Sarah is a book blogger and podcast host/producer who lives in Virginia with her husband and two young children. Her blog Sarah's Book Shelves is one of my go-to places for book recommendations. Sarah doesn't describe herself as a critic, journalist, or editor, which means the reviews she posts are honest, unbiased, and based solely on her opinion of the book. Sarah’s Book Shelves and her new podcast Sarah's Book Shelves Live are the products of years of reading and a way to share her recommendations beyond my immediate circle of acquaintances.
Sarah is currently a stay at home mom who used to work in leadership development and financial services. She grew up in Richmond, VA, attended college at University of Virginia, and business school at University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. In addition to reading, she loves to cook, exercise, play and watch sports (she's obsessed with the summer Olympics!), and spend time outdoors.
When I came up with the idea for this series, Sarah was the first reader I had in mind to interview. From being a reader of her blog and an obsessive (not an exaggeration!) listener of her podcast, I knew that Sarah didn't particularly love the books she read in high school. Nonetheless, she reads a ton and talks about books in a manner that is smart, nuanced, and incredibly helpful. Sarah is the kind of reader I want my students to grow up to be. They don't have to start blogs or podcasts (although that would be awesome), but I want them to know what they like, be discerning about what they choose to read and what they choose to put down, and be able to articulate just what they love--or don't love--about any book they read. I learned so much from chatting with Sarah about how her reading taste developed and I'm working on trying to incorporate some of her brilliant book suggestions. Keep reading to find out just how Sarah became the badass reader, blogger, and podcaster she is today, and be sure to check out Sarah's blog and podcast to keep stocking your TBR with thoughtful, readable books.
What is your reading life like now?
I feel like I've become a power reader now...I try to fit reading in whenever I have a free minute (and I'll take a literal minute if I can get one). But, I still feel like I don't have as much reading time as I'd like because I have 2 youngish kids.
How many books do you read each year?
The past couple years have been 90-115, including audiobooks.
What types of books do you enjoy reading?
Readable literary fiction is my go-to genre, but I also read nonfiction, some unconventional historical fiction, and an occasional mystery/thriller (though,I'm pretty finicky about these). I love character-driven novels I can't put down, coming of age stories, and family dramas.
Where do you enjoy discussing books?
With real life friends, on my blog, on Instagram...and now on my podcast with guests I can't believe I get to talk to! I also text with a couple blogger friends.
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?
Definitely outside it. There was no point in school when I ever wanted to be an English major. When I was a kid, I loved reading what is probably considered trash (Sweet Valley High, V.C. Andrews, Jaws)...and never really fell in love with the classics that we were reading for school. And...I still don't love the classics! This is probably not what you want to hear as a teacher, which I totally understand!
How did you figure out your personal taste in books?
I remember as a kid picking up books that were on my Mom's shelves (ex: Jaws), then recommendations from friends when I got a little older. But, I honestly don't think I truly figured out my reading taste until I started my blog. I was much more haphazard about my reading before then. Tracking my reading as really helped me pinpoint what works and what doesn't work for me.
Did you do your required reading in high school? Did you read outside of assigned reading in high school?
Yes - I always did my required reading (I was what Mary Laura Philpott would call slightly "Type A" about school, so I never skipped assignments), but that didn't mean I loved my assigned reading (and, honestly, I don't even remember much of it). I absolutely read outside of my assigned reading and that's the reading I loved. One book I remember loving was In Cold Blood by Truman Capote...and I actually wrote my junior year high school term paper on it while everyone else was writing about Jane Austen. I'm still forever indebted to my teacher for allowing me to go rogue like that with my term paper choice. I guess I should also say that I did love The Secret Garden as a kid and read it countless times...from a recommendation from my Mom. I also loved all the popular series for girls back then...Sweet Valley Twins/High, Babysitters Club, V.C. Andrews, etc.
Did you have a teacher in your life who helped you learn something new about yourself as a reader or appreciate books in a new way? What did they do that made a difference in your reading?
I'd say Mrs. Bishop...my junior year high school English teacher who let me write my term paper about a true crime book (In Cold Blood). I appreciate that she let me follow my own reading taste, which was different than the traditional path.
What is one book you LOVED reading in high school?
In Cold Blood (I keep saying this one because it's really the only vivid memory I have of a specific book I read in high school)....I learned later in life that I love dark stories and I do still love true crime...so I guess this was my gateway drug to that! And, I can't remember if this was high school or later, but I fell in love with Pat Conroy when I was younger. Again, dark stories and family drama, which is consistent with my current reading taste. And, I definitely wasn't reading Pat Conroy as assigned reading (although I hope he's included in curricula these days)!
What is one book you HATED reading in high school?
The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer - I still have nightmares about having to memorize the Prologue and stand up and recite it in front of the class. One of the things that I don't love about classics is the antiquated language, which I realize is because most of the books really are old and that's just the way people wrote / spoke back then...but, I just don't like reading that type of language. I also don't like overly flowery contemporary language.
What is one book you would love to see introduced in classrooms now?
Oh gosh - there are so many. Overall, I wish more contemporary books were taught in classrooms in general. The one book I wish I'd had at my disposal in high school is Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed. It teaches you so much about how to just be a person in the world and I remember wishing it had been around when I was in high school as I was reading it. However, I'm sure most schools would deem it inappropriate to be discussed in the classroom!
If there was one additional piece of advice you could give teachers to help students enjoy their reading more, what would it be?
Let them read whatever they enjoy!!! Forcing them to read books they don't like will just make them dislike reading in general.
What are you reading now?
I just finished a streak of fantastic books. The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett Graff is in the running for my #1 book of the year and I feel like it should be mandatory classroom reading when schools teach 9/11. He's also coming on the podcast in November! To recover from that, I read Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes - a rom-com featuring a washed up athlete. I followed that up with All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg (out 10/22), which is a super dark family drama set in New Orleans. I love Jami and loved her latest even though it won't be for everyone. I'm now almost halfway through The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (the sequel to The Handmaid's Tale) and, unpopular opinion, but I feel like I'm having to push myself to get through it. And, I'm listening to Malcolm Gladwell's Talking to Strangers on audio, which is produced sort of like a podcast.
***Sarah recently launched a Patreon where blog readers and podcast listeners can support Sarah's work and get all kinds of awesome bonus content. She's also a featured judge for October's Book of the Month picks (I just happened to choose the book she reviewed and I cannot wait to read it!). Be sure to check out both of those links!
Shop books mentioned in this post:
- Sweet Valley High by Francine Pascal
- V.C. Andrews
- Jaws by Peter Benchley
- In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
- The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
- The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy
- The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer
- Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
- The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett Graff
- Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes
- All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg
- The Testaments and The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
- Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell
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