Today’s guest takes her role as “neighborhood library curator” seriously. In addition to selecting books for her own reading life, Sara Jones carefully curates her Little Free Library collection to reflect the reading tastes and needs of her community in Spokane, Washington. She likes to feature a healthy mix of books for kids and adults, and she’s always on the lookout for fiction that her neighbors will find irresistible as they’re walking by.
Today, I get to help Sara stock her Little Free Library with crowd-pleasing books her neighbors will love, from charming picture books to unputdownable contemporary fiction. Plus, if you’ve ever strolled by a Little Free Library and wondered how it works or how to start your own, this episode is for you.
Let’s get to it!
SARA: Part of the reason I think it took me so long to acquire one is ‘cause I was intimidated by how cute they usually are. [BOTH LAUGH]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 260.
Welcome to the show that’s dedicated to answering the question that plagues every reader: What should I read next?
We don’t get bossy on this show: What we WILL do here is give you the information you need to choose your next read. Every week we’ll talk all things books and reading, and do a little literary matchmaking with one guest.
Readers, if you’re looking for the perfect bookish stocking stuffer, teacher gift, or easy to mail present, you can’t go wrong with a copy of my book, I’d Rather Be Reading: the Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life. This collection of essays celebrates the simple yet profound pleasures of being a reader, like reading under the covers with a flashlight, organizing your bookshelves, and finding your book people. Send a little love to the devoted reader in your life with this purposefully giftable essay collection. I’d Rather Be Reading is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or in an independent bookstore near you.
Readers, it’s also that time of year of the Goodreads Choice Award, and I’m thrilled that my book Don’t Overthink It is in the final round along with so many other great books that we’ve recommended and authors that we’ve gotten to talk to here on What Should I Read Next and in Modern Mrs. Darcy book club. If you haven’t yet, voting in awards like these is such an easy way, and it’s free and it’s fast for you to support the authors you love in a way that really does get the word out about their books. If you haven’t yet, please pop over to Goodreads and vote for your favorites in the final round. Voting ends November 30th. Thank you.
Today’s guest takes her role as “neighborhood library curator” seriously. In addition to selecting books for her own reading life, Sara Jones carefully curates her Little Free Library collection to reflect the reading tastes and needs of her community in Spokane, Washington. She likes to feature a healthy mix of books for kids and adults, and she’s always on the lookout for fiction that her neighbors will find irresistible as they’re walking by.
Today, I get to help Sara stock her Little Free Library with crowd pleasing books her neighbors will love, from charming picture books to unputdownable contemporary fiction. Plus, if you’ve ever strolled by a Little Free Library and wondered how it works, or how to start your own, this episode is for you, readers.
Let’s get to it.
Sara, welcome to the show.
SARA: Thank you so much. I’m excited to be here.
ANNE: Well I’m excited to talk to you about a topic that we have tangentially addressed on What Should I Read Next but have never focused on to the extent that I hope we can do today.
SARA: Yes, I’m excited.
ANNE: Well, we were really excited to get your submission here at What Should I Read Next HQ. When you said that you had a little free library that you steward and you would like my help in figuring out what your neighborhood readers may enjoy reading next.
SARA: Yes, I have discovered … I’ve had my library for about two years and I have discovered that it actually sorta has its own personality in terms of books that get taken very quickly out of there, and then books that will never be touched. So it’s like its own little person. It has its own opinions.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] I can’t wait to hear more about that. Now many readers even if they don’t have the pleasure of having these in their neighborhood or they’ve stumbled upon them on their travels, I’ve seen them probably on Instagram. So Sara, what is a little free library for those of us who don’t know?
SARA: I actually live in a neighborhood with many of these. A little free library is something that an individual will put in front of their house, they often look like oversized birdhouses is what I think they look like. They’re on a post and the idea of them is that you, meaning anybody in the community, can take a book out of it that is interesting to you. And when you’re done with the books, you can also bring them back to the library. So in a way, it’s like a community library book swap. I’ve been surprised how many people I have to tell, like, no, you can actually just take the book. It’s not stealing. I’m not … You know, peering from my window and wondering [ANNE LAUGHS] what you’re taking from me. And then if you have a book that you’re done with, bring it back to the library for somebody else to use.
ANNE: And every library has a steward, whether it’s in a public location or in somebody’s front yard, there is somebody whose responsibility it is to keep that thing in good shape. So what made you think that you wanted to do this, and that you wanted to be a steward?
SARA: Well as been said on your podcast a million times, I am a lifelong reader. I think anybody that reads a lot acquires an embarrassing number of books, and so I remember the first time I saw one of these and just thought it was such a good idea. You know because honestly, I acquire books that I don’t really need to keep. They’re probably a one and done, I’m not going to reread them. They’re even not all that pretty on my shelf, so I thought what a great idea. But my husband and I are not handy people. He will hear this and object to that comment I’m sure. [BOTH LAUGHS]
ANNE: It’ll be too late then.
SARA: [LAUGHS] But we kept talking about how maybe we could build one. ‘Cause in theory it’s not that hard, you could make them anything you want. There’s a cute little library not far from me that actually looks like a lighthouse and it has a little bench attached to it. I mean, you can do them anyway you want. I’ve finally decided, I will never do it myself, and so two years ago on Mother’s Day, I was gifted permission to move forward and get a library built for us. Here in the city I lived in Washington, there is a gal and she goes by the Little Library Builder of Spokane. This is what she does, as a job, as a hobby. She builds little free libraries for people. So I got a hold of her and began the process of acquiring my own.
