In search of a reading ‘Wow’

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Who better to recommend some good summer reading than Maine’s top book experts – your librarian.

“Blueberries for Sal”?

“To Kill a Mocking Bird”?

Perhaps some Danielle Steel.

With hundreds of classics out there, thousands of new books and the summer reading season just around the corner, how do you choose? What’s a must-read?

We went to the source. The people who know.

Librarians.

“I’m always searching for that ‘Wow’ book,” said Linda Petersen, a librarian at Jay High School. “The one that’s a cut above the rest.”

‘Umpteen kazillion times’

In response to a Sun Journal survey, more than two dozen area librarians named their favorite book for a child, for a teen and for an adult. Most had a hard time sticking to one for each category.

Or two.

Or three.

“Usually I have several going at once,” said Mary Anne Libby, a librarian at Dr. Shaw Memorial Library in Mt. Vernon. “I have my bedside table book. My kitchen book. My downstairs book.”

She chose nine favorite children’s books, two teen books and two adult books, along with 11 poets and four Maine authors.

Topping her list: “A Room of One’s Own” by Virginia Woolf (adult), “Hope Was Here” by Joan Bauer (teen) and “Miss Rumphius” by Barbara Cooney (children).

All have engaging characters, a good story, beautiful writing. A mother and grandmother, Libby still reads “Miss Rumphius,” a 20-year-old picture book about a girl who resolves to make the world more beautiful.

“We read that book umpteen kazillion times,” Libby said. “She (Miss Rumphius) is very graceful in her life but she accomplishes so much. Also, the illustrations are beautiful.”

Libby’s list is heavy with classics, books by E.B White, Harper Lee, Robert McCloskey.

Surprisingly, most other librarians chose modern books.

Much more modern.

Danielle Steel-modern.

“Everybody likes something to do that relaxes them. A Danielle Steel book is probably like Nancy Drew was when I was a kid,” said Karen White, a librarian at Durham Elementary School. “It’s my relaxation. Give me something I can get lost in for two or three hours.”

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All about interest

For a good mystery, White falls into Nevada Barr’s books. Once in a while, she likes something by Nora Roberts.

But her all-time favorite for adults: “The Notebook” by Nicholas Sparks.

Published in the 1990s, “The Notebook” is a love story punctuated by separation and Alzheimer’s disease. Literary critics panned it, but readers (including several of our librarians) snapped up the book.

“It’s about life,” White said. “You become part of this couple’s life.”

For teenagers, White likes “Guys Write for Guys Read,” a short story collection that lets readers peek into the authors’ boyhoods. It is edited by Jon Scieszka.

For children, White’s favorite book is “A Garland for Girls,” a short story collection written by Louisa May Alcott a century ago. She also likes “Tuesday” by David Wiesner, a newer, award-winning picture book that follows frogs on their journey through the night.

But White believes interest – not an adult’s recommendation – should guide young readers.

“I don’t think they should be told ‘This is a classic. Read it because I read it,'” she said.

Other librarians agree.

If the child like dinosaurs, look for a dinosaur picture book, they said. If the child loves silly words, try Dr. Seuss.

Librarians also suggest that parents keep a large selection of books, including the stories that inspired them growing up. (But don’t be wounded if the kids fall in love with “Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale” and ignore “Blueberries for Sal.”)

“Start reading to your babies when they’re babies. Make reading fun,” White said.

For teenagers, many librarians believe personal taste should rule. Some teenagers love adventure and science fiction. Others want relationship stories.

Parents can nudge their teens toward more challenging books or a different genre by jumping off those interests.

“‘If you like that one, maybe you’ll like this one,'” Libby said. “Just one step further along.”

Parents who haven’t read modern young adult novels may be startled by their plots. No longer confined to Nancy Drew whodunits, today’s teen book characters deal with drug use, child abuse and eating disorders, among other problems. Many teenagers are completely engaged – and sometimes helped – by the books.

But, Libby said, “They’re issues that parents aren’t always ready to deal with.”

And what about adult readers who want a good beach book this summer?

Petersen, the Jay librarian always looking for that “Wow” book, put “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini at the top of her list.

The novel follows two boys as they grow up in the turbulence of Afghanistan. The unusual, heart-wrenching story gripped Petersen, keeping her hooked for about 400 pages.

“It’s an incredible book,” she said.

Other adult books getting multiple votes from Maine librarians: “The Shipping News” by Annie Proulx, “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold, “The Time Traveler’s Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger and “Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett. (See the full listing of their favorites that accompanies this story.)

If none of those appeal, librarians suggested that adults check out Oprah’s Book Club and, yes, best-seller lists for usually good ideas. Or ask friends, co-workers and library staff members for recommendations. Other possibilities: Branch out by searching for a new author in a favorite genre. Or jump from one genre to another, picking a romance novel one month and a serious biography the next.

Bottom line, they said, don’t be afraid to try something new.

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