How I Became a Reader

My love for reading began with Max and his line, “Let the wild rumpus start!” I remember listening to my favorite story Where the Wild Things Are and classic Dr. Seuss: “I will not eat them, Sam I am. I do not like green eggs and ham!” and Horton Hears a Who. I only hear faint whispers of the childhood voices who read to me now as they have been replaced by my own as I read to my own children and to my students.

Growing up though, we never had book cases in our house.  Well, that’s not true.  We had them, they were just called knick-knack shelves, but there were always books in the house.  They were in stacks, though, and didn’t seem to warrant enough importance to be prominently displayed like the knick-knacks.  My mom was usually reading what she referred to as “trashy” Harlequin Romance or a novel by Stephen King. I read Salem’s Lot when I was twelve and had nightmares for weeks, but I loved scary stories. After Salem, I met It, and he scared the hell out of me. Now that I think about it, that super creepy clown is probably why clowns still creep me out today. But Cujo didn’t make me hate dogs. Huh. I may have to ponder that for a moment…

I loved reading—it was my refuge, it helped me escape a home-life that was not always pleasant. Truth be told, my home-life absolutely sucked much of the time. Reading, and later writing, probably saved my life; I was able to delve into other people’s lives and escape my own. Through books I was able to see that things would get better—eventually. This is precisely why I am such an advocate for the active use of YA lit in the classroom.

In my early adulthood, I didn’t do much reading beyond Glamour magazine, Sunday funnies, or my daily horoscope (I’m a Scorpio in case you were wondering). When I started college, my reading was basically limited to required college texts. I did, however, LOVE the Intro to Literature class I took at Emporia State when I was still an Elementary Education major in the early 90s. I didn’t start reading again on a regular basis until my first child was born, and then it was limited to baby books and parenting magazines.

As my family grew and my kids grew, I exposed them (and me) to books that matched their various stages of reading readiness. Even though I was reading these wonderful books with my kids, I still wasn’t reading for the sake of reading. Before I started teaching, I spent about eight years working in the mental health field. I was working with adolescents, and in an effort to connect with them, I started reading what they were reading—young adult fiction. During this time, I met Harry Potter and fell in love with books all over again, because these were books that appealed to me. Since that time, I have built quite an extensive library at home and in my classroom. Books surround my children and have an impressive presence in their lives and mine.

I have taken a stab at books written for adults and have found Jodi Picoult to be a skilled writer, but many of the books I read seemed fairly repetitious, so I moved on. I did really like The Pact (which I would argue is YA), and I do intend to read My Sister’s Keeper, The Tenth Circle, and Ninteen Minutes someday. For now, my focus remains on young adult fiction. Some of my favorite “modern” YA authors are Laurie Halse Anderson, Neal Shusterman, and Chris Crutcher. These seasoned authors write novels that resonate with me in ways that adult novels can’t.

In the past couple of years, I have read some remarkable and not so remarkable YA lit. I loved The Hunger Games trilogy and consumed them in about a week and a half. I read the Twilight Saga and proudly pledge my allegiance to Team Edward (no judgments, please). I have discovered that I like Science Fiction, as long as it’s not of the Star Wars variety. I read Crank by Ellen Hopkins, and she just may be a new favorite. I read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and it is one of the best books I have ever read. EVER. Wonder by R.J. Palacio and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green moved me to tears. I am currently reading The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer.

My “to read” list is VERY long, and I fear I may never reach the end. But that’s okay. I’ll just keep reading until I can’t read anymore.

Why YA? The Fault in Our Stars, that’s why.

The Fault in Our Stars

Diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer at 12, Hazel was prepared to die until, at 14, a medical miracle shrunk the tumours in her lungs… for now.

Two years post-miracle, sixteen-year-old Hazel is post-everything else, too; post-high school, post-friends and post-normalcy. And even though she could live for a long time (whatever that means), Hazel lives tethered to an oxygen tank, the tumours tenuously kept at bay with a constant chemical assault.