ANNE: So you mentioned the first time you saw a little free library, do you remember where that was?
SARA: You know I was actually trying to think about that in preparation for this. I think it was in the town I grew up in which is about three hours away out on a walk, but I was an adult. I think I was an adult the first time I saw them. Probably just ten years ago.
ANNE: I do remember the first time I saw one. I had heard about them ‘cause readers told me and I’d seen adorable pictures on the Internet of the ones that look like British phone booths and the Doctor Who box, and I obviously don’t watch the show or I would know what to call it. [SARA LAUGHS] The lighthouses, the ones carved into trees, which is just so stinking adorable but the first one I actually saw was in Pensacola, Florida, and it was decorated with tennis rackets and it was filled with mystery novels. It was fun.
SARA: Oh, it had a theme. Yes, and I will say that part of the reason I think it took me so long to acquire one is because I was intimidated by how cute they usually are. [ANNE LAUGHS] And I was like that’s not me. I’m not a Pinterest girl. So I was really afraid that just aesthetically it just wasn’t going to be up to par.
ANNE: Yeah. Listeners, if you think you want to do this, we’ll put the link to the little free library people in show notes. You just buy a basic model. I mean, you can make one yourself or you can just buy a basic model. It does not have to match your house, but Sara, yours does. Tell us about what it looks like.
SARA: The woman in town who does these specializes in what she calls the mini me. The mini me replicates the look of your own home. So the process was actually very fun. I sent her multiple pictures of our house. She even had me take close up photos of the brick work and then she sent me probably four different digital markups. We talked about what we wanted it to look like, finally settled on the design. It turned out so cute. She uses 3D printers for some of the more complicated details on the house. She hand painted the brick trim. When this thing arrived, I mean, it was Christmas. I might have … Well, I did. I shed a small tear. [ANNE LAUGHS] I was so excited. It looked so cute.
ANNE: I’m so happy to hear it. And we have pictures in the show notes so y’all can check that out. So you indicated that you’ve told people “no it’s not stealing, take the book” which means I imagine you’re having conversations with neighbors about what’s in your little free library.
SARA: Yes. I have, and it’s fun because I absolutely see some of the same faces. I have a couple of physical neighbors who actually use it quite a bit. Mostly their kids. And so I’ve had a conversation with the little boy across the street where he said, you know, you need more dinosaur books. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: That’s precious.
SARA: So I’ve had conversations like that. I’ve had walkers walk by and kinda stop and look. And if I’m out outside and it doesn’t seem too creepy, I will say hello, thank you for using the library. And then that’s when I’ve been able to tell people ‘cause many people actually don’t know how they work. So I’ve been able to tell people, no even if you don’t have a book right now, go ahead and take it one and at a later date if you want to drop something off, you can, but you don’t even have to do that. And then I’ve had people that once they know how to use it then they become regulars.
I hear mostly from kids, you know, kids, God bless them, don’t have much of a filter. So like I’ve said, I had a little guy tell me specifically what I need in there. [BOTH LAUGH] I had another girl tell me that she likes my library because there are kids books in it. I pretty intentionally curate my library. It’s kinda a habit. My library is half kids books and half adult books and I do that intentionally. If it gets off balance, I take books out and stock it different ways. I really do try to keep good picture books and middle grade books and activity books for kids in there as well because even as I travel about, most of the little libraries in my area are pretty much catered to adults.
ANNE: Sara, where do you get the books that you stock your little free library with? I mean I was nodding along when you said you have a ton of books around and you thought this would be a really fun way to share the book love, so that was the origin story, but two years in, what does it look like now?
SARA: Well, as I like to say, my little free library is free to others and not free to me. [ANNE LAUGHS] Because I do actually buy books for my library. Not all the time, but I’m kinda picky about what I want in there. I mean, I think if anybody has experienced these little free libraries, absolutely I have happened upon the library that just …. it hasn’t been touched in 20 years. You know, it’s full of dusty old books that nobody wants to read. It kinda loses its purpose at that point.
So when I start to feel like I don’t have enough of my own back supply of good books for the library, I do a couple of things. I send out a text to all my reader friends and say hey, anybody cleaning out some books? So I definitely have gotten books that way. I buy them at library sales. I buy them at Goodwill. I buy them at other thrift shops. Just to make sure that I have what I want for them, which has totally turned me into a different kind of book hoarder, like, I’m good about cleaning out my own personal collection, but now I just have two crammed bookshelves in my basement full of books that are just specifically for my library.
ANNE: And so it sounds like that way you have books on hand to always curate the right mix for the front yard. I know this varies depending on the actual books. But about how many titles does it hold?
SARA: You know, I went out and took a look. If you are thinking because you know kids books are so much thinner, if you were going to put standard sorta adult size novels out there, it probably holds 20 to 25. So it’s not very big, which is also why I’m particular ‘cause you know, you get four duds in there and now 25% of your library is boring.
ANNE: I really think that’s one of the little free library strengths is that you can look at it real quick, you know, speeding by or walking the dog depending. It’s not a huge investment time, and so it’s really easy to just see everything that’s there. A well-curated library is so easy to browse really quickly and that’s one of the things I think is so delightful about it. It’s fun, it’s easy, it’s instant gratification.
