stand up to my adult scrutiny.

    Eragon was just plain awful. I couldn’t go more than a few sentences without thinking, “Well, this was clearly ripped out of X, and this comes shamelessly from Y.”

  22. stealthbunny

    It seems people absolutely LOVE some of her books and absolutely HATE some of her other books. Her second retelling of Beauty and the Beast I didn’t like at all — although I never throw books across the room… I resell them!

  23. jennawaterford

    I did say *wanted* :) I did sell my disliked McKinleys, too — someone will love them!

  24. alexg119

    Hey, jpantelleresco-thanks for the reccomend, I don’t know Kai Meyer, but I’m going to check it out. I thought His Dark Materials was really interesting and I admired what Pullman was doing with the story.

    And I agree with alryssa below about Charles de Lint, I WANT to like de Lint, I admire the work he’s done and I love the whole notion of ‘real world’ meets fantasy, but yeah, he’s prose is laborious for some reason.

  25. incogvito

    God, I’m so afraid to write something you hate now!

  26. tawang

    I’m very much the same way. I can’t not read, but if I’m actively writing, I have to read nonfiction because if I don’t, the style of whatever fiction I’d be reading will start bleeding into my own work, which isn’t always a bad thing, but…

    And since I’ve had children, I’ve fallen headlong in love with Mo Willems from day one–his “Sheep in the Big City” was a habit even before children, and while not on DVD, it is on iTunes. (My 3 yr old son’s most favorite thing in the world right now is his very own Knuffle Bunny.) We also love Adam Rex, both his picture books and his new novel; again, his work relies as much on the visual at times. And Lauren Child is a favorite of both my 3 yr old and my 6 yr old.

  27. alexg119

    I haven’t read Eragon and I’m not sure if I’m impressed that a 15 year old got his act together enough to get published or it’s a gimmick. I can’t criticize him too much, after all he’s written more novels than I have

  28. admin

    Nuffle!

    K-nuffle!

    Nuffle!!

  29. admin

    Please, push the dope!

  30. admin

    I thought Rugg did a great job on the art. The story left me a little flat at the end, but that was on a first read, and I’ve been thinking it deserves another look.

  31. admin

    We’ve been hip deep in MWB since our eldest was born. The Big Red Barn is a perennial favorite. Don’t know Wait…, though…I’ll have to search it out.

  32. admin

    I have to confess that Paterson has made me a little nervous, now, because I can see that she’s clearly mastered catharsis-through-tears, and while I relish the catharsis, I’m still hung-up on the tears part.

  33. admin

    Duly noted. Strong female leads are required right now; we’re trying to load our daughter’s library in an attempt to counteract these ladies in particular.

  34. admin

    That is a beautiful, beautiful sentiment, and I am now going to steal it shamelessly and stick it in a story somewhere and refuse to give you credit for it.

    Just so you know. :D

  35. admin

    Re: Yet another reason why I am probably not a “writer”

    I distinctly remember watching some film or other with you several years ago, and after I’d bitched about it for a few minutes you’d very quietly and quite sincerely asked me, “Can you enjoy ANYTHING anymore?”

    To which, I think, I said, “Well, yeah. If it’s, y’know, GOOD.”

    I have not, I’m afraid, mellowed very much. Though I am still willing to grant dispensation to certain stories.

  36. admin

    Two childrens, yes indeedy. Childrens break your brains.

  37. admin

    I’ll have to read Pullman.

    I have to say, I found the ending of Gilly… very much unexpected, perfectly appropriate, and very sophisticated.

    Which, I think, says a lot more about my assumptions of what children “get” and “don’t get” than it does about the book itself. And I’m the guy who is always saying, “the reader is smarter than you.”

    Good to remember that applies to all readers.

  38. admin

    Added it to the list, thanks!

  39. admin

    As a HUGE fan of the Arthurian mythos, I really, really, REALLY wanted to like Mists.

    And I really, really didn’t.

