Reading Slumps, Favourite Authors & Other Reading Questions

Every time I write another post about reading habits, I feel certain I’ve tapped the end of interesting questions related to said topic. But then another assortment of questions crosses my radar. This just goes to show there are many unique ways to enjoy the reading process!

How do you handle reading slumps? And a note on seasonal fluctuations

Last week Suzanne asked how I handle reading slumps. I had to mull over this for a bit. April and May were hit-and-miss in the book department. I abandoned multiple books and finished others that could be best described as mediocre. Sometimes a consecutive run of uninspiring books turns me off from reading anything – even old favourites – for a while, but this is mostly buffered by the fact I have a natural break factored into my reading routine: summer.

June through August is peak reading season for many bibliophiles; books are the perfect complement to a day at the beach or a long airplane journey. But I have always prioritized reading during colder months when, at least in rural Canada, there isn’t much else to do with leisure time.

I don’t consider this summer break a “slump” – I genuinely look forward to time away from books. Some of this is the longer days and nice weather. Get outside and look up at all the beautiful wonder around you – my mind subconsciously screams. The kids are off school and bedtimes creep later, so there is also functionally less time in my day for reading. And, since I get most books from my local library in hardcopy, it is more of a hassle to juggle returns when we’re away on vacation.

Goodreads tells me I’ve read 47 books so far in 2022 and there’s a good chance I’ll read 47 more, but those will be concentrated between September to December. The last few weeks have been a nice reading reprieve, but I already have a list of holds deferred for the end of August and I’m excited to resume regular book consumption at that point.

*I do read some over the summer, but I’ll average 1-2 books/month instead of 8-10.

do you prefer to finish – or start – a great book?

Hmmm. So tough. I think I prefer to finish a great book. It leaves me sad when something wonderful is over, but there is a unique satisfaction that comes from completing a great book.

do you REcommend books to others?

I don’t recommend books very often and, if I do, it’s almost only to close friends. I’ve read too many books that others have raved about only to be disappointed, so I tend to mention what I’m reading relatively casually and let others take the lead if they want to know more. In short: I don’t want to be the one who recommended a book someone else hates.

Do you belong to a book club?

I have never formally joined a book club and don’t have much interest in doing so. I also don’t go out of my way to discuss books with people – generalizations will usually suffice.

If I’m reading a non-fiction book on a topic that feels applicable to a conversation (say a discussion about parenting when I’m in the middle of reading Hunt, Gather, Parent), I might mention something relevant.

Reading books with the main purpose of discussing them in a group sounds…tedious. Especially if I didn’t like the book in question. I’ve gotten better about abandoning books and think the sense of obligation I would feel to persevere for the sake of a book club would frustrate me. But what do I know – maybe I’d actually love the experience?

Do you have a favourite author?

I don’t. I’ve loved many books by many authors, but I can’t easily identify a front-running favourite.

do you seek out movie versions of books (or vice versa)?

I don’t. I’ve watched lots of movies that have been based on books. I think Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings trilogy was spectacular, and Meghan Follows hits it out of the park as Anne of Green Gables. I actually like The Hobbit movies more than the book. But, in general, movies based on books tend to be a letdown.

I’m trying to remember a single movie I’ve watched that has spurred me on to check out the book. I did watch Unbroken first, but didn’t actively seek out the book because of the movie (that said, Unbroken is one of my all-time favourite books).

*I’ve posted a list of YA books that have accompanying movies – this made for a fun reading adventure with the kids.

fiction or nonfiction?

If you were tasked with writing a specific genre of book (let’s assume – for the purposes of this exercise – it would be bestselling either way), would you rather have your name on a work of fiction or nonfiction?

While I gravitate toward nonfiction, with a special spot reserved for memoirs, I’m not sure about this one. I feel like my natural inclinations lend themselves far more to nonfiction, but for this particular hypothetical – guaranteed to be a bestseller – I think I’d opt for fiction?

Your turn. How do you handle reading slumps? Do you maintain a full reading schedule over the summer? Do you prefer to start – or finish – a great book?

Header photo by Paige Cody on Unsplash

Abandoning Books, TBR Lists, and Other Reading Miscellany

These posts are always fun to pull together. I love to read and, it appears, many others in the world do too. Plus the “quirks” surrounding reading habits can be downright fascinating (and polarizing – like the fact my father often reads the end of a book…first).

Here is another assortment of reading miscellany I’ve been pondering lately.

Do You have a reading schedule/plan?

I do not maintain a To-Be-Read (TBR) list. For a few years I categorized books as Want to Read on Goodreads but now, if I’m interested in a book, I just go ahead and put it on hold at the library. If it’s not compelling enough to order right away, I don’t keep it on my radar.

While in principle I think it sounds great to have a TBR list, I’m just too lazy (?) to keep track of another list, and enjoy the serendipity of ordering things as they cross my radar.

If I have too many books of interest vying for my attention, I suspend a subset of holds so I don’t have a huge influx at once.

(Also, the new integrated library system in my area has resulted in an overhaul of the online ordering platform and it is very easy to mark books as “Save for Later.” I still don’t consider this an official TBR list since there is no advance planning of what I’ll read/when.)

do you envision a character’s appearance?

I often finish books without generating a clear image of the main characters. At all. Despite repeated passages devoted to defining characteristics, I might have no idea by the end if the main character is tall or short, blonde or brunette (I know Anne of Green Gables has red hair, of course; more on Anne below). When I read Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi – a book loaded with rich descriptions – I didn’t have a single character fully formed in my mind.

Then there is Dirk Pitt. If one series of books were to capture my reading patterns as a teenager, they would be these Clive Cussler classics. My Dad had an entire shelf full of Dirk Pitt novels (with any swear words scratched out, which only made me more determined to find out what was being said). I had a clear picture in my mind of what Dirk Pitt (and Al Giordino) looked and sounded like. Then I saw the character portrayed by Matthew McConaughey in Sahara and never enjoyed the books nearly as much after that point. Matthew McConaughey did not match up with my character visualization of Dirk Pitt (nor did Steve Zahn or Penélope Cruz).

