How Reading More Diversely Broke My Reading Slump

I loved reading as a kid. New books were the most exciting thing in the world for me — during Scholastic Book Fair seasons, my mom would buy up all of the books that I said I wanted, and then she’d keep them hidden in a cupboard and give them to me every so often throughout the year. Barnes and Noble’s summer reading program was exciting because I could get a brand new book at the end of it, and all I had to do was read! I spent countless hours volunteering in a small library when I got a little older, and During those childhood and early teen years I couldn’t get enough of books.

Something changed during my late teens.

During my early teens I didn’t know I was going to end up being a bi, demisexual, non-binary, neurodivergent, disabled* person. That was a scary thing to start figuring out as a teen because I lived in a rural, conservative community with conservative parents and no real support in that regard. All of a sudden, I found myself wanting books that represented my newfound queerness especially, and yet I learned that getting my hands on them was exceedingly difficult. I got tired of all of the white allocishet abled characters and their white allocishet abled romances because the only thing that I had in common with them was that I was white.

I still had my books and I still collected new (mostly used) ones, but from the ages of about 17-21, I almost entirely stopped reading. I didn’t make a lot of time for it, it didn’t feel fun to me anymore, and yet I still liked the idea of it. The idea of reading good books sat so well with me that I wanted to spend the rest of my life in libraries. I felt at home surrounded by books, but I couldn’t get myself to read them.

In early 2017, I made a concentrated effort to read more diversely, and my world expanded. I found bi characters who understood me so well that I couldn’t stop grinning. Trans characters who knew how I felt so much that I cried. Characters with OCD who understood what was going on in my brain so well that I had to sit back and just let that fact sink in.

I didn’t just find characters like me; I found characters that weren’t. Even though I could no longer relate to those white allocishet abled characters from my early teens, it’s still a fact that I know far more about that culture than I do other cultures I don’t share. I read more books by Black authors. Latinx authors. Jewish authors. Muslim authors. I fell in love with these characters, and while these books didn’t make me an expert by any means, they did help me grow as a person. They got me outside of myself and into the shoes of others, and I grew more empathetic than I’ve ever been in my life.

Diverse books made me feel excited about reading again. I feel alive when holding one in my hands, and I feel so much more deeply when I read than I’ve ever felt before. Despite being a full-time graduate student with three jobs and hardly any time to breathe, I’ve managed to read 91 books so far this year, and I am well on my way to finishing 100 before December ends. Without diverse books, I don’t think I would have even managed half of that this year. Not every book I read WAS diverse (I’m still on a quest to finish every Stephen King book, I did a Harry Potter re-read, and I read quite a few Lurlene McDaniel books for the Hey Lurlene! podcast this year), almost all of my favorites were by diverse authors about diverse characters, and the excitement I felt while reading those stories kept me wanting more. I’ve pre-ordered and bought more new books this year than I ever have in my life, and all but one of those books was diverse. I found my happy place while reading again. I found that spark.

Part of me wonders whether I would have had such a long reading slump at all if I’d had access to diverse books earlier in my life. I can’t say for sure, but the genuine happiness I feel while reading these books now is something that I probably could have used as a teen. If I were to give my teen self a gift, I’d give them a letter saying “yeah hi YOU’RE NOT CIS OR STRAIGHT FIGURE IT OUT ALREADY” and a box of my favorite diverse reads from this year. I’d like to think that I would have turned out just a little bit happier.

Books I’d include in the box to myself (in the order in which I read them this year, and linked to either my review or the book’s Goodreads page):

These books brought joy back to reading for me. I wish teen me could have had them.

 

*I still have trouble claiming the term “disabled” for myself, but I’m figuring that one out.

**If you’ve read my review then you’ll know that I didn’t think TATWD was THAT great for a YA novel, but the OCD rep in this book hit me so hard that I wouldn’t hesitate to give it to my past self. It would have done wonders for me.

