2012 was one of the most formative years in my life – I experienced the sorrow of losing my father and the joy of connecting with the love of my life. When I married my husband the next year, I would be walked down the aisle by my mother, and there would be no father-daughter dance. Though the day was the happiest of my life, Dad’s absence was felt. I had no idea at that point that the man who pronounced us man and wife, my husband’s father, would one day be a dear friend and father to me.
The Hubby and I were long distance until about one month before we married. We met and knew each other’s families, but had not spent significant amounts of time with them. For the first five years of our marriage, we were lucky enough to live just five minutes away from my father-in-law, Verne. Through this proximity and the almost-weekly dinners we would have together, we had a chance to get to know each other pretty well.
One day, while at our house for dinner, Verne eyed my bookshelves and asked to borrow my copy of The Catcher in the Rye. He hadn’t read it before, and felt like he didn’t read enough fiction. This is one of my very favorite books of all time. Probably top ten. I was more than excited to share it with him, and then demand he share every thought and feeling he had about it with me. Maybe if he knew what he was signing up for, he never would have asked, but I considered the whole exchange an invitation to recommend him books until the end of time.
We are both big readers, me more of fiction and Verne more of nonfiction. I happily took up the challenge of finding fiction that he would love. Five years later, and we’ve read about fifteen books together. Books and stories have a way of going to the heart and helping people connect on a deeper level, and that has definitely been true for us. We’ve had so many great conversations about the books we’ve read, and I love when I’m reading a book and start to think, “Verne has to read this.”
We recently had the chance to talk books and reading with Anne Bogel on my favorite podcast, What Should I Read Next? I sneakily submitted an application to be on the show without telling Verne and shared our story and what it’s meant to me. I’m so happy they picked us to be on the show – and not just because it’s been a dream of mine to be on it. The reason is the reaction my father-in-law had when he got a chance to read my submission. I really thought he knew everything I wrote down, but it seems like it was news to him. If we hadn’t been chosen for the show, he would not have read that and may never have known just how much I value our relationship and love sharing books with him. Thank you, Anne, for the opportunity to share.
Anne says books are “a shortcut to talking about the things that really matter in life.” I’m glad my father-in-law and I have been able to take that shortcut and forge a meaningful friendship. At my brother-in-law’s wedding last summer, and I finally got the chance for a father-daughter dance.
Usually I have an ambitious list of reading plans built up for the new year. I plan out elaborate lists, goals, and challenges for which books I’ll read and how many. This year, I’m feeling resistant to such plans, and thinking about this new year of reading more organically. So this won’t be a tidy list, but a stream of consciousness musing on what I want from my reading life in the coming months.
This year I want to read books that matter, whatever form mattering takes. This could mean personal growth or parenting books that teach me important things and improve my life. It could mean reading about important events in history I should know more about. It could mean reading a book that was really important to a friend. In short, I want more than just entertainment from my reading life.
In the past few years, I’ve come to crave the comfort of rereading my favorites, especially Jane Austen. I’ve read every Austen novel at least once and my current project is to reread all in the fancy cloth-bound editions my mother-in-law gifted me a few years ago. It would be a real shame for any these beautiful copies to go unread! Along those lines, I have a beautiful, new, cloth-bound copy of my beloved Middlemarch and it deserves to be read as well.
That leads nicely into my next point: I want to read the books on my shelves. I have so many books I purchased with great excitement and left to languish on my shelves ever since, some for over a decade (I’m looking at you, Hero With a Thousand Faces). I made a point of this in the last few months and it’s so satisfying. It’s a win-win because I can cross something off my TBR, and if I don’t like it, I can get it off my shelf and out of my life.
I want to pick up classics again. Many of my favorite books are pretty freaking old – Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, North and South. The problem is, the classics have all been on my TBR so long at this point, they’ve gone stale and it’s hard to get excited about them. Please, if you have a favorite classic (or old book that has flown under the radar of classic-dom), share!
I made a goal last year of reading more children’s literature, more as a duty to my children than anything else, and, wow, did I love it. I was surprised to find that my five star reads of the year were disproportionately middle grade. A great children’s book is a great everyone book, and I’m hungry to find more gems in this category and continue some of the series I started last year (The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Vanderbeekers, Little House).
In 2022, I don’t want my reading life to revolve around goals and checklists. I simply want it to be rich and joyful. May we all be so lucky!
