A Year of Reading Harder: Chapter One

May 15, 2019

Every January, new reading challenges float around the bookish realm of the internet. No matter what your reading time is like or what you want to achieve in a year of reading, there's probably a reading challenge out there for you. For the past few years, I've been interested in the Book Riot Read Harder challenge, which encourages readers to "break out of your reading bubble and expand your worldview through books. With new genres, new authors, and new points of view, the challenge will (hopefully) help you discover amazing books you wouldn’t have otherwise picked up." Some of the tasks in previous years felt a little too specific for my, shall we say, whim-based reading style, but this year's tasks feel like a comfortable level of boundary-stretching without having to become an interlibrary loan power user or otherwise purchase obscure titles to get my hands on them. So I've embarked on a journey to read a little harder, and I've been enjoying the journey. With 24 tasks, challenge reading breaks down nicely to about two books a month, providing a good nudge to tackle books that have been on my staggering to-read list for a while.

I kicked off the challenge with task #21, a comic by an LGBTQIA creator. I knew from hearing her speak on a panel at WorldCon last year that author/illustrator Nilah Magruder identifies as asexual, and hearing her speak about the kinds of representation she sought to include in her work made me want to seek out some of her work. I had since found one short story of hers in the teen story collection All Out: The No-Longer Secret Stories of Queer Teens Through the Ages, which I enjoyed, but I knew she was also an illustrator. When I noticed a copy of M.F.K. on the shelf at my branch, it seemed like kismet. This fantasy graphic novel features a gruff loner protagonist on a journey through a forbidding desert landscape. The art and scenery were gorgeous, but it was definitely the set-up for story to come, intriguing enough that I'll probably seek out the sequel whenever it arrives, though I do wish there had been a bit more resolution within this installment.

January and February coincided with a staff reading challenge to see who could read the most pages of middle-grade and teen fiction, so task #22: a children’s or middle grade book that has won a diversity award since 2009, seemed like a good next step to fill in with a middle-grade title. After skimming lists of award winners and adding easily a dozen more titles to my groaning to-read list (oops, so much for to-read list progress), I settled on The Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab Nye, the 2015 Arab American Book Awards Winner. This sweet, quiet story follows the adventures of Aref and his grandfather Siddi as they bid farewell to all the special places in Oman they shared together before Aref's family moves to the United States for his parents' doctoral studies. It skews a little on the younger side of middle-grade fiction (Aref is in third grade), so it's not something I would otherwise have picked up on my own, but I enjoyed the story. Turtle of Oman is definitely a title I can see myself handing to a family beginning the moving process since the uncertainty and excitement of a new adventure are such universal experiences no matter what the specific details are.

By February, though, I needed a bit of a palate cleanser, something a bit more grown-up, so I cheated and read a grown-up book, for which I have zero regrets. I switched over to task #5, a book by a journalist or about journalism. I was once a journalism major who decided maybe that path wasn't for her, so I took a bit of a sidestep in my fulfillment of that task and read a graphic novel about a journalist. Close enough, right? Elena Abbott, protagonist of Saladin Ahmed's Abbott, is an investigative journalist in 1970s Detroit, chasing stories that newspaper stakeholders would rather she just left alone, stories that intertwine Lovecraftian, eldritch horror and institutional racism (a rather natural pairing, actually, for anyone who knows a bit about horror heavy hitter H.P. Lovecraft). I didn't just read this one; I inhaled it, enjoying both the hard-nosed protagonist and the strong sense of place and atmosphere in it.

I continued to shake up my reading with a short story collection to fulfill task #15, a book of mythology or folklore. A Thousand Beginnings and Endings, edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman, is a collection of short stories reinterpreting myths and folklore of South and East Asia. Like other favorite short story collections, this has a strong unifying theme but gives the contributors plenty of room to interpret that theme, and the result is a collection of stories spanning genres and times and cultures, each containing a brief afterword explaining its source inspiration. Highlights include Alyssa Wong's "Olivia's Table," E.C. Myers' "Land of the Morning Calm," Preeti Chhibber's "Girls who Twirl and Other Dangers," and Elsie Chapman's "Bullet, Butterfly." I enjoyed nearly every story, discovering new authors to check out and finding new gems from favorites like Aliette de Bodard, which is everything I expect of a good story collection.

This is just the beginning of my Read Harder 2019 journey; I'll come back and share some more as I keep reading.

Is anyone else participating in a reading challenge this year? Uncovered any gems as a result? Tell us about them!

Reviewed by Library Staff