Not Required Reading, Or How Changing What I Read Changed What I Wrote, a guest post by Polly Farquhar
Anyone who has kids or was once a kid themselves knows that a suggestion from a parent can be the kiss of death, particularly when it comes to reading material. This was one hundred percent the dynamic between me and my own children. Casual suggestions didn’t work. Neither did subterfuge, otherwise known as putting a book I thought they might like in their bedroom and hoping they’ll think they discovered it all on their own. If one of my kids tells me that a book doesn’t look good to them, they’re sticking with it, and probably more for parent/child reasons than book reasons.
It took me a while to learn. As a life-long reader and writer, it was one of my most difficult acts of self-control to not foist books upon my kids. In the library or the bookstore, I had to restrain myself. Keep my hands in my pockets. Don’t take a book off the shelf to look at. It was like playing huckle buckle beanstalk when you don’t even dare to look in the direction of the object you’ve hidden—or, in this case, the book I wanted my child to pick up, check out, take home and read. Sometimes I’d read the book myself, or read about it, or read other books by the author, and I just felt it in my bones. My kids will love it! Spoiler alert: they won’t even crack it open.
I’m not sure at what point I surrendered. And, honestly, they love to read, so I did not have the worry some parents might have when it comes to how and what their children are reading. Set loose, my kids soared on without me dragging them in one direction or the other.
One would think I would have figured this out much sooner because of how I had struggled to do the same thing when it came to my own reading. I always read what I was supposed to. As an earnest high school writer who took herself very seriously, I read what I thought I was supposed to read—stuff like On the Road and The Catcher in the Rye—which, really, didn’t impress me (sorry not sorry). But since that’s what I thought I should be reading, that’s what I read. (Which itself is a whole other topic for discussion.) As a college English major, I read piles of books a week. And while I did find new writers to admire (Virginia Woolf, Nella Larsen, Angela Carter), it was still required reading. I headed off to graduate school and read Ulysses (twice!) and, as a student of creative writing, the works of visiting writers, editors of literary journals where I submitted short stories, and whatever books people were talking about on the rickety back porches of their graduate student apartments.
It wasn’t until I had my first child and we headed off to baby storytime at the local public library that I gave myself the freedom to pick up any book I wanted for the first time since I was very young. Nothing was assigned. I wasn’t trying to impress anyone. I chose anything from displays that caught my eye, or celebrity memoirs, or popular books that were going to be made into movies, or magazines. I read anything I heard discussed on NPR that I thought sounded interesting, which was how I specifically got into middle grade, when Kate DiCamillo (before I even knew who Kate DiCamillo was) recommended Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan, Half A Chance by Cynthia Lord, The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes, How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson, and Under the Egg Laura Marx Fitzgerald. Books weren’t homework; they weren’t paper topics; they were new worlds and escape and wonder and the soft thunk of child’s head coming to rest on my shoulder as we settled in for our family read each night. And at some point—whether it was from the joy of reading whatever I wanted, or just reaching a certain age—I decided I would never again feel guilty about not reading what anybody thought I ought to read.
I don’t know where I’d be as a writer if I’d not become a more open-minded and catholic reader. Before, I judged my work by traditional and canonical standards I wasn’t even interested in but thought I should be, and it paralyzed me. Before, I didn’t even know what middle grade was, or what great stories could be found there. If I didn’t know what world my story could land in, how could I have written it?
P.S. Meanwhile…in the best example of turnabout is fair play, my kids have been stacking their favorite reads for me in my TBR pile. (And of course I’ll read them all.)
P.P.S. I’d originally included how one of my kids had discovered all on their own and without my interference one of the middle grade books listed above and has now read it twice. Hurrah! But I was informed that she’d only checked it out from the library twice and hasn’t actually read it yet, and because parenting is a learning process, I forgot myself and said, “Read it! It’s great! I loved it!” and…it was a reminder to stay the course.
Meet Polly Farquhar
Polly Farquhar grew up in a small town in upstate New York, graduated from the University at Albany, and then moved to Ohio, earning her MFA in Creative Writing from the Ohio State University. If she’s not at the library with her kids or reading a book, you can find her baking (or eating) dairy-free, peanut-free, tree nut-free, and sesame-free desserts. Her debut novel, Itch, is available now.
You can find Polly at www.pollyfarquharauthor.com
About Itch by Polly Farquhar
When everything around you is going wrong, how far would you go to fit in?
Isaac’s sixth grade year gets off to a rough start.
For one thing, a tornado tears the roof off the school cafeteria. His mother leaves on a two month business trip to China. And as always. . . . there’s the itch. It comes out of nowhere. Idiopathic, which means no one knows what causes it. It starts small, but it spreads, and soon—it’s everywhere. It’s everything. It’s why everyone calls him Itch—everyone except his best friend Sydney, the only one in all of Ohio who’s always on his side, ever since he moved here.
He’s doing the best he can to get along—until everything goes wrong in the middle of a lunch swap. When Sydney collapses and an ambulance is called, Itch blames himself. And he’s not the only one. When you have no friends at all, wouldn’t you do anything—even something you know you shouldn’t—to get them back?
Drawing on her own experiences with idiopathic angioedema and food allergies, Polly Farquhar spins a tale of kids trying to balance the desire to be ordinary with the need to be authentic—allergies, itches, confusion and all.
For everyone who’s ever felt out of place, this debut novel set in the Ohio heartland is a warm, funny, and sometimes heartbreaking look at middle school misfits and misadventures. Whether you root for the Buckeyes or have no clue who they are, you’ll be drawn into Itch’s world immediately. This engaging debut is perfect for fans of See You in the Cosmos and Fish in a Tree.
A Junior Library Guild Selection
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 02/04/2020
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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