Now Anne (from Anne of Green Gables) looks, without a doubt, exactly like Meghan Follows. I watched the movies before I read the books and have such a clear picture of Anne as Meghan.

Atticus Finch is Gregory Peck.

But then Laura Ingalls is not Melissa Gilbert; Pa is not Michael Landon – for Little House on the Prairie books, my visualizations are based entirely on the Garth Williams illustrations.

I don’t have a concrete picture of Pollyanna or the Count from A Gentleman in Moscow (though Anna looks exactly like Cate Blanchett) or Jane Eyre. I’ve read The Boxcar Children a dozen times, but have no idea what Henry, Jessie, Violet or Benny look like.

musical connections to books

This might seem weird, but I have distinct musical memories tied to several books.

Nancy Drew = Clair de Lune. I have no idea why this connection exists; perhaps I was reading an especially memorable Nancy Drew book when this song was playing? Every time I hear this song it makes me think of Nancy Drew (and, by virtue, my entire childhood).

Here’s a more unsettling connection. The Christmas song Up on the Housetop reminds me of Richard Ramirez. As in the American serial killer. In high school, I read a book about Ramirez. In July. When I happened to get a new Christmas CD and listened to it on repeat. (Still in July.) It was the first time I had heard Up on the Housetop, so it is forever linked with that specific reading memory. Needless to say, Up On The Housetop does not get much airtime in my house.

She Will Be Loved (Maroon 5) = Harry Potter. When I was in high school, Saturday afternoons were spent listening to Casey Kasem’s countdown and reading Harry Potter. And She Will Be Loved was on…a lot. Hence the link.

Home (Michael Buble) = Animal Physiology. I used to sit on my bedroom window seat at Dot’s and study while the radio played. When Home was a big hit, I was taking Animal Physiology (and other courses too; I’m not sure why the link was formed between this song and Animal Physiology). To this day if I hear the song I feel slightly anxious, like I’ve forgotten a term paper deadline.

abandoning books

I recently went through a rough patch with books and ended up abandoning several of the worst offenders. I used to record these as DNF (Did Not Finish) in my reading spreadsheet, but lately I’ve stopped using that tracking system and have just relied on Goodreads where I only rate/record books I finish.

I’m much more likely to stop reading a book now than I was in previous years…but I still skim most books to the end. (I don’t count books that I have ordered, brought home, and decide right away are not a good fit as DNF. Those are “Did Not Start” and I just put them right back in the bag of returns for the library.)

books I wish I’D written

Modern Fiction: A Gentleman in Moscow, The Dutch House

Classic Fiction: Anne of Green Gables, Jane Eyre, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Swiss Family Robinson

YA Fiction: The Boxcar Children (my kids favourite book), Because of Winn-Dixie, All-of-a-Kind-Family, Harry Potter, The Trolley Car Family (my favourite children’s book)

Non-fiction: The Happiness Project (this book changed my life), Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand is an incredible writer; her personal story is equally captivating)

Picture books: All the good ones. Seriously. I love picture books and think truly gifted authors/illustrators are creative geniuses.

Any reading habit you’d like to change

This isn’t a habit, per se, but I do wish I could retain more information about fiction. I tend to forget the plots and characters very quickly. Some of this is because I skim, perhaps, but mostly it’s just how I’m wired. I do the same thing with movies. I could literally watch a Marvel movie one night and the next morning forget major plot elements. It’s a bit shameful. I’d be worried about my memory, but I have an excellent recall for many other things, so it’s simply not something I prioritize. But I do feel jealous when friends and family quote lines from movies or books at length.

Maybe this is part of the reason I feel compelled copy down so many quotes from books (though I already tend to remember specific quotes/concepts from non-fiction books much more readily than fiction)?

I love reader responses on these posts, so please share all the details about your quirks! What book(s) do you wish you’d written? Do you follow a specific reading list/plan? Any surprising musical links to books about serial killers?

PS: Do You Read the Last Chapter First? And Other Questions for Readers… + Do You Judge a Book By Its Cover (I Do) + More Questions for Readers

Header photo by Konstantin Dyadyun on Unsplash

Keep Moving (by Maggie Smith)

A few weeks ago Nicole mentioned the book Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change by Maggie Smith; after reading her description of the book, I immediately hopped over to my library portal and placed a hold. (A copy of which, fortuitously, happened to be on the shelf at my local branch; how I love the library).

Keep Moving is written from a position of vulnerability. The author had suffered a number of devastating miscarriages and the surprising breakdown of her relationship. I can’t directly relate to either of these traumas, but I found the takeaways universally applicable.

My summary: I really, really, really enjoyed this book.

In terms of structure, the book is quite short and most pages contain a single quote from the author or a string of related thoughts. I used a lot of sticky notes.

Hopefully by now you know how I feel about quotes – here are some of my favourites. Any bolded emphasis is mine and I’ve added a bit of commentary within “[ ]”.

I believe strongly in the importance of revision, but here’s something I believe just as strongly: If you’re not careful, you can revise the life right out of a piece of writing. If you’re not careful, you can scrub all the weirdness and wildness right out of it. As counterintuitive as it sounds, you can polish it dull. // The same applies to our lives. If we’re not careful, we can revise the life right out of them. We can polish our lives dull. [Revision is my favourite part of writing; in some ways, it’s also one of my favourite parts of life as I love to declutter and minimize and simplify. But, sometimes, the mess and the chaos can be a great source of beauty and creativity; it’s all about finding the right balance.]

Stop rewinding and replaying the past in your mind. Live here, now. Give the present the gift of your full attention. [I’ve always loved how Mary Oliver puts it: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” In my #joyfinding exercises (inspired by Ingrid Fetell Lee) I’ve been doing just that. Noticing. Paying attention. To sticks on the ground and birds in the tree… I also appreciate Smith’s articulation of the idea that giving our attention to something/someone is a gift.]

You are not betraying your grief by feeling joy. You are not being graded, and you do not receive extra credit for being miserable 100% of the time. [Isn’t it hard to give ourselves permission to feel the full range of human emotion? We’re very conscious of fitting within the narrow box of societal approval – as if the world tells us: “This is when you can feel sad, this is when you can feel happy and never the twain shall meet.”]

