I have always loved to read. From the moment I learned how, I was the dazed kid stumbling around with a book in my hands. Most writers will tell you the same. We’re readers. Which is probably why we’re drawn to creating our own books. It’s Writing 101 that you must love to read if you’d like to write. Even the Me of fifteen years ago knew that. But here’s what I didn’t know: you need to read the kinds of books you want to write. (in addition to everything else!)
Like many children’s writers I was drawn to the field because books meant so much to me as a child. When I first started writing, I went back to the books of my childhood for inspiration. A Wrinkle in Time. A little known, but excellent book called Charlotte Sometimes. The mystery series Trixie Belden. This was a start in the right direction, but it took me a while to catch on that I needed to read the latest children’s books too. This means reading beautifully written, critically acclaimed books as well as fluffy page-turners. Yes, I know you love Charlotte’s Web and Anne of Green Gables (and these are must-reads without a doubt) but if you’re a YA writer, you should also know who John Green and Sara Zarr are. You should know what Katniss is up to in the latest installment of Hunger Games and that the newest teen trend is fallen angels. And for some odd reason (or maybe it’s not odd, now that I think about it,) two gorgeous boys vying for the attention of the same girl is the In thing at the moment.
Writers must know what their contemporaries are writing and what kid readers of this generation are yanking off the shelves and passing around in school. Not so we can copy another writer or jump onto a trend—(Good luck, anyway, with that. Write a book starring a schoolboy wizard or a brooding vampire and see how fast the rejections roll in.)—but so we can find our own voice in today’s world of books.
True story: a beginning writer wrote a darling picture book about a child resisting bedtime. The kindly editor critiquing her mentioned that there are a ton of bedtime books already out there. To which the woman responded, “Really?”
Another true story: a YA adult writer tells me she would never read Twilight because she doesn’t like vampire books. Well, okay. Say what you want about this series—mediocre writing, stereotypical romance-novel characters—but it IS a page-turner and millions of girls and women have snapped it up. Like it or not, the phenomenon (along with Harry Potter) may have single handedly propped up the children’s book industry so that publishers can afford to publish quiet, lyrical, award-winning books too. Read it and get a taste of what all the fuss is about. It’s your job, for crying out loud. And really, as far as jobs go, I’d say it’s a pretty good one.
Here’s a plug for a brand-newish YA book that may restore your faith in the written word after you’ve read all of those vampire/fallen angel books I was just urging you to read:
Lips Touch by Laini Taylor. It’s actually three stories, all built around the premise of a kiss. The first story, which I read last night, is a take on an old poem by Christina Rossetti called “Goblin’s Market.” Yes, I am a former English major and high school English teacher, so I can appreciate a story inspired by a poem. Beyond that very cool idea, though, is Taylor’s amazing writing. I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s a voice I’ve never heard before. Part old-fashioned, descriptive and sensory. And part contemporary and slang-y. The story perfectly captures the longing and desire of teenage girls who want want want what is just out of reach and who simmer with impatient frustration as they wait for their real lives to begin. (prediction: you will root for the goblin.) This is one of those books that inspires both despair and joy in me. Despair—that I will never ever be able to write this well. And joy that someone can.