Readers, after life took her in a few other directions, my guest today entered into her current career as a third and fourth grade teacher, where she loves finding the stories that help turn her students into readers.
Katrina Fleming has a proven plan for getting the kids in her classroom hooked on reading, and she’s always been a reader herself, with a particular love for mysteries, biographies, and under-hyped titles. But lately, she’s gotten a bit stuck in her own reading life, and she’s found it hard to get past false starts with the books she’s recently picked up. She’d love to find some older, hidden gems to enjoy, and she’d like my help to figure out why her recent picks haven’t worked for her.
We dig in to that literary mystery, and I recommend some titles that tell fascinating stories about fascinating people that I expect will be just the reading prescription Katrina is looking for.
Katrina (00:00): They said you really should consider teaching. And I thought, oh, that’s a great idea. And they said, we’ve been telling you that for years [ANNE LAUGHS]
Anne (00:07): Hey readers, I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next episode 330. Welcome to the show that’s dedicated to answering the question that plagues every reader, what should I read next? We don’t get bossy on this show. What we will do here is give you the information you need to choose your next read. Every week we’ll talk all things books and reading, and do a little literary matchmaking with one guest.
Anne (00:39): Readers, over the past weeks, you’ve heard me telling you about how much fun we’ll have at our live Summer Reading Guide unboxing event. Well, there’s good news. There’s still time to sign up and join us for our one-of-a-kind book party. This official kickoff to summer reading season takes place May 19th and to accommodate as many readers from all those time zones as possible, we do it live twice that day. Get ready for a delightful time with me, our What Should I Read Next team, and your fellow book lovers as we celebrate all things books and reading. To learn more and sign up to join us, visit patreon.com/whatshouldireadnext. You don’t want to miss this. Sign up today at patreon.com/whatshouldireadnext.
Anne (01:17): Readers, my guest today may have come to the profession reluctantly, but now she adores being a third and fourth grade teacher, especially because she gets to introduce her students to the stories that help turn them into readers.
Anne (01:35): Katrina Fleming has a plan for getting her kids hooked on reading, but lately she’s felt like her plan for her own reading life has been letting her down. She has a pretty good idea of what she enjoys—mysteries, biographies and older books that aren’t being hyped on social media these days. She really wants to be reading fewer bestsellers and more hidden gems. Yet lately she’s had a number of false starts with the books she’s chosen, and she’s not sure why. We dig into that literary mystery and help Katrina pinpoint some true gems in a favorite genre. Our conversation will remind you of the stories you fell in love with when you were a young booknerd, and add fascinating books about fascinating people to your reading list. Let’s get to it.
Anne (02:18): Katrina. Welcome to the show.
Katrina (02:19): I am thrilled to be here. This is, oh, this is just the best for any kind of reader. [KATRINA LAUGHS]
Anne (02:24): We get to talk about our favorite thing.
Katrina (02:26): Exactly.
Anne (02:28): Katrina, where are you in the world right now?
Katrina (02:29): I am in Ashland, Massachusetts, which is, um, about half an hour outside of Boston heading west. And, um, we just actually moved here in August. Um, we got over to this lovely, lovely little home and it’s, it almost feels literally nestled in the woods, like we’re right by a state forest. And when we first came here, we fell in love with the house. And then I was kind of wandering outside and there was this little path that went in the woods with this beautiful little wooden bridge and a creek running under it. And I thought, oh my God, this is it. This is it. I want this house. And we can walk through the woods and we go to the lake and there’s all these like little nooks there that I remember thinking, oh, that’ll be a good reading spot. And that’ll be a good reading spot. [KATRINA LAUGHS]
Anne (03:17): That sounds amazing. I’ve never been, but would dearly love to visit.
Katrina (03:21): Oh, there’s a lot of good bookstores here. You’d like it.
Anne (03:23): This is what I keep hearing. Well, I’m glad that you’re settling in.
Katrina (03:26): Thank you.
Anne (03:27): Katrina. I understand from your submission that you’re a teacher.
Katrina (03:30): I love teaching and it’s not something I ever thought I would do. So when I was younger, people said, oh, you should be a teacher. And I thought, mm-hmm, there’s just no way to me. It sounded like being trapped in a room. I wanted to travel. I wanted to go do stuff. I wanted to go make my name in the world. And I, in a sense did that. I had a lot of adventures. I did a lot of traveling and then one day I just, I didn’t get tired of it. I just realized that there was a lot that you could bring to the classroom. I realized I could bring the, the world to the classroom. And so when someone brought it up again, when I was sort of teetering between careers and, and changing careers, they said, you really should consider teaching. And I thought, oh, that’s a great idea.