SARA: And actually, when I was first getting mine made, it is sorta small and my husband asked me, like, are you sure you want it that small? But I really liked the size. It keeps it easy to look through and I am just picky about what goes in there. You know, it’s a personal affront to me if I see somebody come to the library and not take a book. [ANNE LAUGHS] Like I’m out there scouring and thinking I wonder what their taste is, I wonder what they’d prefer to have out here.
ANNE: Oh, so you take your role as neighborhood book pusher very seriously.
SARA: Much too seriously, yes.
ANNE: I don’t know, I’d love to have you as a neighbor, Sara.
SARA: [LAUGHS] Oh, well, I think it had hit new heights when I got my children a Literati subscription during quarantine because books have just been harder to come by. They would look through it and only want one book, and I’d be like perfect. The other four go in the library.
ANNE: Sara, to those who say, like really, you buy books to donate to strangers? Why? Talk to me about that.
SARA: I love to read so much. I mean, I think anybody that enjoys reading knows that putting a book that you loved into somebody else’s hands is fun. So that’s part of it. You know, just, there are books out there that I’m getting rid of not because I didn’t like them but because I really liked them and I want somebody else to pick them up and enjoy them. And especially in my library with the number of kids that there are, I would like to think that maybe somebody has picked up a book and spent a little time reading instead of playing a video game. And hear me, my kids play video games. I’m not being too precious about that, but it’s really because it’s fun for me to read and I would love to see other people enjoy the experience too.
ANNE: Also I can’t help but notice but when we had Anna LeBaron on the podcast back in February 2019, she talked about how she bought books but she didn’t read them. She read some of them but she didn’t consistently read them all, but then she realized you know what? I am supporting literature. I am a patron of the arts. I am circulating books and voting with my dollars and contributing like, putting something I love out into the world just that much more. And it brings her joy. It sounds like your little library truly brings you joy.
SARA: Well and I can really relate to what she’s saying because during the last couple of months, we have an independent bookstore here in town. I intentionally was just ordering books from because I love them and I want them to survive. Paying a lot more for hardbacks than I would have than feeling like I”m supporting my bookstore and then I get to put it into my library when I’m done and somebody else gets to enjoy it.
ANNE: Sara, I’m wondering if this new philosophy to passing books that you’ve read onto your neighbors has changed the way that you approach your own reading life.
SARA: You know, I still read the books I still want to read. But I will say as I’m reading them, I will think far more often, like, oh, this one would have mass appeal. And that’s sorta what I’m looking for with my library, is just something that is contemporary. It’s currently circulating and that a number of people would enjoy. So while I’m still picking the same books for myself, I’ll definitely read books and think oh, I can’t wait to put this one out here, somebody’s going to love this. Then I’ve read other books and I’m like ugh. That one was a little dark. We don’t need dark. I’m going to keep that one inside.
ANNE: Sara, you said that your library has a personality and to dig into that what we decided to do is share three books or three authors that consistently get yanked from the shelves right away from your little free library, and then you also have a book orI think it might be a category of books that sits, and sits, and sits, and sits.
SARA: Yes. Exactly.
ANNE: And based on those loves and the complete disinterest, we will figure out how to stock your little free library with the books that your neighbors may enjoy reading next.
SARA: Oh, I’m so excited.
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ANNE: How did you choose these books?
SARA: I actually tried to pick for the three books that my library seems to love or the patrons of my library seem to love. I tried to pick one book from each of three categories. So I actually put in a picture book, I put in a middle grade book, and I put in an adult book/author. Just sorta as representations of books that seem to be really popular and go quickly. For the books that my library does not seem to like or the community members don’t enjoy as much, I kinda went with the whole genre, which is sorta sad, but true.
ANNE: This is the information we need. [SARA LAUGHS] And you know what, a book can be great and still not be great for a little free library, especially in a hyper specific location like yours is. So we just want the facts, Sara.
SARA: For the picture book that flew right out there, I put The Day The Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt, a representation of a book that is going to fly out of there. It was hardback, funny, it’s recognizable. A lot of people have heard of that book, and I think that one was gone within three hours.
ANNE: Oh gosh.
SARA: Any picture book that is recognizable to a kid or they’ve seen a friend in school reading it, hardbacks. If it’s in hardback, it’s gone. I think it just feels a little more special to people. So that is an example of a kids book that was gone very quickly.
ANNE: And it’s fun, it’s bright, it’s cheerful.
SARA: Yes, exactly.
ANNE: Okay, so we’re looking to pair the thrill of the discovery with the thrill of recognition.
SARA: I think you hit the nail on the head with that. It’s kinda the combination of the two that gets kids excited.
ANNE: Okay. What’s another category of books that’s real popular in your library?
SARA: Middle grade. I can’t keep middle grade books in there. I just think that a good middle grade book has an appeal beyond 8-12. They’re just a little harder to come by in little libraries and so Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson flew out of there. Graphic novels in general are gone very quickly. The Spy School series by Stuart Gibbs. I mean, I think I could put those books out every day and I think every day somebody would take them.
Roller Girl is a graphic novel and I’m going to be completely honest, my 10 and 12 year olds are the ones who tell me most often these ones are good for the library. My 10 year old daughter had read Roller Girl probably five times and I found a copy at a library sale and she was like yes, you have to put that one in. So that one went in, and then Spy School is a series. There’s actually several Spy School books about a student who is contacted by the FBI or the CIA that he is now going to become a spy operative. Once again in my own home those books have been so popular. They never last more than a day or two out in the library.
