The New York Times has a regular interview feature with writers called By the Book. (Here’s a great recent one with Laurie Halse Anderson). I borrowed this idea for a slice from The Hyphenated Life but read a few By the Book columns to gather a collection of interview questions that I liked.
What books are on your nightstand?
I’ve already written a whole slice about this, but there are different books there now. Donalyn Miller and Colby Sharp’s Game Changer! Book Access for All Kids, Isabel Allende’s In the Midst of Winter, Tochi Onyebuchi’s Beasts of the Night, Weike Wang’s Chemistry, Paul Elie’s Reinventing Bach, and Carol Anderson’s White Rage.
Who is your favorite novelist of all time?
Jane Austen. My desert island book would always be her doorstopper collected works, though the print is so small, I probably wouldn’t be able to read it.
What’s the last great book you read?
I rarely finish books I don’t like, so I’m happy with most of what I read. The last book I gave five stars to on Goodreads was The Outsiders, which my son and I just finished as our read-aloud. The last book I read myself that I gave five stars to was Carole Boston Weatherford’s picture book, The Roots of Rap, which has splendid art by Frank Morrison.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
How very many snail species there are and how very tiny they can be. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is full of interesting information about snails that you didn’t know you wanted to know.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
Probably The Brontes Went to Woolworths, a novel published in 1940 by Rachel Ferguson, and reprinted in a Virago edition, which my mother collects.
Whose opinion on books do you most trust?
My mom knows what I’m likely to enjoy, even though it’s often rather different from what she enjoys. Most of my book recommendations come from the wonderful teacher-bloggers who participate in the kidlit version of It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? Carrie, Shaye, Linda, Cheriee, and many more keep me reading. For grown-up reading, I often like books recommended on the Modern Mrs Darcy blog or podcast, What Should I Read Next. And if Rebecca Schinsky from Book Riot recommends it, I’m almost certain to like it.
When do you read?
First thing in the morning before I check my phone. Last thing at night before bed. When my students have reading time. When I find myself with an hour home alone in the afternoon. With my son after we watch TV in the evening.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
Middle-grade is my jam. But I also love picture books, graphic novels for all ages, sci-fi, fantasy, investigative journalism, nonfiction, cookbooks, literary fiction, essays. I don’t typically make time for romance, mysteries, or Westerns, though I’m open to well-written books in these genres. I’d probably have to avoid gory horror, as once an image is in my head, it’s never leaving.
How do you organize your books?
Badly. Wherever there’s room. I’ve long since run out of shelf space, and so now new books that enter have to be stacked. I used to have a photographic memory for all my books and could instantly picture any title I was looking for. Now I often can’t even remember which state my books are in. Literally. I live in South Dakota and work in Nebraska and have thousands of books in both locations.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I’ve been many different readers over my life, and I still have books from all those different selves: romance novels from early teen reading, the complete works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gore Vidal from pretentious late teen reading, Virago reprints and feminist classics from my early 20s, Restoration and 18th-century literature from my late 20s and early 30s, and a true hodgepodge of books ever since.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
Eugenides from Meghan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series. The first book in the series, The Thief, is a tight and tidy Newbery Honor, and in subsequent books, the story becomes a sprawling series about the moves and matters of nations. But Eugenides is always the beating heart. I also have a soft spot for Snape.
Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
Russell Hoban’s Frances books, the Little House on the Prairie series, which is at least half the reason I thought it was a perfectly reasonable idea to move to South Dakota in my 30s, Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
Any book would be better than the none he obviously currently reads, but I’m going to go with something that explains how the Constitution works. Because I think he could use a primer.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Much as I would like to have a good chat with Jane Austen, I’m a shy introvert who struggles with small talk and would prefer to organize this literary dinner party for writers I’ve already met and talked to, just so I wouldn’t be too star-struck and tongue-tied. I’m going with Jason Reynolds, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Elizabeth Acevedo.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I sometimes feel this way about literary fiction for grown-ups. I need characters that feel real, plots that move, not just carefully crafted prose, and sometimes the literary fiction I try feels more like a literary exercise than a novel. I put down books without finishing them all the time, though I am also motivated to read to finish books and add them to my list, as I do like to see the numbers rise over the year.
What book do you plan to read next?
It’s impossible to say.