Let life be a little ramshackle right now. Let it be messy and jerry-rigged and held together with binder clips and duct tape. Let it not be okay – and know, for now, that’s okay. [In a family that holds things together with binder clips and duct tape – literally – this made me laugh and then nod in agreement. It’s okay to not have everything figured out – but also hard to admit that we don’t have it all figured out in a world of Instagram-filtered lives.]

Every person you encounter has a struggle, a hidden wound, something they carry that hurts them. Be kind – maybe something you do or say today will be the good medicine they need. [We (almost) never know what someone else is experiencing. From our closest friends to the stranger we pass on the sidewalk. A cheerful hello or an unexpected phone call might offer them something we never knew they needed.]

Be brave enough to ask for help when you need it. There is no merit badge for Doing All the Hard Things Alone. Reach out.  [This reminds me of the quote above about not getting bonus points for being miserable all the time and has parallels to the book I’m working through by Jennie Allen – Find Your People. Life is better together but it can take a lot of courage to reach out and say “I need help.”]

Think of grief, anger, worry as bricks or planks of wood. Stop staring at the materials, half believing they were delivered to you by mistake, half expecting a truck to haul them away. Accept that these are your materials right now. Start building. [2021 was a tough year for me mentally; I worked through The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris for the 3rd time and something finally clicked about the ACT method and I feel like I’ve made some significant strides; in this method, “A” represents acceptance and is, perhaps, the hardest step of all. How true that we often get materials – or worksites – we don’t want and would never have chosen. But we have to work with what we have and start building.]

Do not turn away joy – even if it arrives at an inconvenient time, even if you think you should be grieving, even if you think it’s “too soon.” Joy is always on time. [Mic drop; #joyfinding.]

Recognize the difference between the end and an end. Articles matter. Try not to catastrophize. For as short as life is, know it is also a container big enough to hold things you could not have imagined six months ago or six years ago.

Let the hard days be hard. When you mourn a person, it’s a form of love. You mourn their loss because they mattered, because the world without them is diminished. Sit still with your grief if you need to, then lift it and carry it with you. [When a friend was widowed several years ago, I remember reading a quote that said: “There is no expiration date on grief.” Don’t we sometimes feel the need to move on according to a schedule? But grief/loss/trauma are emotions that we carry with us – in different iterations – forever.]

[On the idea of Kintsugi, the Japanese art of filling cracks with gold or otherwise highlighting or emphasizing imperfections]: I am letting the seams show – those signs of survival, those scars I can be proud of – and letting them shine.// Writing about my own loss and grief has given me a sense of purpose and a new appreciation of, even gratitude for, my wounds. Of course the scales are not balanced. I would choose a happy, intact family over any words I’ll write about the loss of that happy, intact family. I would choose live births every time. But I wasn’t given that choice. If I experience brokenness, the least I can do is make something from it, something that might help me heal. [This reminds me of the Ann Voskamp quote, which I can’t track down verbatim, which says something along the lines that our cracks are our “seeing-through-to-God places.” We can lament the cracks, try to hide them while being self-sufficient; or view them as “seeing-through-to-God places.”]

Do something today that will bring you joy even if you know you will not do it well. Let go of the idea that you have to be the best at something to do it. Train yourself to crave experience, not perfection. [For skiing, parenting or just life in general – which is always messier than we expect it to be – I can relate.]

Speak without silencing others. Listen without losing your own voice. [Mic drop #2.]

Acknowledge your desire for predictability – and think about how it competes with your sense of adventure, possibility, and surprise. Let yourself shrug. Let yourself be unsure. [I want to know, I want to be sure. I crave predictability. In The Happiness Trap Harris talks about “riding the wave of discomfort.” Sometimes we just have to ride that wave through to adventure…]

Don’t compound your anxiety by being ashamed of it. [She doesn’t say we shouldn’t look for concrete ways to address circumstances that are leading to anxiety, but she says not to compound the issue by being ashamed. Shame over our anxiety, of course, leads to more anxiety. It’s a hard and, sometimes unavoidable, cycle. But trying to break that cycle is important for growth. It reminds me of my mother’s blood pressure; it’s always good when she takes a reading at home (she’s a retired nurse) but it spikes when she walks through the door of the doctor’s office. Anxiety over her blood pressure reading and the doctor’s response…causes her blood pressure to go up. Sound familiar?]

You are the same person you were before this grief [she talks about grief specifically, but I think this thought can relate to any event – those perceived to be positive or negative] and yet you have been transformed by it. Both are true, as impossible as that sounds: you are the same and you are different. Let yourself be changed, and trust that change is not erasure. 

Go easy on yourself today. If you feel a little weary, a little ragged, that’s okay; that’s how soul hangovers feel. This will pass. [Soul hangovers. I’d never heard that term before, but can’t we all relate to this sentiment? And that this too shall pass.]

This last quote stopped me in my tracks.

Today I think of myself as a “recovering pessimist.” I know that optimism is not at odds with wisdom. It’s quite the opposite. I think of cynicism as cool but lazy, while hope is desperately uncool – it has sweaty palms and an earnest smile on its face. What I know to be true is that one hopeful person will accomplish more than a hundred cynics. Why? Because the hopeful person will try[I love this idea of hope. Years ago I briefly wrote on a blog titled Optimistic Musings of a Pessimist. I definitely fall into this “recovering pessimist” category, and love the idea of being hopeful even better than optimism. Hope feels intentional and realistic…and decidedly un-pessimistic.]

Here’s to being hopeful!

Has anyone else had a chance to read this book yet? Goodreads suggests there is a very divided audience; I gave this book 5 stars, but there were a surprising number of low ratings so it’s clearly not everyone’s cup o’ tea!

Header photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

Sourcing Books + Getting Kids to Read

Given my penchant for reading, I suspect I’m a bit of an anomaly in that I buy very few books.

Two shelves on Abby’s bedroom built-ins are filled with books, and we have a small bookshelf in the family room with under 100 books (a combination of adult + picture). Of the books we own, almost all have been handed down, gifted, purchased for a university course, or thrifted.