ANNE: I love that your own kids are having input into the library as well.
SARA: Oh, lots of middle grade input is coming from my own house, and I’ve gotten in trouble before for taking a book out of our house and putting in the library, and my daughter will be like I was not done with that book yet.
ANNE: Was it too late?
SARA: Only once. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: What was the book?
SARA: It was Framed! The book Framed!
ANNE: Oh, by James Ponti.
SARA: Yes. She loves his books.
ANNE: Something I love that you’re doing for your community by sharing these middle grade reads is anyone who has middle grade readers in their life knows that it can be difficult to find the right books for the kid, and then they sit down and they read it in two hours. By helping readers find something they may enjoy and also Victoria Jamieson, Stuart Gibbs, some of the authors I imagine we’re going to talk about later, have multiple books out or many books in a series, so you’re helping them not just find a book, but find a new author and a new reading pathway.
SARA: Oh, yes, and I so appreciate the comment that they fly through them because a ten year old in particular, if the book is good, it’s done in a day. I mean, she just sits and doesn’t move until she finishes it, so you’re like, well that was kinda an expensive afternoon, but worth it. But worth it. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: That’s relatable. Tell me about another category that’s popular in your library.
SARA: For adults, it really is contemporary, visible fiction. And so I actually put an author, anything by JoJo Moyes, and I just feel like she represents a little bit of what the casual person that stops by a library is looking for. I’ve had two of her books that came to mind out there. I’ve had After You and The Girl You Left Behind are both books that have been in there and left very quickly, and I just think she represents, you know, the walker that’s going past is looking for, right? They recognize her books, they’ve probably seen them on the shelves nearly at any store in town. Yet she’s also not incredibly heavy. I don’t know that most people as they’re strolling past are looking for War & Peace.
ANNE: So books that they’ve seen at the library, at the local bookstore, I imagine like books that they’ve heard about on NPR that kind of thing.
SARA: Any book that has been circulated whether it’s Reese Witherspoon’s book club or you know things that are popular. I mean, that’s what I’m looking for when I stop at a library.
ANNE: Yeah. And I’m thinking about the specific style and tone. Like I know JoJo Moyes describes her own writing as heartfelt and emotional. I think she says that she really hopes that it reads as intelligent to the readers. She wants complex characters. She leaves some things to the readers’ imagination as far as working out what’s going on in the story. We’ll keep that in mind.
SARA: Another book that flew right out of there was The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. This is a personal favorite of mine. The Boys in the Boat is narrative nonfiction actually set in the pacific northwest, which is the part of the world I am in. It is about … Oh, I’m going to forget the year... a 1920s crew team from the University of Washington that took gold in the Olympics. So it’s a true story. The writing is fantastic. It’s got real local appeal because so many of the places as I was reading it, I’ve lived there, visited these places. When I put a second copy, ‘cause I didn’t get rid of my own personal copy of that book, that one was gone within a day or two.
ANNE: That’s so good to hear, and I imagine it’s profoundly gratifying to see a book that you loved just fly off the shelves.
SARA: It is, and it’s also not gratifying when there’s books out there that I love that no one will take.
ANNE: [GASPS] Oh no. [SARA LAUGHS] Like? Give me an example.
SARA: I put The History of Love out there by Nicole Krauss and I loved that book and it sat and it sat and I had rotated other books through and I was just not going to take that book out. I’m like no, this is a good book. Somebody will pick this up. And the other one was The River by Peter Heller. That one sat for a long time too and I started to think I was going to have to do what little bookstores do where they give staff recommendations.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] You were going to have to hand sell it.
SARA: I was going to have to hand sell it.
ANNE: But then your heroic reader arrived and swooped it up?
SARA: They both disappeared, and I never saw who took them. But I was just glad that somebody in the world was enjoying them.
ANNE: Somebody in the world … I’m sure that a bunch of people right now went [GASP] I love that book.
SARA: I do love both those books.
ANNE: So you said that the books that have been extraordinary popular with your readers are The Day the Crayons Quit, a picture book by Drew Daywalt, Roller Girl, a middle school graphic novel by Victoria Jamieson, also The Spy School series by Stuart Gibbs, and anything by JoJo Moyes and Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, that’s narrative nonfiction. Now give me an example of something that has not proven to be the right fit for your little free library users.
SARA: Basically an entire genre of books called, sadly, classics. I personally do enjoy many classic books. I have attempted numerous times to put classics out there. Both ones geared towards adults and more towards children, and they sit, and they sit, and they sit. I mean, some of them aren’t a surprise, you know, The Portrait of Dorian Gray that I tried to put out there. Well, I don’t know if I would have picked it up either. It didn’t look that appealing.
I’ve tried to put out Little Women. I’ve attempted to put out To Kill a Mockingbird, which I feel like has a greater appeal, and they just don’t go. And I really think it’s because when people stop at a little free library, it’s often a spontaneous thing. I mean, sometimes people make a special trip. They do, but often you’re just in the neighborhood, you’re walking through, and I think in general the classics are kinda intimidating. It’s just not what somebody is spontaneously picking up on their casual walk through the neighborhood.
ANNE: So you never see The Picture of Dorian Gray in the little free library and go ah! I just heard about that on the radio. I just saw that on my Instagram account. That’s what I’m in the mood for right now. You’re saying that for most readers, you think that’s more a deliberate choice and not something they trip upon on a neighborhood walk.
