“The world of literature is one that can take you far beyond your physical limitations ... it is the key to freedom in this world,” author, actor and activist LeVar Burton told Forbes during a 2014 interview. Burton will be familiar to most people as the former host of the beloved educational kids’ show “Reading Rainbow,” where Burton read children’s books and shared the moral and practical lessons within.
Anyone who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s should also be familiar with the show’s iconic theme song: “Butterfly in the sky, I can go twice as high … I can go anywhere, I can do anything ... Take a look, it’s in a book. A Reading Rainbow.” As I’ve grown up, I’ve learned there’s a lot of truth to what that catchy theme was saying. Reading gives us the power to explore new places, new ideas, to go higher, to do anything.
Sunday, Nov. 10, is the anniversary of the final episode of this iconic show. But even though the show is over, the magical power of reading has not left me. I’m a super book nerd. I’m the type of person who will only get my friends, family and partners books as gifts for holidays, birthdays and special occasions. I’ve written extensively about the importance of reading diversely and increasing access to literature.
That’s because I believe books can truly change the world by changing a reader’s mind and life. I’ve personally learned three important life lessons just from the books I read this year alone.
1. Good Books Make Good Readers
This year might have been my best reading year of my adult life. Part of the reason I think it was so good is less about the books that I read and more about the books that I didn’t read. This is the first year in my memory where I actively DNF’d (or “did not finish”) books on purpose. And honestly, by not wasting my time with novels I wasn’t loving, I gave myself the space to discover authors and genres that I really enjoy.
I used to look at not completing books as a failure (probably because not completing a book would definitely constitute as a failing grade during my school years). I used to force myself to read things that were boring, unrelatable and sometimes offensive and thus forced myself into reading slumps where I was no longer interested in the practice altogether.
This happens to a lot of young people who fall out of love with reading during their early school years. Perhaps having the choice to stop reading is the key to keeping a love of reading alive and giving our youth access to a fulfilling life. Giving kids more choice, diversity and freedom in their reading may encourage them to become adults who love books all life long.
2. We Need Diverse Books
This year, I also challenged myself to only read books written by women of color. I did read a few outliers, but still, this may have also been my most diverse reading year yet. The book industry’s diversity problem is no secret and while things are getting better, there are still large gaps in representation for minority communities in both authors and characters. And that’s truly a tragedy considering the wealth of knowledge diverse authors have to offer the genres.
My reading of authors of color like Tahereh Mafi, Balli Kaur Jaswal, Elizabeth Acevedo and Renee Watson gave me language to speak up for myself and my existence as a woman of color that I just didn’t have in my youth and that I will carry with me throughout my life. Reading diversely does this. It not only shows readers new perspectives on cultures they may not know very much about, but it can also show readers unique ways to navigate their own culture and life.
3. Love Is The Key To Social Justice
I’ve never been a big fan of romance novels or a big believer in happily ever after endings. But this year I read a lot of books both fiction and nonfiction about love and I learned that love is about more than gushy, steamy romance. Love is a tool and an internal power that we all possess to produce radical change in our families, our communities and within ourselves.
As bell hooks writes in one of my favorite reads of the year, ”All About Love: New Visions,” “A love ethic presupposes that everyone has the right to be free, to live fully and well ... the choice to love is a choice to connect, to find ourselves in the other.” We’re in the midst of a tumultuous political and social time in which we’re beginning to challenge what it means to be free. And as we enter into 2020, it doesn’t look like that challenge is going to get any easier. Carrying a love ethic with us is a necessary tool for survival.
Books can teach us the important lessons of what love does and doesn’t look like ― for romantic partners and not. In the pages of some books we can learn how to better love our communities and love each other.
I truly believe books will save the world by expanding our worldview and our language; books help us connect with each other and connect with ourselves. Below are some of my fave page turners of my year (so far).
“All About Love: New Visions” by bell hooks
The incomparable bell hooks wrote 13 essays all about love; love between partners, love within family, love within yourself and love within your community. According to hooks, love is the most effective tool of any ethical justice movements. It’s definitely my favorite nonfiction read of the year.
“The Stationery Shop” by Marjan Kamali
Roya and Bahman are just teenagers in Tehran when they meet on day in a stationery shop and begin a whirlwind romance against the wishes of Bahman’s cruel mother. This beautifully written novel tells the story of star crossed lovers amidst the political upheaval of 1950’s Iran who prove that true love conquers all.
“Monday’s Not Coming” by Tiffany Jackson
At the start of this book, Monday Charles doesn’t show up for the first day of school. What follows is an emotional tale of a girl searching for her best friend and the adults who don’t seem to care that she’s missing. I openly sobbed after reading this young adult thriller based on the Black girls who go missing in Washington, D.C., and around the country every day. Have some tissues ready.
“The Seven Husbands Of Evelyn Hugo” by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Normally I don’t believe the hype of the most popular, must-read books but this novel delivered and then some. As the title reveals, cinema siren Evelyn Hugo has had seven husbands throughout her career and each has taught her a valuable lesson about love, life and herself. It’s a funny, heartwarming and at times heartbreaking historical fiction that shows that the love you have for your self is the most important love of all.
“Still Me” by Jojo Moyes
The third book in the controversial “Me Before You” trilogy surprised me by how heartwarming and inspirational it was. This final book follows Louisa as she relocates from her small town in England to big, loud and beautiful New York City and learns to navigate the fast-paced demands of metropolitan life. It’s a story about new beginnings, tough lessons and finding the joy in the little moments.