The Reluctant Gardener

My name is Laurie Schneider and I love books. I love reading books, sharing books, browsing books, talking about books, and, yes, buying books. Whether you call me a bibliophile—or a bookaholic—the fact is I have a problem: my appetite for the latest Lois Lowery, Jerry Spinelli, Gary Schmidt, and Jennifer Holm far exceeds my shelf space.

A bigger house is out of the question, and our family room is already wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling books. So what’s a booklover to do?  Give up buying books cold turkey? Not a chance. I’m powerless in the face of a starred review.

The cold, hard, merciless truth—unless I want to turn up in a future episode of Hoarders—is that something has to go, and that something is books. If I want to add, I have to subtract. I have to weed.

It’s the same at the public library where I work. We’re blessed with a community of voracious readers and a healthy budget for new materials, but cursed with a small building on a small lot, with no room to expand. The librarians are under constant pressure to weed, to make space for all the new books, movies, music, and audiobooks the public expects.

I spoke recently about weeding with Cathy Ensley, our newly retired youth services librarian, and here’s what she had to say about the process:

“Library shelves are finite. When I was first weeding the collection eleven years ago, the district’s book budget was much smaller. The shelves were full of very old, weed-able books with negligible literary merit, which meant they also didn’t need to be replaced. Then, the book budget inflated, which was wonderful, but suddenly there wasn’t as much shelf space. So I weeded single books by forgotten authors that had not created an oeuvre. Then I started weeding by the total number of checkouts each year. Then I actually had to start cutting into an author’s body of work, pulling out the less popular books, which really pained me.

“It makes me sad to lose perfectly good books, sometimes wonderful books, because we need the shelf space for newer books that might very well not be as good, but are in demand because of their subject matter. Case in point: Not too long ago, I weeded about a dozen YA historical novels that dealt with slavery. Excellent books, but most of them hadn’t been checked out in years. They were discarded in order to make shelf space for books about vampires.”

Short of launching a capital campaign to build a bigger library, there really doesn’t seem to be another solution. Like me, the county can’t just go out and buy a bigger house, and we need to provide the books people want to read. It pains me, though, to see some of my favorite titles removed from the catalog and put out to pasture at the Friends of the Library book sale. On the other hand, some of those titles have found their way to my house where they are now cozying up to Lois Lowry and Jerry Spinelli, Gary Schmidt and Jennifer Holm.

If there’s been any benefit to weeding my personal collection it’s this: my collection may not have grown larger, but it has grown more interesting, more focused, more quirky, more “me” – a collection of desert-island books I won’t mind spending a lifetime with.

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Laurie Schneider can be found writing, reading, and weeding in Moscow, Idaho. She tweets her favorite reads at

Books that Shaped Middle-Grade

I live near Washington, DC, and like many people who live in this area, a frequent lament of mine is that I don’t take enough advantage of the wonderful talks, exhibits and concerts that happen here. So, it was with great pleasure that I went to the Library of Congress with two writer friends, Sara Lewis Holmes and Madelyn Rosenberg, to view the exhibit, Books That Shaped America. It was a lovingly-arranged and thoughtfully laid out exhibit of 88 books, ranging from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, to Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, to Dr. Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care.  The exhibit has since closed, but you can view the online exhibit here.

(If you’ve never been to the Library of Congress, you must visit on your next visit to Washington, DC. It is truly a place meant to ennoble the soul, with heavy marble floors and stairs, and grand painted ceilings. If you have no need to do any research yourself, there is a special place just for watching those who are. You will be on the same level of the likes of Shakespeare, Bacon and Beethoven, looking down into what seems like a well of knowledge.)

Many children’s books were on the list, many known and beloved: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Charlotte’s Web, The Snowy Day, The Cat in the Hat, Goodnight Moon. There were also ones which are perhaps more talked-about than read by children these days: Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick series, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. A few children’s books had been left to history, including A Curious Heiroglyphick Bible and Peter Parley’s Universal History. Of the latter, the exhibit dryly notes, “[Author Samuel] Goodrich believed that fairy tales and fantasy were not useful and possibly dangerous to children. He entertained them instead with engaging tales from history and geography. His low regard for fiction is ironic in that his accounts of other places and cultures were often misleading and stereotypical, if not completely incorrect.”

