One of the things that I did as a librarian was reader’s advisory, and I’ve said it here and elsewhere repeatedly that it was one of my favorite aspects of the job. Being able to help someone find their next great read is awesome, but the real joy for me was digging into the actual ideas they were trying to express to me in words that didn’t always come out clearly. By that I mean, it’s hard to sometimes explain exactly why a particular book is one you love; you can mention that it’s the language, but what does that really mean? Are you there for literary, pretty prose? Are you there for unique use of language? Are you there for something cut-and-dry and straightforward?
Ferreting those things out for others is a skill that’s learned more as it’s practiced. It’s a marrying of knowledge of books, as well as knowledge of what it is that’s appealing to readers about those books.
Something I never put a whole lot of thought into until the last couple of years, though, was what the triggers were for me when it comes to the sort of books I know I’ll love or find enjoyable to read (because, of course, you can enjoy reading a book and walk away not really having liked it since sometimes the experiential nature of reading is really what you’re after). I know there are certain plot points that work for me — words like “juvenile detention” and “ballet” and “road trip” and “haunted house” are just a few descriptive phrases that ring my bells — but there are other things that really appeal to me in reading. Those are far less easy to have conveyed on jacket copy, and they’re even harder to tease out when looking at those books you’ve loved and are looking for similarities between sometimes very different types of books.
What I found as I did this wasn’t surprising to me, but the method in which I came about discovering the elements of a book I love was. Rather than looking for things I liked, I thought through what books didn’t work for me, what my criticisms were of those books, and looked for similarities among them; in some cases, thinking about the opposite element as the one I criticized opened up a path toward thinking about what I liked.
What’s neat about this, aside from really discovering what it is you like, is that it’s a great door to open toward helping you push past your normal reading comfort zone. Teasing out elements that appeal to you in this way allows you to see past genre or categories of book and instead focus on the very things you love in a reading experience, period.
Here are four elements of reading I love and am able to now put words to, thanks to trying out this exercise. I would love to hear what you find if you do something similar — and I’d love to know, too, what sort of methodology you used to arrive at a favorite element or two of books.
Humor, Especially Dark
I’m going to have to write at length about why we discredit and belittle funny at some point, since I think so often, we’re eager to look at books, discuss their critical merits through the lens of morality/lessons/elements to take away, and forget that what some readers want in a book is something that they enjoy the experience of reading. Being able to enjoy a book as a thing in and of itself is hugely important, and we undervalue that so much, especially with younger readers.
Perhaps this is why I love funny books. I want to laugh. I want to smile. I want to read something that is cute, even if it’s a bit over the top. The thing for me is that the humor has to be natural and voice-y; in other words, I don’t necessarily reach out for “funny” books; I find books that weave the humor into them to be what’s appealing. Amy Spalding is an excellent example of this, as her books sometimes leave me in tears with how funny her characters are, even though they aren’t trying to be.
My favorite horror movies are those which are darkly humorous, and this same appeal factor is one I love in my books. Give me something twistedly funny. I don’t want to read about hard topics that are made funny; rather, I want to be thrown into a bit of an absurd situation and be able to laugh my way through, always wondering if I am supposed to be laughing or not. Kate Alender’s books are a great example of this in YA.
Tight, Short Prose
I’m not wary of long books, but I know my sweet spot is in a book that makes tremendous impact with few words. The tighter the prose, the more interested I am. How can an author tell a power-packed story in 230 pages?
A great example of this is Stephanie Kuehn’s book. She’s able to do so much with her plot and her characters in very few words — Charm and Strange is 216 pages, believe it or not.
Complex Moralities and Characters
This is pretty fitting with the first two elements, in that I’ve found complex characters and moralities play out well with humor, especially the dark variety, and it’s through the tight, short prose that these particularly appeal-y elements stand out for me.
I don’t need happy endings. I don’t need likable characters. Rather, I want a book that makes me think, and I love books that make me question how I feel. I don’t care what it is I’m supposed to want from a book, but rather, I want to bring my own sensibilities, my own beliefs, and my own ideas to the page as much as I want ideas and characters presented to me in rich ways.
I’ve heard it said before that books are a conversation between the reader and the story, and that’s an image I quite like. You can’t divorce yourself from what you’re reading, however you’re reading it and for whatever reason you’re reading it, so in a lot of ways, complex moralities and characters speak to me because they fascinate me personally.
I note Kuehn here again as an excellent example. A few others include Emily Hainsworth (especially Take The Fall, which is so Twin Peaks-esque, it’s impossible not to think about the complexities the whole way through), Melina Marchetta, Louise O’Neill, Malinda Lo, and Nova Ren Suma.
Could this be filed under “magical realism?” Maybe. But I think magical realism is a genre in its own right, and what I call everyday magic extends beyond that a little bit. I love the sense of wonder there is in reading a book and questioning what is real as in real-in-our-world and what is real as in real-in-that-world-but-set-in-our-world. In other words, there are books that are set in a world we live in, that are essentially of the realistic fiction variety, but they have a little bit of magic to them.
Nova Ren Suma is an obvious example here, but I also include Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap, Samantha Mabry’s upcoming A Fierce and Subtle Poison, Sarah McCarry’s writing, Infandous by Elana K Arnold. There’s also a fabulous adult novel with great YA appeal by Silvia Moreno-Garcia called Signal to Noise which weaves this everyday magic into the story in a way that checked all of my boxes.
What’s neat is teasing these pieces out shows how much they’re interrelated, really. Everyday magic happens through short and tight prose because that world is our world, but through subtle differences, the magic emerges. It also provides the catalyst for complex characters and moralities.
It’s also worth noting when you look at the books that fall beneath the elements of a story you love, they aren’t always fluid nor are they great read alikes to one another. I’d never connect Kuehn’s work with Hainsworth’s or Lo’s, and yet, they all “fit” under the umbrella of complex characters and moralities. This is such a great way to see past my own edges of reading and understand that going beyond my preferred genres or categories of books really helps me discover voices that are doing the very things I love so much.
Tell me yours! I want to know what elements you love, what books fall beneath them, and if there was any special way you figured this out.