So I’ve decided that this post is going to be the start of a new recurring sub-series of blog posts, updated monthly, about the books I’ve been reading and loving.
If you know me well, you know that I have been a die-hard bookworm since I was in preschool. I am also a book hoarder, and before I moved to California (and had to leave a good three-quarters of my beloved books behind), I had amassed one giant bookshelf and two smaller bookshelves packed full of books - so packed, in fact, that I had to stack books horizontally in front of and on top of the already jam-packed vertical rows. Whoops.
My love of reading hasn’t diminished at all as I’ve grown up, but it has taken on different forms and frequencies throughout the years. In middle school and high school, I could - and did - read several books a week. I read quickly and intensely, I kept books in my backpack to read when I was done with school assignments, I read on the train and in study hall and before bed at home. But the older I got - and especially once I got into college - I had less and less time to read for fun, and the reading I was doing required so much analysis and reflection and effort that by the time I was done I barely had any mental energy left to stay awake, much less dive into another story.
Now that I am out of school and working a full-time job, I still find myself rarely, if at all, sitting down to read for fun. Working as a preschool teacher is exhausting, and I admit that it’s definitely easier to zonk out in front of an episode of Dance Moms at the end of the day than to pick up a book. But when I finally have some time to wander around the local recycled bookstore or hunker down on the couch with something new, my love for reading - for words, for new worlds, for lovable characters, for dramatic plot twists - is ignited again, and it feels like it has never left.
So I’ve decided to start this “Things I’ve Been Reading” series to accomplish two goals. The first is to, in a way, make myself read new books and think deeply about them. I want to go out and read the next great thing that will make me cry or leave me speechless. And the second goal is to share those things with all of you.
The books I include on this list will probably run the gamut from realistic fiction to YA to memoir to children’s books, so don’t be surprised when (as you’ll see in this post) a book about an anthropomorphic llama appears next to an adult book about competitive hockey. So without further ado (thank you for bearing with me through the long-winded opener of this post), here are 5 books I’ve been reading and enjoying this month!
1. Three Little Words (and its sequel, Three More Words) by Ashley Rhodes-Courter
In her memoir Three Little Words, author Ashley Rhodes-Courter describes in poignant, often painful detail her almost ten years spent as a child in Florida’s foster care system. From being taken from her mother’s care at age three, to living in foster homes that ranged from over-crowded to off-kilter to downright abusive, to finally being adopted at age twelve, this book is an absolute emotional powerhouse. I loved this book and found Ashley’s story fascinating and heartbreaking at the same time. Three More Words, the sequel, goes on to describe Ashley as an adult, as she goes to college, gets married, starts a family and becomes a foster - and later adoptive - parent herself.
I actually read these books when I was in high school, but when I became a court-appointed special advocate (CASA for short) in February of this year, I decided to revisit Ashley and her story to get a better, up-close-and-personal idea of what the children I would be working with were experiencing, as well as understanding some of the legal complications involved in their situations.
I loved these books the first time I read them, and I love them even more now. Ashley writes with honesty, eloquence, and clarity, and her experiences as both a foster child and foster parent are eye-opening for those of us who have never experienced the psychological, emotional, and mental turmoil of being a part of the juvenile dependency system. I would recommend these books to literally everyone, and also suggest you visit Ashley’s website, http://rhodes-courter.com, to learn more about the incredible person she is.
2. Ordinary Resurrections by Jonathan Kozol
This is another book I read some time ago that I decided to revisit after becoming a CASA.
In this book, as in many of his other books, Jonathan Kozol reflects on the time he spends with children living in and around Mott Haven, a poverty-stricken and heavily racially segregated part of the South Bronx. He writes about the conditions of their schools, their community safe havens, and the medical, social, and political inequalities their communities face as a result of systemic racism and classism. But most of all, he writes about the children - the funny things they say, the questions they ask about God, and the joy they find in their playground games.
As someone who works with children on a daily basis, I resonate deeply with Jonathan Kozol’s writing. I admire him deeply as a teacher, a social observer, and a human being. You can tell by the way he writes that these children are fully realized, intelligent, thoughtful little humans and that he respects them and values them as such. He forms deep bonds with them and his observations about the little triumphs and disappointments in their life - and how they reflect much larger issues surrounding poverty and racism - are beautiful to say the least.
