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Author Interview: June 2007

JUNE 2007

Nancy Pearl is a librarian, book reviewer and speaker, as well as the bestselling author of BOOK LUST, MORE BOOK LUST and the recently published guide for children's and young adult literature, BOOK CRUSH.

In this interview with Teenreads.com's Krista Vitola, Pearl explains why she chose to focus her latest effort on younger readers and reveals the most challenging and the most rewarding aspects of writing it. She also discusses her personal qualifications of a "classic," describes how her reading habits have grown over the years and reminisces about her own first "book crush."

Teenreads.com: What prompted you to do a book for children and young adults? Was this always in the plans, or did this idea evolve after you had done the other two books?

Nancy Pearl: When I finished MORE BOOK LUST I was thinking about what I might want to do for my next project, and I realized that even though I had included some books for children and teens in both Lust books, there were so many thousands of others that I had read and thoroughly enjoyed and didn’t have room to include. Then at about the same time, a teen librarian came up to me one day and said, “You know, you should write a book describing good books for teens and call it Book Crush.” And Sasquatch Books (the publisher of the first two books) loved the idea, so I started working on it.

TRC: Having written two books for adults --- BOOK LUST and MORE BOOK LUST --- how different was it to write for children and young adults than it was to write for adults? 

NP: It was quite different in a number of ways. Strangely, it was the hardest book to write, but in some ways, the most fun. I discuss this --- the problems and the pleasures of working on this book --- a bit in the introduction, but basically I had a difficult time figuring out the arrangement. My first idea was to have one alphabetical list of (quirky) categories, as I did in the first two books, and then within each category, differentiate among the books for various age groups via different fonts. But, it soon became clear that I was driving myself nuts trying to remember which font was for which age group, and I can only imagine how hard it would have been for readers. So, reluctantly, I divided the book into 3 different age groups --- birth to age 7, 8-12 (middle-grade readers) and teens. But the line between the ages is blurry and porous. I have always felt that one of the things librarians ought to do is broaden a reader’s experience with literature, not narrow it. 

The best part of working on this book (besides the reading) was meeting so many kids and teens all over the country and talking to them about the books they read and loved. I very much wanted this book to be filled with kid- and teen-tested books that I loved, too. (So in that sense, this is the most collaborative book I’ve done.) My first job out of library school was as a Children’s Librarian in the Detroit Public Library system, and I had always kept up with the award winners and well-known titles when my daughters were growing up, but there were a ton of books out there with which I was unfamiliar, and I got some terrific suggestions from the kids and teens I talked to. One example is BLOOD RED HORSE, a great historical novel set during the Crusades of the 11th century.

TRC: Are there fundamental traits you look for when choosing a book to place in one of your book guides, or do they change with each audience you write for? 

NP: In the end, it always came down to my loving the book and wanting to share my pleasure in it with others. In BOOK CRUSH, as I mention above, I felt that it was important to check out my favorites with readers, which I didn’t in the other two. 

TRC: You have a great mix of classics and new works in BOOK CRUSH. Do you prefer one over the other? Do you see older titles as being more valuable than newer published works?

NP: I don’t think that older titles are more valuable than newer published works, but I don’t want them forgotten in this constant rush our society has to embrace the new at the expense of the old. Any book someone hasn’t read is a new book to them. We talk so much about the current crop of titles that we often lose sight of the fact that there are so many wonderful books that were published 10, 20, even 50 or 100 years ago. This is as true for adult books as it is for children’s books. 

TRC: To you, what makes a book a classic?

NP: First, I guess I should say that I believe that any book you like is a good book. Despite (or maybe because of) being an English major in college, I have a hard time with the notion of a literary canon. In my books, I’m not casting my recommendations in terms of these being the best books, but rather being books that I’ve enjoyed and think others might as well. 

I think that readers of every age enter the world of any particular book through one of four doorways --- story, character, setting and language. These doorways vary in size from book to book. In some books, like THE DA VINCI CODE, the size of one doorway completely dwarfs the others, so that 99.9% of the people who read and enjoyed that book entered through the doorway marked “story.” Compare that to a book like Larry McMurtry’s LONESOME DOVE, in which lots of the readers entered through “story,” while others entered through “character,” and many through the doorway marked “setting.” Using this metaphor, a book that has three or all four doorways of a very similar size tends to be one that lasts from generation to generation, which I guess is as good a definition of a classic as any other. Children’s books almost always have “story” as the biggest doorway, but the very best of them (the Harry Potter books, for example) have at least one and probably two other largish doorways.

TRC: Do you believe children --- and teens --- should have more of a choice in what they read for school assignments (such as summer reading and book reports)?

NP: On the whole, I think yes, we should give children and teens more of a choice for summer reading and book reports. Why does anyone need to read MOBY DICK during the summer before their senior year in high school? I’ve always wondered if anyone ever reads it then (I certainly didn’t). Or why have an assignment of reading only books that won the Newbery Award? Telling someone they have to read Esther Forbes’s JOHNNY TREMAIN (one of my favorite historical novels) and do a book report on it for a Revolutionary War assignment seems silly, when there are so many other good books --- even great books --- out there, like the Collier brothers’ MY BROTHER SAM IS DEAD. Give them choices within parameters. 

TRC: What was your very first “book crush”?

NP: Oh gosh, this is the hardest question, right up there with what 10 books would I take to a desert island. A book that had a huge influence on me, both in directing my reading for years and for the message I took from it, was Robert Heinlein’s SPACE CADET. I think I became a science fiction fan solely because of that book. But I also loved the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace, and so many others.

