I love a good reading challenge! Several weeks ago, fellow ShelfTalker blogger Meghan Goel at BookPeople (in Austin) suggested that all five of us take on Gene Luen Yang’s Reading Without Walls Challenge and blog about it.
I loved the criteria Gene set out to encourage a nation of readers to read outside their comfort zones: to read about characters unlike you, to read about topics you don’t know about, and to read formats you don’t usually read. As a bookseller, it’s kind of my job to read outside my comfort zone; I have to read books across all genres and formats in order to stock the store for all of the readers who walk through the doors, not just readers who share my reading preferences. And as a human being, I’m a fairly curious beast, and open to the unfamiliar. So at first. I wasn’t sure where my areas of reading discomfort lay. But during our five-way email conversation, in which my colleagues identified their own zones of avoidance, I realized of COURSE there are books I avoid. But did they meet Gene Yang’s criteria?
Criterion 1) Read about a character who doesn’t look like you or live like you. This one stumped me at first, since I usually gravitate toward books about characters who don’t look or live like me (exception: books about book lovers!). I’ve always loved to read books set in other countries, and in regions of our country I’ve never experienced. Growing up in the Arizona desert made it pretty hard to find books about kids who lived like me in the first place. I also grew up in the 1970s, when there was a nascent surge of interest in diversity in children’s books, so I benefited from reading many books featuring kids from a variety of backgrounds. Now, as an adult, I still love reading books by and about main characters who represent the much wider world beyond my own narrow corner.
So could I identify books in criterion 1 that I would actively avoid? I realized that “doesn’t look like you or live like you” can also apply to things beyond race, class, ethnicity, identity, and faith. For example, I am not drawn to books about boys and girls who live for team sports. I also don’t have much interest in stories involving lots of war strategy or hunting. And I can’t summon up energy for ‘mean girls’ school stories. So yes, there are definitely books featuring characters I might at first find alien to my usual reading tastes. I can think of exceptions to most of those categories I just named (Whale Talk, Paris Is Burning, Where the Red Fern Grows, and there must be a mean girl story I liked), but by and large they hold true.
Criterion 2) Read a book about a topic you don’t know much about. This is a much easier one! There are so many subjects I don’t know much about. The advanced part of this criterion, I think, is to take on a topic I not only don’t know much about, but think I am not particularly interested in pursuing. Ideally, I’ll leave that topic enlightened and enlivened, and surprised.
Criterion 3) Read a book in a format you don’t usually read for fun. I am agreeable to most formats, but admit that I am less likely to pick up two-color graphic novels (I’m a sucker for full color) and books consisting mainly of texts and emails. Also, nonfiction that is designed to look horribly dull, like something only the meanest teacher in the world would pick up and force on child readers. No matter how great the text is, if the design screams “CHORE!” I do avoid it. And finally, for some reason, though I love graphic novels, I have always been intimidated by manga. It all looks so similar, with the giant eyes and pony tails, and there is just so much of it! It’s hard to know where to begin.
So exploring those three criteria in more depth was eye-opening.
When it came to choosing my first book for this reading challenge, I picked a book that I would initially have skipped past (as a reader, not as a buyer) because its title, Momotaro Xander and the Dream Thief, made it sound like a mainstream fantasy book with high action and low character development. Also, it was the second book in a series where I hadn’t read the first book – usually something that would keep me from starting with that volume. But the cover intrigued me, and the fact that the book has its basis in Japanese legend and folklore definitely fit the Yang criteria for unfamiliar topics. I have read very few books steeped in Japanese mythology, and this fantasy adventure turned out to be lots of fun to read.
The main character is half Japanese, half Irish, and he has magical powers that he is just beginning to learn how to use. Margaret Dilloway, the author, allows her young hero to be flawed, sometimes arrogant, often sarcastic, and — at his worst — intoxicated by his burgeoning power, and shows how he grows in both humility and compassion during his adventures.
This seems like a no-brainer to hand to fans of Percy Jackson. I thought I caught nods to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and David Sedaris in here, as well. Though book 2 stands alone, I suspect that starting with the first book, Momotaro Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters, is the better way to go.
This was a fun first challenge, and I’m looking for my next challenge reads. Anyone want to suggest fantastic youth literature or nonfiction about the topics I avoid? Sports, war strategy, hunting, mean girls, or two-color graphic novels?