How a Writer Reads by Meg Medina
I’ve always had a rangy heart for reading. Just when I decide I don’t care for one genre, along comes a book in that very genre that steals my heart. Those shifting appetites have been both the path to pleasure and also the way I’ve broadened my toolbox as a writer and teacher.
So, here’s a look at how I’ve learned to embrace my reading habits.
I love the world: I read authors with roots from around the globe who offer me a wide range of lenses on life. That means I read authors whose background and experiences are far removed from mine, and I allow myself to be pulled into a reality that feels new and unexplored. The experience is refreshing and a lot like what happens when I watch movies that are not made in the US. Without a single car crash or explosion, I’m swept up in a different cadence altogether. It’s how I hope people read my books, giving themselves over to experiencing Latinx family life through my eyes.
I read the genres that I write – and then, the ones that scare me: I read picture book, middle grade novels and young adult novels all the time. I enjoy the stories, of course, but I also benefit from the mini-master class that a close reading of those books can give me. The first time I read any book, it’s always as a fan. I don’t pick apart a single thing. I just enjoy the story and the characters. But if a book has wowed me, I make sure to go back and read it again as a student. Why was it so powerful? Where were the points that moved me as a reader? How did the author keep me engaged from start to finish?
There’s also a wealth to be learned from forms that I’d never attempt, literary and otherwise. I learn a lot about storytelling by watching gesture in dance performances or color in a painting. The same is true about language and plot skills that I pick up from reading novels-in-verse and graphic novels. I don’t feel the calling to write in those forms, but they offer another way in to characters that’s fascinating.
I don’t dis adult works: I can’t tell you how often readers of adult fiction have given me that patronizing smile when I tell them I write for children. It’s infuriating. But I’ve decided not to hold it against the entire adult fiction industry. Instead, I have a 3:1 formula. I read three children’s works to one adult title. Why? First, because I like adult fiction. And I have to have something to talk about with adults who aren’t readers of works for young people. But more important, reading across the age groups forces me to calibrate my ear, so that I can practice locating the voice of each age group when I sit down to write. Merci, who is 11 in my new novel, Merci Suarez Changes Gears, doesn’t sound like Nora, who’s 18 in Burn Baby Burn. And neither of them sounds like an adult from an Allende novel. Finding the sound comes from hearing the sound.
Keep notes: I’ve only recently started doing this because I find that no matter how involved I am in a story, I can quickly forget the plot points and character names. (Whaaat?) OK, maybe part of it is my own aging brain. I like to think that it’s just the sheer number of books that I read in year for work and pleasure. Whatever the reason, keeping a reading log, helps me keep track of the main points of books that made an especially strong impact. Here’s one that my son’s girlfriend gave me for Christmas. I love it. https://www.uncommongoods.com/product/well-read-women-a-readers-journal
I honor my heroes: Every January, I watch the annual ALA awards in much the same way: sitting in my pajamas with a big cup of coffee. I scream for joy all by myself if a book or an author I know makes the list. If I haven’t read a particular winner, I quickly order their work and add it to my to-be-read pile. Throughout the year, I keep a keen eye on other awards, too, such as winners of the Ezra Jack Keats Award, the Amelia Bloomer and the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, etc. It’s not only about supporting the work and achievements of our colleagues. It’s also important as a writer to know what has moved into our collective consciousness as meaningful subjects for young readers. Children’s books, like language itself, evolve and change over time to meet the needs of readers. Without our willingness to expand our tastes and see what’s new, we risk getting dated.
I read for pleasure every single day: The first thing I do in the morning is read the paper – no matter how painful the news. The last thing I do every night is read in bed for an hour, often leaving my husband to put away my glasses and mark the page. Those two acts are book ends to my day, regardless of what happens. It is true on ordinary, happy days, and it’s been true when I’ve been facing sad loss and trying times. I read, and I read, and I read. And that, in the end, is how I find my voice to write.
Meg Medina is the author of the YA novels Burn Baby Burn; Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, winner of the Pura Belpré Author Award; and The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind. She also wrote the picture books Mango, Abuela, and Me, a Pura Belpré Illustrator Award Honor Book, and Tía Isa Wants a Car, recipient of an Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award. She lives in Richmond, Virginia.