A Reading Life: {Guest Post} The Two Rs

The Two Rs

By LE Orison 

I remember being unable to read. I remember the boxes of words lined up neatly at the bottom of the page, and the letters within shifting: unknown, tantalizing, a puzzle just beyond my comprehension. That book happened to be a mystery, adding to the wonder when my older brother finally sounded out the text, revealing the story’s secret to my ears, if not my eyes.

Once I knew how, I read gluttonously. I read until my eyes stopped focusing and my head pounded, and our doctor confirmed that I must be separated from the printed word to recover. (I am stubborn; this happened several times before I learned moderation.) I spent many afternoons walking to our library, through the cool shadows and deadly blind curves and hills of our neighborhood to the heat, dust, and exhaust of downtown sidewalks; on these trips, I tried to choose only those books I wished to carry the miles home. I always chose more than was comfortable.

As the motto for his coat of arms in high school, my brother chose an oft-repeated phrase in our house: “When in doubt, look it up.” For mine, I chose Sir Francis Bacon: “Reading maketh a full man.”

College—an amazing wealth of unfamiliar titles, fresh libraries, new thoughts, bound by never-enough time. Basic military training, when only religious works and the official soldier’s guide were tolerated—drought, starvation. Every snatch of news or fiction, secreted to me in letters by friends, burst in my mind with the intensity of the sugar we were also forbidden and in the heady joy of graduation, I went to the bookstore with my family and bought five or six books at full price, only to have them confiscated at the start of my next training.

Access to books, and time to read, have come in waves through my life, not often synchronized. Limitation of choices has pushed me to devour work I might not otherwise have bypassed—fumbling through a pile of battered paperbacks in a plywood library the size of a bathroom—or to wait weeks in anticipation of a book I ordered from overseas, hoping it contains the information I craved.

Even now, my wallet contains three library cards. My shelves are perpetually in flux. There is never any question in my husband’s mind about what I might like for Christmas or my birthday, and the list of books I want to read never grows any shorter.

 

But beside the pure pleasure of vicarious experience, the quest for understanding, there is the conjoined twin of reading in my life: writing.

I cannot be sure when I began, only that the first story I recall fit within a half sheet of lined paper, abandoned from the frustration of scribing it rather than a dearth of ideas. I wrote about stories. I wrote down my dreams. I wrote page after page of stereotypical or preachy fantasy, and the older I grew, the more I wrote. Siblings and friends received questionable gifts of short stories, teen crushes inspired poetry, and through college and military service, a series of blogs chronicled the deep thoughts of my life and experience. (Despite my tongue-in-cheek cynicism, then, as now, the occasional flash of truth comes through. Void? Do you hear it?)

I never finished a novel draft until the waiting days following that first deployment—hours spent alone in my new apartment, without school or work to distract me. My husband remained with his unit, still overseas for another four months. In his absence, I found a book: No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty. I read it. I believed. And within a month and a half, I completed my first full draft.

 

I write because I want to read. I write because the visions in my head are unclear without structure, because I wake up from a dream and want to know what happens next. I write because I am a reader.

The last eleven years have seen fourteen novels begun, seven fully drafted. In no small part this is due to National Novel Writing Month, but the truth is that I write year-round. At present, I have four novels in my head. Three follow the same story; the first I am editing, the second I began drafting in November but did not complete, and the third exists as a disjointed collection of scenes, clamoring for a clear plot. The fourth novel is entirely different—dystopian science fiction rather than fantasy, multiple viewpoints instead of one; it is my experiment, my sabbatical, my quandary.

 

I read, because I want to write.

My shelves are stocked with books on plot, punctuation, conflict and suspense, revision, characterization, and thesauri of setting, trait, emotion. But they also contain a book on violence. A manual for body guards. Books on strategy, history, politics, war, religions. I have definitive works on both Japanese and European sword fighting. Overviews of monarchy throughout the world. Dictionaries in Welsh, Russian, Slovak, Icelandic, and Italian. Most recently, I am reading The Art of Intrusion. The Art of Deception. Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief. 100 Deadly Skills, Spy Secrets That Can Save Your Life, A Burglar’s Guide to the City, How Do It Know?, C++ in 10 Minutes, and Beginner’s Programming—All-in-One Desk Reference.