At the beginning of 2021, my biggest hope for my reading year was to start enjoying the act of reading again. I’d gotten into a habit of reading to finish books, rather than just reading to read. My focus was on the numbers – how many books, how many pages, how many can I check off this or that list. While it’s in my nature to get caught up in the numbers, I kept this goal in the front of my mind all year and tried my best to correct my course when I got off track. And a weird thing happened – I read just as many books when “how many books” wasn’t the goal. I just got a lot more enjoyment out of the process. Turns out, when you’re having a great time reading, you just do it. Naturally. Without self-imposed goals and deadlines.
Normally this is where I’d share the reading habits that have worked for me lately, but I haven’t really had reading habits lately. I might get up early and read, use my Kindle while nursing at night, turn on an audiobook while cooking, or get a paragraph in between my kids’ fights. I do all these things sometimes, but none of them with any consistency. Some weeks I read a lot, and some I don’t manage much at all. Usually, I’ll find at least a few minutes every day. I read when I can and that’s about that.
So, without further ado, favorite books of the season (plus a review of all my favorites from 2021).
That brings me to favorite books!
Hero of Two Worldsby Mike Duncan. I’m a huge fan of the Revolutions podcast, so I’ve been waiting for this one for years. Like a proper podcast fan, I had to listen to Duncan read the book himself. This is biography at it’s best. Duncan perfectly combines meticulous research with excellent storytelling, which never feels like just a collection of facts in chronological order (my general experience of biographies). What was most fascinating was the woman behind the Marquis, Adrienne – certainly one of the many incredible unsung women of history, and I’m grateful for Duncan’s determination to tell her story as well as her husband’s.
A Place to Hang the Moon by Kate Albus. I adored this middle grade historical fiction about three siblings trying to find a home. William, Edmund, and Anna are evacuated to the countryside during the Blitz, but unlike the other children, they don’t have a home to return to when it’s over. They’re hoping to find a family to take them in not just for wartime, but forever. I was so charmed by the characters and Albus’ gentle prose that barely anyone got out of getting this book from me for Christmas.
The Tale of Despereauxby Kate DiCamillo. Sometimes I finish a book and think, “How can this be that good?” Kate DiCamillo never fails to be original and stunning. I started out reading this aloud, but found it was not age appropriate (torture and other things unsuitable for the youngest readers) – but by the time I decided it wasn’t for Bub, I was hooked and had to finish for myself. This is so much more than a story about a mouse – it is a story about the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Solutions and Other Problemsby Allie Brosh. Allie Brosh’s unique brand of relatable weirdness makes me feel like she is an utterly original, singular human being while at the same time being all of us. This lived up to and exceeded my expectations set by Hyperbole and a Half.
Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis. This memoir of childhood and young adulthood by C.S. Lewis demands to be read from page one. It is obvious right away why Lewis’ fiction is so beloved by children – he remembers what it’s like to be a child like few adults do. I enjoyed listening to the audio, which was included with my Audible membership (along with almost all of Lewis’ most beloved nonfiction).
Rules of Civilityby Amor Towles. This book is so different from A Gentleman in Moscow, but Towles’ distinct style shines in both. The prose, the characters, the setting (Towles does sense of place like no one else), the plot twists. Everything was just perfect. I’m DYING to read this again knowing everything I know now.
The Vanderbeekers of 141st Streetby Karina Yan Glaser. When five siblings face losing their beloved brownstone apartment in Harlem, they set out on a mission to convince their landlord to let them stay. This is everything a middle grade book should be. Lovable characters, fun and heartfelt story, excellent writing. I loved how this book took place in four days, and divided the chapters up by days. A great book for adults and children alike, and (for future reference) a feel-good holiday read (that could be read any time of year, IMHO).
Here are the rest of my favorite books of 2021. You can find my descriptions in my past Reading Roundups here and here.
When Bub was born, I immediately started reading him books of all sorts. I read aloud from my own books while he was nursing. I read board books, novels, and picture books. I’ve read to him almost every day of his life. In his first year, he heard Dr. Seuss, Tolkien, Beatrix Potter, E.B. White, John Klassen, and maybe even a little Jane Austen. One day I pulled out every children’s book we owned and tried reading through them one by one. I read because I loved books. I read because I knew the importance of reading to language development. I read because I knew it was a powerful bonding experience for parent and child. I would spend as much time as possible reading with my baby, and surely would with all my babies!