SARA: 100%. That’s probably something they’re having to read for a class, not because it’s quarantined and that’s the only thing they wanted to read.
ANNE: So classics don’t move in your library. We’re going to accept that and work with it. So what are you looking for? What are your priorities as we stock this thing up?
SARA: Oh, I’m so excited. I would love a couple recommendations in the different categories that I mentioned. You know, so possibly one more geared toward small children, maybe a middle grade one, an adult one. A category that I almost never put out there mostly because I’m just not familiar with it is YA. I don’t read YA typically. I do have a 16 year old. She’s probably the most reluctant reader in my house and so she’s not giving me good advice in that genre, so a YA recommendation would be really fun because that’s something that I don’t typically have out there.
ANNE: All right. I’m so excited. We can work with this. Are you ready?
SARA: Oh, I am.
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ANNE: So we are looking for a picture book, well, you said a couple. Can we go with a couple?
SARA: You just recommend as much as you want.
ANNE: A middle grade novel, YA, which is a weak point you feel like in your own reading expertise.
ANNE: And then for grownups. That’s going to be tricky because I feel like you could recommend so much that would be so appreciative, but we’ll get there when we get there. Okay, let’s start with the picture books and work our way up. How does that sound?
SARA: That sounds great.
ANNE: So you said The Day the Crayons Quit was really popular and I’ve been thinking about, well, what does that, why specifically might that be so popular? And I’m thinking that when we stock your little free library, you said hardcovers are really appreciated, that they are snatched up really quickly. I’m also thinking that for any kind of book that someone in your neighborhood would want to bring into their home, particularly for a picture book you want it to be something that can stand up to being read over and over and over again. So this is what I’m thinking of, how does that sound?
SARA: That sounds excellent.
ANNE: I’ve got a couple of ideas. The first is one that’s now available as a hardcover or as a board book, also small, durable, might take up a little more space in the little free library. I don’t know if board books have been in there before and how those have gone over with your neighborhood readers.
SARA: I definitely have had board books in there. I don’t get a ton of them, but when I have them, I put them out there, and they usually go. They do. It might not be right away, but they’re almost always taken eventually.
ANNE: So the book I have in mind is Press Here by Hervé Tule. Is this one you know?
SARA: I think I’ve seen it but I’m not familiar with it.
ANNE: It has a big, yellow dot on the cover, but this is an interactive picture book. It’s not like scratch and sniff or one of those ones where you’re like pat the puppy’s soft fur. It’s not like that. But it is a book that talks directly to the reader that kinda breaks the fourth wall, like a book that I loved like this as a kid was The Monster at the End of this Book with Grover from Sesame Street.
SARA: I loved that book.
ANNE: Or it almost reminds me of well this would be for an older audience, The Book With No Pictures the book by B.J. Novak, but it also talks directly to the reader and is a lot of fun. Press Here is a picture book and it tells kids what to do. Beginning with the title, Press Here, kids are told to press this, press the yellow dot, try shaking the book. Now turn it sideways, and as you turn the pages, the book seems to respond because the child sees the results of their seeming you know actions when they’re told to do what to do on the next page. So they might make all the dots fall so it seems to the margins, they turn out the lights, they make the dots get bigger, they make them a bit smaller again, and then the final prompt is wanna do it all over again? And then you go back to the beginning. So I think this is tons of fun for so many readers. The recommended age range is four, but I’m sure you can read this younger, and it’s one you can certainly read over and over and over again.
SARA: Wonderful. We have a neighbor with a three year old, and I’m going to be tempted to just walk it across the street and hand it to her. [BOTH LAUGHS]
ANNE: Before … It won’t even be there three hours.
ANNE: There are lots of other fun picks. Two I have in mind that you can really enjoy anytime but feel especially nice for fall, it’s called Last Stop on Market Street. A newer … This is about five years old … by Matt de la Peña that’s illustrated by Christian Robinson, and what I like about this for you is it’s hardcover. And even if adults, because it’s adults picking out the picture books, even if they don’t recognize the title, they’ll see the Newberry medal on the front real big and I know that many parents see that Newberry, or that Caldecott, and they’re like yup, this is coming with me. When you don’t know what to get at the library, that’s often what you go straight for, and I don’t think that your library would be an exception. So ... it also won the Coretta Scott King, an Caldecott honor, this is one of the few books that I think librarians jokingly call a Caldeberry yet, like no book has won both awards and that wasn’t even possibly to do so until sometime in the ‘70s I think, but it was a Newberry medal winner and a Caldecott honor book which is super impressive.
ANNE: This book is a collaboration between the writer and the illustrator. It was conceived by both of them jointly, it was not one of the books that was written and then they went shopping for the illustrator. The five year old reading the book will not care, but the adult might. The two artists had not worked together, but they did share an agent, so the agent sent one of Robinson’s drawings to de la Peña and it was an illustration of a kid on the bus with his grandma. And de la Peña said it hit home for me because my grandmother was such a huge figure in my life, in my family, and it got him thinking, and the result is this story about a young boy on the bus with his grandmother encountering a variety of passengers.
This kid really wishes that they weren’t on the bus. He wants to ride in a car, so his nana takes pains to point out why riding the bus is so much better. She says, boy, why do we need a car for? You’ve got a bus that breathes fire [SARA LAUGHS] and old Mr. Dennis who always has a trick for you. So on the bus they encounter all kinds of people from their neighborhood, which actually sounds really good considering this is a book going in your neighborhood. But there are teens listening to music and CJ wants to know why the blind man on the bus can’t see. There’s the friendly bus driver who greets them every day, and they’re going places in their community. Like I think they’re on the way to the soup kitchen, and of course CJ’s really glad that they arrive, and he sees all the familiar people from his neighborhood, ‘cause that’s where they go every Sunday.
