There are plenty of good reasons why someone would do a reading challenge. I personally love Goodreads holding me accountable for reading new and exciting books when it’s tempting to slack off. Some challenges force you to read outside of your comfort zone and experience new genres and forms you wouldn’t think of reading. Besides, how long has it been since you were told to read something? Your undergraduate degree? Or if you didn’t major in English in college, it may have been since your high school literature classes since you were assigned a book. Regardless, reading challenges are an asset to a writer’s craft.
For writers, reading is one of our most valuable tools besides plain practice that can help boost your writing abilities. Maybe you’re in a submission slump or just need an excuse to read more books. Reading challenges have helped me read outside of my normal go-to genres and forms, and I can assure you that in the long run it will inspire you, too.
The Sealey Challenge
Named after poet Nicole Sealey, the goal of the Sealey Challenge is to have you read a full-length or chapbook poetry collection every day in August. Luckily poetry is more accessible than ever with books and short collections in a lot of places, from big chain bookstores to independently-owned stores. Try browsing different indie presses for their own poetry collections and purchase a few to support their mission. Low on funds? There are so many great indie poets and presses to support for little to no cost. See below for a list of publishers both active and archived with open access poetry collections.
This is the first year I’m doing the Sealey Challenge and I wanted to recommend some collections I’ve really loved in the past in case you’re still looking for quality picks:
Theia Mania by Dallas Athent
Wolf Girls vs. Horse Girls by Catherine Weiss
Marys of the Sea by Joanna Valente
American Sentencing by Jen Karetnick
all girls will not feel pretty at some point by Elizabeth Ribar
Evergreen by Sarah Frances Moran
Dream-Like Houses by Joyce Chong
The Politics of Being Ugly by Kayla Altman
La Belle Ajar by Adrian Ernesto Cepeda
The Red Files by Lisa-Bird Wilson
The New Release Challenge
While this challenge is marketed towards any reader, especially with those who have access to ARCs, I think reading new books that hit the shelves is essential for writers to know what is on the market. What’s already been done and what is being reinvented? While the 2021 challenge is already underway, why not start planning for next year? Or if you want to at least get a taste for it, try some of these new releases:
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
There Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness by M. Leona Godin
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
How do you get new releases? Besides buying them off of the shelves, there are many opportunities to review new releases from authors. Some may even send you review copies as PDF files or print books sent to you in the mail. Heck, I’ve seen publishers already preparing their roster for 2023 and are often looking for beta readers and reviewers to help with promotion. Follow some small presses and see the upcoming releases you may want to read and write about. Goodreads also has giveaways in exchange for an honest review!
Out of Your Comfort Zone Challenge
This challenge is exactly what it sounds like: read books that are out of your comfort zone. Do you normally read and write science fiction and fantasy? Why not try a memoir? Reading different forms can inspire you to write something different…or to know what you don’t want to write. Either way, you can say you’ve tried a new kind of book the same way you try a new food dish or hobby.
Genre or topic-based challenges
Maybe you’re trying to come up with the next bestselling memoir or want to reinvent what it means. Maybe you need to do some research on character development or what has already been overdone in your genre. You can create these on your own based off of your interests and needs. For example, you could read exclusively LGBTQ+ literature during the month of June or pledge to only read underrepresented authors for the entire year. Your only limit is your imagination.
It may not be hard to find literature featuring characters with disabilities, but it can be difficult to find good literature portraying disabled characters. After all, if society still rampantly promotes ableism, its presence in literature and pop culture are not too far behind. From problematic classics such as Of Mice and Men and Frankenstein to modern books such as Me Before You, the availability of inauthentic experiences with disabilities is unfortunately higher than more accurate portrayals of disabilities. In an effort to promote more diverse and authentic texts about disability, particularly in young adult literature, I wanted to examine three young adult novels featuring protagonists with disabilities: On The Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis, Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick, and The Mind’s Eye by K.C. Finn.
On the edge of gone by corinne duyvis
Duyvis’ On The Edge of Gone is an incredibly diverse science fiction piece featuring a main character who is biracial and autistic. In a dystopian society, Denise must prove her own worth to the inhabitants of a generation ship leaving a shattered Earth. The book explores how people are classified as “useful” or “valuable” in society, and people who are disabled or neurodivergent are typically cast aside because they do not possess neurotypical or able-bodied traits. As opposed to many novels with autistic characters, the plot is advanced by actual events or other characters as opposed to the character’s autism. Instead, Denise must keep track of her mother, who is an addict, and must find her trans sister Iris, all while trying to prove she is worth saving.