Some of it is economics – I’m a naturally frugal person and books aren’t an area where I generally want to spend money. (I’ve told this story before, but I think of it often: one of my best friends in college did a major budgeting session with her husband right after their wedding which resulted in strict spending guidelines but, she told me, “We both agreed there would be no limit on buying books!”)

I also don’t like clutter, and books can quickly become a major source of clutter.

So where do I get my books?

My number one source is the library (~95% of all the books I read). I visit our library – nestled inside a repurposed railway station – on a weekly basis. I also spend time every few weeks ordering books through their online portal (while I love wandering and browsing the shelves, since COVID, I order 80%+ of my books) and always have a stack on my bedside table.

I also regularly visit one of the many take-a-book/leave-a-book libraries that have cropped up around our little town, but this is pretty hit-and-miss and tends to house mostly thrillers and other fiction.

I occasionally source books second-hand at used book stores or thrift shops – or borrow them from friends – but the library is my happy place.

I have started to buy a few more books in recent years, but only after I’ve already read them (I am a big re-reader); I have most of Gretchen Rubin’s books, I asked for (and received) a boxset of the Harry Potter series a few Christmases ago, and started working on a James Herriot collection this year. In a shock decision, I ordered Matt Haig’s Notes on a Nervous Planet within a day of finishing because I wanted it on my shelf (second-hand via Amazon).

How do you get your kids to read?

Growing up my Dad was always reading (my Mom enjoyed reading, but said she didn’t have the time for it, which I 100% understand now, but her statement flummoxed me at the time).

I tend to be a fast reader/like to skim and tend toward nonfiction which I think lends itself better to being picked up/put down frequently. So I read a lot of books (100+/year)

Our library picture-book stash

The kids see me reading regularly and, since the time they were infants, I’ve also been reading to them.

Picture books are still in steady rotation at our house, though I can feel this phase slowly slipping past me. I adore picture books and find there are often profound messages waiting for both parent and child.

During their early years, I would read to them multiple times a day. As they’ve gotten older, I’ve had to be more deliberate about carving out time for this. For a while I was splitting up bedtime by reading chapter books with Abby (in her room) and picture books with Levi (in his room). Now that both kids can comprehend the same reading level and go to bed at the same time, I tend to read almost exclusively at the table. I often finish eating first and will grab a book and start reading, especially at breakfast; on Saturday and Sunday nights they eat before John and I, so I read to them for the duration of their supper meal.

Once a week or so, we’ll cuddle on the couch at bedtime and read a chapter of whatever book we’re working on (currently: The Mysterious Benedict Society) or a handful of picture books.

I do miss reading to them each night. It was a nice wind-down ritual but I haven’t found a great way of reinstituting this routine now that the kids are more independent and bedtime is more streamlined; they dress themselves, brush their own teeth and, in a bittersweet development, sometimes want to just read on their own. Yet another example this This too shall pass.

P.S. Parenting Hack: Read Books With Accompanying Movies – I blogged about how we’ve been reading chapter books with accompanying movies; there were also some great suggestions in the comment section we haven’t gotten to yet! The kids watched a Pippi Longstocking movie this weekend, and we finally got around to watching Anne of Green Gables + another version of Heidi over March Break.

P.P.S Confessions of A Picture Book Addict (There Are Worse Things…) – I love picture books and will try to find a way to keep reading them forever, if only to myself.

Your turn. Are you a borrower or a buyer? If you have young kiddos at home, how do you incorporate reading into your family routine?

Header photo by Mariia Zakatiura on Unsplash

The Riveting Details of How I Manage Book Quotes

I lie. This isn’t a riveting post at all, but I have had a few questions about how I manage, organize and otherwise handle the material I pull out of books. So I decided to give this topic a separate blog post since it’s a subject near and dear to my heart.

Over a decade ago I started collecting quotes from books. My system was, admittedly, very haphazard. For the most part I would handwrite these quotes in notebooks. This was not a good system for me. I hated the clutter of having different notebooks and it was hard to categorize and/or locate specific information.

Then, for a few years, I would type up a new Word document for every book I read (from which I took notes). This was also cumbersome.

Eventually, I moved everything over to a single master document and slowly digitized all those handwritten notes. It was a big job (and I actually still have a small binder full of quotes – all relating to parenting – that I want to type up at some point).

Last October, after years of wanting to have something I could hold in my hands, I printed off a small book. Four copies – one for me and a handful of friends. That’s it!

The subtitle is…a bit much, though it’s also true! These quotes and reading in general have had dramatic impacts on how I view the world.

I now have a fresh working document that contains all the quotes I’ve gathered since printing off this first compilation.

what sort of information do you record?

Almost exclusively my quotes come from non-fiction, but I do occasionally write down bits of favourite dialogue (including quotes from children’s picture books because they can be surprisingly insightful).

I give a broad first pass because I know that when it is time to make another “book,” I will edit things ruthlessly.

how do you track what you want to RECORD?

CURRENT | I mostly do this by dog-earing or flagging the sections within the book. When I finish reading, I go back through and see if the quote still strikes a chord. If it does, I type it up.

Of the sections I highlight on my first read-through, I’d estimate I keep about 90% of them when I go back through to type up my notes. (Sometimes quotes that seemed deeply insightful on the first reading, were actually more eloquently summarized later in the book.)

2 YEARS AGO | I used to take pictures of quotes – as I went – with my phone and then I would upload the pictures to my computer and then split screens and type them up. This was cumbersome and it also had the unintended consequence of making me more susceptible to spending time on my phone; when I went to take a picture of a quote…it was easy to get distracted by e-mail or WhatsApp notifications in the process. But I can see this still being a great system for other readers.

5 YEARS AGO | I would handwrite the quotes as I came across them in the book. This was cumbersome and interfered with the flow of reading.

How do you organize your notes document

For now, I just list the book title and author and then below that any quotes from their book. If I have picked up on a quote they attribute to another person (e.g. a lot of people quote C. S. Lewis in their books), then I make sure to add the actual person being quoted at the end of that direct quote.