Fast-forward to baby number two, and I wasn’t. I was still reading to two-year-old Bub lots every day, but reading to Jaybird took a backseat. I had two kids to care for, which made it harder to sit down with a baby and read, what with a toddler running around tackling cats. Being a baby and all, he never brought me books himself like his older brother did, so I often didn’t even think of it. He was a very active, antsy baby. When I did sit down determined to read to him, it never went well. He’d squirm away or grab the book and throw it, or some other gesture of total disinterest.
I felt horrid. I love books. I love reading to my children. I believe in the amazing power of reading aloud to all ages. Here I was, dutifully reading to one child, while another’s reading life was woefully neglected. I worried he’d never love reading like his brother, because I wasn’t making it happen. I worried I was delaying his language development and neglecting and important bonding experience. I worried I was not being a good mom.
Then one day, around fourteen months, he started bringing me books. And then he kept bringing me books. He asked for one book after another, he asked for his favorites again and again. We went through a huge pile of books every day. I might have been annoyed at how much time it was taking if I weren’t so ecstatic that I hadn’t ruined his reading life after all. When Grama would visit, he would monopolize her whole visit with reading. When friends would visit, he would crawl into their laps with a book – even if he’d never met them before. When Dad was getting ready to go in the morning, he would insist one more book. He was a man obsessed, and he still is.
Make a home where books are part of life
A book can’t solve every problem, but it can make anything just a little better. Jaybird picked up on this without any baby reading regimen. He did not need me to force him to sit through books when what he wanted to do was move and explore. He didn’t need me to teach him to love books or feel driven to learn. He needed a home where books were part of life. He needed an environment where books were available whenever he was ready, on shelves he could reach himself. He needed an atmosphere where reading was a delight, not a chore or an item on a developmental checklist. And, of course, he needed parents who were available, so whenever he was ready, he knew he could toddler over with a book and be welcomed with open arms. Babies are always paying attention: environment, atmosphere, and availability go a long way.
Babies love to do what the family does, so when reading is something the family does, babies will join in – when they’re ready. Though baby Jaybird wasn’t sitting down with a book often, books were woven into the fabric of his daily life. He was paying attention, and what he learned is that reading is joyful, loving, and ubiquitous. He saw Mom and Dad reading for their own pleasure, he visited the library, he saw books in every room of his home, he heard countless books as we read aloud to his older brother, he got books for gifts at birthdays, Easter, and Christmas. He got the message – reading is just another part of life, and a pretty good one at that. When he was ready, of course he wanted to join the party.
I’m not saying I won’t or don’t ever read to my babies. If your baby loves to read, by all means, READ! But if your baby, like Jaybird and Pantsa-Pantsa after him, squirms away or throws the book across the room, please don’t sweat it. If you aren’t finding time to read (or even remembering to try!) amid the errands, chores, and endless tasks of motherhood, give yourself a break. Give your baby the environment, atmosphere, and availability they need to grow into reading. Your baby is paying attention. When books are valued, your baby will learn to value them too.
Pantsa-Pantsa is just over one year old now. Sometimes she’ll bring me a book, but usually after a page or two she rips it out of my hands and goes about her business. It’s okay. She’s okay. Books are part of her daily life, and she is paying attention.
When I started writing this, it was a midyear reading roundup, to be posted promptly on July 1. So this is a third quarter reading roundup instead. Because I’m a few days late on July 1.
My reading and writing (and life) struggles all began with Daylight Savings. Yep, it’s almost October and I’m still stuck on Daylight Savings. Usually, I get up about a half hour before my kids and read before starting my day, but these days I’m always sleeping in. My kids had an equally hard time adjusting, so bedtime is a battle that can run pretty late. That leaves me too tired for reading most evenings.
Despite the struggles, I find at least a little time for reading most days. I still read in the mornings, which adds up even if it’s less time than before. I squeeze a page or two in when my kids are playing nicely, and when insomnia strikes, I read on my Kindle in the dark. I become a mood reader when stressed so I pick up whatever strikes my fancy, start twelve books, and finish none.
The rest of my reading time is credited to my Mother’s Day gift – a triple stroller! Thanks to this monstrosity (“The Big Caboose”), I’m getting in more audiobook time than I’ve had since Pantsy was born. I got an Audible trial to listen to a book club choice and ended up loving it (though I hated that particular book). I’ve always been too cheap for Audible, but I’d be loath to give it up now. One of my favorites below was included, and the wealth of such “free-ish” books and the chance to listen without waiting on Libby holds won me over.
Now for the good stuff.