Katrina (04:10): And they said, we’ve been telling you that for years. [ANNE LAUGHS] And like, but I didn’t, I wasn’t ready for it. So what I love about teaching is, uh, I worked for many years with third graders and now we work with fourth graders. It really is fun because you get to bring so many different subjects to kids and show them the possibilities of everything. And it’s fun to look at your class and imagine what they’re gonna discover and where they’re gonna go. And of course, a big part of it all is the books. I love the reading. Third grade is fun, but fourth grade and fifth grade, you start to get into some really fun books for them and seeing them discover them and then disappear into them. And one of my favorite things as a teacher is when you get your little book rebels, when you’re like, okay, it’s time to move to the next thing, everyone put your stuff away. And you get those kids that are so into their books. They don’t hear you. [ANNE LAUGHS] and there was one there’s one girl. If I have to be very gentle, I have to go up and touch her on the shoulder cuz like she’ll literally jump if I say her name, she’s so into her books. So that’s kind of a fun thing where I, you know, I’ll tell the parents later, you’ve got a little book rebel and I’m so proud of them. [BOTH LAUGH]
Anne (05:14): Oh, we need a t-shirt or identifying name tag “book rebel.” Katrina. I have to ask. What are some of the books that you most enjoy teaching to your fourth and fifth graders?
Katrina (05:23): Well, there’s books I love to introduce to kids. I’m very, very mindful when I do book groups, because I don’t wanna ruin books for kids by overanalyzing them. That’s an area I struggle with sometimes, is I’ve had kids come, come back to visit. And the first thing I’ll say is, oh, it’s so good to see you. What are they having you read? And they’ll tell me sometimes the books they’re reading [ANNE LAUGHS] and I’m like, oh, that’s a great one. They said it was until the fifth reading. And they say, it’s just not fun anymore. When they get older, which breaks your heart a little bit.
Anne (05:51): Yeah.
Katrina (05:52): The books I try to introduce to them are, let’s see right now we’re reading The Penderwicks, which they’re loving, which always surprises kids, cuz I I’ll show them the book. I’ll say I know it looks a little boring [ANNE LAUGHS] but you’re gonna love this book.
Anne (06:05): It probably does if you’re nine, doesn’t it?
Katrina (06:07): Yes! And I’ll start reading it and we’ll do the voices and everything and then they get so into it and they’re, they can hardly wait for read aloud. I like to introduce them to Out of My Mind, that is just a phenomenal book, goes in places you don’t expect. Have you read that one?
Anne (06:24): Yes I have, but I haven’t read the sequel, even though we went to the bookstore on publication day to buy it for my, for my daughter.
Katrina (06:31): I was so excited about the sequel and I read it. As an adult, it doesn’t have the same effect. I think for kids though, they’re gonna love it, because it involves summer and summer camp and the nervousness around that. It doesn’t pack the same punch that the original book does for us adults where it, it had those highs and lows and it had the climax go in a way you didn’t expect it to go. And I think that’s why so many adult readers are like, oh, this book is phenomenal. But I think the kids, like I say, the kids are really gonna enjoy it.
Anne (07:00): Well, summer is practically upon us so I can read Out of My Heart now.
Katrina (07:04): They love, uh, Gordon Korman. Restart is an incredible book.
Anne (07:07): Okay. I keep thinking that my 12 year old will love his work, but I have approached the situation wrong. [BOTH LAUGH] I put myself in the situation of, um, needing to be a book pusher if he’s going to pick it up. But if I do that he won’t. Okay. So what are your favorite Gordon Korman books for your kids?
Katrina (07:24): Well, I’ve only read a couple of them. I think I read Unschooled a long time ago. There’s I think it’s called The Unspeakables. They all have a similar arc that really appeals to kids. So Restart is just phenomenal. It’s about a kid that he just wakes up. The story starts off where he wakes up in a hospital and doesn’t remember who he was before, and he doesn’t recognize his family. As the story goes on, he comes to find out that people have certain reactions to him, which gives him hints about who he was. And the kids love that, uh, that they really enjoyed that, dying for more Gordon Korman books. So I had to order a bunch more for our class. Um, but Dan Gutman is very popular. He writes the Weird School series. Wonder, of course is very popular. And uh, Wendy Mass is fun for, um, certain kids.
Katrina (08:13): Like not everyone likes Wendy Mass, but if you find the right student, like The Candymakers is phenomenal, that’s told in four parts and the first part you read, you’re like, okay, well this feels a little bit like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but it’s okay. And then you get to the second part and it’s told from a different child’s point of view, it’s one of those where you almost drop the book. You’re like, oh, that’s what’s what’s going on. [ANNE LAUGHS] and when the kids get to that part, I look at them and we kind of raise eyebrows at each other and they’re like, I didn’t know. And then the last one, I think I love to push on kids, but not a lot of kids are ready for it. Greenglass House, which also has that surprise ending, which they don’t see coming.
Anne (08:49): Now you said you’d love to recommend these to kids. Do you get to do book talks, book commercials? What do, how do you approach this in your classroom?
Katrina (08:56): We definitely do book commercials and it’s interesting because this year I’ve had to do more book commercials than before. And it’s not like have to, they’re fun. The kids like it. I like it. But most years in the beginning of the year, I have a ton of graphic novels and I push them like candy. I just push ’em, push ’em at the kids and they love them. And some of the parents are understandably worried at first they say, well, you know, is that good for my child? Shouldn’t they be reading chapter books? And I always say, don’t worry, November around November, they’re gonna be moving over to chapter books. But these are like the gateway drug to chapter books every year that’s come true. You know, by November, December, most of my kids are reading chapter books. This year, that didn’t happen, and that was a first, they kept reading graphic novels.