My “book” contained the following categories:

  • Words of Wisdom
  • Spiritual Growth
  • Food + Body
  • Marriage + Relationships
  • Motherhood + Parenting
  • Productivity + Time Management
  • Grief + Pain
  • Work + Creativity
  • Home + Minimalism
  • Mental Health
  • Miscellaneous
  • Insights from Literary Characters
  • Poetry

Within those sections, if I had a lot of quotes from a single book, I left the book/author heading.

In this case, I actually combined quotes from two books by Nora McInery (Purmort)

If I end up having only a single quote or two from a book, then I will add in the author’s name at the end of the quote but not include the book information.

I also will sometimes separate quotes from a book into different categories. Say, for example, I read a book about parenting, but there was something insightful about grief; if I didn’t keep many quotes from that particular book, I might have one quote recorded under the “Grief” category, while a handful might stay in “Parenting”.

This might sound unnecessarily…complicated. But, in reality, I’ve spent a lot of time (happily) optimizing my process until I settled on something that works

Your turn. Do you like to keep quotes, phrases, or memorable bits of character dialogue from books you read? If so, how do you record/track these quotes?

Header photo by Florian Klauer on Unsplash

Confessions of A Picture Book Addict (There Are Worse Things…)

I am obsessed with picture books.

There, I said it. As far as I know, there are no help groups in my area and, if there were, I would probably just try to convert the facilitator until they too were equally obsessed.

It’s not like I stay in my pajamas on Saturday mornings and read picture books instead of doing laundry or brushing my teeth or saying hello to my family. Of course I would never do that…

(Let’s just agree it’s a good thing you didn’t stop by unannounced last Saturday morning, okay?)

I’m not sure why I’m so enamored by picture books, but I am undeniably drawn to them and can’t contain my passion for spreading this enthusiasm for this lesser-discussed genre (except in parent-tot playgroups where it ranks up there with things like in-depth comparisons of diaper rash remedies and nipple creams; side note – perhaps this is the point when one fully enters adulthood. Reaching a stage of life where rashes and nipple cream are prime topics for discussion feels decidedly…old. Animated discussions at that!)

Sure there are websites that dedicate themselves to publishing curated picture-book lists. But they’re not typically up for mainstream consumption, and I think that’s a shame.

There are also, admittedly, more and more graphic novels for adults but, to me, they’re not the same and I wish everyone got the chance to regularly immerse themselves in the world of children’s picture books.

Like, every day.

Maybe this is simply another weird (but true) fact about me? Maybe those of you with older kids are thrilled to have left Green Eggs and Ham and Ten Little Fingers in the rearview mirror. But not me.

Thankfully, my kids remain happy to oblige. While I still read them a wide range of picture books, our discussions have most certainly taken on a new tone. We openly discuss hard themes: war, famine, death, disability, cancer, mental health, bullying, prejudice, inequality, hatred. Picture books – good picture books – have a way of giving clear messages, delivered with love and compassion, in a form not many other mediums can.

They can also be downright fun; sometimes there is no hidden agenda in a book, no deep life lesson to be learned – rather they are simply designed to instill wonder or leave the reader doubled over from laughter. Both outcomes are always a delight. Whatever the goal of the book, a good one always leaves me wanting more.

And I’m also continually amazed by how many life lessons I find hidden within their pages for myself. What parent of teenagers can’t relate to the message of I’ll Love You Forever? Whose heart doesn’t grow along with the miserly Grinch as he discovers a deeper meaning to Christmas?

And who can help laughing about books that center around topics like bears in underwear and dinosaurs leaving colossal poops in outer space (okay, my Mom would not laugh; she’d be horrified with the level of toilet humour I allow – and, perish the thought, seek out!)?

Years ago I read a book by Julia Cameron (can’t remember which – they’re all treasures) where she asked readers to make a list of dream jobs; if skills and finances were no issue, what would you like to be? A simple question, right?

Short, squat, and uncoordinated – you could conjure up wishes of being a graceful prima ballerina; blind as a bat with shakey hands, your wish could be a career as a brain surgeon (note she said wish here). It was a surprisingly powerful exercise and it took me a minute to think of something – anything – I “wished” I could become. For someone who reads all the time, my imagination can be sadly lacking, I guess.

And then I had an “ah-ha” moment: my dream job would be getting to read, write and critique picture books all day (that, or be a costume designer on big-budget films; or a location scout – both sound so, so fascinating to me).

My parents read picture books to me a lot as a child, but I mostly remember being able to read to myself. I always wanted to move on to the next challenge and was reading chapter books at a young age so had been removed from the wonder of picture books for several decades by the time my own kids came along. And it is the one aspect of motherhood where I feel great confidence (thank goodness, because I typically feel like I’m failing in most of the others)! I regularly expose my children to the wonders of reading and make sure they are constantly surrounded by books that stretch their imagination; what they do with those opportunities…well that’s up to them.

A few years ago we read a book called An Atlas of Imaginary Places by Mia Cassany. At this point we had already been consuming huge quantities of picture books for a long time, but when I saw this one I was blown away by the ingenuity and illustrations. I was already tracking all my own “adult” reading and at that exact moment, I decided I would start recording our favourite picture books, too. Since that time, I rate any book we decide is 4 or 5 stars on Goodreads and have a dedicated Kids-Lit shelf. It does make me sad I missed years of documenting our favourites, but I’m still so glad I started – better late than never.

I’d say every 1/15 books we read makes the Goodreads cut. I’m selective in what books we order from the library, and I spend a lot of time browsing the stacks as well. If I just grabbed handfuls without looking at them, I suspect the number would be more like 1/50. There are a lot of B-level books out there (though, I admit, different audiences have different preferences, so my “B” could be someone else’s “A”, or as Gretchen Rubin says, “Don’t yuck someone else’s yum!”).

The kids and I agree – this is our favourite page of the bunch. Levi and I spent 20 minutes looking at all the cool features the other night, and we’ve read this book multiple times before!
Can you see what’s “off” with this page?

We’re always on the hunt for the perfect trio: great writing, a great story, and great illustrations. So, without further ado, here are some of our favourite picture books from the last few years:

Highlights from this bunch: The Love Letter, Foodie Faces, Mel Fell, A Tale of Two Beasts, The Bold, Brave Bunny, Grimelda: The Very Messy Witch, Miss Rumphius, Boa’s Bad Birthday, If I Built A House, I’m Going To Eat This Ant, This Story is For You, The Christmas Feast, and, of course, An Atlas of Imaginary Places. They’re all great, though!