The author is also autistic, making the authenticity of the experiences Denise has in the book more reliable. But the humility of the author is also key to the novel’s appeal. In an interview with Disability in Kid Lit (2016), Duyvis noted her own tendencies to place autistic tendencies in the novel without a clear explanation of why Denise felt a certain way. On The Edge of Gone is also quick to show that while Denise is autistic and suffers from severe anxiety, she must develop her own coping mechanisms in order to survive.
Denise has a decent grip on her coping skills and built-up tolerance to less-than-understanding people in her life, which is why she acts more maturely and sensible than her own mother, who is shown to be selfish and irresponsible on more than one occasion. The beginning of the book (2016) shows her mother wasting the time they have left to get to their pre-approved shelters to stall for Iris as Denise urges for them to leave and get to shelter before it is too late (Duyvis, pg. 10) . When her mother is kicked off of the generation ship, she tries to guilt Denise into smuggling her back on board without taking any time to consider how it puts both Iris and Denise at risk of losing their own resources (Duyvis, 2016, pg. 222) . Denise’s narrative is a much different approach than what many see in books with autistic characters who are often cast as burdens on their families and society. Because of the stigma of autism, Denise has long had to adapt to neurotypical people around her to blend with the world around her.
wonderstruck by brian selznick
While Duyvis has first-hand experience with living with neurodivergence, many authors attempt to portray disabilities without the same personal experiences or knowledge. Though Selznick does not have firsthand experience with deafness, he manages to create a very thoughtful literary experience reflecting the lives of people in the deaf community with extensive research. What results is Wonderstruck, a novel and graphic novel cross-over that touches on many important themes and topics: disability, grief, collections, visual aids, and many more. The novel switches between two characters’ stories: Ben and Rose’s. Ben is a boy living in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota in 1977 while Rose is a girl living in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1927. Both characters are deaf and must navigate through a world that does not accommodate their needs, but insists on as much conformity to able-bodied culture as possible. Wonderstruck switches between the 50 year period with two distinct but intertwined stories, both with the same surprising amount of obstacles related to their deafness.
Collections are also shown to be a major topic in Wonderstruck. Ben’s mother was a librarian and he keeps old trinkets of hers in a wood-carved box. He carries them around with him, which represents who he is and where he is from without writing or speaking about it. Rose collected pictures and newspaper clippings of her mother in scrapbooks and made many skyscrapers out of paper to bring an inaccessible city directly to her (Selznick, 2011, p. 38-39). Like Ben, Rose uses visual expression and symbols to communicate with others, even when they want her to use a method that is more convenient for someone else. Both Ben and Rose are connected to the Natural History Museum, both through familial ties as well as a shared joy of seeing information presented in a way that is accessible for both of them. Themed exhibits cluster related information and objects together the same way Ben and Rose collect their own information.
Wonderstruck does a particularly good job with demonstrating how advancements in technology are not always the best means of assisting people with disabilities. It also features a significant scene where technology sets Rose’s character back. In order to “spend time” with her mother Lillian Mayhew, Rose goes to the movie theater to see her silent films. To Rose’s horror, the movie theater is about to install “Talkie” equipment, which enables movies to be both seen and heard without the supposed interruption of word cards on the screen (Selznick, 2011, p. 142). For people who can hear, this is considered advancement in innovation. To Rose, it is a shocking setback that not only further isolates herself from her absent actress mother, but at chances to enjoy activities that people who are not deaf can as well. Another way Rose is pressured into blending in with people who are not deaf is through lip-reading. Rose hates being pressured into learning how to read lips, and defiantly makes another skyscraper out of her lip-reading curriculum book, a rejection of the standards that people with hearing place on people who are deaf (Selznick, 2011, p. 191). Like Duyvis’ book, Wonderstruck challenges what it truly means to be disabled, demonstrating a wide variety of ways disabled people cope with a lack of accommodations from a young age.
the mind’s eye by k.c. finn
My quest to find more books similar to Duyvis’ and Selznick’s was harder than expected, even with my specific calls and searches for these type of narratives. I would often find plenty of books featuring characters with disabilities, but were riddled with ableism. Books that had ableist narratives were — surprise, surprise — not written by authors who have first-hand experience with the disability they are writing about. Finally, I found The Mind’s Eye. Labeled as a “paranormal romance”, it stars Kit Cavendish, a girl living in 1940 sent to live in Wales during World War II. Kit possesses telepathic powers but is also a wheelchair-user due to M.E. / C. F. S., a neurological condition that causes pain, fatigue, and sometimes paralysis. Her powers lead her to a boy in Oslo named Henri, who is attempting to escape from Nazi occupation in his village. It is the first book in a series (the SYNSK series) written by UK author K.C. Finn (2017), an author who knows about ableism in young adult literature all too well.