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. A friend recommended this book and it’s my favorite read on this list. Right at home with some of my favorites, Pride and Prejudice and Middlemarch, North and South is a slow-burn love story centered around well-developed characters you’ll love to root for. Margaret is strong and thoughtful, and not at all your standard Victorian heroine. When her family must move from a quiet, rural southern town to an industrial northern town, she encounters self-made factory owner Mr. Thornton. The north/south culture clash sows plenty of discord, but mutual respect leads them to reluctantly learn from their differences (and fall in love and stuff). I loved the audio by Juliet Stevenson, which is included with an Audible subscription.
Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan. This biographical fiction tells the fascinating story of Joy Davidman, the woman who married C.S. Lewis late in life. I knew nothing about her going into this, other than that A Grief Observed was about her. She is a fascinating woman, and a talented writer (the chapters begin with excerpts form Davidman’s lovely poetry). This is a compelling story about two incredible people coming together, and Callahan’s obviously meticulous research shows on every page.
The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis.Inspired by the above, I picked up this classic which I originally read at 18. It holds up so well. It’s easy to discount C.S. Lewis when it’s been a while. His books seem almost too simple, but when you read, they are so insightful, perceptive, and uniquely Lewis. Simplicity is not a shortcoming, but the key to Lewis’ lasting appeal and value.
Reading People by Anne Bogel.This set me off on a huge personality kick. Bogel shares concise, practical summaries of several different personality frameworks and what they mean in everyday life. I was blown away by the chapter on cognitive functions, which unlocked a whole new understanding of myself as an INTP (like why taking a test today might mistype me as F or J). Fellow INTP Personality Junkie is a great resource for learning more on cognitive functions.
The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit.I was surprised to find this children’s book from 1906 so fresh and delightful. This is a story of three wealthy children who lose their fortune and end up in a small town, where they love to hang out at the railway station. Shenanigans, adventures, and charming friendships ensue. This reads a lot like Frances Hodgson Burnett, but somehow both more cheerful and less saccharine. A great read-aloud that can be enjoyed by both adults and children (I’d say five and up). I loved the free LibriVox recording by Karen Savage.
Parenting Without Power Struggles by Susan Stiffleman. This book came recommended by my favorite parenting resource, Janet Lansbury. After hearing the author on Janet’s Unruffled podcast, I ordered this book. It’s about helping parents avoid power struggles so they can be the leaders their kids need and respond calmly to difficulties without threats, bribes, punishments, and blowups. I use what I learned from this book every day.
The Call of the Wild + Free by Ainsley Arment.I’m starting homeschool this year and this book was a fabulous introduction. I learned so much, and walked away feeling more confident about my choice. I appreciated the wealth of resources and practical advice. Most of all, I loved the positive and encouraging attitude of the author, who shows in this book that homeschooling is exciting and valuable in itself, not a place to hid from some big bad wolf.
The first few months of 2021 were the best reading season I’ve had in a long time. My biggest goal for the year was to enjoy the reading experience and stop worrying about how many books or pages I’ve racked up. That has made such a difference in my reading life, and on top of that I’ve found some incredible books. The reading habit that has been working for me this season? Simply reading whatever the heck I feel like reading at any given time. That has meant I have 7+ books in progress most of the time, and my willingness to pick up what strikes my fancy has lead to some unusual choices for me, which my list below reflects. You’ll find significantly more non-fiction than I usually imbibe as well as some children’s books that I’d happily recommend to kids and adults alike.
My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. This is my new go-to recommendation for anyone who asks (and many who don’t). It is pure delight from cover to cover – so funny, insightful, and fresh that I was shocked to learn it was first published in 1956. It follows the author’s adventures as an animal-loving child in Corfu, Greece where he lived with his eccentric British family. (If you’ve read any Lawrence Durrell, you’ll be intrigued to see him as a bratty twenty-something mouthing off to his mother) I’ve since enjoyed the follow-ups Birds, Beasts, and Relatives and The Garden of the Gods. (Looks like this one is free to read on Kindle with Amazon Prime!)
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander. This was such a surprise. I added this to my TBR after hearing about it on an episode of What Should I Read Next? podcast. By the time my hold came through on Libby, I had lost interest, but I had somewhere to drive and nothing else to listen to, so I turned it on. A novel in verse about twelve-year-old Josh Bell, his relationships with twin brother JB and their father, and their shared love of basketball. What I thought would be a Disney Channel original movie -esque sports story turned out to be a unique and stunning look at brotherhood, fathers and sons, and grief. This Newbury Medal winner is one of the finest coming-of-age stories I’ve read.
