Welcome to Advice in The Stacks, a bookish advice column from me, Traci Thomas, the host and creator of The Stacks podcast. My show is all about books and the people who read them, with new episodes out every Wednesday on your favorite podcast platform. Due to the nature of the show I am constantly asked for advice on all things books, so I’m making it formal and bringing my advice to all of you with my monthly column here at SheReads.com.

If you have questions about anything book related, CLICK HERE and submit your question, and then come back the last Thursday of the month to see my advice.

The world feels so heavy. When choosing books for yourself, do you tend to lean into the heaviness or choose something joyful? What book(s) can you recommend that allow readers to escape or center joy?

You’re 1000% right, the world does feel so heavy and scary these days. I am fully a lean-into-the-heaviness kind of person. I read dark things to really vibe with the awfulness. I’m currently reading Allow Me to Retort: A Black Guy’s Guide to the Constitution by Elie Mystal about the stripping of constitutional rights and SCOTUS. I also started Nightcrawling by Leila Mottley, which is about the Oakland police sexual assualt case, so yeah, I’m keeping it super *not* light these days.

But you want light, so I will give you (my version of) light! Just wanted to sidebar that I really don’t do joyful reading, and most everything I read has a little something that tethers me to the bleak realities of the world we’re living in.

Wow, No Thank You by Samanatha Irby

I love Samanatha Irby. She is hilarious and smart and has a really big heart, even if it’s couched in snark and poop (there’s a lot of bowel talk in her books). If you want to have a good time, grab this collection—or honestly any of her three essay collections. She’s talking about culture, being broke, working at a vet, and poop, so it’s a good time. Samantha was a guest on The Stacks in 2020, and it still is one of my most favorite conversations, she is so easy to love.

Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop by Danyel Smith

This is one of those books that brings me joy, but is also rooted in some not so joyful stuff, like the erasure of Black women from an industry that they are an integral part of. I found a lot of joy in learning the stories of women like Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, and even Phyllis Wheatly, but these stories are not without pain and struggle, which of course mirror the experiences of Black women in America. This might not be what you’re looking for, but if you like pop music and history and great writing and stories with heart, I highly recommend it. I should also say, this book is The Stacks Book Club pick for this month (May 2022) and I spoke with Danyel about the book, and it’s a can’t miss episode.

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

I’m not sure this is fully joyful but it is fully enjoyable. It’s the story of four friends who grow up in Brooklyn, and grow apart and together, in the ways that four girls are bound to do. There is so much heart in this book, that even the heavier parts feel lush—because that is what life is about. The good stuff and the bad stuff making it all worth living.

Salt, Fat Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat

I bet you didn’t think I would go with a cook book, but I’m full of surprises. I love to cook, and think about food and how to make delicious things for the people I love most. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat really surprised me! I loved reading about the science of cooking and how simple it all is, and how incredibly possible it is (even for folks who don’t cook). The first half is mostly a lesson on cooking, while the second half is a whole slew of recipes for you to try out and finesse to make food you’ll love. For me, there isn’t anything more joyful than a really good homemade meal. If you’re into the book, there is also an episode of The Stacks all about it.

Lastly, let me just say, a romance novel might be the thing you need if you really want a happy ending. I personally L-O-V-E-D Seven Days in June by Tia Williams, and Jasmine Guillory has a whole bunch that people love, and there is of course, the entire Bridgerton series.

Dear Traci, I have two kids (14 and 11) who I cannot get to read. I am an avid reader and at their age I was definitely reading for pleasure—but they always seem to be on a device. I’ve tried implementing mandatory reading time where I read to them or we read silently, but that only results in them telling me they hate books. Any tips?

Thank you, Teen/tween Bookmom

First off, I am not a tween or teen mom yet, not even close. I may regret all of this in 10 years when I’m in your boat and my kids scream at me and tell me what kind of loser I am for loving books. Then there is also the fact that all children are different, and what works for one might not work for the other. I’ve wrangled a bunch of tips for you, but you might need to mix and match to see what sticks.

  1. Take the pressure off. Stop mandatory reading time immediately. So what, your kids aren’t into reading? I didn’t love reading or want to do it when I was 12. I wanted to listen to Spice Girls and talk on the phone. I wanted to do it even less when my mom urged me to. That being said, I am now an actual professional reader. Backing off might help make it be less of a “thing my mom wants me to do.”
  2. Make sure they are comfortable reading. I have talked to so many people who didn’t read as a kid because they had learning disabilities, the wrong (or no) glasses, back pain, or something else that was getting in their way from enjoying reading. Double check on this with them, their teachers, doctors, whomever might know. If they are feeling shame around the activity of reading, it won’t happen no matter what you do.
  3. Let them read whatever they want. If they’re into comics, great. What about articles they find on social media? Maybe they would want to read the script from a movie they love? What about a book they used to love as a kid? Revisiting that could be fun. Websites on video games? Liner notes (do those still exist?), magazines, blogs. It’s all reading. If you’ve got a problem with what they’re reading, you might be the one making reading hard on them.
  4. Find books they would like. A lot of kids don’t want to read books about people they can’t connect with. Other young people (me at 13) do not want to read YA books; they want the adult stuff. If you’re ok with it, let them read something with adult topics; that danger might be alluring (of course let them think they’re breaking a rule).
  5. Similarly, show them books that connect to their interests. Video game books, or dancer books, or books about whatever niche they’re really, really, really into. The books exist—your job is to get them into your children’s hands.
  6. Shopping! Can you take them to the library or bookstore and let them pick out a book or magazine they’re interested in? Afterward, maybe get some ice cream, and pair books with something fun and out of the house.
  7. What about taking them to a book or author event in your town/city? Pick an author that they might be interested in (if you’re not sure, vet them from podcast episodes or TV appearances) and let them hear that person talk about books and their work. This might suck, but it might work. Again, pick the author carefully.
  8. Read around them, but don’t call attention to yourself or to them. My parents always had books around in our house. I liked reading with them because it felt very adult. They also talked about books with their friends, which was very cool to me.
  9. Would your kids be into a family reading challenge or book club? This might not work for some kids, but challenging the whole family to read a certain number of books (with a cool prize they actually would want) might help build the habit. Similarly, letting them pick a book that everyone has to read and then discuss could be fun. Maybe it’s also a TV show or movie you could all watch? If your kids are in the phase where they think you’re a terrible nerd, maybe they could organize a book club with their friends? Or talk to their teacher for next year and see if there is some reading related extra credit they could get for reading over the summer. Communal reading is fun.
  10. I want to say this one again: back off. Take the pressure off. Relax, mom. Not every kid is going to love reading, or want to do it for fun. That is more than okay. It doesn’t make your kids less than. Also, if your kids are anything like me as a kid (and now) they are probably also resisting because they know if makes you mad.

Rebellion, what a beautiful thing.