My Childless Year

Posted on: 12/29/10

As the end of 2010 looms ahead of us and the dawn of 2011 peeks through the clouds, I’ve decided it’s time to talk about something I have avoided mentioning on this blog all year long. And that is:

For 2010, I did not read any children’s books.

That’s right. No YA. No middle-grade. Nothing. I read only adult fiction and non-fiction.

I realize that saying this is, for some, tantamount to a sort of treason. I imagine cries of “Traitor!” and “Burn him!” in the background. Worse, it smacks of hypocrisy. After all, I write children’s books. Shouldn’t I be reading them, too? Am I one of “those people,” the misbegotten souls who look down their noses at children’s books, sniffing about how they only read “real” books?

No. Not at all.

It’s just that…

My first book was published in 2006. I wrote it in 2004. Since 2004, I have read almost exclusively children’s literature: YA literary novels, teen romance, middle-grade sci-fi, and more.

And make no mistake — I have enjoyed doing so. I absolutely love children’s literature and there is no snobbery whatsoever in my soul towards it.

But…

But I began to miss certain aspects of adult literature. I began to crave the kinds of stories that you just can’t get on a steady diet of children’s literature. I mean, sure, you can read a YA novel about divorce…but it’s not going to give you the perspective of the people getting divorced. It’s going to be — appropriately enough — from the perspective of the kid(s), with maybe a nod toward the parents.

So I felt like those sorts of adult stories and adult perspectives were missing from my reading regimen. But when you write children’s literature and all of your friends and colleagues write, edit, market, sell, and agent children’s literature…

As you can imagine, in those circumstances you read nothing but children’s literature.

So I decided that I would go on a forced fast. I would set a time period for myself and not allow myself any children’s literature during that period. I chose a year because a month seemed too short; it’s too easy to let a month go by with all the crazy business (and busy-ness) of life and not read much. So I picked a year, thinking that this would enable me to read a wide array of books.

I never thought it would be simple. After all, my friends write this stuff. I would be going an entire year where I couldn’t read new books by my friends. An entire year where I would be in the dark when surrounded by my fellow authors talking about the new, cool books.

But I was determined. So at the end of 2009, I read my last YA novel for the next 52 weeks, Libba Bray’s Going Bovine (hey if you’re gonna go on a hunger strike, you want your last meal to be gourmet, am I right?), and then I made a pile of my unread children’s books, tucked it away in a corner, and prepared for 2010.

Now, I need to confess that — despite my best intentions — circumstances conspired to force me to read some children’s books this year. I interviewed Lois Duncan in April, so I had to re-familiarize myself with her work. Three books right there. And in September I moderated a panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival, which meant reading three more YA novels written by the panel participants. But other than those exceptions, I went entirely children’s-less in 2010.

So, what was the upshot? Have I now forsworn YA and middle-grade books? Or have I come to realize that children’s lit is — as so many say — vastly superior to adult literature?

As you might suspect, neither was the case. I still love children’s lit and eagerly look forward to attacking that pile of unread 2010 stuff (Will Grayson, Will Grayson!) in a couple of days. But I can acknowledge that not everything published under the umbrella of children’s literature is perfect; nor is it necessarily better than a book from the adult universe.

And, of course, like children’s lit, adult lit has its good stuff and its not-so-good stuff.

I read a lot of thrillers in 2010, mostly because I was working on my own thriller and I realized it had been literally years since I’d read one. Growing up, I read this genre voraciously, most often Cold War spy novels in which doughty Americans took on evil Soviets or dastardly resurgent Nazis. (In the best books…both!) These were the kinds of novels my father devoured at an insane pace, so his home was always littered with just-read paperbacks that I would snatch up as well. I love a good thriller, so I dived into 2010 ready to be, well, thrilled.

I discovered that a lot of the names at the top of the adult bestseller lists are, sadly, pretty lame. I read some thrillers that bored the hell out of me, others that were rankly obvious from the first chapter, still more that didn’t so much inspire me to turn the pages as merely require me to do so.

But I also discovered some new favorites, authors I will be returning to in the future: Harlan Coben, Joseph Finder, and especially Barry Eisler, all guys who know how to spin an exciting yarn, but never forget the core importance of character. More importantly, they are not afraid to have an opinion and to take a stand in their work.

I also rectified a long-standing error of judgement and finally read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (I know — you’d think that I of all people…), which I thoroughly enjoyed. I inhaled many Vonnegut novels that I’d never gotten around to reading. And I read a slew of nonfiction, including lots of books about forensic science and serial killer pathology (for I Hunt Killers, of course).

All in all, I consider it a successful experiment. While I didn’t enjoy every single book I read, the fact of the matter is that I also don’t enjoy every single YA book I read, either. In 2010, I finally dusted off the “grown-up” part of my reading palette and consumed some new ideas, some new ways of writing, and some new thoughts.

As 2011 looms, I look forward to reading children’s books again (and I have a lot of catching up to do!), but I also plan to strive for more balance in my reading. I think that when writers read nothing but one kind of literature, there’s a danger that they may stagnate. After all, just as “you are what you eat,” so too do “you write what you read.” A children’s writer should no more read exclusively children’s book than a sci-fi writer should read exclusively sci-fi. In order to write better books for kids, I need to be open to a whole range of experiences and expressions. I feel like reading something other than children’s books is now going to be an ongoing part of that for me.

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