Reading: Exercise for the Writing Muscles

Many moons ago, the college professor who recommended me for the Honors English program, despite the fact that I didn’t have enough hours to be eligible at the time, took me under his wing. The last day of class, he walked me to the door and offered the most valuable advice from my limited college experience. To be a great writer, you must be a great reader. To exercise the writing muscles so that they are flexible enough to sway, tense, reach, and stretch with literary ease, a writer must read everything; the good, the bad, and the ugly. By doing so, your individual style begins to surface as you subconsciously process the literary merit of each book.

I believed him.

Now, as I prepare to stretch my writing muscles with my own first novel, I read with an eye for openings, pacing, voice, story arc, character development, and resolutions. For writers, books contain more than stories. They are art to be studied. I thought I’d share my most recent reads.

Stay tuned as I add more titles in later posts.


MOON OVER MANIFEST by Clare Vanderpool (Delacorte Press, 2010)  From Booklist
*Starred Review* After a life of riding the rails with her father, 12-year-old Abilene can’t understand why he has sent her away to stay with Pastor Shady Howard in Manifest, Missouri, a town he left years earlier; but over the summer she pieces together his story. In 1936, Manifest is a town worn down by sadness, drought, and the Depression, but it is more welcoming to newcomers than it was in 1918, when it was a conglomeration of coal-mining immigrants who were kept apart by habit, company practice, and prejudice. Abilene quickly finds friends and uncovers a local mystery. Their summerlong “spy hunt” reveals deep-seated secrets and helps restore residents’ faith in the bright future once promised on the town’s sign. Abilene’s first-person narrative is intertwined with newspaper columns from 1917 to 1918 and stories told by a diviner, Miss Sadie, while letters home from a soldier fighting in WWI add yet another narrative layer. Vanderpool weaves humor and sorrow into a complex tale involving murders, orphans, bootlegging, and a mother in hiding. With believable dialogue, vocabulary and imagery appropriate to time and place, and well-developed characters, this rich and rewarding first novel is “like sucking on a butterscotch. Smooth and sweet.”

HOW NOT TO BE POPULAR by Jennifer Ziegler (Delacorte Press, 2008)   I’m embarrassed to admit that it’s taken me four years to “meet” Sugar Magnolia Dempsey (Maggie). I certainly understand why a movie is in the works. Fabulous!

From Jenny’s website…   Maggie Dempsey is tired of moving all over the country. Her parents are blowin’-in-the-wind hippies who uproot her every few months to go to a new city. When Maggie was younger, she thought their life was fun and adventurous. Now that she’s a teenager, she hates it.
Each time she moved, she left behind good friends, a great school, and a real feeling of belonging. But this last time she moved it was even worse: she left behind a boyfriend, too.
Now that they’re moving to Austin, Texas, Maggie knows better. She’s not going to make friends. She’s not going to fit in. And she’s definitely not going to fall for the alpha hottie who won’t leave her alone—no matter how gorgeous he is.
Instead, she will dress like a mental patient, in muumuus and flowered swim caps. She will say and do the wrong things at the wrong times. She will have a bad hair day every day. Anything to prevent her from liking this new place—and prevent the new people from liking her. That way it won’t hurt at all when she has to leave.
Only … things don’t go exactly as planned. A misfit won’t take the hint and becomes Maggie’s friend anyway. And as wrecked as she is over the boyfriend she left behind, Maggie feels … something … for the last person she would have imagined. Who knew not being popular could be so hard?

MASTERPIECE by Elise Broach  (Henry Holt, 2008)  I’m normally not drawn to stories with anthropomorphism, but this one is too charming to ignore.            From Booklist…

James lives an invisible existence in a grand apartment on the Upper East Side. His mother, busy with her new husband and baby and her climb up the Manhattan social ladder, has little time for him. By contrast, Marvin, a beetle whose overprotective, extended family resides behind James’ mother’s kitchen, gets more attention than he wants. The two find friendship when James’ artist father gives him a pen-and-ink set, and Marvin discovers his talent for “drawing,” crafting delicate, museum-quality miniatures with his legs. When Marvin and James find themselves embroiled in a plot to steal a Dürer drawing from the Metropolitan Museum, they must find creative ways to communicate to foil the thieves and protect the masterpiece. Murphy’s own pen-and-ink spot art reflects the text’s sweet insouciance. With suspense, art history, complex family relationships (human and arthropod), and a resonant friendship, this enjoyable outing will satisfy the reserved and adventurous alike. Grades 3-6

ESPERANZA RISING by Pam Munoz Ryan (Scholastic, 2002)
Another example of my tardiness in reading a great novel. This book is full of tension, clear hopes and desires, and characters who are transformed by their situations. A truly great example of a novel with all the right elements.
From School Library Journal…
Ryan uses the experiences of her own Mexican grandmother as the basis for this compelling story of immigration and assimilation, not only to a new country but also into a different social class. Esperanza’s expectation that her 13th birthday will be celebrated with all the material pleasures and folk elements of her previous years is shattered when her father is murdered by bandits. His powerful stepbrothers then hold her mother as a social and economic hostage, wanting to force her remarriage to one of them, and go so far as to burn down the family home. Esperanza’s mother then decides to join the cook and gardener and their son as they move to the United States and work in California’s agricultural industry. They embark on a new way of life, away from the uncles, and Esperanza unwillingly enters a world where she is no longer a princess but a worker. Set against the multiethnic, labor-organizing era of the Depression, the story of Esperanza remaking herself is satisfyingly complete, including dire illness and a difficult romance. Except for the evil uncles, all of the characters are rounded, their motives genuine, with class issues honestly portrayed.

THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH by Norton Juster  (yearling, 1961)      YOWZA! Another book I should have read eons ago. Fans of ALICE IN WONDERLAND will love this book, full of brilliant puns, plays on words, satire, and irony, you’ll find yourself scratching your head and giggling at the same time. Perhaps that’s why an animated film was produced in 1970 and why Maurice Sendak wrote an Appreciation to the book.
From the book jacket…  For Milo, everything’s a bore. When a tollbooth mysteriously appears in his room, he drives through only because he’s got nothing better to do. But on the other side, things seem different. Milo visits the island of Conclusions (you get there by jumping), learns about time from a ticking watchdog named Tock, and even embarks on a quest to rescue Rhyme and Reason! Somewhere along the way, Milo realizes something astonishing. Life is far from dull. In fact, it’s exciting beyond his wildest dreams…



One Response to “Reading: Exercise for the Writing Muscles”

  1. Christine

    Can you believe I have not read one of these books? I'm adding them to my list of "must reads." I totally agree, as a writer reading takes on a whole new meaning! I love it though. Combining my two passions in life, reading and writing — makes me smile from ear to ear.