I begin reading these things because the story in my mind requires greater understanding of my subject. As I read, the story grew; as the story grows, more knowledge is needed. Over and over, the edges of my world flex and twist, revealing new lands beyond. One book leads me to another, chasing rabbit trails of fact, but always to this central point: to improve my own writing, the reigning story, in turn. I still love reading fiction, old favorites and new finds, yet the story in my head takes precedence over them all until it is complete.

The best reading has become when I forget the words I have written, when the story captures me past criticism and moves me. When the book lives on its own. When I am audience, not scribe.

 

Yet after three decades, history repeats.

For the language base in The Queens’ Defense series, I picked Korean because I liked how it sounded. I stole words and romanized names without care when I began. Now, nearly two years later, that language has stolen my heart. As I study it, words march across the page in tidy squares and rectangles, imbued with mystery, black on the white page. I cannot look away. Already I long to answer.

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. . . . Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.” –Sir Francis Bacon, Of Studies

Someday, when I have learned to think in 한국어,  writing will follow. For what else are books but a slow conversation through time?

curlicue1

To read more of LE Orison’s work, check out her blog at https://writerintransience.wordpress.com/.

curlicue1

Interested in being a guest blogger for A Reading Life? Submit your ideas here.

 

Caldecott Award Winners 2017

Each year, the Caldecott Award honors the year’s distinguished American picture books. I’m always excited to see which books are chosen, and it’s become a tradition to read the year’s books aloud with my son. He enjoys making it into his own competition, and each of us decides on our favorites from the year’s Caldecott winners.

Radiant Child – by Javaka Steptoe

radiant child.jpg

This picture book biography of Jean-Michel Basquiat focuses on the artist’s childhood: the encouragement and inspiration he gained from his mother, the expressiveness and non-conformity of his art (even as a child), the way that a childhood car accident prompted an interest in human anatomy that continued throughout his later work. The theme of art being expressive and “outside-the-lines” pervades the book, and the messages about what constitutes art could prove a helpful preparation for children getting ready to visit an art museum or exhibition.

Leave Me Alone! – by Vera Brosgol

(my favorite)

leave-me-alone

This hilariously funny book follows an exasperated old woman who needs some peace and quiet to finish her knitting. She moves from place to place, searching for a quiet place to knit and constantly being interrupted by a series of increasingly unexpected visitors. The story explores both the need for a break from people and the way that searched-for aloneness can become lonely after a while. As an introvert and a knitter myself, I found this book to be particularly funny, and it was my personal favorite from among this year’s Caldecott winners.

Freedom in Congo Square – by Carole Boston Weatherford

freedom in congo square.jpg

With vibrant illustrations and a strong rhyming text, this book explores daily life for enslaved people in New Orleans. Congo Square  was the only place in New Orleans where enslaved people were allowed to congregate during their time off, and it became an important place of community, music, and dance. This book shows both the horrors and drudgery of daily activities under slavery, as well as the hope and anticipation of the weekly gatherings in Congo Square. The text was very accessible for my 6-year-old, and the poetry was powerful in its subtlety.

Du Iz Tak? – by Carson Ellis

du iz tak.jpg

This quirky tale about insects building a tree fort had my son laughing out loud. It’s written in a made-up language, so kids have to infer from context what the words mean. As a French teacher, this made me happy in a special teacherly place in my heart. Getting kids to let go of having to know what every single word means and just understand the gist of something in a foreign language is an important part of being able to absorb the new language. Rounded out with charming illustrations, this book was most enjoyable.

They All Saw the Cat – by Brendan Wenzel

(my son’s favorite)

thye all saw the cat.jpg

This charming book is a fascinating exploration of perspective and point of view. It shows a cat from the perspective of lots of different people and animals that it interacts with — from the child’s perspective, the cat is a loving big-eyed kitty; from the mouse’s perspective, it’s a horrifying monster. The creative illustrations truly make this book, and it’s not at all heavy-handed in its approach. My 6-year-old son loved the constantly changing perspectives on this cat, and this book was his favorite among this year’s Caldecotts.

 

Diversity in Verse Novels – Part II

I love reading verse novels. There’s something so alluring about them. If you’re not familiar with the genre, it’s a form in which the entire story is told in a series of non-rhyming poems, usually from the perspective of the main character (or switching back and forth between several characters). I find it to be a unique and beautiful way to get inside the thoughts of a character.

It’s a wonderful genre for diverse stories. The format of narrative poems allows for such intimate access to each character’s point of view. I find that even if the character is very different from me, I can understand his or her perspective more easily when I engage with poems like these.