    That book seems to qualify under the “everyone knows it, nobody actually read it” heading. Which, according to – I believe – Stephen King, fits the definition of a great American novel: a book that everybody owns, but that nobody has read.

  40. admin

    Fear is a good motivator.

    That’s all I’m saying.

  41. admin

    Lauren Child is in good here, too, for multiple reasons. Not the least of them being that our kids see themselves perfectly in Charlie and Lola.

    I’m very fond of her version of “The Princess and the Pea”, as well.

  42. tawang

    Both of mine are head over heels for Charlie and Lola. The 3 yr old does an uncanny impression of the guinea pig from the tv version. The 6 yr old is just starting into her Clarice Bean books. But I’ll have to find her “Princess.” As someone who’s done a lot of design work, I love looking at how she does what she does.

  43. stealthbunny

    My first reaction was … awwwww…

    My second reaction hard on the heels of it was… HEY! It’s MY STORY to put in something I WRITE!

    Then I looked at all the multitudes I have written lately (HA!) and said… oh. Right.

    So we could probably work out a bargain of… oh, say, a signed copy of whatever you work it into. :P

    Or you could try kicking me in the ass and getting me to write, but you’d be fighting my health on that one, and that’s a battle I haven’t even scored on yet, so the signed copy is probably a safer bargain.

  44. stealthbunny

    Or swap ‘em for ones you do like. I love paperbackswap.com for my own use, myself, but since I am dead-broke 99.9% of the time, if I can sell it, I will.

  45. stealthbunny

    I took an Arthurian Legends lit class in college, and the last third of the class was actually on… yes, you guessed it… The Mists of Avalon.

    As I think back on it, I believe one of the reasons I had taken the course was that I had already read the book, and I figured I had at least a third of the class reading done and over with.

  46. stealthbunny

    I think I still have a copy of Gilly somewhere at Mom’s, but I don’t remember anything about it, other than that I have it.

    Beverly Cleary was one of my favorites, at about the age yours are at, on into grade-school-ish. There was always something in her writing that could strike a chord in me, especially in the “Ramona” series. But then, I was the youngest, with sisters, and the creative one in the family, as was Ramona. She wrote childhood frustration and angst very well.

  47. jonlaw

    Re: Yet another reason why I am probably not a “writer”

    Well, at the risk of blowing my own horn and recommending books to you from my own broader tastes, I did a post over in my Dark House as an initial irregular entry on my personal list of “good books.”. Your mileage may vary.

  48. frankbyrns

    Seeing your Disney link, my wife would now like to recommend The Paper Bag Princess, by Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko.

  49. kali921

    It’s so worth it! The illustrations are GORGEOUS. I think it’s her best work – and it’s delightfully meta, since it’s a mother raccoon telling her baby raccoon a story.

  50. thecomicman

    Okay, so the missus recommends the following:

    For your eight-year old boy she recommends the works of Daniel Pinkwater and MacDonald Hall, as well as “The Great Brain” books, Just-So Stories by Kipling, and the Narnia books, though she cautions those might be slightly over eight-year-olds’ heads, but eight-year-olds’ mileage will vary.

    For your four-year-old girl, whom you are still reading to, she recommends The Cat that Went to Heaven, Millions of Cats, Where the Wild Things Are, the “Madeline” series of books, the “Mary Poppins” books, and, if she and you are up for it, Alice in Wonderland. She says most of these books come with fantastic art that you can show her while you read to her.

    I’ve only read three of these works (Kipling, Sendak, Carroll), and I haven’t heard of some of the others, but I trust her, for what that’s worth.

  51. josephinedamian

    reading

    Greg, more and more, I find myself looking back at the classics for a quality read.

  52. taliabriscoe

    After spending the last week happily Snurping my way around the house after our exchange here, I was delighted to hear that Mo Willems’ Knuffle Bunny, Too won a Caldecott Honor!

  53. admin

    That is fantastic news! Thanks for posting!

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