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Summer Reading 2019
A Universe of Stories
We’ve talked to authors about the role of libraries and reading in their lives. Here are some excerpts from our conversations with four authors for young people. Their books are available at Queens Public Library.
Sarah Henstra grew up visiting her library every Saturday morning with her siblings and her mother, who was an elementary school teacher. “My love for reading combined with a competitive streak, so that I often borrowed more than I could physically cart home by myself,” she says. As a writer, she keeps lists of questions as she writes. When she has met her word count, she rewards herself with a visit to a reference library, sometimes staying there all day.
Henstra’s new Young Adult novel We Contain Multitudes describes the relationship that develops between two teenage boys who are assigned to be pen pals. “I wanted to experiment with the limitations and possibilities of old-fashioned letterwriting in a contemporary teenage world,” she explains. The book’s title comes from a phrase made famous by Walt Whitman, someone Henstra first read in high school. It wasn’t until graduate school that she reread the poet and “fell in love with Whitman’s rambling, generous, bawdy way of interacting with the world around him.”
She hopes that her book will “convey an overall sense of joy and uplift despite the difficult challenges faced by its protagonists.” Henstra says that the two boys teach each other “there’s so much more to life than high school.” From this perspective, the world is full of natural beauty, art, food, and exciting places to travel.
“Reading for me is solace and escape,” she says. “I’d encourage others to read because it’s the best way I know to engage in deep thinking and attention—the opposite of the novelty-seeking, shallow kinds of brain activity encouraged by Instagram and Google News Feed.”
She encourages everyone to read what appeals to them: “Read manga, read comics, read Nascar magazines—whatever will feel like pleasure and entertainment instead of a chore.”
Her life lesson for readers? “Allow yourself to dream of a brighter future. Nurture and cultivate that dream even if it seems like it could never come true. Having the dream—just holding on to it when things seem grim, returning to it regularly in your mind’s eye—makes you more likely to steer towards it in a million small, undetectable ways as your life unfolds from day to day.”
Jessie Sima’s grandfather took her to the library when he was watching her while her parents were at work. “It was nice to have a place to spend time where we weren’t pressured to buy anything and where no one minded if we stayed for hours,” she says.
Sima enjoyed browsing the library and learned the importance of having a choice in what one reads: “My grandpa never told me a book was too old or too young for me. If I was interested in something that was beyond my reading level, he would help me read it. I think that had a big influence on the way I think about books and reading.” Now, she has a greater appreciation for the community spaces that libraries are—beyond being places to explore and discover books for free.
For her latest book for children, Love, Z, Sima was intrigued that robots are often portrayed as not being able to understand or feel love, and wanted to explore what it would be like for a robot to encounter the word “love” for the first time. The book’s working title was Robots Cannot Love, and she says that version didn’t really discuss how love can be difficult to define or how it has different meanings to different people.
“It definitely took a long time for me to realize that the best way to write about love was through a bunch of different characters,” Sima recalls. “Having all of these voices give very personal, sometimes abstract, examples of ‘love’ helped me paint a picture of love as a complex feeling.” She says that what really helped her in writing the book were YouTube videos of kids explaining what love means to them.
Sima is both an author and an illustrator, accustomed to playing with form and content: “When I’m writing and illustrating a story I try to take away as many words as possible while still having the story make sense. Then I make sure there are details in the artwork that add to the story and show the reader something that is not described in the text.” When she’s only illustrating a book, she tries to do the same thing with the art—“to create a larger world for the story to inhabit.”
She’s just completed a new project that is inspired by silent film and is nearly wordless, in grey scale with splashes of red and pink; the picture book, Spencer’s New Pet, is slated to be published in August 2019.
Sabina Khan Author of YA book, The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali
Khan hopes her book “will inspire young LGBTQ women to push back against those who won’t allow them to live as their true selves. I wish them the strength to fight for their love and to find hope that things will change for the better.”
Khan is currently working on another YA contemporary book that also features a Muslim main character. The book “deals with immigration and the threat of losing the place you call home.” While the draft of her first novel “came pouring out in sixteen feverish days,” this time she is outlining more as she evolves as a writer: “I like to marinate in the storyline until the characters begin to feel familiar and start speaking to me.”
Reading has long been a refuge for her, especially when she was bullied as a child. “I read to relax, to escape, to calm myself, when I’m happy, when I’m sad, so pretty much all the time,” she says. “I love losing myself in the characters’ stories, their hopes and dreams. As a child, I used to imagine myself having all the same adventures, overcoming obstacles and defeating the bad guys. I would encourage others to read because it frees your mind and takes you to places you may otherwise never experience.”
She advises readers, “Forge ahead even when the world tells you otherwise. Be open to life because amazing things will happen along the way. But most of all, be kind to yourselves.”
Christina Matula Author of children’s book, The Shadow in the Moon
Libraries were important community spaces during her childhood. “Growing up, libraries were not only a place for research and reliable information, but they were also a place where friends, family, and the community gathered. They also allowed me to explore books that I could read for pleasure, outside of assigned school reading.”
Now, libraries help her thrive and grow as a writer. “Libraries, with their wealth of titles in all genres, continue to increase my love of reading, which has evolved to include a love of writing. Librarians have been vital to my research, constantly recommending authors and books, new and old alike. Libraries, now more than ever, are an important community resource for all aspects of life. Not only are the library employees trusted members of the community, but also libraries themselves provide a place for family bonding over quality books, with no socioeconomic barriers. I am delighted that libraries remain as important to my children as they were to me.”
She’s currently working on stories about little-known Chinese legends that she hopes will be in a series with The Shadow in the Moon. “Legends are a vital thread to our past and give us an insight into what people used to believe and how they lived. It’s amazing to see the similarities between legends across different cultures. They can also give you a greater appreciation of your own heritage.”
“For those readers with Chinese roots, I want to share that fascinating legend that makes the Mid-Autumn Festival so special. But for any reader, I hope they will not only be drawn into the charming tale, but also in observing their own parallels with the religious and cultural festivals that their families celebrate.”
Reading plays an important role in Matula’s life. “Reading is an escape from everyday stresses, transporting me to another time or place. Discovering books in other genres helps me improve my writing and inspires me to explore different avenues in the future. For younger readers, I believe nurturing a love of reading will develop into a love of learning.”
Her advice to readers? “Don’t be afraid to embrace your heritage and be curious about your background. Read stories written by or about someone from a different culture. It can give you valuable insight into how, despite our seemingly huge differences, we are all so similar.”
Major support provided by New York Life Foundation, the city-wide sponsor for the Summer Reading Program.