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart. I could not put down this middle grade adventure that reminded me so much of the early Harry Potter books. It had the same combination of quality writing, lovable characters, and absorbing plot that made me want to read and read. Reynie Muldoon is an orphan seeking a better life when a mysterious ad in the paper leads him to join a secret society of brilliant children assembled by the eccentric Mr. Benedict. Reynie and new friends Sticky, Kate, and Constance Contraire are sent on an undercover mission where they’ll rely on their unique talents and each other to, you know, save the world. I fell in love with these characters instantly, and enjoyed the fun and unexpected twists throughout the book. Can’t wait to read the rest of the series.
The Library Book by Susan Orlean. This is fairly well known as a selection for Reese’s Book Club. It was on the lucky day shelf on Libby, so I picked up the audio and it was just wonderful. This book combines the fascinating story of the 1986 library fire in L.A. with a history of libraries and a peek into the lives of librarians. The audio, read by the author, felt a lot like listening to a great, in-depth NPR story.
84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff.This book is all charm and atmosphere. A collection of letters from a plucky American author and a British bookseller starting in 1949 and continuing for 20 years. Book lovers will relate to Helene’s bookish dilemmas, history lovers will love the window into post-war London, Anglophiles will love all the Britishness. You can read this in one afternoon, or savor it a bit at a time.
The Read Aloud Family by Sarah MacKenzie. I got so much out of this book by Sarah MacKenzie of the Read Aloud Revival podcast. It covers the why and the how of reading aloud with children of all ages. It is chock full of ideas for incorporating books into your family culture, encouraging a love of reading, talking about books with your kids, and finding new books to enjoy with your family. MacKenzie will not only inspire you to read aloud more, but also blow up your TBR with tons of amazing book recommendations. I’d recommend this to any parent, teacher, nanny, grandparent – anyone who spends time with kids. (This is currently very cheap on Kindle!)
Simply Clean by Becky Rapinchuk. A friend recommended this book for learning better housekeeping skills. It was such a help in the midst of spring cleaning. Rapinchuk (of Clean Mama) offers a manageable, comprehensive plan for getting your house in order and maintaining it in just a few minutes a day – simple challenges and checklists make her plan unintimidating and easy to stick with. I got my house cleaner than it’s ever been and I’ve been able to maintain it, just as she promises, in just ten minutes a day. She inspired me to switch from a daunting weekly laundry day to a small daily load and, wow, that has been life-changing.
I’ve been listening to L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz with Bub. (This free Librivox recording is excellent.) It is much less scary and more four-year-old appropriate than the movie, I promise. The characters are so convinced of their failings that they cannot see they already have what they seek. The Scarecrow, so sure he has no brain, cannot see how his cleverness, logic, and ideas get him and his friends out of scrapes. The Tin Man, though he is in love with a munchkin girl and shows compassion to all he meets, believes he has no heart. The Lion, scared of every noise and shadow, fails to see how he faces these fears to help his friends without so much as a thought for his safety. They constantly demonstrate the very things they believe themselves lacking.
It struck me as I listened that we all do this; we often believe ourselves sorely lacking the characteristics and abilities we value most. I struggle with this particularly when it comes to motherhood, and I rarely meet a mother who isn’t similarly self-critical, at least some of the time. A mom will declare herself a “terrible mother” for all sorts of reasons, from losing her temper to taking time for a shower. But she cares about being a good mother, as the Scarecrow cares about brains. She would go to the Emerald City at all costs if it meant she could really be a good mother. I often fixate on this idea of a good mother, and the thing is, it just becomes whatever I am not. Sometimes I can think of nothing but my mistakes and shortcomings as a mom – even when I do something right, I lament that it isn’t enough. When we believe we do not possess the characteristic of being a good mother, we are blind to all but our failings.
“You people with hearts,” the Tin Man says, “have something to guide you, and need never do wrong; but I have no heart, and so I must be very careful.” With this reasoning, he walks through the woods with careful attention so as to avoid crushing any living creature; when he does step on an ant, he cries until his tears rust his jaw so that he cannot even ask for help.
How often does mom guilt take us there? How often do we think, “You people who are good mothers have something to guide you! But I am a terrible mother, and so I must be very careful!” In the mom life, we will fail; we will step on ants. It is impossible to be a parent without making mistakes. But, like the Tin Man, we try our hardest and recognize when we fail. So, I’m trying to take a lesson from the Tin Man – beating myself up will only paralyze me. A friend of mine often says, “Bad moments don’t make bad mothers.” A good mother isn’t a perfect mother, but one who cares enough to try.