Something from Nothing, Slugs in Love, The Book with no Pictures, A Fine Dessert, Goat’s Coat, The Snatchabook (we LOVE this book), The Skunk, The Dinosaur That Pooped the Past, Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast: Mission Defrostable, A House That Once Was, Snail Crossing, The Mouse and the Moon. Again, all wonderful books.

The Honest-to-Goodness Truth, If I Built A School, Everybody’s Welcome, Just One of Those Days, Malina’s Jam, Aaaaligator, Giraffe Problems, Love Monster and the Last Chocolate, The Everywhere Bear (Julia Donaldson, can we please be friends?), The Good Egg.

I love how picture books can express complex thoughts, problems, and emotions in easy-to-access phrases that are both comforting and surprisingly enlightening. I framed a quote from Brave Enough for Two (another sweet book) for Levi’s room.

And I have this line in my quotes book from a heartwarming tale about a caterpillar (Henri) turning into a butterfly. Cliche? Yes. Wonderful? Yes.

Here’s the thing with dreams, Henri. If you don’t chase them, they always get away.”

Caterpillar Dreams by Clive McFarland

A few weeks ago, while my husband was preparing supper and I was reading to the kids, he overhead us all rapturing about some book. (I can’t tell you how much it thrills my heart to hear my 7-year-old say: “Those are really well-done illustrations.” He is as tomboy as they come, but he sure can appreciate a good watercolour)! John poked his head in and looked at me and said (slightly incredulous, I think): “You really do love picture books, don’t you?”

I really do.

A few other books from the last few weeks we’ve really enjoyed:

The kids loved, loved, loved the book Foodie Faces. The text was very simple, but the images were downright fun!

Aside from me feeling like my breakfast offerings are incredibly boring, the kids all but examined every inch of this book with a magnifying glass. They wanted to identify every ingredient and they were especially intrigued by the nuances of how different positions of eyebrows so clearly communicated how a character was feeling.

We all enjoyed each of these books, especially “I’m Sticking With You.”
The Love Letter was so, so sweet. The kids don’t want to re-read books much anymore, but this one warranted multiple readings which they listened to without complaint. Such a lovely book. And Abby noticed the heart made by the branches on the cover which I had completely missed! We both immediately agreed this reminded us of another book called The Bold Brave Bunny (by Beth Ferry) which has lots of “hidden” pictures which are easy to miss but are utterly charming.

Abby was quiet in the corner one evening (a miracle) and then all of sudden shouted: “The wreaths are SCRUNCHIES!

She was looking through one of the Look-Alike books by Joan Steiner which are so fun and whimsical. Most elements of the depicted scenes are made with everyday items like clothespins, pasta, erasers, crayons, dried beans…and scrunchies. (This reminds me of the Walter Wick Can You See What I See? books which are also HUGE hits in our house.)

My favourite – the girl by the tree whose dress is a badminton birdie! How cool is that? And there is one of those scrunchies Abby was so elated to spot.

At the back of the book, ever spread has “answers” with all the everyday items used to create the scene.

And yes, we all still really, really enjoy books about poop.

Your turn – any favourite picture books from your own childhood? Or, like me, do you still have an “excuse” to gleefully check out teetering stacks of these wonderful things each week at your library to “read to your children” while you secretly love the experience even more than they do?

Months ago I wrote about our chapter book favourites, too, including our recent foray into reading books with accompanying movies.

Header photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Do You Judge a Book By Its Cover (I Do) + More Questions for Readers

I thought it would be fun to do another round of reader questions! These definitely struck a nerve the last time (mostly the fact my Dad reads the last chapter first, which was universally seen as horrifying) and I’m back with another random assortment of questions.

1. What was your favourite book from childhood?

If I had to pick a single book, it would be The Trolley Car Family by Eleanor Clymer. This lesser-known book (published by Scholastic), tells the story of the Parker Family who moves to the country when their father loses his job. They are joined by their miserly neighbour, Mr. Jefferson; romance and hijinks ensue. I just loved this book as a kid, and continue to read it each year with my own children (who also adore the story and characters).

In terms of a series, it would have to be Nancy Drew (I only started reading Harry Potter when I was a teenager).

2. Do you have a favourite quote?

My favourite book quote – and the one that started me on a decades-long obsession with recording quotes from books – was the following:

Out of the thousands and thousands of lines in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, only one has stuck with me since the day I first read it. Uttered by Bilbo Baggins in The Fellowship of the Ring, he mused:

“Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.”

I do know what you mean, Bilbo. I know that feeling exactly. I’ve tried to scrape butter over too much bread. And I’ve felt that way, too, in body and soul. To have a fictional character so accurately capture a life experience moved me in a unique way. I committed the line to memory and thus started my quest of recording quotes, quips, aphorisms – any collection of words that illuminated, encouraged, or entertained. 

3. Do you eat/drink while reading?

Most of the time, no. I’m not a big snacker. I do drink tea sometimes while reading, but most of the time, not even that. Even if I’m eating a lunch solo while the kids are at school, I’m not overly likely to read a book.

4. Have you ever met a ‘famous’ author?

Nope. I’ve also never stood in line to get a book signed, but that does sound like a fun bucket-list item.

I talked with Laura Vanderkam for an hour last summer over the phone which was pretty cool. Does that count?

5. Is there a book you’d like to see made into a movie?

Most of the time I’m underwhelmed by film adaptations (The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Meghan Follows Anne of Green Gables movies aside).

I would like to see A Gentleman in Moscow transformed into an epic cinematic masterpiece. I’m not sure who should be cast as the Count (thoughts?!), but feel like Cate Blanchett – who seems to show up in every single movie that gets produced on any subject (anyone else notice this?!) – would be the perfect Anna Urbanova.

And The Trolley Car Family if it stayed true to the book in every single way.

Oh, and a really great version of the original The Boxcar Children book by Gertrude Chandler Warner.

6. do you have any overdue fines on your library account?

