Sunday, May 17, 2009

Read Your Brains Out

posted by Mary Ann Rodman

At least once a school visit, I am asked (usually by a teacher), "What advice can you give a young writer?" The answer is a two-parter. Part one, "Read your brains out." (Part two is another blog.) I never have enough time to elaborate during a 10 minute Q & A session, but I do right now!
Way back when I came face to face with my first computer, the operating mantra was "Garbage in, garbage out." We were told the computer could only produce what we put into it.

So what does this have to do with reading and writing? When I tell my writing students to read, I don't mean read indiscriminately. Analyze your own reading selections. Are you reading the kind of book you would like to write? (If the answer is yes, then you may skip the rest of this post!)

If the answer is "no" or "I don't know," read on. There are a lot of books out there, and all books are not created equal. "So many books, so little time" is a phrase that runs through my head constantly, in relation to both reading, and my own writing. I am taking a wild guess that none of us are unfettered by jobs, family responsibilities, and a multitude of other mundane things. When we have so little time of our own, we are tempted to invest it all in writing. Don't. You have to read as well. And when your reading time is also limited, try to find the best possible books to read.

I am not a literary snob. I like my literary potato chips on occasion. You know the kind of books I mean, the ones that you don't mind leaving on a plane or loaning to someone who never returns it. But just as a steady diet of junk food will leave you weak, overweight and retaining water, a reading diet of "those kinds of books" will leave you with bad writing habits that are hard to shake.

So how does the average aspiring writer (who isn't a librarian) find these "good" books? This is the time of year when schools send home the dreaded "summer reading list." Your local bookstore will have the list and the books on display. That's a good place to begin if you are writing for middle graders or younger.

For reasons known only to Those Who Make the Lists, very few new or YA books are included on middle and high school lists. In fact, the list my rising sophomore was given could have been the same list I had, circa 1969! The only remotely recent YA book she was required to read since sixth grade was Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak, published in 1999. My daughter loved it, although she was puzzled by a book about teenagers that did not text or IM or run up enormous cell phone bills. Which brings me to...

Keep current with what is being published. After years as a librarian, where I had free access to all the review journals, it was hard to carry on without my Horn Book and Publisher's Weekly. Most public library systems carry these review sources and others, but sometimes you have to go to the Main Library, instead of your local branch, to find them. If I had to select only one of these to read or subscribe to, I would choose Horn Book because it is the "choosiest." They are so selective in the books they review, that I have only had the honor once, for My Best Friend. In addition to the reviews, Horn Book has a wealth of articles, essays, and just plain good information on writing workshops and seminars.

I also check in every week at the Cooperative Children's Book Center website for their Book of the Week review, and their monthly book discussion list. For the latest in YA books, I scan the YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) site ( Their Best Books Nominations list is updated monthly.

Why all the reading? To write and write well, you have to books in your bones. This is not optional! When you think of it that way, you'll find a way to wedge in some reading time. I always have a book in my purse (which is my criteria for purse buying--must be big enough to hold book). I read in check-out lines, doctor's offices, during my daughter's daily skating lessons, and deadlocked Friday afternoon Atlanta traffic. (OK, I don't recommend that one.) The point is that you can read a book at times and places when you can't write.

So go find your library card. Now.

1 comment:

Lisa said...

I could not agree more! I've come across quite a few people wanting to get into children's writing who really don't read books of any kind (some cite a time crunch, others say they're too tired to read books after dealing all day with workday-related readings). Exceptions always exist, of course, but I have never met an actively working/publishing writer that doesn't have "books in the bones." I can't imagine not enjoying the act of reading -- and if someone doesn't, I can't imagine that s/he couldn't benefit from exposure to other writing and seeing, at least, what types of books get published.