And Nana definitely has like, look on the bright side of life, she says sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful, like it’s a really positive, really empathetic book and also I’m glad to hear this is so important to so many readers right now. It’s a diverse book, like this is a book that has an African American boy and his grandmother riding on what is obviously a community filled with all kinds of different people. I hope people in your neighborhood will appreciate that as well. So that was The Last Stop on Market Street, and then another one that could be especially fun for fall is Sophie’s Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller, illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf.
SARA: Oh, I don’t know this one.
ANNE: Oh, I’m so glad. Well this is also hardcover. It’s a story about a girl who you know, some people have a doll or a security blanket or a favorite action figure, and her parents take her to the farmer’s market and she chooses a squash. [SARA LAUGHS] Her parents had planned to buy it for dinner, but she has other ideas. It’s a butternut squash. Just so you can get a visual on this. She bounces it on her knee like a baby, she takes it to the library, she plays with it outside. Her mom says, let’s bake it with marshmallows, and she says don’t listen! Actually what she says is don’t listen, Bernice! Because she calls it Bernice. She tells it I’m glad we met. Good friends are so hard to find. And when Sophie tells her mother like, I named my squash. Her name’s Bernice. Her mom says, I’ll call for a pizza. And it’s just sweet and precious and great for fall.
SARA: Oh, I really love the sound of that one. Those are things that I grow in my garden and it just sounds light and fun. Delightful.
ANNE: I am so glad to hear it. Okay, next we’re going to do middle grade.
SARA: Oh, I’m excited.
ANNE: In my seat as literary matchmaker, I always draw on my experience talking to all kinds of readers and booksellers and publishing people and sometimes I draw on my own kids’ experience because they’re readers too, and so for middle grade, the book I have in mind — we’re going to talk about several — but the book I have in mind, bright shining lights, is New Kid by Jerry Craft.
SARA: I don’t know this one.
ANNE: Oh, I’m so glad. I mean, the thrill of discovery and I know you’re not going to pass it by in the little free library because you don’t know it yet. This is the 2019 Newberry Medal winner. It also won the Coretta Scott King award, and the reason I like this is because, and listening to my middle grade reader son’s friends, my middle grade reader daughter’s friends, everybody loved this book. This is a graphic novel which you know to go over well with your audience. Also a graphic novel that for many readers, they finish it in an afternoon and then the parent or the child has to figure out what to read next.
SARA: Well I did say that I love graphic novels for my library.
ANNE: In this book Jordan Banks is the new kid. He is a seventh grader. He is switching schools in middle school, middle school is hard enough, then he has to switch not just to a new him to school, but a private middle school. He doesn’t feel like the other kids are like him. He’s also one of the few Black kids there and that is hard. He also has a dream that’s unusual. He wants to go to art school. He loves art and that’s important to the way that this book unfolds.
So he’s at Riverdale Academy Day School which he thinks sounds kinda pretentious. It’s okay. The kids are fine, mostly. Mostly. That’s important. But he can’t help noticing that this is not his world and it doesn’t quite feel like he belongs and the other kids don’t quite understand him and the teachers don’t exactly seem welcoming. This is a story of a kid trying to survive middle school which everybody knows is not easy. Just day by day. And as a reader, you’re just right there with him surviving there alongside him, you know really for empathizing what he’s going through, ‘cause most kids have been to school and have it not go great at least some of the time. It’s really empathetic about serious, real kid, real life issues in a way that’s so relatable and also smart with just the right amount of humor. How does that sound?
SARA: Oh, it sounds wonderful and I have a seventh grade son, and so just even what you’re saying, I’m like oh, this would resonate so much with him. And also just the normal, every day experience of being a kid but done from a boy’s perspective would be great because I think about how popular like Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novels are and I think the appeal of those more often it seems like girls are picking her up. It’s just that she is describing normal events. So it sounds perfect.
ANNE: Good. I am so glad to hear that. I’m thinking about other series and authors who works easily relate to each other because we talked about the thrill of discovery. Not only can that mean discovering a book in the library, but discovering an author or a series you love. So some great series are Emmie and Friends by Terri Libenson, my 12 year old loved the series. I think she started reading them when she was 11. She could have done it at ten and maybe even nine. The series open here is Invisible Emmie. Anything by Mac Barnett. Now he’s written lots of children’s books too that are beloved, but I’m thinking about his graphic novel series, Mac B. Kid Spy. Those can skew a little younger like seven to 10. Also Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales.
SARA: My son owns every one of Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales and I think would like to be that name when he grows up. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: I love it. If you have read all the Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales book and you need something new that doesn’t have the historical angle, but my Nathan Hale tale lover adored The Tapper Twin series by Geoff Rodkey. The first book is The Tapper Twins Go to War (With Each Other). There are five books in it right now.
SARA: Oh I’m so excited. That will be great.
ANNE: And finally, Kwame Alexander, anything, but if I had to pick, I’d say The Crossover is a great place to start.
SARA: Okay. The Crossover. I’m going to have a stacked library. I’m going to be the most popular gal on the block.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Now for young adult. So this is the genre that you say you just - just don’t know about.