I’ve already written one post about diversity in verse novels (you can find Part I here), but I just had to share a few more of my favorites.

Brown Girl Dreaming – by Jacqueline Woodson

brown girl dreaming.jpg

This memoir, written as a series of narrative poems, tells the story of the author’s childhood during the 1960s and 70s. I was particularly struck by her comparisons of the culture of her home in New York with the culture of her mother’s family in South Carolina. Deftly written and inspiring.

The Crossover – by Kwame Alexander

the crossover.jpg

The language in this novel packs a punch. Each poem is full of movement and motion, sizzling across the page. The story is about basketball, but it’s also about brotherhood, about navigating adolescence, about working through family tension. It’s an engaging story, and a joy to read.

Audacity – by Melanie Crowder

audacity.jpg

This powerfully written story was inspired by true events in the life of Clara Lemlich. It deals with immigration, antisemitism, women’s rights, labor rights, and protest, all in a very readable and accessible way. A Jewish immigrant from Russia in the early 20th century, Clara refuses to accept the terrible working conditions prevalent in her new community in New York. Her story is inspiring and expertly told.

Red Butterfly – by A.L. Sonnichsen

red butterfly

Kara has never met her birth mother. She was abandoned as an infant but taken in and cared for by an American woman living in China. She’s knows that something is unusual — even wrong — about her life, but she can’t quite figure out what’s going on. Why is she kept out of sight in their tiny apartment in Tianjin? Why can’t she and her American mother join Daddy in the U.S.? An intriguing and compelling story about adoption, family, and being undocumented.

Serafina’s Promise – by Ann E. Burg

serafina's promise.jpg

Serafina dreams of becoming a doctor someday. But her dream would require her to attend school, and money for a uniform and supplies is non-existent. Besides, Serafina’s mother needs her at home, to prepare for the arrival of the new baby — the whole family is hoping against hope that this time the baby will live past infancy. Set in Haiti, against the backdrop of the 2010 earthquake, this book is filled with hope and determination.

A Reading Life: {Guest Post} How Jane Austen Changed My Life

How Jane Austen Changed My Life

By Alyssa Dulaney


alyssa-2
Hello all! I am Alyssa—avid reader, aspiring writer, ambitious college student, and lover of coffee, Jane Austen, and Jesus. Did I mention blogger? I started Pen to Paper Collections having utterly no clue what I was doing, but knowing I wanted to share my passion for literature (and random musings) with others. I leapt blindly into the world of blogging. Two years later, I’ve yet to have it all figured out, because it’s a journey, as it must be with all things worth doing, but here I am. I’m honored that you are now a part of that journey!

 

curlicue1

Once upon a time, there was a girl who was very fond of once-upon-a-times. She read many books; and not just the ones that were required. She carried them in her purse and in her heart, and she wrote them in her head. At the age of 14, she happened upon a copy of Emma, which she poured through with impenetrable attention. That was when it all began: what some would label an obsession. I prefer the term “dedication,” but to each his own!

As you may have guessed, that girl was myself. And Emma is, of course, Jane Austen’s beloved masterpiece. I finished the book, though I didn’t want it to end. The only reasonable remedy for my curious mind afterward was to read all of Miss Austen’s other works. So I did. Her life, works, and era soon became the topics of many a paper, blog post, and conversation. My Jane Austen collection of books, mugs, journals, cook books, and candles grew. I won’t deny that I have seen nearly all the film adaptions, become some-what of a critic for any attempt at imitation, and have a Jane Austen quote for every occasion, unashamedly. My family and friends have since written me off as a hopeless bibliophile. And it all began with a borrowed generic paperback.

What was it that made this author so special to me then and still now? She ignited something invaluable in me. She was the literary genius that became my ultimate inspiration. Because of her, my love for reading grew beyond what it had ever been before. My adoration for her novels was accompanied by an intrigue for the Romantic Era and surrounding eras. I exposed myself to authors like John Keats, Lord Byron, Charlotte Bronte, Victor Hugo, and Elizabeth Gaskell—all history-makers of the literary world. The style, the ways of society, the beautiful words used to describe even the simplest things, outlining their deeper meaning—I found it all captivating. They invited me into their worlds, and those words that speak of their lives, in turn, speak into mine.

