Project: Bookshelf with Katja Nelson

Welcome to PROJECT: BOOKSHELF, a continuing series in which Mackenzi Lee tries to read every book on her bookshelf in the course of a summer while friends, writers, and readers drop in to tell us about their respective shelves. This week, I’ve got my good friend and fellow writer Katja Nelson telling us about the war on her bookshelves. 

But first, let’s take a look at my reading wrap-up.

This week, from my collection of unread books on my shelf, I read…

Dodger by Terry Pratchett

  • Genre: Young adult historical fantasy
  • Where I got it: I bought it as my admission ticket to see Sir Terry himself speak in New York City two years ago. As a result, it is signed. It’s one of my favorite books I own for that reason, but it’s sort of perpetually sat on my to-read list.
  • What I thought: This book was so great. Sir Terry’s trademark humor and heart, mixed with some great historical Easter eggs and some wonderfully imaginative additions. So great.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

  • Genre: Adult fiction
  • Where I got it: It was a “thank you” gift for being a World Book Night giver
  • What I thought: I aggressively disliked this book. Partly because I just expected it to be better from one of the Arrested Development writers. I did not laugh once in this whole book. I found no emotional connection in it. The characters were all annoying and I despised them. Especially the teenagers. Has this woman ever been around a real teenager? Ugh. I get it’s a satire but….no. This book just made me angry.

And now, meet Katja and her bookshelf! 

The books on my shelves are at war.

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See? It’s a showdown between children’s fiction and literary fiction. I’ve got Karen Russell’s Pulitzer-Prize Honor novel Swamplandia! locked in battle with Kate DiCamillo’s Newberry-winning Tale of Despereaux. And Bruce Coville’s Into the Land of the Unicorns hovering uneasily over Grapes of Wrath and Moby Dick. There’s The Illiad duking it out with The Westing Game, Don Quixote against The Golden Compass, Ironweed versus The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

All my life they’ve been at war. Growing up, I read children’s fiction nonstop, especially fantasy (I think children’s fantasy is very different from genre fantasy, and I like it much more than genre fantasy). I loved stories that glimmered like dwarf-made metal and shimmered like fairy dust. (I was especially fond of unicorns). But because there weren’t any fantasy stories at home, I’d bring home scores of them from the library (the books in Bruce Coville’s Magic Shop series were some of my favorites). In fourth grade, my dad gave me Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone over Christmas, and I loved that book so hard I had read it ten times until I could read the second one. It was everything in one book that I loved: unicorns, magic, orphans, dreams. And it was funny too! I became a Potter evangelist. To everyone in my class I unashamedly testified of The Boy Who Lived. (I still do this, which is probably why I somehow ended up with three copies of it.)

The stuff ten-year-old me was writing was a reflection of my reading habits. There were a lotof unicorns in my books, along with plenty of magic and hordes of orphans with hitherto-unknown special powers. There were attics with secrets, and dreams that were more than dreams, and also some elements of Cardcaptors tossed in for good measure.

Like other kids who love reading, I often had to be sneaky, for fear some grown-up would pounce on me and command me to “make myself useful” or “go outside and play.” I learned to feel guilty about spending my time reading. (I also learned that people are more hesitant to interrupt you if you read in the bathroom.) (I’m pretty sure this is why the bathroom is my favorite room in the house.) But my guilt about reading was compound by my parents’ well-meaning nagging about reading The Classics—by which, of course, they meant boring, non-fantastical tomes that felt heavy and plodding and old, filled with dust and American wars and shabby clothes. But I didn’t want to read about kids whose lives were grim and sad and poor and rarely funny. I remember my mom suggesting I read Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, and I got about a chapter in before I became so utterly bored that I did that thing I’d seen on TV, where the reader hides one book behind the other, like so. (I’m almost positive that my mom was not fooled by this.)

And I kept up all that fantasy reading and fantasy writing and fantasy evangelizing until high school, when I finally did what my parents had been telling me to do for years: I traded in my Weird Fantasy Books That I Should Be Slightly Embarrassed to Be Seen With for Socially Acceptable and Academically Impressive Classic Novels. And I stopped writing fantasy.

But they weren’t bad, those SAAICNs. In fact, I was surprised by their beauty. I was surprised by how much they resonated with me. I enjoyed some of them so much that I even started buyingthem (with a combined feeling of intellectual superiority and Benedict Arnold-ish guilt). But if anything, the classics made me less of a socially acceptable person, because now I had all these crazy ideas about relationships and religion and the nature of the human experience, all topics that made me not so fun at parties.

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My English major made me worse. I read a lot of literary fiction there—the only acceptable sort of literature inside the academy. But those books were beautiful too. And because I was reading literary fiction and writing literary criticism about it, I fell deeply in love with language, which meant feeling betrayed and fascinated by its slipperiness, by the necessity and impossibility of meaning-making. But I also felt that I was doing a good thing, reading Real Literature and writing literary criticism about it, instead of wasting my time with children’s books. Even though I was learning to question the literary canon, to ask what assumptions we’re making when we call some books Great Works of Art and others Merely Popular Scum That Is Undeserving of Our Attention and Will Never Stand the Test of Time, still I felt that I was finally making good use of my wordsy mind, that I was making my parents proud by studying The Classics. The decision to pursue an MA instead of an MFA partly grew out of feeling that writing literary criticism about literary fiction was superior, career-wise, to writing children’s fantasy. Children’s fantasy was something I could savor as a guilty pleasure, but not something I could take seriously, intellectually or vocationally.

And then, the summer before I started my MA, when I suddenly had oodles of time in the evenings after work, I realized something was missing from my life. Yep, it was fantasy! I missed kid characters. I missed unicorns, and magic, and orphans, and dreams. I missed the lightheartedness of fantasy, its playfulness. So I went back to my local library. And I checked out armfuls of kidlit. And I started to read it again. And then I started to write it.

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It’s only now that I’ve started buying children’s books again that I know I’m finally taking children’s literature seriously again. Because now instead of only books that are the very most upstanding Classic Novels, there are more children’s books. There’s the Harry Potter shelf, of course—the nucleus, the heart of my book life. But there’s also Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina and Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy and Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

In my own circuitous way, my writing, my life, has been improved by my meandering path through fantasy and literary fiction. My time with literary fiction has changed the way I see kidlit. I treasure its linguistic economy. I see now what’s at stake in children’s fantasy. I see what’s important about battling dragons. I’ve been There and Back Again, and I think both kinds of books are essential. Both do irreplaceable work. They teach me to love better. They teach me to be honest, kind, and brave. They teach me about dark times and about hope. East of Eden taught me about agency; The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles taught me about creativity.

So it’s not a war on my shelves. It’s not even a truce. It’s a freaking love fest.

nelson{e}_59 (1)Katja Nelson is a writing and rhetoric teacher at Brigham Young University, where she is pursuing her MA in English Literature. Her favorite Muppets are Kermit, Beaker, and the Swedish Chef.

Thanks for tuning in! Join us next Friday for more Project: Bookshelf.  Can’t wait that long? Visit the Project: Bookshelf archive. 

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