TRC: Whenever we have seen you speak, you have a marvelous recollection of details of books. Do you remember details of movies or music this well, or is this "memory power" only with books? While we are on it, can you remember a grocery list as well as your favorite quotes?

NP: I somehow have a very good memory for books, but it’s about the only area of my life where my memory shines --- I don’t remember movies or anything else particularly well. As for grocery lists, forget it! 

TRC: In 1998 you developed the program “If All of Seattle Read the Same Book,” which has since spread across the country. Talk about the “One City, One Book” concept and the feedback you’ve received from readers who have participated in these programs.

NP: I had three goals for this program when we began it: to build a community of readers, to introduce readers to books and authors they might not ordinarily read, and to get people together to discuss important issues via a book. We weren’t interested in choosing bestsellers or classics, or bringing major authors to Seattle. Our focus was always on whether or not the book made for a good discussion. I think the widespread and enduring popularity of the program is due to the fact that it’s infinitely flexible. Every library or sponsoring group begins with that core idea of building a community of readers, and then adapts it to the needs and desires of their particular community. I love the range of books that are chosen (although occasionally they’re not books I would have selected) and am always blown away by the associated programming that goes along with it. 

TRC: Would you like to see a cross-country program implemented the same way for children and teens? If so, what are the obstacles in making this happen?

NP: Well, the NEA is doing what they call “The Big Read” for adults. Maybe they should do the same sort of thing for children and teens. The hardest part in this project is choosing the book, and that’s true for every age group.

TRC: In what ways can parents help their kids get excited about reading books? 

NP: First, introduce kids and teens to books that match their interest. One of the big changes in the world of children’s books is the proliferation of nonfiction --- good and great nonfiction on a huge variety of topics --- that can’t help but tempt a kid to read. For example, I think young computer fans may well enjoy Terry Pratchett’s ONLY YOU CAN SAVE MANKIND, the story of a boy who, in the midst of playing a computer war game, gets a message from aliens that they need his help --- to save mankind.

Second, set up a family reading time in your house --- a half hour, say, when everyone in the family sits down together and reads. Some nights each person might read their own book, or newspaper, and other nights the family can take turns reading a book aloud that the whole family can enjoy.

Third, don’t use reading as a punishment --- that is, I hear even the most well-meaning parents say things like “You can’t play on the computer any more today until you finish your book,” or something similar. Reading should be pure pleasure and not something that you HAVE to do before you can do what you really want to do. 

Fourth, encourage kids and teens not to feel they have to finish books they’re not enjoying (unless it’s a school assignment). If they’re bored or fed up with one book, help them find others to try (or try your local librarian, or indie bookseller)....

TRC: In your years as a librarian, what are some innovative ways that your library got kids reading?

NP: I think that in general, libraries and librarians do a terrific job getting kids to read. Three good ways (although none of the three is particularly innovative by any means) are storytelling, book discussion groups, and doing book talks. My experience has always been that if I do a good job booktalking a particular book, that’s the book that kids (or adults) will want to read. Frequently, book discussion groups for kids and teens will get them interested in reading more, or reading the book under discussion, even if they didn’t read it before the meeting. And, storytelling is a perfect way to lead kids into a particular culture’s folkways and the creative use of language.

TRC: How do you think children and teens can empower their friends to read? 

NP: Enthusiasm goes a long, long way. (This is also true of adults trying to get their kids to read.) There needs to be a lot more of teen-to-teen sharing of good books. When I hear teens talking about their favorite books to friends, you can just see the interest among them growing.

TRC: What is your favorite genre of literature?

NP: Quite honestly, I don’t have a favorite. I’ll read anything --- mainstream fiction, nonfiction, science fiction, mysteries, romance --- as long as it’s well written and has interesting, three-dimensional characters.

TRC: Has your taste in books changed over the years? If so, in what ways?

NP: I’ve become much more of a nonfiction reader since 9/11. Somehow, after I watched the destruction of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, I wasn’t interested in reading fiction --- too much emotional hurly burly, somehow. I wanted, as Jack Webb used to say on "Dragnet," “just the facts.” And not just facts about the terrorist attacks, but facts about anything and everything --- the history of “zero,” or the Indian Mutiny in the 19th century, or the history of Spain. Many of the nonfiction books I included in BOOK LUST and >MORE BOOK LUST I read during that period. I’ve gradually gone back to reading fiction again, and these days I’m interested in the blurring of fantasy and reality, in books like A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DEAD by Kevin Brockmeier, Michael Chabon’s THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN'S UNION, James Hynes’s KINGS OF INFINITE SPACE, or Kelly Link’s really fabulous collection of stories, MAGIC FOR BEGINNERS (if you’re only going to read one, read the title story).

TRC: When you’re reading, do you write in the margins of your books, or for you, as a librarian, is writing in books forbidden?

NP: No, I don’t write in the margins, mainly because I usually read library books! But, when I’m reading galleys or advance reading copies, I do tear out pages as I go along, or particular pages that I want to copy into my notebook because I love them so much.

TRC: What are you working on now? Are there plans for other titles in what we have come to think of as the Book Lustseries?

NP: Right now I’m just trying to catch up on all the books stacked in every available space in my small apartment. And I’m concentrating on writing Pearl’s Picks, which is a subscription service for libraries and others that brings 12 good reads a month to a library’s website. It’s available exclusively through NoveList, which is part of EBSCO.