I’ve let more time than usual lapse since my last post because I’ve been mulling over the unspoken question that’s at the heart of this blog: What makes a book inspiring?
Or, more precisely, why do I review the books I do?
To be completely honest, it’s often a gut choice. I’ll read a book and think, “That was amazing! I know [fill in the name of a friend, niece, former teacher, whatever] would love this, too. I should review it for Read Like a Girl.”
When I sit down and really parse it out, though, I realize that the books I (and other women and girls I know) find inspiring all share certain qualities.
Without further ado, here they are.
I’ve heard theme described as the Big Idea of a book. Inspiring books center around the idea that there is light to be found in the world, however deep the darkness might be. They leave the impression that there is something inherently positive about being alive, that hope is attainable (even if only through struggle). Sometimes the spark of light is internal, like Alta’s determination; sometimes it’s external, like the web of relationships in Spindle’s End; and sometimes it’s a combination of the two, like the blend of courage and community that keeps Kira alive.
2. Relatable Characters
It’s hard to feel inspired by a character who doesn’t look like you, whose life is perfect, whose personality and behavior have no quirks or flaws. At best, characters like this are boring; at worst, they breed resentment. Inspiring books, on the other hand, have characters who feel human, imperfect, real. They have characters of unconventional beauty (like the Apple-Pip Princess); almost-defeated, sometimes unloveable characters (like Fred); characters who remind us of the pleasures of everyday life and relationships (like Betsy and Tacy); and characters (like Peewee and Rose) who realize that life isn’t about attaining someone else’s definition of perfection, but about making peace with, embracing, and being true to who we really are.
Conflict is one of the great lynchpins of story–it’s on every teacher’s list of the essential elements of writing. But why? Well, for starters, conflict creates tension, and tension sucks people in. But I think it’s also because conflict generates inspiration. Whether the conflict is primarily external (as in Nim’s battles with her schoolmate and grandfather) or internal (as in Eleanor’s struggle against her own shyness and depression), there’s empowerment in stories that own the existence of conflict and put forth productive ways to deal with it.
When asked why so many of his books deal with “dark” subjects, Maurice Sendak always pointed out that children are prey to strong emotions, and many suffer through hardships like illness or divorce. We can’t hide the real world from them, he argued; better to give them literature that helps them process it in a healthy way. As with their treatment of conflict, the most inspiring books offer an age-appropriate but honest treatment of the struggles of life–Marian’s quest to become a world-class singer, Lizzie’s care for her grieving dad, Olive’s adolescent growing pains–and how to thrive through them.
5. Good Writing
Nearly all the items on this list are elements of good writing, but here I’m talking specifically about an author’s craft, his or her way with words. Elegant verse (Child of Faerie, Child of Earth), a tightly layered plot structure (When You Reach Me), sly humor (The Ordinary Princess)–these are the elements that keep us reading for reading’s sake, that turn simple story into life-changing encounter. Without them, an inspiring book is little more than a patronizing sermon.
6. Good Art
Where picture books and comics/graphic novels are concerned, the illustrator’s craft is just as important as (and sometimes more important than) the author’s. Art brings inspiration to shining, vivid life. It also expands on and clarifies the text, making it easier for young readers to understand complex ideas and language. And it’s a way to inspire children’s creativity by introducing them to art forms they might not otherwise encounter. McClintock’s detailed drawings, Azarian’s woodcuts, Hale’s edgy inkings–they’re all integral to their books’ impact.
So that’s what makes a book inspiring for me. What about you?