“It irritates me when you do find characters with disabilities are there because it’s a gimmick. It’s a hindrance and it is never to their advantage,” she told me. I was pleased to find that Kit’s powers were instead genetic and were in no way connected to her condition. In later chapters, it is revealed both of her parents as well as her brother possess the same telepathic abilities. Finn also does not dwell on Kit’s character for the series, but instead features another member of the family for each book, including her younger brother Leighton. In The Mind’s Eye, we are first introduced to the family’s powers while also witnessing Kit’s grueling rehabilitation process for her paralysis. While Kit’s condition is a large factor in the book, it is not the driving force for the events that happened. Instead, the driving factors were the intelligence she picked up through her telepathy, creating relationships with the rest of her safe house family at Ty Gwyn, and helping Henri escape, and the war itself.
When speaking with Finn (2017), she made it clear that the importance of having a strong connection to a disability before writing about it. “When it comes to disability and diversity, the most important thing to me is that when writing about those topics is that comes from somewhere real. It’s best to have real personal experience of the disability or have someone close to you in your life with the condition.” That is what makes finding good narratives on disability difficult; people often want to “help” by writing an inspirational story about someone with a disability without consulting someone who actually has the disability.
Though all three books featured have protagonists with very different disabilities, all three bring accurate narratives to what having a disability is actually like while maintaining a firm sense of humanity.
*Note: An earlier version of this review first appeared in Quail Bell Magazine in 2019.
As an educator, I’m always on the lookout for fresh and exciting voices in YA. I’ve also made it a personal mission to find more diverse books to better understand students from all cultural backgrounds. The publishing industry as a whole still has a lot of work to do in order to bring more exclusivity to the reading experience, but a recently published addition has me optimistic about the future of YA.
One of those voices is Alexandra Villasante, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in person during NCTE 2019. I had read her book from the school library prior to the event and was pleased to see that she was there signing copies of her debut YA book The Grief Keeper.
The Grief Keeper paints a contemporary narrative of the realities of immigration for teens. The novel is a brilliantly woven web of a young Salvadoran immigrant named Marisol and her younger sister Gabi as they escape from the gang violence that killed their brother. In a domino effect of events, Marisol’s attraction to another girl kicks off the string of events leading to his death. In order to secure asylum for Gabi, she agrees to participate in an experiment to be a “grief keeper”, or transferring the intense emotions of another person for herself to bare. Though the novel includes ideas based on science fiction, the nature of the primary experiment used on Marisol is a perfect metaphor for the emotional labor we force upon marginalized people; the unwanted tasks of privileged people being dumped upon immigrants’ shoulders. Overall, The Grief Keeper is a snapshot of the difficult choices that are given to those society brands as “illegal”.
Many people criticize the call for more diverse voices in literature because they are convinced the stories will be formulated and forced. Villasante proves the dissenters wrong with the natural, authentic flow of Marisol’s story. Marisol’s idea of America is a picturesque, perfect life similar to sitcoms she grew up watching, but she soon finds the America she dreamed of is not the welcoming, inviting place it is portrayed to be. Villasante turns the idealistic America on its head, and though the current administration is not mentioned, it is easy to hear the sly rhetoric leaking into the voices of the doctor and caretaker in charge of Marisol. Her hope for true freedom ends up being in the very person she is tasked with curing: Rey, a girl who is still suffering from the loss of her twin brother.
With stunning character development, Villasante creates a gorgeous story about the perseverance of love in times of strife while also refusing to water down the tougher topics. The book is a heartbreaking, yet redeeming tale destined to be a record of our reality and an enduring message of what true humanity looks like.
Whether you are a parent, a teacher, or a teen looking for that one book that might actually connect with you, you’ve come to the right place! I’ve already talked a lot about how to find the right book, but if you’re looking for quick suggestions on where to start, I’ve rounded up some of the books I’ve noticed my students who aren’t enthusiastic readers have really connected with in my classroom.
I make no guarantees that you or your students/children will enjoy them, but they do have an impressive track record.
The Selection Series by Keira Cass
For fans of The Bachelor/The Bachelorette, The Selection books are perfect for students looking for a high-stakes romance story. Seriously, these books have it all: choices with major stakes, questioning everything you ever knew, handsome princes, you name it. I had a very hard time finding a copy of the first book for my classroom library due to how popular the books are. Even the used copies were being sold closer to full price than half-off.
The main series is a trilogy, but novellas, prequels, and other books in the Selection universe have also been written. There’s even a coloring book if you need a break from all of the binge reading you’ll be doing.
Long way down by jason reynolds
A novel in verse, Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds is a thrilling, quick read about the consequences of never questioning tradition. In this case, our protagonist Will feels the call to take revenge against the person he thinks killed his brother Shawn only to be confronted by the literal ghosts of his pass. On an elevator. Within a minute’s time. There’s no question why it appeals to so many readers and was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Reynolds’ other books cover many different topics and are written to appeal to young audiences, but also manage to captivate adult readers as well. Don’t lie, you just ordered this book off of Amazon, didn’t you?