Review: Turtles All The Way Down by John Green

Image of book cover from GoodReads
Image of book cover from GoodReads

Title: Turtles All The Way Down

Author: John Green

Category: YA Contemporary

Publisher/Date: Dutton/10 October 2017

Edition: Hardcover

Pages: 285

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35504431-turtles-all-the-way-down

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0525555366/ref=x_gr_w_glide_bb?ie=UTF8&tag=x_gr_w_glide_bb-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0525555366&SubscriptionId=1MGPYB6YW3HWK55XCGG2

Barnes and Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/turtles-all-the-way-down-john-green/1126619413?#/

Sixteen-year-old Aza never intended to pursue the mystery of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett, but there’s a hundred-thousand-dollar reward at stake and her Best and Most Fearless Friend, Daisy, is eager to investigate. So together, they navigate the short distance and broad divides that separate them from Russell Pickett’s son, Davis.

Aza is trying. She is trying to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good student, and maybe even a good detective, while also living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts. 

In his long-awaited return, John Green, the acclaimed, award-winning author of Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars, shares Aza’s story with shattering, unflinching clarity in this brilliant novel of love, resilience, and the power of lifelong friendship.

This is a book that I both adored and became frustrated by at the same time. Starting with the bad (because I have a lot more to say about the good and I just want to get it out of the way), I didn’t actually care that much for the mystery of the story. There were a lot of other things going on, and the detective story line didn’t do much for me because it was pretty slow and wasn’t really in-depth. To an extent this is okay because the story wasn’t really about Aza solving the mystery — it was about what Ava got into while trying to solve it. It was about her relationships with her friends and her family and herself. Those relationships worked for me, but I did find myself wishing that the plot would hook me a little more.

The second “bad” is something I hear a lot about John Green’s writing — the teenagers do not sound like teenagers. Hell, they don’t even sound like people in their twenties like me. They sound like miniature adults, and while that isn’t inherently bad because there are teens out there somewhere who do get philosophical and deep, it does make it harder to relate to them because I don’t feel like I’m on that same level, and that can be hard to read at times.

The story line with the Tuatara was just weird. I had heard from some Maori people on Twitter about how, before the book came out, they were concerned about the potential mishandling of the tuatara because of its significance to Maori culture. I’m far from an expert and I do not have the authority to say whether or not it had been mishandled; if I run across a Maori reviewer who has something to say about that, I will link it.

What I absolutely loved about this book, though, was the OCD representation it held. This novel is one that’s incredibly personal to Green because a lot of it comes from his own experience with OCD, and while I couldn’t get myself to believe that the teenagers were real teenagers, what did feel real to me was Aza’s OCD. I have OCD myself and I felt that connection with Aza on every page. The OCD portrayal is raw and honest, and while not everyone who has OCD has it in the same way (mine is very different from Aza’s, for instance) it still felt relatable. The gut-punching feeling you get when someone tells you that you’re a “bit much” for them because of your mental illness stings, and I felt the pain. I felt her inability to escape her mind. It was real to me, and I ate it up.

will say that the portrayal of OCD here is really raw and in-depth; if you have OCD and you do not like reading that sort of thing, I wouldn’t recommend this book for you. I appreciate it because I’m someone who does need to read that representation. If you don’t want to read detailed thought spirals or descriptions of skin-picking, it’s okay to pick up something else instead.

Honestly, John Green does his best writing when he’s writing #ownvoices. He may not be super in tune with how teenagers talk and think, but when he writes about something he is in tune with, it’s heart-wrenching. I know writing for an adult audience doesn’t really seem to be his thing, but I’m intensely curious about what he would come up with if he were writing about an adult with OCD. The kind of writing you find about OCD in Turtles All The Way Down is some of the most accurate-feeling and familiar description of OCD I have ever read, and I genuinely hope that we can get more like this from him in  the future.

Final rating: 4 of 5 stars