SARA: I don’t have anything against it, it just doesn’t tend to be what I gravitate towards and I don’t have any kids that are really into it, so it’s this … it’s mysterious. I just don’t even know what’s out there.
ANNE: When you talked about all the YA novels, there’s so many to choose from and so it can be hard to zoom in on just one. Starting from the perspective of timely, Brandy Colbert has a new book out. It came out in July. Now she’s a prolific novelist so you can certainly go into her backlist, but she has a new book that can be great to read right now, and I can see teens or adults grabbing this for their tweens right now because it’s called The Voting Booth.
SARA: Oh, that sounds good.
ANNE: This story unfolds over the course of a single day which is November 3rd, election day, and we have two teen narrators in this book. One is 18 year old Marva. The other is another 18 year old, Duke, and both these teens are from families that care deeply about politics. Marva identifies as a political activist. She has been waiting for this day her entire life. She’s been interested in politics since she was a little girl. She wants to work in the field one day. Her parents joke that when her 2nd grade teacher asked the class to write down three things they wanted to be when they grew up, she was like, mm, Secretary of State, environment attorney, or Supreme Court Justice. [SARA LAUGHS] She’ll be just fine with any of those. This is election day. It’s a big deal to her. She shows up to the polls bright and early. She casts her vote. She’s on her way out, and that’s where she meets Duke. He’s been excited to vote for a long time, can’t let his family down. He’s got a tragic backstory that influences why he cares so much, but he finally gets to the front of the long line. He gives his name and he’s told you’re not on the list to vote. So Marva overhears this and she steps in and they basically spend the day running around the city figuring out how to get him his ballot.
What Colbert does here is she takes these two teens, who are both Black, and that’s important to the story, so as they try to overcome the barriers to voting, it’s giving kids inside look into okay, so when I hear about, like, voter suppression on the news, what does that even mean? The kids are showing you by walking through their election day together. I really admire the way that she does this in the way that’s story driven. It’s relatable. It doesn’t feel like a thinly veiled morality tale. The voting thing isn’t the only thing they’re doing that day because they have real lives, like somebody’s missing a calculus test and that’s a big deal. Somebody has an argument with a parent going on, and then Marva’s instagram famous cat goes missing which is a big deal because nobody knows that Marva is the owner of that Instagram famous kitty account. I think this could be timely, fun, important right now, and also super easy to read, interesting story, not terribly long. How does that sound?
SARA: Well it sounds wonderful, and I’m actually thinking in all of my travels as a reader, including being a kid and a YA reader, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book about voting. And so I’m really excited about that.
ANNE: I am happy to hear that. Other crowd pleasing titles as far as contemporary is concerned, Far From the Tree by Robin Benway is a great book, relatable, realistic fiction, and it follows three kids who don’t know their siblings, or that they’re biological half-siblings, and none of them know the others exist until an inciting incident spurs one of the kids to try to find her birth mom. And that’s how she discovers more of her family’s history and so there’s Grace, Maya, and Joaquin, two of them were adopted into families. The other has bounced around various foster homes his entire life. They’re older teenagers and so they suddenly connect and are part of each other's lives and reading each other’s stories. Everyone has issues they’re working through and dealing with in this story and at the same time, it’s so heartwarming and hopeful. I have talked to so many teenagers who just loved, loved, loved this book. Robin Benway’s written other books which is fantastic, but Far From the Tree is I think her best and definitely my favorite. This is YA fiction with broad appeal.
SARA: I am going to read that one first before it goes into the library. It sounds great.
ANNE: Well I’m happy to hear that. And if you want to go in another direction, many YA readers, especially prolific readers, love historical YA fiction, and Ruta Sepetys is a great author in that specific genre of YA fiction. Her latest is The Fountains of Silence, which is about two teens who meet and fall in love during Franco’s regime in the late 1950s just after the Spanish Civil War. Daniel’s from Texas. Ana’s from Madrid. It is not perhaps meant to be because he’s the son of an oil tycoon, and she has now after the Spanish Civil War, her once prominent parents, they are now enemies of the state, and so she’s working as a maid in his hotel, and that’s how they meet.
But it’s got this fun photography timeline, and this cross cultural communication and the barriers that can’t help but keep them apart. So that’s a really fun one along those lines, and she has other books if it’s easier to find her backlist. But her most recent one may be the one that is top of mind for readers who have encountered her work before or may have seen it out and about.
SARA: Oh, and that one has some personal appeal because one of my sisters is a Spanish major and has lived in Spain, so she will be really looking forward to that one I think.
ANNE: I’m so happy to hear it. Okay, now for adult. You said anything with JoJo Moyes flies off the shelves.
ANNE: Also Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, which you said you really like that it had a local connection.
SARA: I do like the local connection. It’s always fun to recognize you know the places that you’re reading about and be like oh, I’ve been to Pikes Place Market, you know, that’s always a fun connection to make with a book.
ANNE: Yeah. I’m thinking of popular books that have been set in Washington state, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford.
SARA: Yes, I’ve read that one. And actually that has been in the library.
ANNE: Oh, that’s so fun. And then it got taken?
SARA: It’s been taken, returned, and taken again.
ANNE: Oh, I’m so glad to hear it. It’s fun to see some of your books do in fact come back ‘cause I do know that’s not the case for most of them.
SARA: Yeah, most of them don’t come back, but you know what, that’s okay. Somebody’s loving them somewhere else. It brings me lots of joy no matter what happens to them.
