Friday, March 18, 2022

Books Not Bombs, by Josh Stallings

 Q: Banning books - currently in the news again - is the most extreme way to influence others’ reading habits. On a more positive note: what books do you put in your guest bedroom? Buy as presents? Press into strangers’ hands in bookshops? Leave in little free libraries?

A: First off, in a time when political decisions are made based on ten second news blips and bumpersticker slogans to fear books and burn, um, ban them, is insanity. Books are dangerous because they make the reader think. They teach us to hold multiple sometimes opposing ideas and sort them searching for truth, in crime fiction this shows up sometimes as who done it. In Gillian Finn’s Gone Girl it shows us “truth” from two perspectives, both contain lies, and ask us to draw our own conclusions. My mother was an educator, she taught teachers to teach all over the world, she said learning to think and reason was more important than the regurgitation of facts. A very dangerous and wonderful idea. 

Erika and I always gave books to children. Hook ‘em young and they will be lifetime thinkers, um - readers. It has been a while since I’ve had young ones in my life so these are a few classics no child should live without.

Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. Max and his adventures with the wild things is written sparingly, leaving plenty of room for children for fill in the space with their own imagination.

Where the Sidewalk Ends: Poems and Drawings by Shel Silverstein. Our boys loved this one, it was a great introduction to poetry.  

Catherine Called Birdy by Karen Cushman is conceived as a dairy of a 12 year old girl living in 1290. She is a wonderfully defiant strong protagonist. Every section starts with Saints’ Days, laying out the dreadful gruesome ways the saints were martyred. My son Jared loved this book.

Our boys didn’t care what the protagonist’s sexual identity was, or their racial or cultural back ground, they were a Ninja Turtle - James and the Giant Peach - Transformer generation, they grew up on human and non-human heroes mixed. In 2022 it is easier to find books from many cultural perspectives making it easier to gift books to children that both reflect their cultural identity as well as one that opens them to new cultural experiences. Books are our first chance to broaden a child’s world view.

As a young adult our son Jared worked at Borders Bookstore shelving books. He grew up knowing several writers and reading lots of independent writers. He was a rebel with a cause, so chose to turn the book-covers out and stack the end caps with writers he liked and felt deserved greater recognition. I can’t fault his initiative. 

When asked, I used to suggest books I knew particular readers would enjoy. Time has made me more subversive. Now I take their taste into account but try and think of books that might stretch them a little. Yes there are tons of amazing books by best selling authors, but there also great books by writers they may not be aware of.

Do you like really scary stories? Or are you a fan police procedurals? Either will give you a door into the entirely unique and utterly terrifying Children of Chicago, by Cynthia Pelayo.

How about a street tough coming of age story? Or a book set in the 90’s? Do you like socially relevant books? Three Fifths by John Vercher is all three, it’s also an unflinching tale of racial stereotypes, and what it’s like growing up biracial in America.

So you like domestic thrillers? Or spy novels? Monday’s Lie by Jamie Mason tells the tale of the cost of growing up with a spy for a mom. If all your childhood games were teaching you spy-craft, how would you fit into an adult world? When you are raised to trust no one, who do you trust?

For adventurous readers looking for something new, short story collections are yummy literary sampler plates. They are the perfect place to discover new voices without having to commit to an entire novel. Here are some I recommend, and not just because I’m in a few of them, but because they are chock full of new and emerging voices.

Murder-a-Go-Go’s an anthology of stories based on the music of The GoGo’s, edited by Holly West. 

Shattering Glass: A Nasty Woman Press Anthology edited by Heather Graham. 

Alive in Space and Color: 16 Paintings by Great Artists and the Stories They Inspired, edited by Lawrence Block.

Unloaded: Crime Writers Writing Without Guns, edited by Eric Beetner


If reading is a revolutionary act, then libraries are the ramparts we will meet on. Their budgets are tight, they can’t always afford anything but the most asked for books. most accept donations of new books. I have given copies of books to my local and when a reader reached out from a small town in New Zealand saying they didn’t have Young Americans in their library, I sent them one for their shelves.    


Author Mark Stevens interviewed me last month and we got real fast. Talked about writing process, policing in America, my son Dylan and much more.


Catriona McPherson said...

I am right now trying to choose a present for a child, Josh. The catherine Birdy one sounds intriguing. . .

Susan C Shea said...

"If reading is a revolutionary act, then libraries are the ramparts we will meet on. " What a great statement, Josh.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Well said, Josh, and thanks for the book recommendations.

Josh Stallings said...

Catriona, it’s also a cool introduction to historical fiction.
Susan, thank you. I do think critical thinking in the modern world is rebellious.
Dietrich, your most welcome. I love how we get to exchange lists of books we love. Too fun.