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I Read Popular Books for Homework: A True Story

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Katie McLain

Contributing Editor

Katie's parents never told her "no" when she asked for a book, which was the start of most of her problems. She has a BA in Creative Writing from Lake Forest College and is working towards a master's degree in library science at U of I. She works full time at a public library reference desk in northern IL, specializing in readers’ advisory and general book enthusiasm, and she has a deep-rooted love of all things disturbing, twisted, and terrifying. (She takes enormous pleasure in creeping out her coworkers.) When she's not spending every waking hour at the library, she's at home watching Cubs baseball with her cats and her cardigan collection, and when she's not at home, she's spending too much money on concert tickets. Her hobbies include debating the finer points of Harry Potter canon, hitting people upside the head who haven’t read The Martian, and convincing her boyfriend that she can, in fact, fit more books onto her shelves. Twitter: @kt_librarylady

I’m one year away from graduating with my master’s degree in Library & Information Science, and last year, I took 2 readers’ advisory classes: Young Adult Literature & Resources, and Adult Popular Literature. I’ve been doing readers’ advisory at work for several years now, but this was the first truly formal readers’ advisory education I’d ever had, with graded assignments, lectures, and readings. Now, for avid readers, taking classes like these must seem like a dream come true. Reading bestsellers and popular books for homework?!

I thought so too. And don’t get me wrong – if I had to choose between reading popular fiction and reading a dusty article on the history of cataloging, I would choose popular fiction every single time, hands down. I think most people would. But reading for homework is actually more work than I realized. Here’s what I learned:


  1. You will read more than you thought possible. For my YA class, we were regularly reading 2-3 books each week in addition to other projects and homework assignments. Granted, YA novels read extremely fast, but I was still spending 10-15 hours each week doing nothing but reading. And a couple of the projects required me to do extra reading that wasn’t specifically listed on the syllabus, so I was literally working, studying, and reading for most of that semester. My boyfriend rarely saw me with my nose out of a book from January to May of last year.
  2. You don’t have the luxury of deciding what you’re in the mood to read. The syllabus doesn’t care about what you feel like reading. In some ways, this was actually freeing. I never found myself staring vacantly at my bookshelf wondering if I was in the mood for dark suspense, a poignant memoir, or a reread of my favorite Stephen King novel. I basically created a stack of books next to the couch and plowed through it week after week, jumping from The Chocolate War to The Fault in Our Stars to American Born Chinese in a matter of days.
  3. You will discover books that you love and books that you hate with a fiery passion. Because I was reading under a deadline, I didn’t have the luxury of second-guessing my choices or putting down a book that I hated. As soon as I picked up a book, I was in it for the long haul. And honestly, I’m glad for that because I discovered some really spectacular books during my YA Lit class. That was the first time I experienced Lumberjanes and I was so overjoyed by the first volume that I interrupted my boyfriend’s TV time to tell him how freaking delightful it was. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, I read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time and discovered how much I truly hated that book. (Sorry, English teachers – if your high schoolers enjoy it, more power to them, but I just wanted to dropkick Holden Caufield through a window.) Also, paperback Westerns. No. Thank. You.
  4. You will be exhausted by the time the semester is over. But it was a different kind of mental exhaustion than I had experienced as an undergrad. There, I would grow weary of peer-reviewed articles and Norton Anthology poems and I would often turn to fiction for escape.  But I had no idea popular fiction could have the same effect on me. I longed for an afternoon of zoning out in front of the TV and letting my brain leak out my ears. I thought I had put in enough practice over the course of my life to be ready for such a sustained reading marathon, but I was mistaken.
  • You’ll end up missing it. I mean, I should be super grateful that I now have more freedom in what I get to read, but like I mentioned before, I kind of enjoyed not having to worry about choosing what to read next. I read outside my comfort zone. I learned more about what I liked and didn’t like. I read faster than I had ever read in my life. I’ve debated about having my boyfriend pick out a stack of books every couple of weeks for me to plow through, but it’s easier to speed read when I know it’s for a grade.

    I don’t know if I’ll read as many books in a year as I did in 2016 (103), but I’m glad I was able to flex my reading muscles like this. And maybe this year I’ll get my intensive reading practice in with my first read-athon, if I can just plan ahead enough.

    And in case you’re interested, here are five of my favorite books that I discovered from both of my classes, in no particular order:

    Beautiful Music for Ugly Children – Kristin Cronn-Mills

    Gabe is a high school DJ who was born as Elizabeth until just a few months ago when he began actively transitioning to life as a man. His parents think he’s crazy and refuse to call him anything but Elizabeth, most of his classmates are unaware of his life as Gabe, and in the middle of all this, Gabe is trying to navigate the typical high school world of dating, relationships, and trying to figure out who he is. The book is written by a cisgender author, but the story is beautiful, inspiring, heartbreaking, and written with a lot of sensitivity.

    Burn Baby Burn – Meg Medina

    Nora Lopez is 17 during the infamous New York City Summer of 1977. This is the summer of arson, electrical failure across the city, and the Son of Sam, a serial killer who shoots young people on the streets, seemingly at random. But Nora has her own problems on top of this as well, including an out-of-control brother, a distant father, rent problems, and a cute guy who works with her at the deli. But is dating even worth the risk when the Son of Sam enjoys picking off teenagers late at night? Technically, I read this book after my young adult class ended, but I came to it after reading Meg Medina’s other mega-popular YA novel for class, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass.  I liked Yaqui Delgado, but I LOVED Burn Baby Burn – compelling, suspenseful, and a great coming of age story.

    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

    HeLa cells have factored into almost every significant scientific breakthrough since the 1960’s, including the polio vaccine, cancer research, in-vitro fertilization, and cloning. But the cells were taken without consent from a poor black farmer named Henrietta Lacks, who died from cervical cancer and was buried in an unmarked grave. This is the story of Henrietta, her family’s struggles to have her name recognized for her unknowing contributions to science, and the history of ethical science. The history was fascinating enough on its own, but what I really loved about this book was that Rebecca Skloot gives the story such a compassionate, human quality through her interviews and experiences with Henrietta’s surviving family members.

    Long Lankin – Lindsey Barraclough

    Cora and her younger sister Mimi are sent to live with their eccentric Aunt Ida in the tiny British village of Byers Guerdon, who gives them a less than warm welcome. The house is isolated, the surrounding woods are creepy and forbidding, and there’s something their Aunt Ida isn’t telling them. As Cora puts together the mystery of the house, she learns that she and Mimi are entwined in a terrifying history that has held the village in its grasp for centuries. If you think YA horror can’t be as scary as horror written for adults, you need to read this book. It chilled me to the bone, and on more than one occasion, I started to freak out about turning the lights off in my apartment.

    Lumberjanes Vol. 1 – Noelle Stevenson

    I can’t begin to describe the plot of this mega-awesome graphic novel, so I’ll just say it’s Girl Scouts meets girl power with mythology and supernatural creatures and hipster yetis and I loved it to pieces. It was the most joyously bizarre, unapologetically girl-centric story I’ve read in a long time, and I’ve been recommending it to just about everyone at work for the last six months.