If you’ve ever worked with children, I highly recommend these books. They can be a bit hard to understand at times - lots of sociological and political terms - but the meat of the book is really about the children and the community they live in, and those stories are what make his books worth reading.
3. Beartown by Frederik Backman
Finally! A fiction book!
The first thing I have to say about this book is that I never, in a million years, thought I would like a book about the sport of ice hockey as much as I did.
Beartown is about a tiny community deep in the forest that is fading, fast - and all the residents know it. But there is one thing that gives them hope for Beartown’s future. Their junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semi-finals, and they are good. Really good. They finally have a chance at winning, and suddenly, the pressure of bringing Beartown back from the brink of becoming obsolete rests on the shoulders of a bunch of teenage boys. But the semi-final match is the catalyst for a violent act that leaves a young girl traumatized and Beartown in turmoil.
There is one line in all the reviews I’ve read of this book since I’ve read it: “In this story of a small forest town, Frederick Backman has found the entire world.” That rings true for me, definitely. I went into reading this book thinking I was going to hate it because I really dislike sports. And although I found myself drifting off during long passages about the bureaucracies of youth hockey teams or in-depth descriptions of team practices, the character development in this book was some of the best I’ve read in a long time. Every character in Beartown, even the ones on the periphery of the story, are fully realized and feel incredibly, heavily real. The story moves at a nice pace, and there’s a lot of grappling-with-morality emotional development that reminds me of Jodi Picoult’s books, but maybe a little less fluffy. Overall, I was really surprised by how much I liked this book, and I’m hopefully going to get to read the sequel, Us Against You, sometime this month!
4. Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney
My preschoolers can’t get enough of the Llama Llama books. Seriously. In the past month, I think I’ve read the three that I have - Llama Llama Red Pajama, Llama Llama Mad at Mama, and Llama Llama Misses Mama - more than I’ve read anything else in our bookshelf. And for good reason, too - these books are great. The pictures are bright and engaging, the rhyming lines are simple and sweet, and most importantly, they expertly deal with emotionally charged situations that preschoolers like mine deal with every single day. Llama Llama has a hard time going to bed, is scared at his new school, and throws a tantrum in the middle of the grocery store. My kids see their big feelings reflected on the page in Llama Llama - and every book gives me an opportunity to talk with them about those feelings and how to understand them and process them. Of course, I like to go the extra mile when I’m reading to my kids - I love to use different voices, intonations and volumes - and Llama Llama is a great canvas for that. The books give a great jumping-off point for showing different elements of story-telling with all of the changes in perspective and mood. Plus, Llama Llama is very cute and fuzzy - and what preschooler doesn’t love that?
5. Frog Music by Emma Donoghue
I decided to try out a second book from Emma Donoghue, who you might recognize as the author of Room, which was turned into a movie with Brie Larson.
Frog Music is set in San Francisco in the summer of 1876, and centers around the events leading up to the murder of Jenny Bonnet, an eccentric pants-wearing frog-catcher who is both alien and companion to the book’s main character, a burlesque dancer named Blanche Beunon.
I’m picky about my historical fiction, but I found this book pretty interesting. It is at times very dark and very raunchy - there is a lot of detail about Blanche’s sex work and the passionate yet damaged relationship she has with her boyfriend - but the whodunit of Jenny’s murder kept me intrigued until the very end. There were some plot lines in the story that felt rushed or unfinished, however, and I would have preferred if the book were longer to explore some of those themes more. I was also intrigued by Blanche’s approach to her sex work - at times she seems indifferent, other times she loves it, still other times she seems to use it as a masochistic coping mechanism - and so then this becomes one of those books that I actually find myself wishing I was analyzing for a class at school!
Overall, I liked this book, although I don’t think it was quite as good as Room. But if you like historical fiction, quirky characters, and enjoy some mystery, this is a great book to pick up.
And that’s it for this very first installment of “Things I’m Reading.” I’d love to hear if you guys end up reading (or have read) any of these books and I’d love to hear what you think about them - I’m always up for a good book discussion. In the meantime, I will be trying to keep myself from buying more books because god knows there’s already quite a pile of new books I haven’t read yet!