As inexplicably wonderful as that all is, Jane has affected more than just my choice in reading material. In some way or another, she has managed to touch nearly every area of my life. Foremost, I give her due credit for my pursuits in a literature-based education as well as my desire to write. I am both an English major and an aspiring writer—say what you will about the impossibilities there. What can I say? She has made me a dreamer.

My desire to be a writer was just that for a long time—a desire. But as my knowledge of Jane Austen and other literary giants expanded, that desire morphed into a decision. Although she did not publish under her name in her lifetime (she published under “By A Lady”), Jane had the boldness to write in a time when lady writers were not only questioned, but scorned by society. She wrote with a sort of satirical wit, undeniable by anyone familiar with her work. This was highly unexpected of any woman, much less one who was unmarried and devoid of fortune. It could go without saying that her courage ignited my own. Specifically, in my writing, yes; but also in the way I present myself every day.

My crazy, far-fetched desire is to have as outstanding an influence on others—in the present and the future—as Jane continues to have on me, through the messages in and between the lines on a page. Have I built an outlandish dream? Absolutely. But so did Miss Austen. It is in this way that reading has defined who I am, and Jane Austen has changed my life.

curlicue1

Interested in being a guest blogger for A Reading Life? Submit your ideas here.

 

Engaging Books to Read When it’s Hard to Concentrate

I ended up with unexpected surgery on my ankle two weeks ago, so I’ve found myself laid up on the couch with plenty of time to read. Unfortunately (between the pain and the pain medication) I’ve also found it difficult to concentrate on books. It’s been harder than usual to find books that are engaging enough to hold my attention as I recover, but I’ve managed to find a few that fit the bill. These four books were quite engrossing, and I found them hard to put down despite my lack of concentration.

The Sun is Also a Star – by Nicola Yoon

sun is also a star.jpg

This is a sweet YA romance between a Jamaican girl and the Korean-American boy that she meets by chance on the day before her scheduled deportation. It all takes place in a single day, and has a narrative that shifts between characters and perspectives. The main characters are both flawed and charming, and I found both of their backstories to be compelling.

Born a Crime – by Trevor Noah

born a crime.jpg

I listened to this riveting memoir on audio, and I think that Trevor Noah’s voice talents added a great deal to the experience. Parts of this book are intense — as the son of a black woman and a white man in Apartheid-era South Africa, Trevor Noah’s very existence was illegal. Yet the tone doesn’t stay heavy. Interwoven are hilarious stories of mischief and mayhem, and cultures colliding. Deeply compelling and incredibly funny at the same time.

Rebel of the Sands – by Alwyn Hamilton

rebel-in-the-sands

This action-packed fantasy focuses on Amani, a young woman desperate to get away from the small desert town where she grew up. Her world is reminiscent of the Middle East, except that Djinni and magical beasts still roam the desert and interact with the human world. The fantasy world is intriguing, the characters are compelling, and the plot kept me reading past the time I should have turned off the lights.

The Night Gardener – by Jonathan Auxier

night gardener.jpg

This eerie and lovely middle grade novel follows a young Irish brother and sister who find themselves employed in a decrepit English house that hides many secrets. It’s a spooky tale, with a certain reminiscence towards Edgar Allen Poe, but the creepiness never gets over the top. The characters are memorable, the plot moves quickly and gracefully, and the storytelling is enchanting.

A Reading Life: {Guest Post} How Reading Changed My Life in 2016

How Reading Changed My Life in 2016

by Jennifer LeBlanc

As a little girl, with a Dick & Jane reader, I learned to read. I remember the exact moment that the letters turned into words: all at once the story had wings.

I read all throughout my childhood and teenage years, and majored in English in college. Almost 20 years since my university days, I fondly remember the hours spent in my college library, browsing small hardcover copies of great works of literature. That was the year I read Jane Eyre, Dickens’ Hard Times, Jane Austen, and Wuthering Heights. That was the year I met my husband, who is (happily) also a reader.

We married a few years later and had two daughters. Some of my happiest motherhood moments have been spent reading aloud together – Charlotte’s Web, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Winnie the Pooh, Beatrix Potter, Because of Winn-Dixie, and The Boxcar Children.

But at some point in the last few years, in the constancy of raising my girls, I stopped prioritizing my own reading. Life as a young family was busy, and I let social media, movies, and other hobbies fill in the cracks of time I could call my own.