Katrina (09:36): And I think that has to do with everything with the pandemic. And you know, how like when things like that happen, kids kind of regress a little bit, um, not necessarily with their reading level, but just with their comfort, what’s comfortable for them. So this year, I, for the first time ever, only during reader’s workshop, would I say, okay, if you’re, if it’s during reader’s workshop, you have to be reading a chapter book and any other time of the day, you can be reading a graphic novel. Um, and so then I did tons of book talks where we’ll, you know, I’ll read the back or I’ll read, um, you know, the first page or two and get them really hooked. And I think we all need that. You know, like this, this podcast is great for that because it, it gets you hooked on things that you wouldn’t ordinarily look at.
Anne (10:13): Well, I hope so.
Katrina (10:15): [LAUGHS] it does
Anne (10:16): My sympathies lie with your kids because there are so many wonderful graphic novels.
Katrina (10:21): Yes, there are. Now I think I instituted that new rule about a month ago and they’re all reading chapter books now and loving them. And they also read along with audio books. So our school has an account to Sora. And that lets them read along. And the rule is you can listen to an audio book, you just have to read along with it. And so they’ve been enjoying that because you know what, it’s great. It teaches them fluency. It teaches them new vocabulary. And it’s fun. It’s just plain fun.
Anne (10:47): For listeners who don’t know, Sora is the student reading app from Overdrive. Many grownups become acquainted with Sora, not just because of their kids, but because they are the distribution method for the Sync audio book program put on by AudioFile magazine. We have talked about this for years on What Should I Read Next and Modern Mrs. Darcy, and what this program does is gives two totally free thematically paired audio books to teens each week, all summer long. Go to audiofilemagazine.com to find out more. And we usually share about it on Modern Mrs. Darcy as well. Katrina, you teach young readers now and help them become, you know, full fledged teen, and then adult readers who are responsible for, and really enjoy cultivating their own reading lives. And it makes me wonder if you have always been a reader.
Katrina (11:33): Always. Um, I grew up with everyone in my family reading when we would go camping. Um, we would used to go to Lake George in New York and we would pile in my dad’s van. And this tells you about the times, it was a van and he would put in for my stepbrother and I—we’d each get a lounge chair in the back of the van, no seat belts. [ANNE LAUGHS] this was the seventies.
Anne (11:56): It was still like that in the eighties.
Katrina (11:57): Oh yeah. And we would like put a box next to us and we could fill it with toys and books. And we both were huge readers. It was filled with books and we’d just get so cozy. We’d have our blankets. We would just, oh, it was amazing. I miss those days, but yeah, we would read a lot during camping. Um, my stepmother would read aloud to us. She had a wonderful voice. My grandparents were huge readers. They had this lovely cellar. It had that cellar smell, but it was very dry, and you’d go downstairs, and the walls of the cellar would be covered with cheap paperbacks, but wonderful books. Reading was so important to my mother that when I was little, we would drive like three towns over to go to a different library. And we didn’t have a lot of money, but she paid every year for a library card for that library, because it was huge. I never went to my town library until I was a teenager. And then I looked around and I thought, oh, now I get it. Now I know why she was taking us to a different library cuz it was tiny. And this other library had a huge children’s room and just lovely people there. So I’ve always been a reader. I’ve always loved it.
Anne (12:59): Now flash forward several decades. How would you describe your reading life right now?
Katrina (13:03): I’m always reading a lot of different kinds of books. Uh, I read a lot of middle grade fiction, both for my job, but also just because it’s fun and it’s, it’s light and it reminds you of being a kid yourself. Um, I read a lot of mysteries, which is something that’s relatively new. I only started that about two or three years ago, but I’m loving Agatha Christie.
Anne (13:21): What pulled you into the mystery genre?
Katrina (13:23): A friend had told me that her daughter was really into Agatha Christie, which at the time I thought really isn’t she like this old fashioned writer? I just tucked that in my brain. And then I saw a copy of um, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and I thought I would give that a try. That was a big wake up call that they weren’t boring. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd shocked me and I thought, oh, I’ve gotta have more of that. That was a lot of fun. It’s like going on a ride and then you wanna hop right back on the ride.
Anne (13:49): Katrina, I haven’t read that one.
Katrina (13:50): You’re in for a treat. You’re gonna love it.
Anne (13:52): It’s always good to have good books to look forward to. So mysteries, that’s new to you. What else do you enjoy reading?
Katrina (13:58): I like reading biographies as well. I look at them a lot differently than I used to.
Anne (14:04): Ooh, interesting.
Katrina (14:05): When I’m teaching, we have a biography unit in our class and when I’m teaching it, I see that the kids are really exploring who they might be, gravitating to books about subjects, obviously, that interest them or people that interest them. I think when you’re a kid, you’re trying to discover who you might be. But when you’re an adult, I mean the older you get, you realize there’s only so many paths you can take. And once you’ve picked, you know, one or two or three paths, however many, it’s interesting to read about the paths other people took that you’ll never take. I love finding out about weird little worlds. Like even just getting my haircut. I love to talk to [BOTH LAUGH] the woman that cuts my hair and ask for stories like, well, what happens when this happened? Just, just the weird things that happen in that life, cuz there’s all these strange little worlds like there’s people who or that book, uh, The Boys in the Boat, that was uh, a really neat look into this whole part of life that I never knew existed. I recently read Born a Crime, which gave this whole other view of this, again, another world that I didn’t know existed and a path somebody took that is not one I will ever take. So I think that’s what so compelling about biographies is they serve so many different roles depending on your age.
