Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, one of my favorite new releases this year, pairs page-turning plot twists with well-developed characters and stellar writing. Alternating between two perspectives, a white mother of two in her thirties and a black babysitter in her twenties, Reid unspools her story of these two women fumbling through different chapters of their lives. (I don’t want to reveal more of the plot than that because experiencing it unfold was a huge point of interest while I was reading.)
Reminiscent in all the best ways of Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere in its discussion of the politics of race and motherhood, Reid embraces the absurd humor of each of her characters’ situations without sacrificing the emotional realities of the story’s more somber moments.
Each type of experience Reid portrays: racism, babysitting long term for a family, the relationship between viral media and the news cycle, feels completely grounded in reality and specific to the character living it. In particular, the relationship the babysitter develops with her charges and the way Reid fleshes out the toddler character feels realistic without ever becoming overly precious.
After reading her debut novel, I’m eagerly awaiting Reid’s next release.
As I keep adjusting to the confines of the stay-at-home lifestyle, I’ve been thinking about how much ritual has helped me create an illusion of normalcy when so much of my old routine is gone. By the way, don’t worry that this is another reminder to “create a schedule!” during a time when almost all normalcy is gone. I understand the sentiment that a schedule can help us to avoid staying in our pajamas until 4pm. Totally random example there. Don’t think too much about it. Moving on!
As practically every media outlet recommends creating a schedule, I have indulged more and more in doing what I most felt like at the time I most felt like doing it. As I return to a more consistent work schedule, rituals have helped me balance my own calendar anarchy with the need for structure. For me, rituals consist of a series of repeated actions that bring a sense of comfort. The rituals I perform on a regular basis tend to happen around the same time of day or day of the week but since it’s something that is pleasurable rather than a necessity, I’m free from rigid scheduling or guilt if it just doesn’t happen.
Tuning back in to abandoned rituals means I’ve reinstated my Sunday night viewings of PBS British drama imports, something I’ve been doing on and off since college. I look forward to my Sunday nights all week and, when the time comes, I find that I’m surprisingly ‘present,’ as mindfulness experts might say. Anxious thought spirals are paused, at least for the run time of Call the Midwife.
I’ve also found myself creating new reading rituals as books help remove me from the pandemic mindset. Practicing even just one of my new reading rituals gives more shape to the blank-calendar schedule of so many of my days.
My new rituals have addressed two problems: reading clutter and emotional calm. I define reading clutter as a sector of your library that has outgrown the storage space allotted or has been sitting on the shelf for too long. Like many readers, I tend to amass way more reading material than I can possibly consume. Seeing all that stuff sitting on my shelves and piling up on my e-reader inspired me to attack some of it during the stay-at-home order.
Currently, periodicals are the hardest thing for me to keep under control because . . . they just keep coming! Apparently even my strong sense of denial is no match for the panic I feel when new issues begin piling up. To that end, my new breakfast companion is a magazine. My backlog (which I must confess still contained Halloween issues at the beginning of the stay-at-home order, the shame) has dwindled to a manageable stack of under ten! At breakfast, the short article length is a nice way to wake up my brain and think about non-pandemic topics. In addition, even if I linger over my coffee and reading, hitting the last page is a good reminder to get up and do something else.
It seems like talking about how much or how little we’re sleeping is one of the few topics of conversation we have left now that we’re mostly doing nothing. Bedtime reading is another great way to diminish reading clutter and influence how you feel before sleep. I’ve started reading a comic book/graphic novel issue before bed each night. Graphic novels were another sector of my library that I hadn’t explored in a while. Like magazines, the brief issue length means there’s a built-in stopping point that prevents me from reading for the hours I should actually be sleeping. Additionally, turning to a beautifully drawn comic with minimal text seems to really help my brain shift into a lower gear. Surprisingly, I’ve been sleeping much better since I started doing this, waking up much less (or not at all) during the night.
I framed my quarantine days by waking up with magazines and going to bed with comics. Go wild redesigning your reading life. It’s one thing over which you have absolute control.
I’ve been a long-time fan of children’s and YA books. Now that I’m at home reading more than ever while simultaneously clinging to my sanity, working kid and teen books into my rotation has added some great variety to my bookshelf. Below are my picks for fun picture books to enjoy!
Strega Nona and Quiet, Tomie dePaola
It’s a wonderful time to explore (or revisit) Tomie dePaola’s work as he unfortunately passed away a few weeks ago. As a kid, I adored all of his Strega Nona books which are magical, funny, and ultimately heartfelt. Strega Nona means grandmother witch in Italian and these stories feature this sorceress’s adventures in her Italian village alongside lovable sidekicks like Big Anthony and Bambolina.
dePaola’s work features a variety of cultures and time periods. Quiet is a more recent book that readers can especially appreciate now. In Quiet, a grandfather teaches his grandchildren about sitting calmly outside together. Anyone who’s beginning to practice mindfulness or wants to introduce meditation to little kids should read Quiet. Who couldn’t use a little more calm today?