We all know the ending of this story. Dorothy discovers she always had the power to get home. The ruby slippers (or silver in the book) she has worn the whole time transport her back to Kansas. Do you worry that you are not a good mother? Stop worrying. You are wearing the ruby slippers already.
Like almost every book lover, my reading life looked different in 2020. I read more books than I ever have before, by a lot. I finished 88 books in 2020, a personal record by more than 25 books. That number felt great, but getting to it didn’t always feel so great. I was reading for the win – the goal was not to enjoy reading, but to finish books, and lots of them. Having the twofold stress of the pandemic and a pregnancy, short and light-hearted books were a lifeline, and always being just around the corner from finishing a book gave me something to look forward to.
I don’t regret reading this way, but I did miss depth in my reading life, and I especially missed a slower, calmer reading experience. Last year, I went for quantity over quality, but this year I’m focusing on quality. That means I’ll stop shying away from those long or challenging reads, but more than that, it means I will focus on enjoying the reading experience rather than bolstering my book tally.
I always set some categories to read in each year to keep my reading broad and varied – like a series, a mystery novel, a Jane Austen reread – but this year I’ve also set some general goals. These are big-picture principles that will guide my reading life this year. I hope these goals will help me select great books and build good reading habits in 2021.
Read Less. Yep. You heard that right. I want to improve my reading life – and the rest of my life – by reading less. I got so stuck on completing books in 2020. I never took a walk in silence, because I could get through some audiobook; I zoomed through a book so I could mark it as finished, instead of slowing down to savor beautiful prose or ponder big ideas. I was enjoying books, but not enjoying the act of reading. This year, I want to read to read. I also want to make room in my life for quiet, without always adding the noise of new information. I want to take time to contemplate the books I read. I want to listen to an audiobook at normal speed. I want to take a walk in silence.
Better Myself. I want to do more learning and growing this year. I want to learn something this year that will make my life better every day. In December, I read Don’t Overthink It by Anne Bogel (one of my favorite books of 2020), and it truly made my life better. Simple living is a passion of mine, and this book had me wondering what else I can learn from others to make my life simpler and better. I’m particularly interested in books on habit like Atomic Habits and One Small Step Can Change Your Life, personal growth books like The Chemistry of Calm, and contemplative nonfiction like Madeleine L’Engle’s A Circle of Quiet.
Learn Something. I don’t read enough history. This year I’m eager to learn more about history and the lives of interesting people through some great biographies. Reading biography is actually a huge stretch for me. I usually include a biography on my yearly reading challenge, and usually that category goes unmet all year (along with the book of poetry I always think I’ll read). My list currently includes Woody Holton’s Abigail Adamsand Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. Honestly, those will probably keep me busy quite a while, but I would love some great biography recommendations if you have them. My underlying goal here is to stop thinking of this genre as dry and boring, so I read it more naturally in the future.
Explore children’s literature. I already have a collection of picture books I love. I wrote in the past about weeding out the twaddle and keeping only the very best books to read with my kids. Now that my oldest is four, I’m eager to build a library full of great books for older kids. This year, I want to read a lot of children’s chapter books so I can pick great read alouds and surround my kids with great books to choose from when they’re ready to read for themselves. To meet this goal, I’m doing buddy reads with my sister-in-law (an elementary school teacher and my favorite children’s book expert), reading beginner chapter books likeMy Father’s Dragonwith Bub, and taking on whatever catches my fancy on my own, like the Little House series. I’m always looking for great recommendations, so please share your favorites!
Go long. I was not that pandemic reader taking on War and Peace. I rarely even touched a book longer than 350 pages. That’s okay, except I almost always find great pleasure in a long book that has stood the test of time. If a book is long and still everyone loves it, there must be something great about it. Two of my very favorite books, Les MiserablesandMiddlemarch (which has a great free audiobook version on Librivox), are so long I’d once resolved never to read them, and boy am I glad I didn’t stick to that resolution. The thing is, you cannot enjoy a long book if you can’t enjoy the reading experience. In 2020, I stuck with very short reads, because I did not have the fortitude for intimidating page counts, but this year I want to stop looking at the numbers and just savor a great, long book. It almost always pays off. Unless it’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Skip that one.