In his introduction of the exhibit, Librarian of Congress (awesome title, right?) James H. Billington says, “This list is a starting point. It is not a register of the ‘best’ American books – although many of them fit that description. Rather, the list is intended to spark a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives, whether they appear on this initial list or not.” And that is what I’d like to start here, a conversation of the most influential books that have shaped middle-grade books as we know them today. As one person, I am nothing but full of bias, but I believe each of the books I’ve listed below exploded a myth about children’s books and change the way we thought about them. I know there are more. Please contribute to the conversation in the comments!

You can’t talk about that!

Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume: Human sexuality was a hands-off topic for children – at least in any kind of accessible form – but Blume answered the questions that kids really had, all without embarrassment or condescension.

Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson: I recently met someone who was interested in writing children’s books and had not heard of Katherine Paterson. I struggled to find the words to describe Paterson’s place in children’s literature; I think I used the word “pillar” and it still felt inadequate. For 1998-2000, Bridge to Terabithia was one of the most frequently challenged books because of its theme of death, but of course, that’s exactly what makes it extraordinary.

That’s too complicated for kids!

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle: A Wrinkle in Time was famously rejected 26 times, with many editors complaining that the depth and complexity of the scientific and philosophical ideas presented in the book were too daunting for children. The popularity of A Wrinkle in Time proved that such ideas are exactly what kids love. (See also, The Phantom Tollbooth, kids don’t get wordplay.)

Children’s books should talk about how things should be, not how they actually are.

Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh: Fitzhugh was willing to go where few children’s book at that time had been willing to go: the dark underbelly of childhood with ugly feelings, unusual behaviors and positively cruel social dynamics. Harriet is also frequently cited as one of the first really strong and independent female heroines of children’s literature.

Children don’t read super-long books; and oh, adults don’t read children’s books.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling: You knew this was coming, didn’t you? Rowling showed that millions of children would happily read 500+ page books if properly written, and their parents would come along for the ride.



Where’d that Creativity Come From?


It’s not uncommon for parents to look at personality traits as they develop in their children and think, Oh, that’s just like me. So a joint study recently released by researchers from Yale and Moscow State University should not come as any great surprise: that creative parents tend to produce creative children.

Okay, it’s not a surprise. But it is a wonderful confirmation that the creativity writers pour into their work is a trait that we may have received from our parents, and will likely pass to our children.

My youngest wrote his first story at age four. He wasn’t old enough to type the words, but he dictated while I typed. Called “Forest Adventures,” this one page story was about a man who goes into the forest where all sorts of horrific things happen, including being attacked by bees, and also bears who crawl all over the man’s bus “including that part where the people go in.”

Okay, so it’s probably not going to win the Newbery, but as both a mother and an author, it gave me a slight bit of hope that maybe one day, there might be another writer in the family.

There are several examples of literary families: the Bronte sisters and the brothers Grimm are perhaps the most famous, but David Updike, the son of John Updike, is a children’s and short story author. The daughter of feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft is Mary Shelley, author of “Frankenstein.” Mary Higgins Clark co-wrote several books with her daughter, Carol, who has gone on to write books of her own.

The joint study analyzed the creative writing of 511 children between the ages of 8 and 17 and compared it to their parents’ writing. The themes for the writing were the same for each age group, such as “were I invisible” for children and “who lives and what happens on a planet called Priumliava” for adults. The stories were then rated for their originality, plot development and quality, and creative use of prior knowledge. Factors such as general intelligence and the way the family interacted with each other were accounted for.

The researchers concluded what most parents have long known, that there are inheritable traits that have nothing to do with hair and eye color. They stated, “It may be worth further studies to confirm that creative writers are indeed born, as well as made.”

So how does this affect us as writers? Well, for those who are also parents, this is a reminder that the work we do is not solely for the story, or for our readers. Exploring our own creative instincts becomes a role model for our children, who, research shows, may have those same instincts. Let your children see you create so that one day they will create for themselves. And what parent would not be thrilled about that?