As 2015 wrapped up, I set a Goodreads Reading Challenge to read 12 books in 2016. I figured I would strive to average a book a month for the year. My real goal was not the number, but to make reading a regular part of my life again. I really had no idea how much my goal would change my life. Here’s how reading changed my life in 2016:

I Fell in Love with History

Nonfiction books like Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and fiction titles like Number the Stars and The Book Thief gave me an entry point into historic events. Stories brought color to things that were only black and white in school textbooks. Now with an increasing number of books under my literary belt, I am beginning to stitch events together in my mind and see history as a seamless road stretching backwards, not as separate, unrelated events. I can see cause and effect; how what transpired in one decade influenced and shaped what happened in the next. Reading about Louie Zamperini’s time in Japanese Prisoner of War camps helped me better understand what my mom’s step-dad went through as a POW in Japan during World War II. Reading books set during historical times, turned a light on in my mind, giving me a thirst for learning and knowledge.

I Learned to Do Things That Intimidated Me

For whatever reason, I have been intimidated by big books, and tended to read titles less than 350 pages. I have also been scared to read about certain topics. In 2016, I learned that everything you accomplish that you are afraid of gives you strength and confidence for the future. I read books over 500 pages, and am tackling one over 800 pages this year. Learning to stick with something, to persevere, and to overcome self-imposed barriers has had positive effects in other areas of my life. Sometimes our limits are real; sometimes we create them ourselves.

I Strengthened the Relationship with My Daughter

My oldest daughter, a seventh-grader, and I formed a sort of Mother-Daughter Book Club when I decided to read a book she was assigned to read for Language Arts class. I read it, she read it, and we discussed it. Since then we’ve had a shared bond and common language others don’t have. It’s given us inside jokes and camaraderie we wouldn’t have had otherwise. It’s given us language for other people’s struggles and other times and places.

I Gained a World All My Own

Reading so much last year gave me a world all my own. No matter what was happening in my day, I knew that reading was waiting for me. I love the feeling of being in my own life and someone else’s at the same time, of knowing that there is always the comfort and inspiration of words to benchmark my days. As an introvert, I love how reading is solitary, and yet shared with others all around the world. I love how reading gives you a way to travel without leaving your home or town. It’s home and abroad, it’s comfort and challenge, it’s heart-warming and devastating, it’s soothing and exhilarating. It’s anything you want it to be.

Reading made me stronger in 2016. It made me knowledgeable and more confident. It took me to far-away places. It gave me empathy and insight and courage. I never want to forget the power of a literary life.

curlicue1

jleblanc

Jennifer LeBlanc is a mother, writer, and artist living on the west coast with her teacher husband and two daughters. She is fascinated by people’s stories and reads partially to answer the question, “What is life like for others?” In 2016 she read 82 books. You can find her on Instagram at @liveart_fully, or on Facebook at Live Art.fully. She is working on her first book.

Picture Books about Scotland

Our family had the opportunity to spend a week in Scotland this fall, and it was such fun to find picture books to prepare my son for the trip. Here are a few of our favorites:

An Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales – by Theresa Breslin and Kate Leiper

illustrated-treasury

This beautifully illustrated collection features stories from all different regions of Scotland. It provides brief introductions to each story, explaining the era of each story and whether it comes from the Borderlands, the Highlands, etc. The writing style is both elegant and accessible, and I found that it worked quite well as a read aloud.

Wee Gillis – by Munro Leaf

wee gillis.jpg

This charming story follows a young orphan boy who spends half of the year with his mother’s family in the lowlands and half of the year with his father’s relatives in the highlands. It’s a story of the discovery and appreciation two different cultures, and of finding one’s own place in the mix. Robert Lawson’s wonderful illustrations add a great deal to the story as well.

Katie Morag: Island Stories – by Mairi Hedderwick

katie-morag

This collection includes four different tales about a young girl living on a Scottish island. My favorite is Katie and the Two Grandmothers — a charming story in which Katie’s mainland city-dwelling grandmother comes to visit the island and stands in sharp contrast to Katie’s overall-wearing, sheep-raising island grandmother. The illustrations are lovely, and the stories do a lovely job of presenting different aspects of Scottish life without being at all pedantic.

Katie in Scotland – by James Mayhew

katie in scotland.jpg

My son and I had already enjoyed meeting Katie in Katie in London and Katie’s London Christmas, so I was pleased to see a book in the same series in which Katie visits Scotland. This is a story from the tourist’s perspective, so it highlights many castles and tourist attractions in Scotland. An interesting addition, but definitely one to read in conjunction with stories that give the local perspective as well.