To celebrate National Book Lovers' Day, I'm introducing a new segment on the blog I'm calling How To Make A Reader. One of my most important goals as an English teacher is to help cultivate the love of books. Too often, English class is where young people's love of reading dies (or at least diminishes). I find this so sad because as people who love books, we English teachers should be key figures in helping our students love reading and developing their reading tastes. I'm also curious how bibliophiles become their literary selves. With this in mind, I'm setting out to talk to as many book lovers as I can to find out what made them the reader they are. In every How To Make A Reader, I'll talk to one avid reader about what they read in high school (and whether they loved or loathed it), what their past and current extracurricular reading looks like, and how they developed their personal reading taste. Each interview will give you a little insight into How To Make a Reader along with a lot of fantastic book recs.
I'm thrilled to introduce you to my first guest, author and bookworm, Leigh Kramer. Leigh worked as a medical social worker, including hospice and pediatric hematology/oncology, for several years before trading her social work career for the love of spreadsheets and organization. She is a voracious reader (truly), Irish Breakfast tea devotee, and loyal White Sox fan. Her first novel, A STORIED LIFE was released in 2018. You can keep up with Leigh's reading on Instagram and follow her thoughts on life, books, and the Enneagram on her blog.
I've gotten so many great book recommendations from Leigh over the years, but talking to her about book recommendations for teenagers has completely wrecked my TBR (that's to-be-read list). She has phenomenal eclectic taste and such important advice on fostering a love of reading. Her musing on the importance of taking the time to browse and allowing trial-and-error in your book selection inspired fond memories for me as well as inspiration for my classroom. Read on for some delightfully earnest book talk and some excellent additions to your own TBR.
Tell us about your current reading life. What types of books do you enjoy and where do you have conversations about books?
Reading is a huge part of my daily life. I've always read before bed, a minimum of 30 minutes, but in the last few years, I've mostly stopped watching TV so if I'm home at night, then I'm reading. As such, the number of books I read per year has skyrocketed. Last year I read 314 books and I read 371 books in 2017. Prior to 2016, I averaged between 100 to 150 books per year so clearly, getting rid of cable was the game-changer. I've felt weird about sharing my number in past years because I don't want anyone to feel bad about however many books they read per year. Any reading is good reading! But I happen to be a prolific reader who can tear through books at a high rate. In third grade, we had a module on speed reading and I've been off to the races ever since.
I read a variety of genres. I read romance, YA, and women's fiction the most. I'm always bringing books up in conversation with friends! I review everything I read on Goodreads and use my blog and Instagram to share my favorite books (4 or 5 stars). I also have great discussions about romance novels on Twitter.
As a teacher, I’m always curious about how people fell in love with reading. For you, was it in the classroom, or outside it?
My mom read to my brother and me when we were growing up so that's where it started. But I also have a clear memory of the first time I read a book on my own—I must have been around 3 or 4 years old—and how powerful I felt when I realized those letters added up to something that made sense and I no longer needed to rely on my parents in order to hear the story.
How did you figure out your personal taste in books?
This is a great question and I don't have a clear answer. I've always been a big library user. I'm sure librarians gave recommendations when I was younger, but once I was deemed old enough to start checking out books from the youth area (this was before YA existed as a genre), I pretty much chose for myself. Browsing has always been a big part of figuring out what to read, whether at the library or in a bookstore. By browsing the shelves, I'd discover books and take a chance on them and this helped me figure out authors and genres that worked for me. Just a whole lot of trial and error.
I love books that explore relationships, grief, injustice, and doubt, books with a lot of symbolism, food memoir. The older I get, the more I want happy endings so I read a ton of romance. Now I can tell within the first page or two if someone's writing style will work. I still like stepping outside of my comfort zone and trying something new. And then there's recommendations from friends. There's nothing like a friend who knows what you gravitate toward in books.
Did you do your required reading in high school?
I did and luckily I liked most of it. The only books I remember not finishing are Grapes of Wrath and The Brothers Karamazov. They were just so, so boring. I still have no desire to finish them all these years later!
Did you read outside of assigned reading in high school? If so, what were some of your favorite books and how did you discover them?
I think I did most of my fun reading during the summer or any big break but I probably peppered in some non-assigned books during the school year too. I loved going to the library and loading up on whatever caught my fancy: VC Andrews, Robin Cook, Mary Higgins Clark, Anne Tyler, Michael C. Crichton, Robin Jones Gunn, Nancy Drew: The Case Files, Sweet Valley High, The Girls Of Canby Hall. Then there were the romance novels my friend Jane snuck to me and I'd hide under my dresser. No shame in my game!
My friend Lindsay told me to read A Prayer Of Owen Meany during our junior or senior year and it's still my all-time favorite novel. John Irving doesn't always work for me but Owen is still one of the most unique characters I've ever encountered.
There's also a book that I read over and over again but I can't remember the title or author. From what I recall, it was about a woman who married a widower and became a stepmom to his two girls and she moved into their house. I have no idea what about this was a comfort read to teenage me but it would be fun to find it again. I'm not much of a rereader now but I reread quite a bit in high school.