ANNE: Okay, another local one comes to mind is Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple, but the one I’m really excited about your readers reading based on everything you’ve said about them is This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel. What do you know about this book?
SARA: I’ve actually read this book for a book club.
ANNE: Do you think it might be good for your audience?
SARA: I think it is, and I think it hits the topics of timely and popular fiction just meaning that they may very well have seen it in their travels.
ANNE: Mmhmm. And it was a Reese Witherspoon book club selection which I’m certain did not hurt. So for readers who don’t know, it’s specifically about parents Rosie and Penn. They have four boys, then they have another child, and what’s so interesting to me about this is that Laurie Frankel is actually writing largely about her own experience as a parent to a transgender child. She says that like yeah, most parents won’t have transgender child, but most parents will have a child who is nonconforming in some way, and she says when it comes to the title, this is how it always is, she says that she’s writing about that moment when you feel like the stakes are really high and you want to love and support. The hard question isn’t like, are you going to love them? Are you going to support them? Like of course you are, but like what does that look like in the moment? When your kids are always changing, when their needs seem to be changing, when you’re having to make decisions you never imagined you’d have to face when moving in directions you never foresaw, when you don’t know what to do for sure, but you have to do something, how do you decide based on incomplete and uncertain information when the consequences may be undoable? That’s a really hard question and in the book, the husband says to the wife, look, we’re never going to have all the information. We’re going to have to make the decision anyway. Like it’s always going to be like the stakes are too high and this is how it always is. It’s not just us. I loved this book.
SARA: It’s fun getting the backstory to the title of the book because I absolutely read the book and thought about the title, like I wonder what she exactly means by this. I don’t think you have to be a parent to understand that but certainly as a parent there are plenty of times where I’m like I’m not equipped. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do here and darn it, you’re also different. I have no guide book. So that resonates with me.
ANNE: Well I’m glad to hear that. And if you ever reread this, or listeners, if you haven’t read this yet and you pick it up, it’s fun to see the title embedded in the conversation in the text between the two parents, so keep an eye out and you’ll find it there. So This Is How It Always Is, Laurie Frankel, that’s a local selection. And then you did have a nonfiction pick. I mean we’ve already recommended 24 books, why not make it an even 25?
SARA: [LAUGHS] I’m going to have to build a bigger library.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] No, no, you can just curate surprise and delight for years to come. It’ll be great.
ANNE: I can’t help but think based on everything you said that nonfiction, Michelle Obama, Becoming. It’s everywhere and yet not everyone has read it. I can imagine a reader would be delighted to stumble upon that on your shelves.
SARA: That’s such a good idea because you’re right, it is everywhere and it hasn’t been out there, and if I came across that in a library, I would take it immediately.
ANNE: I’m glad to hear that. So we’re looking at the mix of the thrill of discovery, plus the thrill of recognition. I know I’ve certainly had that experience and I’m sure you have too when you go to a little free library and you go [GASP] I’ve been wanting to read this and it’s right here. And that’s the kind of book that zooms to the top of your readers’ to be read list or their nightstand and I hope just picturing that happening is really satisfying to you.
SARA: It is. It’s so fun, and you’re exactly right when you go to one of the libraries and you see the book and you’re like this has only been out for two months, I can’t believe it’s here.
ANNE: Okay, Sara, so we talked about a whole ton of books and all I’m going to ask you is this: [SARA LAUGHS] what title or two are you excited to go put on those shelves first?
SARA: That’s actually an impossible question because they were all so good, but I think Sophie’s Squash sounded adorable. That one jumped out to me. New Kid by Jerry Craft was I think perfectly situated for what goes quickly out there. And The Voting Booth. Those three I’m very excited. Those might be top of my list.
ANNE: Well I’m excited that you’re excited, and I hope your neighbors are excited too. Sara, thank you for letting me help with your neighborhood taste making today. It was a pleasure.
SARA: Oh this was wonderful. I had so much fun.
ANNE: I can’t wait to hear what your neighbors grab next.
SARA: Well I plan to hang a balloon on the library on the day this episode airs and have it stacked with a few of these books, so we’re turning it into an event.
ANNE: Aw, that’s so fun. I love it.
SARA: Yup. So thank you so much.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Sara, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/260 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today.
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Thanks to the people who make this show happen! What Should I Read Next is produced by Brenna Frederick, with sound design by Kellen Pechacek.
Readers, that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening.
And as Rainer Maria Rilke said, “ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.” Happy reading, everyone.
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Books mentioned in this episode:
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• The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt
• Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson
• Spy School series by Stuart Gibbs
• Framed! by James Ponti
• After You by Jojo Moyes
• The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes
• The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
• The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
• The River by Peter Heller
• The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
• Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
• To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
• Press Here by Hervé Tullet
• The Monster at the End of This Book: Starring Lovable, Furry Old Grover by Jon Stone
• The Book with No Pictures by B.J. Novak
• Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña
• Sophie’s Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller
• New Kid by Jerry Craft
• Invisible Emmie by Terry Libenson
• Mac B Kid Spy by Mac Barnett
• Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales by Nathan Hale
• The Tapper Twins Go to War (with Each Other) by Geoff Rodkey
• The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
• The Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert
• Far from the Tree by Robin Benway
• Fountains of Silence by Ruta Sepytys
• Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
• Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
• This is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel
• Becoming by Michelle Obama
• The Little Library Builder of Spokane
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