Anne (15:13): And it sounds like you find it intrinsically fascinating to see how other people lead their lives.
Katrina (15:20): Yeah. I think that’s a good way to put it.
Anne (15:22): So those are very broad genres, middle grade, mysteries, biographies. What is your eye drawn to? How do you decide what to read?
Katrina (15:31): I think I like stories with a little bit of mystery or a little bit of strangeness in them. Often if I go to a bookstore and I see the best sellers, like I try them sometimes and sometimes there’s a hit. More often than not, I tend to like older books and I’m not sure why that is. I’m often left, maybe disappointed. The hype, I think can sometimes play with my head a little bit [ANNE LAUGHS] and so things don’t always match up to the hype. Whereas if you have an older book that no one’s really talking about it’s it feels like your own discovery and there’s no hype there. There’s no preconceived idea of what it’s going to be.
Anne (16:08): So really you’re looking for books that interest you absent of that influence. I mean, as much as you’re able to do so.
Katrina (16:14): Correct, yep.
Anne (16:15): Well, Katrina, I can’t wait to hear more about what this looks like in your reading life. You know how we do that here. Are you ready to dive in?
Katrina (16:23): Oh, I sure am.
Anne (16:27): Katrina. You are going to tell me three books you love, one book you don’t and what you’ve been reading lately, and then we will talk about what you may enjoy reading next. How did you choose these today?
Katrina (16:39): I thought about books that just stayed with me. They’re not necessarily absolute favorites in the whole world. They’re just ones that there was just something different about them that made me recommend them to other people or give them to other people because there’s just something in them that I found intriguing and special.
Anne (16:56): Tell me about the first book you love.
Katrina (16:58): The first book was one that really surprised me. It’s actually a middle grade book. It’s um, nonfiction and it’s called Bomb: The Race to Build–And Steal–The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon. And it’s by Steve Sheinkin.
Anne (17:12): This seems to be a book that is beloved by wide swath of readers, who might think that their reading taste don’t have anything in common and yet… Okay. Tell me more.
Katrina (17:21): I was reading this because it was in my library, my classroom library. And I thought, you know, I should read that and know what it’s about. Right away from the very first page, it reads like a thriller. I would never think I would have interest in reading about the making of a bomb. It starts off with this man who’s in his house. He’s been a spy and he’s trying to hide all the proof that he’s been a spy. He’s trying to hide records and literally throwing things in the toilet. Um, I think it’s the CIA or the FBI, one of those is at his door knocking. And so right away it starts with that. And it goes back in time and you learn about all the people that were players in the making of the atomic bomb. It tells the history of what was going on during World War II and how many close calls there were, like how close we were to losing the race to get to the bomb before the Germans.
Katrina (18:11): Like for example, there’s this story about, um, heavy water, which I’d never heard of. World War II is almost flipped over because a man forgot his glasses in a, in a lab. I mean just these weird little tweaks – Yeah, really weird. And it’s this book that I’ve given to certain students, not all students, but certain students have loved it and they’ve shared it with their families. I gifted it to my dad and he read it and adored it. And my stepmother, my husband’s read it. I just gave it to my brother-in-law for Christmas. And he was texting me constantly like, oh my God, I can’t believe this part. It’s just one of those things that sweeps you up. My brain isn’t very good about remembering facts and things, like I would’ve been a terrible lawyer, [ANNE LAUGHS] so I can’t remember a lot of the specific facts. I just remember the feeling of it, like it just sweeps you up, makes you really appreciate how random history can be and how just things can balance on one small little event. And uh, it’s, it’s a lot of fun. It’s a good book.
Anne (19:07): That sounds like a really fun reading experience. So thank you, Fourth grade library bookshelves.
Katrina (19:12): The second book is Manderley Forever: A Biography of Daphne du Maurier by Tatiana de Rosnay. I think it’s pronounced and Daphne du Maurier is the author, um, most people know her from the book, Rebecca. That is a book I discovered, you know, a few years ago and loved. And I’ve read a lot of her books now and they all have very similar dark intriguing kind of feel. I love her writing style because it is to the point. It’s easy to understand. She’s just a good storyteller who doesn’t get carried away with trying to sound good if you know what I mean? So I was interested to read about her and this biography was phenomenal. I’m even more interested in rereading all of her books now because she had a fascinating life where her parents were both actors. They were friends with J.M. Barrie, who wrote Peter Pan, and it was originally a play.
Katrina (20:05): And her father would play Mr. Darling and Captain Hook. And she was kind of in awe of her father that he could switch the roles that quickly and be two such different people. So she was actually friends, she grew up with J.M. Barrie, you find out like where she went to school and she went to France for a while and she had a very, very unconventional childhood, loved writing from the very beginning. They had bought this boathouse along a river, I think it was. And she would hole herself up there with writing. Eventually, as she got older, she married and you see pictures of her in the book and she just doesn’t look like she belongs to that time. She reminds me a little bit of Katharine Hepburn, who just was like, marched to the beat of her own drum. You look at the pictures of her and you’re almost like, hmm, were you a time traveler or something? You don’t look like you belong to that time.
