Maria Russo is the co-author of the brilliant book, How to Raise a Reader. The book has been described as ‘an indispensable guide to welcoming children – from babies to teens – to a lifelong love of reading’ by the New York Times Book Review.  Anyone who encourages reading in children is a hero in our mind – so we’re big fans of Maria Russo. Maria was also the children’s book editor of The New York Times Book Review. She has also been an editor at the Los Angeles Times and The New York Observer. Maria Russo holds a Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University. Please enjoy our interview with Maria Russo.

When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?

Writer and editor.

h is for hawkWhat are you reading at the moment?

I’m halfway through H Is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, a stunningly good memoir loaded with fascinating lore about hawks and genuine but never maudlin grief for a dead parent. I’m also about to start Best Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham, a middle-grade graphic novel about the highs and lows of friendship between girls, a follow-up to Real Friends, which made a huge impact on several elementary schoolers I know.

What’s your earliest memory of reading?

I was a very early reader – according to my parents I was reading at 4 – and so I can’t pinpoint my earliest recollection, but I do have a strong sense memory of being on my bed reading, completely swept away, and feeling a deep annoyance and almost despair when I had to stop because I was being called to dinner. For some reason I can conjure this feeling especially for certain books involving talking animals and Garth Williams illustrations: Emmett’s Pig by Mary Stolz, The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden, Charlotte’s Web and The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White.

diary of Anne Frank - Maria Russo interviewIf you could encourage young people to read one book in particular, what would it be and why?

The Diary of Anne Frank. No book has ever had a stronger effect on me, both intellectually and emotionally, and it absolutely should be read by everyone by the time they are, say, 15. I see this as a book that crosses all borders and boundaries of interest and that has the power to awaken both empathy and historical consciousness.

What is the worst job you’ve ever had?

Telemarketing. Ugh. I hate that first moment of approaching strangers.

Do you read as much as you’d like to?

Yes! I’m lucky. Also, I am out of the habit of watching TV so it’s my main form of escape entertainment.

What books do you feel are important reading for people on your career path and why?

Well, for my career path as a book person in general, the more widely you read, the better. That means reading or at least trying, books in every genre, and books by people with vastly different backgrounds and experiences from yours. Americans, especially, really, really need to read international authors.

Is there a book that you’ve read more than once? What is it and why did you revisit it?

I re-read books quite often, I think partly because I’m not someone who reads for plot and rarely remember the details of a plot, so I’m not bothered by knowing generally what’s going to happen. But also, certain books have such a powerful emotional impact on me at certain moments in my life that I want to revisit them to see if that power is still there, and even just to see if I still think they’re “great.”

One interesting example is The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, which I was obsessed with in my 20s. For me it was intellectually exhilarating, a dip into philosophy as well as modern European history, along with being a font of deep wisdom about relationships and life in general. But when I returned to it in my 30s I found it sexist and cynical. Then in my 40s, I read it again to try to do a kind of emotional archaeology on myself – why did I love it so much in my 20s? And that was really interesting and satisfying and answered some questions for me about myself and the paths I’d taken. Also, at that point I could better appreciate Kundera’s tragic political worldview.

the miraculous journey of Edward Tulane - Maria Russo interviewWhat book have you recommended the most to friends and family?

For adult books, The Piazza Tales by Herman Melville, and his other books, Benito Cereno and The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids. For children’s books, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo.

What’s your favourite genre of book?

Novel and memoir are tied; and I especially like a book that plays around with the distinction.

What do you think a world without books would be like?

Terrifying.

Is there an author whose writing you’re such a fan of, that you’ll read everything they release?

Several! For grownups, I get excited by seeing a new book from Tessa Hadley, Rachel Cusk, Zadie Smith, Ben Lerner, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Don DeLillo, Alice Munro, Han Kang. For children’s books, the list is even longer and includes illustrators like Sydney Smith, Christian Robinson, Vera Brosgol and Beatrice Alemagna, and middle-grade writers like Jacqueline Woodson, Kate DiCamillo, Meg Medina, Rebecca Stead, Kevin Henkes, Jason Reynolds  … come to think of it, they all write picture books, too!

Do you think digital books will ever completely replace real books?

No, no, no, no, no.

What book do you feel humanity needs right now?

Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin. We need Baldwin’s precision of thought and largeness of heart more than ever. Everything he wrote feels urgent and shockingly current now.

What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life?

The Diary of Anne Frank.

borrowed finery - Maria Russo interviewAre there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?

So many! Here are a few that I think about often: Borrowed Finery by Paula Fox; The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante; Pachinko by Min Jin Lee; Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee; The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass; The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson; House of Mirth by Edith Wharton.

What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?

Lots of children’s books! And I’m going to read more contemporary Italian fiction, mostly in translation but I’m going to try to work on my Italian by trying some in Italian too.

If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?

“Living.”

If you enjoyed this interview with Maria Russo and would like to learn more, you can find Maria on Twitter.

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