NO! In fact, our library system recently did away with overdue fines. Before introducing this new policy, they also had a Food for Fines option every year where people could bring in non-perishables for the food bank in exchange for clearing their account fines.

That said, even before they eliminated overdue fees, I almost never got them. I visit the library every week, so it’s relatively easy for me to stay on top of what books need to go back (and I get auto-emails that remind me when books need to be returned – love, love this feature).

A few times I’ve had notices that books are overdue and further investigation has revealed they went back, but didn’t get scanned properly (or some such thing) and were back on the shelf after all. This has happened about 4-5 times in the last few years. Every single time I panic and search high and low for the book that I KNOW I returned, and every single time it ends up having been at the library all along.

On a related note: years ago, when I was relatively new to the area and didn’t really know the librarians, I brought back a book that I had transported down the hill in the bottom storage pouch of our stroller. Somehow it got wet during the trip and the head librarian approached me the next time I came in to say the book was irreparably damaged. They had kept the old, waterlogged book to show me as evidence (I had just put it into the returns bin with the rest of my stash and didn’t realize it was wet). I was SO embarrassed. I paid to replace the book, of course, but felt like I deserved to wear my own version of Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter. A D perhaps, to signify I was a: “Destroyer of library property – loan materials to her cautiously”.

I’m glad to say that has been the one and only time I’ve had to replace a book, but it really did feel shockingly humiliating (the librarians were incredibly nice about it, I hasten to add).

7. what fictional character would you bring to life?

Because it’s so relevant to my reading life right now, I think I’d say Anne Shirley. She seems like such a force for positive change and a true “kindred spirit” in my pursuit of joyfinding.

Cheat alert: Mary Poppins (movie version/Julie Andrews, because ‘book’ Mary Poppins is just too mean and conceited) is also pretty wonderful. If she could teach my kids to snap their fingers and have all their toys (strewn in a most festive manner over their bedroom floors at the moment) march back into their storage bins, I’d be all over that magic.

8. Do you judge a book by it’s cover?

Yes. Absolutely. Doesn’t everyone? Nothing pains me more than a bad cover. Except terrible writing. A good cover is just such a joy to me as a reader.

9. Do you prefer Hardcover or softcover? And what about Book Jackets?

Hardcover all the way.

And the first thing I do if I buy a hardcover book is remove the dust jacket and throw it away. I can’t stand them. I love the minimal aesthetic of “naked” hardcover books.

10. do you come from a family of readers?

Yes and no. My father, brother, and I all read extensively (books and news articles). My mother reads more now in retirement, but virtually only fiction and no news at all; neither of my sisters are big readers.

11. What book do you wish you’d written?

So tough. All the good ones? I love reading and would love to write a book some day!

The Happiness Project, maybe, because I appreciate Gretchen Rubin’s writing style so much and that book has had a huge impact on my life.

Runner-ups: Jane Eyre, Lord of the Rings, and the James Herriot books.

And The Trolley Car Family, of course.

12. book Pet peeves?

Yes – inconclusive endings. I prefer happy endings (to fictional tales at least), I really do. But if it has to be sad, at least let it be sad and final. Every once in a while I’ll get to the end of a book and wonder if I’ve lost the last few pages. Like…did the author forget something? (Remember in the movie Elf where they print off books that are missing pages and Walter basically says people are too stupid to notice? I notice.)

Also, books that try too hard to be “stylish.” I don’t know how to describe it, but sometimes the voice just doesn’t match either the material or how I perceive the author to really speak and I find the perceived disconnect to be off-putting.

And books that repeat the same thing over and over again. In general, I think most books are at least 30% too long. Say it once, say it clearly, and move on. Do a streamlined chapter summary if you must. I’m not stupid, promise.

BONus: Do you like finding something inside your library book?

I quasi-regularly find something left behind in a library book. An old renewal slip (I don’t get my “receipts” printed off because each trip would kill a small tree, but others often do and must use them as place holders?), a grocery list, a bookmark.

I always find it to be a very weird sensation. I know other people have read library books, but somehow I don’t believe it until I find some vestige from someone else’s interaction with the book and I find it…oddly unsettling.

That said, I think if someone planted something whimsical inside books – like a short poem or a positive affirmation – I’d find that to be a welcome surprise. Maybe some inspiration for the books in my to-read pile? It could be fun to start leaving little notes of encouragement for future readers to find. Or maybe I could write down a favourite quote from the book at the top of a slip of paper and encourage the next reader to do the same in a pass-it-on format as a bit of a reader collaboration.

Okay – what’s the scoop. Are you a fellow book-cover judger? Do you secretly owe $126 in overdue fines? Do you treasure book jackets and think it’s horrific I throw mine away?

Header photo by Guzel Maksutova on Unsplash

Do You Read the Last Chapter First? And Other Questions for Readers…

When my Dad picks up a book he typically turns to the last page to see how it all turns out. Does the guy get the girl, does the underdog win the trophy, does the nuclear bomb get disarmed in time?

At this point you’re either recoiling in horror or nodding along in agreement, thinking to yourself – “Doesn’t everyone do that?”

It’s interesting that among the many devout readers I’ve met over the years, we tend to spend most of our time talking about what books we read without discussing the nuances of how we read.

Do you dog-ear pages, make notes in the margin, and crack the binding? Do you smell your books, buy or borrow your reading material, and skip to the ending first (like my father)? Do you have multiple books going at once, read in your bed or in the bathtub or in a specific corner armchair? Do you read books in paper format or on a screen? Do you re-read? Do you belong to a book club? Do you read the acknowledgements section and endnotes?

I thought it would be fun to run through some of these questions – little quirks that make individual readers…individual. Our answers to these questions (and many more!) allow us to add a unique flair to the content we consume.

Feel free to chime in via the comments section below with your own take on any (or all) of the questions posed! I’m genuinely fascinated by this stuff…

1. do you read the LAST PAGE first?

I try, largely, to resist this urge, but have definitely been known to do this on occasion.