Katrina (20:52): Even like her final days were fascinating. So I think if anyone really loves, uh, reading about writers or enjoyed Rebecca or any of her other books will really enjoy Manderley Forever. I can’t say enough about that book. It was so well written.
Anne (21:06): That’s quite a recommendation.
Katrina (21:08): Um, the third book was a little bit of a surprise. It’s called Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce. There’s a bookstore that’s about 40 minutes away from me and it’s actually run by Jeff Kinney. He’s the author of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series that’s so popular with kids, and he created this bookstore in his hometown. You know, you could pass through the town very quickly. There isn’t that much to notice. It’s it’s nice, but there’s nothing that really stands out there. It’s it’s literally called Plainville. This was an old, I think it might have been an old railroad station.
Katrina (21:42): He has transformed it into this gorgeous bookstore. So if you ever go to Boston, it’s very well worth a ride out to see it.
Anne (21:49): This is An Unlikely Story I think?
Katrina (21:52): An Unlikely Story. Yes, that’s it. And it’s got a wonderful children’s section. In fact, I would say probably a third of space in there is children’s books. They have an excellent kid section.
Anne (22:03): That seems fitting.
Katrina (22:04): There was one set, um, one section for classics and I always love classics. And I, I looked over some of those and I saw Tom’s Midnight Garden there and I thought, never even heard of that. And I picked it up and it was published in 1958 or 1959. Um, I bought it and so glad I did because it’s a standalone novel about a boy whose brother has the measles. Summer vacation has just started. And so he has to leave his house so that he won’t get the measles, but he’s gonna stay with his aunt and uncle.
Katrina (22:36): And he is angry about it. He’s furious about having to leave his family. He’s resentful of his parents. He’s thinking my whole summer vacation is ruined. His aunt and uncle live in a flat. As soon as he walks in the house, he feels like it’s uninviting. The first thing he notices is an old grandfather clock that’s been kind of soldered shut and it’s been screwed into the wall and it can’t come out. It belongs to the, um, the landlord upstairs. His aunt says, don’t touch that grandfather clock, it belongs to the landlord upstairs. And if he’s saying, well, if it’s so special and important to her, why isn’t it upstairs? And they said, well, it was screwed into the wall and it rusted there, so it can’t be moved. And the weird thing about this clock is it chimes at all the wrong times. It chimes 13 times once a night.
Katrina (23:21): And he discovers that when this happens and he goes in the backyard, all of a sudden, there’s this big garden there, and he meets this little girl there every night, every time the chime rings 13 times. So it’s this kind of mystery you’re like, is this time travel? Is he going to another place? Like what’s going on here? And then at the end, it kind of twists into this beautiful surprise. It’s not like a pull the rug from under you. It’s like this slow—It’s almost like the mist is kind of disappears. And then you look around you and you’re like, oh, of course that’s what happened. So it’s a, it’s a lot of fun. And I’ve given that to a couple of people who said, oh, I’ve never heard of it. And I think the way to describe it is charming. It’s just charming and sweet.
Anne (24:04): Oh, it’s so fun to discover a book like that. Katrina, tell me about a book that wasn’t right for you.
Katrina (24:09): I really did not like She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb, so much so that I read this probably around when it first came out 15, 20, 25 years ago, I found it so disturbing, just unsettling. It was, I think showing the worst of people, how awful they could be to each other. And I know a lot of other people found the opposite message in it and they loved it and they found it very uplifting, but I found it very dark and disturbing, and it brought me to a place where I’m like, it was almost like putting on kind of a moldy coat where you’re like, no, no, no, no, no. I want that off of me. I don’t like that feeling at all. And I remember it to this day, like how much I disliked it and the feeling it gave me. So I guess for, for me, it’s just about the mood it created.
Anne (24:55): So the book did a great job of transporting you to a, a world and an emotional realm that you didn’t actually wanna be in. I’m wondering if you chose this book because that’s true, not just about this particular title, but would you say in your reading life that that’s not a place you wanna go? You don’t wanna see the worst of people, even if it’s stunningly drawn and vividly portrayed and like impeccably characterized. If it’s about the worst of humanity, that’s not the place that you wanna go like that that’s not the mood that you’re seeking.
Katrina (25:28): Exactly. Yeah. I would say that’s very accurate. I feel like there’s kind of enough of that on right now with the news and everything that while I think those stories can be very effective and they’re very important, people should tell their stories and they should talk about the dark things, um, so other people can learn from them, but at least right now in my reading life, it, it, it doesn’t feel good, and it I’m very sensitive reader. I can take on moods very easily. It would actually bring me down.
Anne (25:57): How would you say what you do want? So we know that you love books that are surprisingly fascinating, maybe a little bit strange.
Katrina (26:04): Mm-hmm. I do like going to other worlds and, and, and strange worlds. And, but I like that feeling of hopefulness at the end and optimism. And while life can have dark sides, I like seeing the light shine throughout.
Anne (26:18): Katrina. What have you been reading lately?
