A Doorway into Books

I’m stepping down off the shelf – sort of – for this post. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about how people choose their leisure reading. What are they looking for in a book? What defines a “good book” for them? What makes you pick it up off the shelf and give it chance? What draws you in and keeps you reading it through to the end?

In my reader’s advisory class, we have been discussing appeal factors. There are a lot of different terms out there for thinking about appeal, so it can get confusing. One way to think about it is the author’s storytelling style. Where is the author’s strength or focus: is it characters, story (plot), setting, or language? These are Nancy Pearl’s four doorways into a book. Certain books may emphasize one aspect over the others and certain aspects appeal to certain people more than others. She describes her idea in this article.

Joyce Saricks, another experienced reader’s advisor, describes appeal factors differently. (Learn more about her here.) For her they are: pacing, characterization, story line, and frame. But really, Pearl and Saricks are talking about the same thing. Pacing depends on the style of writing and the density of the language; characterization and story line clearly align with character and story; and frame takes into account setting, mood, atmosphere, and context. Of course, there are other important factors in our reading: our mood and life situations are one. But, we tend to gravitate to a certain kind of storytelling.

My reader’s advisory teacher said if we write down 3 books we really liked, we will probably start to see a pattern. We will be able to see which appeal factor, doorway, or storytelling style we go for. Likewise, if we write down books we really disliked, we can understand what turns us off. This will also probably speak to what appeals to us. Sure enough, I’m seeing a pattern.

I think I’m a character girl. The 3 books that I really liked all have many characters and complex characters, interweaving stories, sympathetic central characters. The 3 books I disliked all have characters I did not like, could not stand. Now, there is a hefty helping of story involved as well, and language and setting are important to me too, so it’s hard for me to outright declare myself for character, but I can’t really deny the evidence in front of me either.

Understanding what appeals to you a reader, not just author, genre, or subject matter, really improves the chances of experiencing a good read. It also helps you with the first step which can be very tricky – selection. So let’s explore our reading to understand what kind of readers we are.

Here is another challenge. Right down your top 5 reads; and be honest – you don’t have to look like the reader only of the best to yourself. When you think about these books, what doorway opens up?


Good Poems for Hard Times – Garrison Keillor

I guess I should make it clear right away that this volume of poems is not by Garrison Keillor, but a collection of poems selected and introduced by Garrison Keillor. But that being said, Garrison Keillor has excellent taste. These are poems he wants to share. He has included poems for all moods and all needs. I feel like I see more after I dip into the this book.

Perhaps what I like best, though, is written by Keillor. The book is introduced with an essay about what we read poetry, why poetry matters, what poems do for and to us. I think it should be required reading for every English teacher and every student. Let’s nip those “Why do we have to read this?” questions in the bud. Poetry is intense, courageous, honest; it’s free speech, he says, and I agree.

This book looks fresh and new. It’s a book you sit up and notice with it’s bright yellow cover. It demands your attention, but in a polite and pleasant way. And then you open it up and realize that there is something you need inside.


The Eagle of the Ninth – Rosemary Sutcliff

The Eagle of the Ninth, otherwise known as The Sparrow of the Sixth.

This is a very well known book (but perhaps not as much by its second title). Many people will not require an introduction. For me, it was a book I intended to read for quite awhile and I was glad when I finally did.

Rosemary Sutcliff knows her Roman Britain. She is something of an authority on it. Here, she imagines a story around a true event, the disappearance of the Ninth Roman Legion. A Roman, Marcus, and his slave, Esca, together undertake to retrieve the eagle, the legion standard, from deep within hostile territory. I like this book for its history and adventure – the stealth and final race across the countryside – but also for the relationship between master and slave that develops throughout the book. Although Marcus and Esca are in many ways natural enemies, they are also men in need of one another.

I read the book as an adult. The intended audience is older children, teens. Although it’s probably out of vogue now (which is too bad because it would probably suit a lot of boys), I’m sure its been studied by many, many school children, as my copy would suggest.  It belonged to Carol Lovell of 9C. (Thank you, Carol, if you are reading.) It’s got study notes and questions in the back, and graffiti on the cover, like this helpful advice: “For best results, Open book before reading.”

I picked this book up because I wanted to own a copy and it looked in need of a home. I must I have a thing for waifs and strays of the literary variety (I notice this has already becoming a recurring theme in this blog) and I certainly have a soft spot for old school texts. They been through some many hands. Maybe the book had a lasting impact on the readers or maybe it was just an opportunity to deface school property and pass a message on to the next person, but it feels like a connection to the past. I know the kids who were sitting in those desks.


The Bad Speller – William Steig

Anamills perfourmng a difiklt feet.

This is one of the funniest little books I’ve ever come across. It was on book sale table at a my local library and it was too good to leave behind. Who would ever get rid of this little gem? The basic premise is bad spelling – how badly can you spell? For each picture, the captions is written in odd and peculiar ways. But that’s only the beginning of the fun. The pictures depict implausible and fantastical scenarios that are possibly even funnier than the spelling. Who would come up with these things?

I love William Steig. He lets his imagination run amok. (Sometimes it comes back to where it started, sometimes not). But to be honest, for years I didn’t know who he was or that he had, in fact, written many other books, acclaimed books. The Bad Speller was just a bizarre, entertaining, stand-alone work to me. But his illustrations are distinctive and unmistakable, so once I had read a few more of his books, I clued in to what was really sitting on my shelf.

The best part about The Bad Speller? If you read it aloud, somehow with the bad spellings it is impossible to speak in anything but a Southern accent. Try if for yourself.

Kat kampus kukn hotdaugs at a kampfyr.

Growing Up – Angela Thirkell

Angela Thirkell is probably not an author a lot of people read much today. She is someone I stumbled across in a thrift shop. The Headmistress was sitting there with a bright pink cover and I just couldn’t leave it there. I loved it from the beginning. Later I came to the realization that this one book belonged to a series of many. Angela published almost a book a year from 1930 to 1960 and most of her books, The Headmistress included, take place in the fictional English county of Barsetshire. Sound familiar? This is the county in which Anthony Trollope set many of his works and Angela has carried it on in her own sort of homage. Her comedy of manners and accounts of the social whirlwind, including the mundane and ordinary, are, I think, delightful.

Growing Up is one of my favourites so far. Set on the home front during WWII – and of course, written at the time – it is both funny and poignant. Beliers Priory, the home of Sir Harry and Lady Waring, has become a convalescent hospital now reside in the servants wing. Between soldiers and house guests and servants, the household bustles. Barsetshire is a respite from the world at large but war cannot always stand at bay – it is a period of growing up.

She truly has a keen eye for how people behave and keen ear for how people speak. You may see yourself in some of these encounters and exchanges.