The end of the year is always a time I like to reflect on my year of reading, what really worked for me, and what books I loved. While the first half of the year my reading life suffered due to early pregnancy and lock-downs, about midsummer I found myself reading again – happily, naturally, and more than I ever have before…even after welcoming my third child (and first daughter!) to our family. I’ve loved books for a long time, but this year I realized they have become my sanity, and self-care has come to mean making time to read.
I already recapped January to June reading in my Midyear Reading Roundup. Here is a snapshot of my reading life July to December – the habits that have kept me reading lately, and the books I loved most.
Early Morning Reading. After Pantsy was born, I started getting up earlier in the morning for some quiet time before the kids woke up. I try to read first thing in the morning for at least fifteen minutes before I do anything else – before breakfast, or talking to my husband, or checking my phone. When I do this, I have better, calmer days. I’m a better mom when I read.
Cleaning House. Pantsy’s birth also made me obsessed with having a clean house (which I promise is new to me). With three kids under four, keeping things clean is a way to maintain control of something and impose a little order in the chaos. What does this have to do with reading? First, more cleaning time is more audiobook time! Second, having a clean house means when I sit down with a book, my calm environment helps me focus. With fewer distractions, I can immerse myself more fully in a book for longer periods of time.
Reading Short. I have stuck with mostly short books all year. Finishing books with great frequency kept up my momentum and gave me a sense of accomplishment. I usually read several long books in a year, but this year I only exceeded 600 pages (my benchmark for “long”) once, and that was an audiobook. I’m hoping to take in more long books next year, but in 2020, didn’t we all need as many wins as we could get?
Varying Formats. These days I usually have one e-book, one audiobook, and one or two print books going at once. Different formats fit into different places in my life, so using them all at once gives me more reading time. As mentioned in my Midyear Reading Roundup, I’m new to e-books, and since then I stole my husband’s Kindle. It’s perfect for reading in the dark and reading one-handed – which are useful features when nursing a newborn! (Big thanks to Modern Mrs. Darcy daily e-book deals.)
Goodwill. Much as I love my new Kindle (“my” “new” Kindle), I’m still doing most of my reading the old-fashioned way, and my new favorite source is my local Goodwill. I would honestly rather go there than to an actual bookstore. Goodwills are usually a crap shoot for books, but at this one, I always walk out with at least two books in great condition that I’m so excited about. And they cost $1.49 each. When I decide to treat myself these days, it means a Goodwill trip with a $10 budget.
Libby.I’m not entirely sure how I went through 31 years of life without Libby, an awesome app by which you can borrow audibooks and e-books free through your local library. I’ve always adored LibriVox (and still do) because audiobooks are expensive, but I got a bit burned out on classics and Libby has made it possible to listen to contemporary books without the price tag.
Okay, now for the books! I read all over the genre map this year, and have quite an odd variety in my favorite picks.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. Did this as a buddy read with my BBFF (Book BFF slash regular BFF) and we both adored it. It’s about a hostage crisis and opera and it is everything that is beautiful about being a human being.
Don’t Overthink It by Anne Bogel.I wanted to get this for everyone for Christmas, but thought getting self-help books for people would probably seem rude. This is the best book I’ve ever read on stress management and I can’t recommend it enough if you struggle with any stress, not just overthinking. I particularly benefited from her chapter on decision fatigue.
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. I don’t believe there are many books everyone should read, but this is one. This book is full of both practical information and philosophical reflection on the subject of aging and dying. In the hands of any other writer, this would be morbid, but Gawande leaves you feeling like you’ve had a comforting conversation with a trusted friend. At less than 300 pages, it is well worth anyone’s time.
Greenglass House by Kate Milford. I found this middle-grade mystery novel while searching Modern Mrs. Darcy for Christmas reads. I liked the cover and the e-book was on sale, so I bought it on a whim. I just loved it – the charming illustrations at the start of each chapter, the wintery atmosphere, the RPG references. Milo lives in an old house his parents run as an inn, and when an odd assortment of guests turn up right before Christmas, Milo makes a new friend and goes on a quest to learn what his mysterious guests are hiding.
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.I happened to pick up this World War II veteran’s story right before Veteran’s Day, and it really drove home the meaning of the day. I plan to pick up another veteran’s story next year. This is a truly incredible story of an airman’s survival following a plane crash in the Pacific. There was more than one moment where my jaw literally dropped in disbelief.