Katrina (26:20): I’m glad that we’re having this conversation now because lately I’ve been having a little trouble with my reading life. Um, I’ve had a lot of false starts. Um, so I tried reading Lab Girl, and it just wasn’t doing it for me. Um, I tried reading The Worst Hard Time, which was about the, um, great dust bowl, which I thought I was gonna love, but it, I just put it down cuz it wasn’t doing it. Um, but some books that I’m really into right now that I’ve been enjoying are I’ve been listening to the The Winds of War on audio. I just started that and it’s really good. Um, I’m re-listening to the Penderwicks series, which is just lovely and oh, one that was a lot of fun was As You Wish by Cary Elwes. I don’t know how to pronounce his name. And that was, um, he was the actor in The Princess Bride. That was a lot of fun, just reading about how the movie was made and the back stories and, and finding out what an amazing director Rob Reiner was and what a great person, and that was a lot of fun to read the backs stories to that and find out how the movie was made. And, and it’s, it just sounded like a really special time. I really enjoyed that.
Anne (27:24): A theme today. I’ve had that on my list for forever [KATRINA LAUGHS] forever. I think it’s actually downloaded, the audio book. Katrina, what are you looking for in your reading life right now?
Katrina (27:33): Right now I’m interested in finding biographies about people that I find fascinating. Like I’ve been lately enjoying biographies about writers, but I’m looking for kind of hidden gems that maybe I’ve missed along the way, um, that would really let me delve into another world into somebody else’s story.
Anne (27:53): Oh gosh. And there are so many different directions we could go in cuz that’s the thing about biography. I think so often when we’re not actively considering what biography to read next, we think, oh this is, this will be easy. This is just like one tidy little corner of the bookstore, like how many biographies can there be? But then when you start to look at all the different ways people can lead their lives. Every single book takes you in a complete, I mean like almost into a different genre. So it’s one thing to say like, oh I love biography, what should I read next? But there’s so many different directions we could go in.
Katrina (28:25): Mm-hmm
Anne (28:29): Okay. So let’s start by recapping. You loved Bomb: The Race to Build–And Steal–The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, by Steve Sheinkin. Manderley Forever: the Daphne du Maurier Biography by Tatiana de Rosnay, and Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce. Not for you, She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb. You’re looking to be taken to a place that has more hopeful, hopefulness and optimism about human nature than, than you found in those pages. Lately you have been reading a host of titles. We, we got a memoir or two on the list, but not any biography, and that is what we are looking for right now. And hopefully we’ll find a book that will, uh, you said that nothing’s really grabbing you right now. We would love to have something that really grabs you. We have to narrow it down somehow. So what I’m going to do is stick to actual biography and not so much memoir or autobiography.
Anne (29:24): We want stories of fascinating lives. I think that’s the least of my worries. We can find fascinating lives and I’m definitely noting some things, some phrases that you used to describe the books that you really loved or that you’re reading now. You love books with a little bit of mystery, a little bit of strangeness. You said that often you’re looking for just something a little bit different and I’m not gonna forget about the hopefulness and optimism [KATRINA LAUGHS] or about the fact that you pointed out, um, how interesting it is to you to read about those who marched to the beat of their own drum.
Katrina (29:55): That all sounds great,
Anne (29:56): But now it’s time to make a decision. Do you feel like this is a great time to be reading biographies? It does seem like so many untold stories or really in depth tellings of stories that we think are familiar, but we just don’t know what we don’t know, are being published every day. I mean, do you, do you feel like there’s a wealth of options to choose from when you’re looking for books in this genre?
Katrina (30:18): I would say so, yeah. And it’s hard to know sometimes the difference between, oh, this is like a, a celebrity tell-all as opposed to something that really dives deep into someone’s inner workings of their mind. It’s like dusting off the surface of what we all see and going deeper, whether that’s someone that’s alive today or that’s someone that is no longer on the earth anymore. But yeah, I think it, it is hard to choose.
Anne (30:42): I didn’t really see this coming. I don’t know why not. Um, when you started talking about Bomb, but like, there’s some spy narratives that I think could be fascinating for you. Like the works of Ben Macintyre. I think I want to camp out a little more in the literary realm. How do you feel about that?
Katrina (30:59): I am all there.
Anne (31:00): I like the idea of beginning with the biography of Margaret Wise Brown that was just published in the last five years I wanna say. It’s called In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown, author of Goodnight Moon. Is this one that you’ve read?
Katrina (31:17): No,
Anne (31:18): I think this is gonna be really fun. Okay. First of all, I just have to read you a headline from the New York Post. So when they reviewed her book, this is the headline they gave the book review: Goodnight Moon author was a bisexual rebel who didn’t like kids. [KATRINA GASPS] So right off the bat, I feel like every biography has a premise. You know like why this person, what do you wanna say about it? What do people need to know? Like what is the untold story? Cuz if everybody knows this story, then what are you even doing writing biography? And even when you’re reading biographies of well known, much studied historical characters, a biography should show you things you don’t know, but this one right off the bat is like, you’re wrong, let’s talk about it. This is a really thoughtful and personal exploration of Margaret Wise Brown’s life.
Anne (32:06): And also what it meant to so many people like what it means to you and me. Like you teach fourth grade. Margaret Wise Brown completely reshaped publishing’s approach to children’s literature and introduced things that we take for granted today that it might never occur to us. You know? Like somebody had to come up with the concept of touch and feel books or audio recordings that can be read along to, and also books about really abstract concepts that didn’t previously exist in children’s literature, like feelings or difficult subjects like, like talking about death with a child. Brenna on our team likes to say, you will never look at the kid lit section the same again, after reading this book. And it also goes into her personal life in detail, like this woman was a super genius. I mean the modern equivalent would be like, oh, you know, she’s just like jotting down her children’s books ideas and, um, prose on the back of a grocery list, you know?