Refugee by Alan gratz
Alan Gratz has mastered the juvenile historical fiction genre by giving a thorough background on each historical situation with kids trying to navigate the world around them. Refugee is interesting because of the three different perspectives: Josef in 1930s Germany, Isabel in 1990s Cuba, and Mahmoud in 2010s Syria. All three stories intertwine in a surprising way, but you’ll have to read until the end to find out how.
Gratz’s other books have a very similar setup, but with different time periods. His book Ground Zero is a great choice if you are looking for a book that compares the past and present of the impact of the September 11th attacks.
Speak by laurie halse anderson
When my students read this book, they are shocked that it was published in 1999. The message of the book persists into conversations about the #MeToo movement, but it takes time for readers to unravel the reason why Melinda is hated by people who used to be her friends and why she is convinced no one cares about her voice. For students who prefer graphic novels, this book was adapted into one in 2018. Halse also released her memoir in verse Shout, which mentions the book and her experiences leading up to its creation. All of these books are powerful contemporary classics and are great additions to the classroom.
The House of the Scorpio by Nancy Farmer
Another award winner…and for a good reason. Kids and teens still love dystopian worlds, and this has elements of dystopia with real-world questions about the ethics of cloning, class, race, love, and so much more in a sensible and understandable way…without sacrificing an exciting plot. The book follows a cloned boy who is the “son” of a powerful man named El Patrón and his journey to define his place in the world and to escape terrible danger.
To give you an idea of how the book holds up, I read this when I was in 9th grade and then gave it as an option for my 9th grade students. Nearly all of the students who read the book begged me to order the sequel I didn’t even know had come out until some of them got it from the library or ordered it online. Nancy Farmer truly created another modern YA classic.
I’m sure there are many other options out there for reluctant readers, so don’t worry if your kid or teen doesn’t seem to connect with any of these choices. It helps narrow down the pool of potential reads they will like!
In 2010, Google determined that 129,864,880 books exist on Earth. Think of how many more books exist 11 years later! Feeling dizzy just thinking about it? Thankfully, narrowing down the amount of books by your child’s interests and reading levels is much easier to do.
Still, it can be hard to know where to start. But I promise that while finding the right book for your child can be a long process, it’s not an impossible one. See some of my own techniques for finding books your kid can connect with and finally fall in love with reading.
Find books based on their favorite tv shows
One of the best things about children’s books is that there is probably a book adaptation or even extra stories created just for their favorite media. If your child loves everything to do with Disney, try some books from their Twisted Tales series. The books are retellings of their favorite stories in alternate universes.
Teens may love graphic novels or comic series that were the inspiration for shows such as The Umbrella Academy or Invincible. I’ve found that in recent years, manga has soared in popularity. Manga are graphic novels that are typically multi-volume and is often adapted into anime. While they can be pretty pricey per volume (to be fair, that’s a LOT of drawing to make just one book), the craze has inspired local libraries and other media services to have copies readily available with less wait time (and money saved for you!).
Listen to audiobooks together in the car
Look through descriptions of audiobooks through Audible, Libby, Overdrive, or Hoopla. Choose one that you believe you would like to listen to as a family. That way you can react to the book in real time while also having moments to talk about what you’re listening to. Remember to not force your way through listening to it if it doesn’t appeal to either of you, but especially for your child.
HEad to the library
Libraries are truly amazing places. Free Wi-Fi, classes, and other programs are all available to you and your community at no cost. Well, actually, some of your tax dollars, but hey, that’s all the more reason to go. You prepaid in advance, so take advantage of all it has to offer! Over a billion Americans do it each year, so you’ll be in good company.
When it comes to using the library to help find a good book for your kid, that’s what librarians are for! They have the latest knowledge on new releases and can recommend books for any kind of reader. You can also ask their teachers or school librarians for suggestions as well.
Read Kid Lit Blogs
“Kid Lit” is the affectionate term for children’s literature. They often have posts on the latest books, review of books, and so much more. Blogs by specific grade levels are listed below and I’ll add more as I find them. There’s always something new out there, so if you don’t find what you’re looking for with these blogs, keep checking!
I’ve mentioned before that it can be tough to find a book that resonates with some kids. Don’t be afraid to let kids read “below level” if they already have a hard time connecting with books. The more they read, the more words they know, the more books will be accessible to them when the time is right. I can guarantee you that if I didn’t have the foundation of plenty of chapter books, there is no way I would have enjoyed Jane Eyre when it was time to read it.