The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.I put off reading this final Sherlock Holmes collection because it was published a decade after the previous work, and ominously described as “darker” than other collections and not all narrated by Watson. Posh! I was expecting a bunch of grisly murders written in the third person, but found these were in the same spirit as other Sherlock stories, and they were even better. Most were narrated by Watson, but two were amusingly narrated by Sherlock himself. The e-book is only 99 cents!
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch.This book wins the Miss Congeniality award for the most likable characters of the year. Locke and his band of thieves known as the Gentleman Bastards are utterly charming and whatever they were up to, I was there for it. That alliterative title is not just to be cute: Locke literally lies his way through an insane, chaotic, bloody mess of a plot. I don’t often read adventure or fantasy, and I’m so glad I took a chance on this. The audiobook narrator is excellent, and you can easily speed up to 1.4 or 1.5, so don’t fear the length.
The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis. I have scandalous gaps when it comes to children’s literature since I wasn’t really a reader until adulthood. This year, I resolved to finally read the whole Chronicles of Narnia series, and I adored this volume. From the theology perspective, this is second only to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan.This one will seem a little out of place for those who know my usual taste, but I loved it. It’s like a juicy romance novel had a baby with a Jane Austen novel. It is funny, romantic, and full of drama, yet infused with wit and satire – breezy to read, but still intelligent. The best thing about this book, though, is that my one-year-old staggered over to me with it one day saying, very excitedly, “Penguin!”
Before becoming a parent, I already knew I wanted books to be a big part of my children’s lives. I wanted them to grow up surrounded by great books, reading with us, and reading on their own. Knowing I’m a huge book lover, both sides of the family independently came up with the same baby shower idea – instead of a card, bring your favorite children’s book – and sent almost identical invitations that looked like cute, old-fashioned library checkout cards. I can’t think of a single book I received at these showers that I did not love.
I also was the happy recipient of whole collections of baby and toddler books from friends whose children had outgrown them. This also got me so many wonderful books. But it yielded some of the most awful books I’ve ever seen in my life. We’re talking poorly written books with computer graphic illustrations that made me want to gouge my eyes out when I saw my son toddling over with them; books I shoved under the couch when Bub wasn’t looking; books I threw across the room when I was done reading them just so he would have to spend at least a few seconds retrieving it before I was subjected to the torture of reading it again. (Yes, I seriously did that.)
These terrible books made up at least half of the collections I’d received from friends. I felt sure the friends who gave these books did not like them either. These are the same friends who gave me wonderful books at my baby showers. They have great taste. So, why did they keep these awful books throughout their child’s early years? Why was I keeping them? I think my friends and I wanted our children to have access to lots of books, and believed that children’s books are just like that. I mean, won’t we hate anything we’ve had to read 27 times in one day?
But amid these little horrors I was reluctantly reading, there were also books I really enjoyed. Timeless, memorable, charming. Books I could read 27 times in one day without hating them. These weren’t just the classics–these were old and new books, well-known and obscure, longer and shorter…I even found some baby vocabulary books that were fun to read. I was slowly learning what C.S. Lewis already knew, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” One day, I looked through all our children’s books and did something I never expected myself to do: I got rid of most of them.
Looking at a donate stack as tall as the keep stack can make a book-loving parent nervous – isn’t it better to have more books for my kids? Not if those books are a huge drag for parents. Kids are very perceptive. They know if you’re not enjoying yourself, even if you’re trying your darnedest to cover it up. You child’s attitude toward reading will mimic yours–loving reading yourself is so valuable to your child’s reading life. If you hate reading a book, let it go. Even if your kid likes it (I mean, I wouldn’t take a book they carry around like Linus’ blanket or anything, but you get the idea). It’s okay. It will not hurt your child to have fewer books. I believe it will help them love reading when you are finding more joy in reading to them.
I donated more than half our children’s books, and our collection is much better for it. Some of our books are timeless classics and Caldecott winners, but some are forgettable books that we just enjoy reading. Some I will give to my grandchildren someday. Some will leave us when my kids get older. I’m sure some I just haven’t seen enough of yet to hate. The important thing is, my kids love reading these books over and over, I love reading these books to them, and I have stopped shoving books under the couch in despair.
I was going to round out this post with some guidance on weeding your children’s books, but I realized it’s really a personal thing. There’s no magic formula for a collection your family will love. My advice is simply this: if you don’t like it, let it go. Your child’s reading life will be better if you find more joy in reading together.
PS – Starting next week, I will be sharing short, weekly posts featuring my family’s favorite children’s books. I would love to hear all about your family favorites as well!