Anne (33:03): Cause the idea came to her when she was out shopping. It goes into detail about the ways that she sometimes spent her royalty checks. Um, she made a lot of money from her books and the thing she spent it on is shocking. She didn’t like dislike kids maybe, but she definitely didn’t love them. And the book kind of mentions that she’s not the only one, her death was dramatic and strange like the stuff of a soap opera, and not something you would expect to encounter in real life. But also, you mentioned that Daphne du Maurier, in reading the book, like you kind of envisioned her as a Katharine Hepburn type character? Margaret Wise Brown is completely the same way. And I think you’ll find this book, I mean, fascinating and jaw dropping, like she did not, really? Like how did I not know? Like, oh my gosh, I think, I think you’ll enjoy that. Also, I think you’ll enjoy the emotional register that this book hits for you and the places it takes, that you feel invited to visit in your mind through this text.
Katrina (33:56): I am so excited to read this. I can taste it. [ANNE LAUGHS]
Anne (33:59): I’m so happy to hear that.
Katrina (34:01): This sounds phenomenal. I’ve never even heard of it! When she wrote that book, it just touches exactly what kids do at night, as they say goodnight to everything. [ANNE LAUGHS] I don’t think anyone thought to write a book about that before, but now that you’re saying all this, yes, yes, this is, this is a great one. I’m so excited to read this.
Anne (34:20): Fantastic. I am happy to hear it. Can we talk about another writer?
Katrina (34:24): Please.
Anne (34:24): We are going to talk about the Edna St. Vincent Millay biography called Savage Beauty. It’s by Nancy Milford, who wrote Zelda, which I think perhaps is her better known book that sold a bazillion copies. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, but this is a newer book that is a biography of the celebrated, uh, though not as well celebrated as Milford thought she deserved, poet. Is this one you’re familiar with?
Katrina (34:51): I’m familiar with it. And the wild thing is, is when I was getting my, um, degree for education, we had a writing teacher and she told us that she had taught high school for a while. She was an excellent teacher. And she said, when I was, you know, teaching high school, I used to match people up with a poet that I thought matched them and who they should explore. So after class I went up and I’m like, I’m not really into poetry right now, but I’m so curious who you’d match me to. And she said, um, Edna St. Vincent Millay. [ANNE LAUGHS] She said, you need to read about that. So now you’re like speaking my language. I wanna, I wanna read this.
Anne (35:21): Oh, I love it. Okay. I said that a biography begins with like an essential question. Like, what is the author trying to show you? And I think that it’s fair to say the central question at the heart of this book is Millay was famous and celebrated, and she had this intoxicating effect on people as the author says and that’s people of all ages. And so the question at the heart of this book is, she’s a poet. We have certain ideas about poets in our world. Like how was a poet so like famous and celebrated in such an icon? Like that’s not how we typically think about poets and certainly didn’t at the time. So I think that’s a really interesting starting out point, and Katrina. Um, you were just told that Edna St. Vincent Millay was a good match for you as a poet. And so you can make of that what you will.
Anne (36:06): So this is a really thorough and thick biography. It’s almost 600 pages. And what she’s trying to do here is show us the scope of her life, how she grew up in a rural area in poverty, really moved into the like beating heart of the cultural movement unfolding in her time, in, in the jazz age where she really was a sensation. So of course there are plenty of lines from her poetry throughout the book. Something a good biography really does so well when the subject is, you know, an author or an artist, is not only give this portrayal of their work and what it meant and the personality and, and person that came out of, but also the broader context, like what else was happening and how did that fit in? And hopefully, how does it still matter today? You know, like what does Edna St. Vincent Millay, and you’ll hear where that name comes from, what does she mean to us today? Like, where are we still seeing the effects of her work and where is she still being, you know, read and studied and why, and what does that mean?
Katrina (37:06): Again, perfect. You’re really good at this. You should consider making a podcast.
Anne (37:09): [LAUGHS] That was, um, Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford. Okay, while we’re talking about Edna St. Vincent Millay, I have to throw in, there’s a new ginormous biography of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark. It came out last year and it’s called Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer, just like Zelda that we were just talking about. It is nearly a thousand pages, although to be fair, a full hundred of those are notes. We talked about the feeling of hopefulness and optimism you seek in your books, and I’m not sure you’re going to find that here, although I will say that something that Heather Clark argues in the book is that we know so little of Sylvia Plath’s work, because it gets overshadowed by her early tragic death. But that’s what we know about her. We, we know that she was a great poet, who died, and she says that like with this book, she wanted to put the focus squarely on her life. And her argument in this book is that not only was she like a good poet whose work should be remembered, but like by golly, she was one of the geniuses of the 20th century. And we, it’s a crime that we don’t know more about the woman and her work. And that’s what she’s seeking to uncover in these 900 pages. And actually, maybe we should put this on your list after all.
Katrina (38:31): That sounds fascinating. And the title is so interesting.