Did you have a teacher in your life who helped you learn something new about yourself as a reader?
Mr. Harris was my favorite English teacher. I even got to do a special practicum with him my senior year in which I was essentially his student teacher. He ended up incorporating a couple of my lesson plans into his curriculum, which meant so much. He loved science fiction, which is not a genre I read super often but when I do, I think of him. He's the reason I go out of my reading comfort zone because you never know what you'll discover. I had a lot of great teachers in high school but he's the one who really believed in me, especially in my writing. We had such interesting discussions sophomore year—about genres and about books like A Separate Peace and plays like Fences. He was always pushing us to think harder and outside the box. Mostly, I gleaned from his wisdom and I owe him so much.
What is one required reading book you LOVED in high school?
I was really lucky to have three really excellent English teachers in high school. I didn't love all the books they taught but I still learned from them and could see why they'd been chosen. (With few exceptions.) We had really great discussions and interesting homework—and that's saying something, that I can look back on old assignments 20+ years later and think of them fondly. Part of our unit on Hamlet included memorizing a portion of the play and I can still remember much of that selection. It was probably destined to be one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, even if we hadn't studied it in school, but Dr. Langlas really brought it alive for us.
That same year, we also studied Richard Wright's Native Son and I remember being completely entranced by the book. I brought it with me on a youth group retreat so I could stay caught up on the reading and I lost complete track of time and where I was supposed to be because of the story. It's not an easy read—it tackles racism and sexual assault among other things—but it's an important one and it was important for me, a white girl, to read it. I'm sure they got plenty of things wrong but I'm glad my white teachers did not only teach white authors. (Although it's worth noting, we read way more men than women. Alas.)
What is one required book you HATED in high school?
I hated A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man by James Joyce. It was convoluted, filled with run-on sentences, and I despised every minute of reading it. I'm honestly surprised I finished it! I had no idea what story he was trying to tell and I remember looking at my teacher in horror for making us read it. It's the only misstep from my senior year English classes. The especially unfortunate part is how much I'd looked forward to finally reading Joyce because I've always had a special place in my heart for Ireland and I fully expected to love the author.
What is one book you would love to see introduced in classrooms now?
I have so many suggestions! Reading should be more accessible to teens and as such, we shouldn't only be teaching them Important Classics (which is a subjective list and often filled with work that has not aged well, not to mention how our idea of literary importance has been shaped by sexism, racism, colonialism, etc.) Mix genre fiction in with the classics that still make the cut and incorporate YA into the curriculum. YA books that would make a big impact in the classroom: Anna-Marie McLemore's Wild Beauty, Adib Khorram's Darius The Great Is Not Okay, Angie Thomas's The Hate U Give, Ashley Woodfolk's The Beauty That Remains, and Adam Silvera's They Both Die At The End. These are all well-written, engaging, and have themes that could lead to endless discussion.
Another angle would be to pair a classic with a retelling, such as Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice with Ibi Zoboi's Pride or Soniah Kamal's Unmarriageable. Comparing and contrasting the source material would open up the story in a new way, especially in these versions which center marginalized voices.
For those who'd like to update the literary fiction choices in their classroom, I'd suggest Tara Conklin's The Last Romantics, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Kayla Rae Whitaker's The Animators, and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Okay, one more: Rebecca Roanhorse's Trail Of Lightning is a Native post-apocalyptic story with rich world-building that would be a great entry point for examining the apocalyptic genre.
What is one additional piece of advice you would give teachers to help students enjoy their reading more?
Don't put limitations on them! By that I mean, don't define what "good" books are or disparage someone's choice in reading material. My kingdom is to never hear someone say, "you're reading THAT?" with disdain in their voice. It's completely subjective and we don't have the same taste in books, nor should we. If a kid is interested in reading something, encourage them, even if it's not something you would ever want to read. That kind of snobby judgment can turn off so many from ever picking up a book again and that's a travesty.
What are you reading now?
I'm in the middle of several books per usual: Samira Ahmed's Internment, Kresley Cole's Shadow's Claim, Alice Steinbach's Without Reservations, Carla de Guzman's The Queen's Game, and Sarah Waters's Fingersmith. I like having options!
Books mentioned in this post:
- Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
- The Brother Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
- Nancy Drew: the Case Files (series)
- Sweet Valley High (series)
- Girls of Canby Hall (series)
- A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
- A Separate Peace by John Knowles
- Fences by August Wilson
- Hamlet by William Shakespeare
- Native Son by Richard Wright
- A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
- Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore
- Darius The Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
- The Beauty That Remains by Ashley Woodfolk
- They Both Die At The End by Adam Silvera
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- Pride by Ibi Zoboi
- Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal
- The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin
- Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker
- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
- Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
- Internment by Samira Ahmed
- Shadow's Claim by Kresley Cole
- Without Reservations by Alice Steinbach
- The Queens Game by Carla de Guzman
- Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
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