Enter Augustus Waters. A match made at cancer kid support group, Augustus is gorgeous, in remission, and shockingly to her, interested in Hazel. Being with Augustus is both an unexpected destination and a long-needed journey, pushing Hazel to re-examine how sickness and health, life and death, will define her and the legacy that everyone leaves behind.

This book makes me want to hug my children more and thank God seventy-two times a day that all four of my children are healthy and happy (most of the time). It makes me appreciate my husband more (please don’t tell him I said that…on the Interwebs).

You see, my husband was diagnosed with Stage III colon cancer nine years ago, at the age of 32. Stage III means the cancer is treatable, but it has invaded the lymph nodes, thereby entering the bloodstream, making for a poorer prognosis. My husband was lucky. He had surgery and underwent nearly five months of chemo and has been cancer free for nearly nine years now. This is a miracle and a blessing for our family.

But I digress. This is a book review about a girl with terminal cancer, and given my life experience it’s no wonder I crawled right inside Hazel’s world.

It took me about ten days to read this book because life kept getting in the way of my reading. I stayed up way past my bedtime two nights in a row to finish it, which was difficult to do at times due to the steady flow of tears. It was worth feeling tired and a little cranky so I could finally finish this book.

Hazel is not someone you feel sorry for. She simply will not allow you to. What she will do, however, is give you a honest picture of what life with cancer looks like, feels like, sounds like, and on occasion, smells like. Hazel is bad ass, and someone you want to know. She’s smart and understands things about life most of us never will. She sees things we miss because she pays attention. Hazel worries about those she will leave behind and is fully aware of the devastation that will follow her death, referring to herself as a “grenade.”

But don’t despair. Hazel has a wicked sense of humor and although she is painfully aware of the graveness of her situation, she often comments on the irony of things and sees humor in even the most serious situations.

Meeting Augustus at a cancer support group is serendipitous, cathartic, and just what Hazel needs, despite her prolonged resistance. She eventually learns that resistance is futile, and embraces the gift Augustus becomes in her life. Augustus is bad ass in his own right, and you can’t help rooting for the two of them.

The Wonder of Wonder

I came to hear about Wonder via Twitter through the flurry of discussion my various Twitter teacher and librarian friends were having. I have to admit, I felt a little out of the loop. Well…I’m still fairly new to Twitter and most of my Twitter friends are newly established contacts, so I guess it makes sense I felt out of the loop. I started paying attention to what was being said, and one well established Twitter/Facebook friend, the amazing Paul W. Hankins, couldn’t say enough about this book.

When I finished reading Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper a couple of weeks ago and casually asked on Facebook, “What to read next?” Paul immediately responded with: “Wonder by R. J. Palacio.” I had ordered the book the week before and was anxiously awaiting its arrival. When it finally showed up on my doorstep, I began reading it that evening and was immediately drawn in.

Here’s a little bit about the book:       Wonder

I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.

August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He’s about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you’ve ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie’s just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he’s just like them, despite appearances?

R. J. Palacio has written a spare, warm, uplifting story that will have readers laughing one minute and wiping away tears the next. With wonderfully realistic family interactions (flawed, but loving), lively school scenes, and short chapters, Wonder is accessible to readers of all levels.

Much of Auggie’s  story is told from his perspective, but the true depth of the story (and characters) materializes as other significant characters come forward to share their perspectives regarding their lives with Auggie. They bare their souls and allow us as readers to share in their joy and pain and blindingly honest truths.

Wonder is not a “woe-is-me” book. It is not a copy-cat book. It is not a book you’ll read and then shake your head thinking that you’ve read this story somewhere else before.

Wonder is full of rich, well fleshed out characters that will make you laugh, cry, sympathize, feel outrage, and ultimately feel blessed. The tears you shed will be both heartbreaking and of joyful triumphs.

Auggie is a character you will not soon forget.

Join the conversation about Wonder on Twitter: #thewonderofwonder

You can follow me on Twitter @MickiFryhover and R.J. Palacio @RJPalacio

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