Anne (38:34): This biography is thorough. Like it, it tells not only her story from her early years, but her parents’ stories as well, and talks about her early relationships with her mother and father, the mixed messages that she heard as a child that influenced her as an artist. I think the thing that really makes this book stand out is that Clark is really able to make you feel like you’re, you’re watching some, some key moments in her life. She really is able to, um, paint a scene and definitely has an eye for the interesting, um, and meaningful details.
Katrina (39:06): It sounds wonderful. It really does. Biographies definitely inform me as a teacher because they show me all these different paths that my own students might take and what they might need from me to give them the support so they, they can go on to those paths. So I think it informs me, it teaches me more about people, helps me to be a, a better educator, frankly.
Anne (39:28): Okay. I do have something to ask you though. Don’t start here. So you’ve had a hard time getting into books and I’m not sure, a 900 page in-depth, highly detailed biography that begins with troubled family life is the place for you. Now you will be the judge of that, but how about, let’s just put in a strong, urging to maybe start with Margaret Wise Brown, maybe then Edna St. Vincent Millay and then Sylvia Plath.
Katrina (39:50): I think so, and this summer, too, once, once teachers time away from the classroom, you get your brain back a little bit [ANNE LAUGHS] so you have more energy to, to devote to those kinds of books. It’s the, the shining star ahead. Like, what am I gonna read? [ANNE LAUGHS] Sometimes I’ll even write out lists of what I’m gonna read. And for usually for the first week, you just like rest and don’t do anything. And then, you know, like I said, your brain kind of comes back to life a little bit.
Anne (40:15): Oh, well, I’m looking forward to that for you. All right. Now of the books we talked about today, they were In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown by Amy Gary. Then we talked about Savage Beauty, the life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford. And finally, I didn’t think we were going to go here, but we did: Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark. Now, Katrina, we’re going to ignore the fact that I just made a suggestion. I’d like to know which of these books you think you’ll read next.
Katrina (40:48): No, you are, you are on track. I’m definitely gonna start with In the Great Green Room. That’s a little hard to say [ANNE LAUGHS] but [KATRINA LAUGHS], and then the Edna St. Vincent Millay, Savage Beauty, and then Red Comet.
Anne (41:01): I think it compels you to read it slowly, like the bedtime story it is, so there’s, there’s something to that. Well, I’m so excited to hear what you think. And I really hope that I’m thinking of how you said that nothing has felt like it’s stuck lately, um, when you’ve picked it up, I hope this one sticks.
Katrina (41:19): I think they will. And, and before I go, I wanna thank you. I feel like what you do is you, you know, when, when you’re a child and you’re a big reader, I think most listeners or some listeners can relate to this. You’re kind of on your own, like the little kid with the book. And I feel like you kind of gathered us all in a little circle once a week, and it’s really sweet. [LAUGHS] It feels like my, my little reading child is gathered up and, and, um, it’s just a lot of fun.
Anne (41:43): I love that description. Let’s all get out our carpet squares [KATRINA LAUGHS] and get our little carton of milk and come talk about books together. I love it. Katrina thank you so much for talking about books with me today. I enjoyed it so much.
Katrina (41:55): It’s been a joy. Thank you so much.
Anne (42:02): Hey, readers. I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Katrina, and I’d love to hear what you think she should read next. Find Katrina on her website, fittedtofourth.com. We’ll have that link in show notes. That’s also where you’ll find the full list of books we talked about today. That’s all at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/330. Ratings and reviews are our love language as podcasters. When you take two minutes to leave a five star review, we are deeply appreciative. Thanks in advance. Connect with us on Instagram at whatshouldIreadnext, where we love to share peeks behind the scenes of our show and all sorts of entertaining book talk. I am on Instagram too at annebogel. That is Anne with an E, B as in books, O G E L. I’d love to connect with you there. If you’re not getting our weekly newsletter sign up now, because we are sending out our most popular book list of all, our Summer Reading Guide, in just a few weeks.
Anne (42:51): And we want you to get a copy! Sign up at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/newsletter and the 2022 Summer Reading Guide will be yours soon. Make sure you’re following us in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, wherever you get your podcasts. Tune in next week, when I’m inviting three special guests onto the show, a What Should I Read Next first, to discuss titles with a strong sense of summer. Thanks to the people who make this show happen. What Should I Read Next is produced by Brenna Frederick, with sound design by Kellen Pechacek. Readers, that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening. And as Rainer Maria Rilke said, “ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.” Happy reading, everyone.
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• The Penderwicks series by Jeanne Birdsall (#1: The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy)
• Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper
• Out of My Heart by Sharon M. Draper
• Schooled by Gordan Korman
• The Unteachables by Gordan Korman
• Restart by Gordon Korman
• My Weird School series by Dan Gutman (#1: Miss Daisy Is Crazy!)
• Wonder by R. J. Palacio
• The Candymakers by Wendy Mass
• Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
• Greenglass House by Kate Milford
• The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
• The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
• Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
Bomb: The Race to Build–And Steal–The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin
Manderley Forever: A Biography of Daphne du Maurier by Tatiana de Rosnay
• Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
• Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce
• Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
▵ She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb
• Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
• The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan
• The Winds of War by Herman Wouk (audio edition)
• As You Wish by Cary Elwes
• Ben Macintyre (try Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory)
• In the Great Green Room: The Brilliant and Bold Life of Margaret Wise Brown by Amy Gary
• Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
• Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford
• Zelda: A Biography by Nancy Milford
• Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark