Where I Find New Reads

I remember, I was getting ready to get my undergrad degree…I had this night class, a lit class, and during our last official class period of the semester, we all brainstormed essay questions for our final. (We were supposed to write out answers to two questions and slip them in the prof’s mailbox.) Once everybody had their questions ironed out, it all got informal and chatty. One of the students asked the prof, “Where do you find books to read?”

I never forgot that. She was totally serious. She was a soon-to-graduate lit major, and she had no idea where to find books. Now that they weren’t going to be spoon-fed to her, anyway. Now that they would no longer be assigned, how could she find good books? Books worth reading?

We don’t give enough attention to that question, really. I think adults really do have a hard time finding books. Especially since books don’t come to you much anymore–you have to seek out books.

Where do I find books? I find them in the trade pubs I subscribe to: Publishers Weekly, Booklist, etc. I buy books after seeing them mentioned by readers online. I get enticed by reviews in my local newspaper.

But I buy the vast majority of books–especially books by new authors–through newsletters. BookBub, of course, but also Fussy Librarian, eReader Cafe, Ereader News Today.

I’ve discovered indie authors, picked up Pulitzer Prize winners, binged several series. I love how those newsletters are just the great equalizer–indies featured side-by-side with traditionally published authors. And they’re so cheap, I can load up my ereader the same way I once loaded up my arms with giant stacks of library books during those summers when I was a kid.

Oh, and the answer to her question–how do you find books worth reading? The book that’s worth reading is the book that speaks to you–that keeps you up at night, that you can’t wait to get back to, that makes you think or feel or hope.

Reading Confession

I’ll admit it: I can be a slow reader.

I mean slooooow.

Especially when I’m enjoying a book.

So often, it seems, we prize fast. If something is fast, it must be good: it’s a page-turner. Finished it in an afternoon! We even say time flies when we’re having fun.

The faster the better, we all say.

But is it, really?

I so love this quote from Barrack Obama on the value of reading:

“At a time when events move so quickly and so much information is transmitted, the ability to slow down and get perspective, along with the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes — those two things have been invaluable to me.”

This is exactly how I often feel about reading. I’ve done plenty of gobbling-down-a-whole-book-in-a-day (especially during summers at the lake). But there’s also such pleasure to be had in really spending time with a book, rather than speeding through it, gobbling up an initial impression, then moving on to the next volume. There’s joy in savoring turns of phrases. Really thinking about the characters or the overall structure. Letting passages sink in. Going back and re-reading portions.

Often, when I find a book I want to spend that much time with, well, then, that’s when I know I’ve stumbled onto something really special…


Where Do You Find a Novel’s Theme, Anyway? (A How-To for Young Readers)

I’ve been asked lately by a few elementary teachers and librarians to offer some advice on how to guide students through finding the theme of a book. It’s not always easy—in fact, by the time you get to the end of a book, and have sifted through the conflicts and the sub-plots, the major and minor characters and all their desires and fears and…

Yeah. Where was that theme supposed to be, anyway?

It can be a head-scratcher at times. Even to adult readers. So theme can be especially frustrating for our younger readers.

Really, though, theme isn’t an answer floating out there, separate from the rest of the book. It’s woven into the very fabric of the book. Everything in the book (and I really do mean just about everything) points to theme.

Some of the best places to start thinking about theme are:

The characters. In my MG, THE JUNCTION OF SUNSHINE AND LUCKY, the main character, Auggie, is a plucky girl who sees beauty in the strangest places. Rusted pipes and broken-down cars and used-up appliances. It’s why she’s able to take the items her grandfather picks up as a trash collector and turn them into sculptures, becoming a folk artist.

The conflict. In THE JUNCTION, Auggie comes face-to-face with the House Beautification Committee, which does not in any way enjoy her sculptures. In fact, they’re going to pile on the fines if she doesn’t remove them—then blight her house if she can’t pay those fines.

The resolution. Again, in THE JUNCTION, we see Auggie deciding to sell her sculptures, freeing herself from the draconian rules of the HBC. (And, as it turns out, saving her entire neighborhood to boot.)

Okay, so clearly, there’s a beauty is in the eye of the beholder theme happening—we’ve got a girl who sees trash as art supplies, a House Beautification Committee that does not, and a resolution that involves the very sculptures the two entities are fighting over. You could also say there’s a power of the individual theme here, as Auggie uses her artwork, in the end, to stand up to the committee.

These aren’t the only solutions, either. That’s a big part of what I’ve always loved about literature. It’s not a math problem with only one right solution. The kicker is, you’ve got to be able to point to specific passages in the text itself to support your own answer. And these are three broad but really solid areas of text to start digging out theme.


I remember the first time I connected with a book. The Pain and the Great One, a picture book by Judy Blume.  It’s about sibling rivalry–younger brother, older sister. And it was just so much like me and my brother, it was scary. The girl played piano (I started taking lessons when I was pretty little), and the boy was kind of a rascal, always knocking over her towers of blocks, etc. If I remember right, in my edition, the kids even had a cat (we had two). It was my life there on the pages. Judy Blume got it. She knew exactly what it was like to be me. It was like she had been in my head somehow.

That’s what initially hooked me on reading: finding those books that seemed to tell my own life experience. It’s a powerful thing to have your own thoughts spit back at you. Makes you feel like there are all sorts of people going through exactly what you’re going through.

Now, though?

I find myself gravitating more and more toward people or situations totally unlike my own. I’m developing a real thing for classic sci-fi (Invasion of the Body Snatchers). And I really love anything by Kurt Vonnegut. I just really like spending time in his head. I like looking through eyes unlike my own.

I’m not sure if that’s a result of growing older or a result of the times. A need for escapism, maybe? Then again, according to what we see on the nightly news, it’s becoming harder and harder for us all to do just that–look through each other’s eyes, see from another point of view. It’s a skill I hope we never lose.