Reading is the Best Teacher

I've been writing very little this summer. I've put down a couple story seeds, penned a poem or two, and well, there's this blog I do each month. That's about it, unless you count shopping and to-do lists. What I have been doing quite a bit of is reading, and when you think about it, reading is one of the most valuable tools of all. This is why many authors will tell you that if you want to be a good writer, the best thing to do is read, read, read. How else to know what sounds good to your ear, what looks right on the page, what will reach into your heart and touch you? If I can crack the secrets of the books I love to read, it should make me a better writer. So, if nothing else, I read.

Each summer, from my job as an elementary school librarian, I take home a box of books. This box generally holds a thoroughly unrealistic amount of middle grade books. To be honest, I have never once finished reading all the books I've taken home, but I'm okay with that. I love the potential of those books. I love the choices it gives me. When I finish one, I go to the box and ponder which will be next. This summer, I confess, I was behind on my Goodreads goal, so I took home a bunch of novels in verse, knowing they would be quick reads. And also, they were books I'd really been wanting to read.

We had a serious hot spell that only ended recently. For several weeks, the temperature was over 80 degrees. I know, the rest of the country laughs at that temperature, but in Alaska, that's pretty hot. We also have a number of wildfires burning nearby, so it was smoky, which meant I didn't really want to get out and do anything too strenuous. Reading was the perfect activity; I sat and read three novels in verse in very quick succession.

Which leads me to an important point about novels in verse - you can read them quickly, since they generally have fewer than half the usual words on a page. And yet, despite their scarcity of word count, they are able to tell a complete, cohesive, and emotionally impactful story. It truly impresses me that these authors can make me understand the plot and feel all the feels, while being so economical with their words. 

And now, here, I will give a brief review of the three books I devoured on those hot smoky days.

Rez Dogs
Rez Dogs - by Joseph Bruchac 

This timely novel in verse is the first I've seen directly addressing the Covid pandemic. Malian is visiting her grandparents on the reservation when the world shuts down for the first wave of Covide. Her parents are back in the city, sheltering in place, so Malian stays on with her grandparents, attending school online with the reservation's spotty internet. A stray dog shows up and more or less adopts Malian and her grandparents. Though not a lot 'happens' in this story, it is filled with wonderful traditional tales that her grandparents tell which help Malian understand her current situation better. Her final school project helps her to share with her non-native classmates what life was and is like on the reservation, including the fact that her grandparents were forcibly removed from their families to attend boarding schools, and that her mother was adopted out and grew up with no sense of her native self. The isolation and uncertainty that was felt during the early days of Covid comes through clearly, and the importance of family, friends, and connection are strong themes.

Starfish - by Lisa Fipps 

Starfish is the inspiring and uplifting story of Ellie - a girl who learns to like herself and stand up to bullies. It's hard to believe the blatant unkindness others show to Ellie, who is fat in a world that wants her to be thin. Her mom has been putting her on diet after diet since age four, polices every bite that goes into her mouth, and is pushing for bariatric surgery, although Ellie is only eleven, and her aunt nearly died from complications of that very surgery. In this story, it's frustrating to see adults, even teachers, ignore or go along with, and sometimes even encourage, the relentless barrage of insults and slights that Ellie puts up with. Though we've come a long way as a society, for some reason it still often seems acceptable to body shame anyone who doesn't fit the mold. With the help of a new therapist, her Dad, and a few supportive friends, she is finally able to stand up to the bullies, and work up the courage to confront the biggest problem - her mom.

Red, White, and Whole - by Rajani LaRocca

Red, White, and Whole

Reha is torn between two identities - on weekdays she is a typical American kid, but once she is home she is a dutiful Indian daughter and member of her larger Indian community. She loves both parts of herself but resents that she never feels fully at home in either world. She loves and admires her parents, but sometimes chafes against the rules they have for her. When her mother becomes seriously ill, Reha realizes that all of that other stuff is small, and all that really matters is for her to be well again. As her mother fights her illness, Reha eventually learns that she can belong to both worlds at the same time, and that she will need all the friends and family of both to get through this crisis. This book made me straight up sob, and to me, that is high praise indeed. A thread of traditional storytelling also runs through this book, enriching the tale.

I have one more middle grade novel in verse in my box, as well as a poetry collection, which I can breeze through to help me catch up on my reading goal. But more importantly, with every book I read, whether in verse or not, on top of the sheer enjoyment, I am learning to be a better writer. 

The most important tool in my writer's toolbox is simply this - READ, READ, READ!!!


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