I believe every good writer is also a reader. Most of them were readers first, then became writers. Our love for stories started somewhere and has only grown since those early days. But to become a better writer, we can’t just stick to the genre we write in. Reading widely opens new doors.
I remember going to the library with my mom and picking out ten books to read. It didn’t take long for me to finish them, even while I was still learning my letters, expanding my vocabulary, and increasing my reading speed. Slowly I made my way through any of the learning books and graduated to books that focused more on story and less on using easy words and phrases.
The books I picked out, then, would be classified as fantasy. It often had talking animals, magic, or princes and princesses. The main characters would go on an adventure to save their world, no matter how big or small it was. I remember the Chrestomanci series by Diana Wynne Jones, and The Edge Chronicles by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell. I read The Famous Five and The Twins by Enid Blyton, British novels filled with mystery, in a world I never knew existed. Were boarding schools really a thing? Didn’t the children mind being away from their parents? It felt like fantasy to me.
By the age of ten, classics were introduced. Not the ones you’re thinking of. I don’t think most children read Shakespeare by then. But Dutch literature has many classics suitable for children. Most of our parents have read them, and I know most kids now will see these books in libraries or reading lists. Those stories are truly Dutch in that they talk about Dutch history. This is where I started branching out to historical fiction. Some of them were more relatable than others. Some of those were even made into international movies. Netflix has at least a dozen of such movies (maybe I’ll make a list later?)
I also figured out I didn’t like reading about World War 2. I wanted to go to places far away, see things that I hadn’t seen before. And it was back to fantasy. By the time I was twelve, I devoured the books by Carry Slee. She’s a prolific writer of early teen contemporary fiction. Her books deal with real-world problems, like bullying, homosexuality, and diversity. That was eighteen years ago. These books have shaped me and made me realize that everyone is different, but that doesn’t mean someone deserves to be in pain. My mom and my teachers encouraged us to read these books and think about these problems. I don’t think being sheltered from these issues will actually help teenagers.
More people need to read about stories like these. I’m glad that books like The Hate U Give are so popular and talked about. These stories matter, especially for young teens. The books they read shape their world. Carry Slee’s book aren’t light by any stretch and I told my mom I want to a quick read. She came home with a few adventure books with romance elements and I explored another genre. I also still read comics, like the weekly Donald Duck magazine, and my mom’s lifestyle magazine (aimed at 30-45-year-old women, but my 13-year-old self loved them).
Harry Potter was probably the first series I read in English. I had the first four novels in Dutch, but I wanted to switch to English after that. I’ve been trying to work on my English for a while and read a few fantasy novels before, but this was the real deal. Wicca, a series by Cate Tiernan was the second. I bought a few of her books at a fantasy fair and needed to complete the series (15 books).
When both series were finished, I only wanted my fantasy books in English. I didn’t stick to just YA fantasy, but was reading Anne Rice, Anne McCaffrey, and Neil Gaiman. The English selection in our library was limited and the fantasy section mainly consisted of white male authors. I didn’t read much of them. My mom is an avid thriller reader, but she prefers the ones written by women. The writing style was better, she said, and I never asked beyond that. Now it seems so obvious. I felt that I enjoyed the fantasy from female authors more than male authors, although there was one book that really stuck with me.
Abarat by Clive Barker.
It wasn’t the first time I read horror. Paul van Loon is one of the great when we talk about Dutch children’s literature. He wasn’t one of my favourite authors, but he did have a knack for telling a good horror story. Abarat was something else entirely. The edition I borrowed was an illustrated first edition. Clive Barker made over 400 paintings to support his Abarat series. Three books are out now and he is currently working on book four and five. Seeing someone’s world through words and paintings is amazing. The story itself is captivating as well. I really wanted the illustrated editions for all of them, but they were hard to find. I ordered my copy of the second book from ebay when a major retailer here messed up. I’m happy with my illustrated set. It’s like a director’s cut of your favourite movie.
Twenties and up
I finally had money of my own to spend, and of course I’d work on expanding my library. I took a course from the literary program and had to buy books for my reading list. Now these were international literature titles. Not the classics, but recent stuff. Authors I didn’t know, about events I didn’t much relate to (9/11 and the apartheid in South Africa). I only understood the magnitude of those books after visiting NYC and Johannesburg. Context matters.
Unless you’re talking about speculative fiction. Fantasy, science fiction, and horror (maybe alt history as well) create new worlds with rules set by the author. They create their own context. It’s still what I prefer. I want to get lost in worlds I never knew existed, even if it’s only in the minds of their creators. I wouldn’t say that those worlds are better than this one, but exploring them is more thrilling than our eight o’clock news.
Reading widely and writing
I believe that by having read all these different genres, despite my personal preference, I have gained something I wouldn’t have if I only stuck to fantasy. Reading outside of my comfort zone has helped me to grow as a person, but also as a writer. Every genre has its tropes, and by mixing it up, I’m able to create something a little bit different. My university days have taught me how to work with multiple disciplines. Integration and looking for overlap between the two is key. In fiction writing, especially speculative fiction, this is doable. Many fantasy or science fiction stories include horrific scenes. Alien is a perfect example. What genre would you put it under? Did you check what IMDB says?
My stories won’t fit a small niche, maybe multiple small niches, and that’s okay. I’m not writing for people who are desperately clinging to what they know. I want people to explore beyond that border. This year’s reading challenge is aimed at expanding your reading horizon, and that’s what I want to do with my writing as well.
Do you read outside of your comfort zone? Which book surprised you most?