Be Quiet and We Don’t Eat Our Classmates, Ryan Higgins
I love the sense of humor Higgins’ books portray! Be Quiet is excellent for slightly older kids who still like having a story read to them (or are starting to read to the grownups). The book features Rupert, a mouse who aspires to create a ‘very serious and artistic’ picture book with no words. Unfortunately, his friends cannot stop talking! Much of the humor relies on wordplay so it could be a fun addition to at-home English classes.
Younger kids can enjoy Higgins’ We Don’t Eat Our Classmates. Penelope the dinosaur learns about going to school and how to be empathetic in this cute tale. Look for its sequel, We Will Rock Our Classmates, to be released July 7th.
Don’t Feed the Coos, written by Jonathan Stutzman and illustrated by Heather Fox
Don’t Feed the Coos is a crowd-pleaser that follows the structure of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff. If you feed a flock of pigeons, hilarity and chaos will ensue! The story pairs delightfully with Fox’s illustrations, admirably capturing the antics of those pesky coos! Stutzman and Fox have previously collaborated professionally on the Llama Destroys the World books and are spouses as well!
In my pre-quarantine life, one of my jobs was working in the children’s section of a bookstore. I usually did story time at least once a week for half an hour. I would read three or four books interspersed with some songs to help hold the kids’ attention. The pleasure of looking at gorgeous illustrations, the delight of reading a complete story in one sitting, is wholly unique. Trying to remember that kid perspective of curiosity and trying to figure the world out is a very valuable one for my adult self to experience. At story time, everything gets put aside (except for maybe some of your favorite snacks). At story time, you focus on being with the group and enjoying a few books.
Vogue.com published an article last week called “I Can’t Read a Book Right Now—And I Am Not Alone” by Sophie Vershlow (https://www.vogue.com/article/why-cant-i-read-books-right-now). Personally, reading is one of the few things keeping me sane right now, but I can relate to only being able to engage with certain kinds of books. I’ve been making a bit of an event of picking a new book (why not?), selecting four or five titles and reading the first few pages to see what best captures my attention. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most serious ‘literary’ fiction fell to the bottom of the pile each time. Mystery, horror, YA—these genres helped immerse me in a world apart from the COVID-19 quarantine.
So just like you don’t have to be a bastion of productivity right now, you also don’t have to tackle that list of ‘Great Books’ you’ve been carrying around for years if you don’t feel like it. Maybe instead you plan your own story time. Maybe instead you read a comic book (“excuse me, we call them graphic novels now”). Maybe instead you reread that picture book you loved as a kid.
I think there’s a reason so many people are reading picture books on social media feeds currently (other than helping frantic parents and caregivers). Reading stories out loud is fun. Reading picture books is fun. Sharing stories is fun. Whatever your story time looks like right now, don’t apologize. Just please enjoy it (and make sure you have snacks).
Next week I’ll recommend some of my favorite children’s books for little and big kids alike. Let me know if you’ve got any favorites that have been keeping you company during quarantine.
I remember standing in Target’s book section several years ago and picking up a book titled Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy about a fat girl who loves Dolly Parton and enrolls in her local beauty pageant. Enchanted, I picked up a copy but didn’t get around to reading it right away (although its cover of a blonde woman in a red evening dress standing in thrall to a tiara never failed to elicit a chuckle when I walked past). Fast forward to December 2018 when said book was adapted into a Netflix movie. It’s heartfelt and funny with a great Dolly Parton soundtrack. So, last winter my reading consisted of a binge of all of Murphy’s novels (including Puddin’, a sort-of-sequel that focuses on some of Dumplin’s secondary characters). Then, once I exhausted her canon, I pre-ordered of her new middle grade novel (designated for readers roughly eight to twelve years old), Dear Sweet Pea, which is on bookshelves now.
Dear Sweet Pea is set in a small Texas town where, following a recent and amicable divorce, thirteen-year-old Sweet Pea’s mom and dad live in near-identical houses on the same street. Sweet Pea finds this same-but-not-the-sameness frustrating as she splits time between the two houses. School is equally challenging as well since a former best friend, now frenemy, creates new drama. In the middle of all these changes in Sweet Pea’s life, her eccentric neighbor and newspaper advice columnist, Miss Flora Mae, asks Sweet Pea to water the plants and forward the advice column correspondence while Flora Mae’s out of town. Sweet Pea intercepts a few letters and gives some advice of her own.
Despite transitioning to a middle grade book after her
earlier YA novels, Murphy’s writing is confident in both its style and storytelling.
The vocabulary and sentence structure are streamlined for younger readers (but
also kept this big kid reader very entertained). Murphy creates a beautiful
array of characters from Sweet Pea and her classmates to assorted teachers and
parents. My favorite might just be the deliciously eccentric Miss Flora Mae who
keeps her most important documents in the oven and who the local kids suspect
may be a vampire. Murphy perfectly captures the feeling of being caught halfway
between childhood and teenagedom as well as the uncertainty of not knowing how
to move from one stage to the next. Dear Sweet Pea is ideal for fifth to
seventh grade readers (and anyone who remembers what those in-between years
For fans craving the next movie adapted from Julie
Murphy’s work, Disney Channel has your back as they are developing a movie
version of Dear Sweet Pea!
Read if you like: Harriet the Spy by Louise
Fitzhugh as well as Dumplin’ and Puddin’ by Julie Murphy.