Usually I give in to temptation if I need to return a book to the library and can’t renew it or if I desperately need a good sleep and I’m in the middle of a cliffhanger. I think I skipped to the end of The Great Alone and A Gentleman in Moscow at about the 3/4 point in each book, but I can’t remember for sure…

My Dad does this regularly. My Mom would never dream of doing anything of the sort.

2. Do you skim or read every word?

I am a skimmer. I will read every word of certain sections (and often return to read parts of a book in more detail when I can tell I’ve missed something critical) but tend to read a paragraph at a time.

Do I retain less information than people who read more slowly and digest every word? Probably, but that’s just the sort of reader I am.

Also, I take notes from almost every book I read – key phrases, favourite quotations, even book suggestions the author might make.

3. Do you smell your books?

Some of the time. This question might seem highly unusual to some of you reading and then, for others, this might seem like a no-brainer. Books all smell different and the variety of papers, inks, and binding adhesives all contribute to a unique scent profile. My Anne of Green Gables books smell strongly of glue (think Elmer’s); my One Line A Day journal smells like magazine paper but is decidedly thick and non-glossy.

I ALWAYS smell old books; that musty smell of a book that has been sitting in an attic for 25 years is an experience I just can’t pass up – though it can set off my allergies. It’s a risk worth taking.

I’d say I smell about 25% of the books I read, but when I was younger that percentage was much higher. And you can all now conclude that I am officially crazy. Or you can go off and start smelling all your books and thank me for recommending that added sensory layer to round out your reading experience.

4. Do you dog-ear/take notes?

I do dog-ear books (if you’re not familiar with this term, it simply refers to turning down the corner of a page to mark your place and/or highlight a spot you want to come back to).

That said, I tend not to leave dog-ears in place. I will make very small dog-ears throughout a book and then go back and type out the quotes that left an impression, removing the dog-ears as I go.

If it’s a library book I’ll usually just take pictures of the quote with my phone and then type those up at a later time.

I tend not to write physical notes inside of books I own and don’t underline or highlight passages very often (I used to do this a lot more than I do now).

5. Do you re-read books?

Yes, yes, yes. I love to re-read books. Classic fiction and favourite works of non-fiction – but only my absolute favourites.

I really appreciate something James Clear (author of bestselling book Atomic Habits…which I’ve read twice and did insist on owning) said: “A recipe for getting more out of what you read: Start more books. Quit most of them. Read the great ones twice.”

6. Do you buy or borrow?

I almost exclusively borrow. I’m a minimalist at heart and just don’t have any desire to own large quantities of books; this also applies to picture/chapter books for the kids (of which we borrow hundreds from our local library).

I do browse the stacks, but about 75% of the books we get from the library I order through their holds system. I visit the library once a week to pick up a giant stack of books.

I have started asking for favourite books for Christmas or I’ll use gift cards from my birthday to buy the occasional gem I want to have on my bookshelf (mostly so I can re-read whenever the urge strikes) – so I have a small, but happy, stash of books.

7. Do you read multiple books simultaneously?

Yes. I can’t imagine reading one book at a time!? I typically have 2-3 books on the go. Sometimes one is “denser” and I am working through it slowly and want a faster read to help compensate for the mental headspace being consumed by the heavier material.

More generally, I just like having different books to suit different moods!

This week I have three books on the go – Everything is Figureoutable, Anne of the Island (now finished!), and Into the Wild. Some days I’ll read from only a single book; other days I’ll read sections from all three.

8. Do you read on a tablet Or Listen to Audiobooks or is it paper all the way?

I am 100% Team Paper. I have listened to a handful of books in audiobook form and have read about the same number on a tablet.

I just don’t love any medium other than good old-fashioned books. Not sure why and I have thought before I might come to love reading on a Kindle. But, honestly, I appreciate that reading hardcopy books keeps me off a screen. And, if something’s not broke, I’m not going to try to fix it.

9. Where do you read?

Hmmm. This has changed over the years. When I was younger, I read everywhere. Most times now I read at night and so this happens in bed.

While I love the thought of lounging on the couch all Saturday morning reading a book, that just isn’t feasible – both the timing and the fact that if I am on the couch, a child will smell my availability and come running.

My reading with the kids – which totals 30 minutes or so a day at this point – predominantly happens around the table. I read while they eat breakfast, or I’ll read to them after we finish our supper meal. A few times a week we’ll read a handful of picture books or a chapter of a longer book in bed (last night, actually, we snuggled up and read a chapter of The Hobbit; their obsession with J.R.R. Tolkien continues!), but now that the kids are older, we tend to do less bedtime reading.

10. Do you Read the acknowledgements SECTION of a book?

Yes! I love reading the acknowledgements.

I put a quote in my quotes book from the acknowledgments section of Hillbilly Elegy: “Last, but certainly not least, is my darling wife, Usha, who read every single word of my manuscript literally dozens of times, offered needed feedback (even when I didn’t want it), supported me when I felt like quitting, and celebrated with me during times of progress. So much of the credit for both this book and the happy life I lead belongs to her. Though it is one of the great regrets of my life that Mamaw and Papaw never met her, it is the source of my greatest joy that I did.

I love that last part.

Of everything I wrote in my entire Master’s thesis, the acknowledgments section was my favourite. Fun fact: I ended up sharing my thesis with a student a few years later so they could get a sense for formatting requirements (our topics were quite different); when I read over their thesis prior to submission they had PLAGARIZED my acknowledgements section almost verbatim. I gently explained how these things work and made sure they wrote their own acknowledgments section, but it did make me feel slightly elated that they thought my acknowledgements were so good they wanted to use every word.

Though, let’s be honest here, the more likely explanation is they were just being lazy and they hadn’t even paid attention to what I wrote…

*I realized I had spelled acknowledgements two ways (with and without the ‘e’); turns out the British version does include the ‘e’ and the Canadian/American preference is to drop it. American readers may have noticed I spell things like flavour and neighbour with a ‘u’…because that’s how we roll up here in the frigid North.*

What about you? Any fun reading “quirks” you want to mention or any surprising answers to the questions above? Anyone else a fellow skimmer and smeller? I know there are a lot of die-hard Kindle fans out there; please tell me someone else is proudly sporting the Team Paper jersey?

Header photo by Matt Walsh on Unsplash