(How) Can we read? An interview with Pat Zietlow Miller
"There’s a lot of truth and beauty in a well-done picture book, and truth and beauty are something you never outgrow."*
Welcome to the November issue of (How) Can we read?, which is where I take everything I know about raising readers and share it with you, bit by bit, in an effort to inspire you to practical action that works in your own home and family.
Full disclosure: I was going to do a holiday gift guide this month. I think I even said that publicly at one point. Alas, it came time to put this issue together and I could only conjure the most half-hearted list. It’s not that there aren’t interesting, even tempting, reading-related gifts out there, it’s that I don’t really buy it (pun intended, because it’s been ever so long since I’ve punned).
The best reading-related holiday gift for children is books. And a way to listen to audiobooks, if you want to get fancy. But mostly, books. I can’t recommend a subscription box because the only one I liked (Good Trouble for Kids) went out of business. If you think no child can possibly read in bed without a booklight, or every title you own should have a cute little personalized bookplate, or that any accessory at all is required to build a culture of reading in your home and enjoy books (besides glasses/contacts or another accessibility tool), friend, you’re on your own.
Instead I’m bringing you an interview with an author whose work has delighted my family for years: Pat Zietlow Miller, who is not only a fellow Miller (I mean, we’re everywhere — the anonymity is literally the only reason I changed my maiden name) but also a fellow Wisconsinite who lived, unbeknownst to me, 20 miles down the road in Fitchburg until she recently moved (though she remains in Wisconsin, smart lady).
The world is strange, and I love it.
I didn’t really mean to interview an author from Wisconsin but I’m glad that some mysterious cheesehead kismet brought us together because Pat is simply terrific. She and her excellent books have won a handful of awards and spent weeks on the New York Times bestseller list — neither of which means a book is good but I am here telling you, in this case, that’s exactly what it means. You can’t go wrong with a Zietlow Miller title (so for those of you who keep track of names to look out for at library sales and otherwise, here’s a new one!)
It’s hard for me to pick my favorite book of hers — I reviewed Wherever You Go in issue No. 6 and, rereading it the other day (to myself, which is definitely a thing), I remembered how poetic, affecting, and truly lovely it is.
But then there is Sophie’s Squash — which Pat mentions in our interview, to my pure joy — which I reviewed in my 2020 special edition on fall and this book is probably it: my favorite Zietlow Miller title. In fact, just last night I told my daughters that I’d sent an email to the author of Sophie’s Squash asking to interview her for my newsletter — which is only a nebulous thing in their minds, given that neither of them really know what the internet is (do any of us?) — and they were as excited as if I’d told them I’d arranged for the adoption of a pair of butternut squashes of their own. It’s our favorite title of hers, hands down.
There is also Sharing the Bread: An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving Story, which I reviewed in my 2020 special edition on Thanksgiving, and remains my top Thanksgiving book for its immensely satisfying rhythm and its simple celebration of food, family, and the blessing of being together. There is also Be Kind, and Remarkably You, and her newest book that came out exactly a month ago and which I’ve already had my hands on, What Can You Do with a Rock? (I recommend them all.)
Pat Zietlow Miller is good. Full stop.
I hope you enjoy hearing a bit more from her in this interview.
Why do you write for children?
I have always loved children’s books — when I was a kid, and as I grew up. One reason I love them is that small people have big emotions, and they’re still figuring out how to handle them. (A lot of grown-ups are still figuring this out, too.) So many books for kids help readers handle those emotions by telling a great story that — at its heart — says: “You’re not alone. Other people feel the same things. And here’s what they do.”
Stories let readers safely explore different ways of being — of trying, failing and succeeding. Stories also introduce them to characters making similar and different choices. Those stories help kids see that they are not alone with their big feelings and that even a character who might seem unlike them could have similar feelings. Stories also show readers kids with various life experiences, which increases understanding and empathy.
Kids books make a difference. They matter. And, I am proud to write them.
The biographical information on your website states that you knew you wanted to be a writer ever since your seventh-grade English teacher read your paper about square-dancing skirts out loud in class and said, “This is the first time anything a student has written has given me chills.”
I love that! (I knew I wanted to be a writer when my grandparents gave me a green and yellow Little Tykes desk when I was four — I think I began my life’s work there.)
What kind of early experience did you have with books and reading? Was reading a part of your family culture or did you come to it on your own?
My family was very book positive. We didn’t really have the funds to buy brand-new books, and I’m not sure there even was a bookstore in my hometown. And the internet didn’t exist, so online book shopping was not a thing.
But, we had a library and a bookmobile and I spent tons of time in both spots as a kid carrying home stacks and stacks of books. And, my parents let me read. I never remember them saying: “Put that book down!” My love of reading traces back to that and to some great school librarians. I also had an aunt who was the director of a public library in another state and I often got books from her as gifts. Many of my best childhood memories are about books and libraries and that helped me become a writer.
The subscribers of this newsletter are here in part because they care about raising readers. Do you have any advice for parents, educators (basically any grownup who has children in their life for any reason) about reading?
My biggest advice to adults who want the children around them to read is to expose the kids in your life to lots of books and then let them read what they want. It's very tempting — and I was guilty of this — to want kids to read a certain kind of book or a book you love or a book that you think challenges them. But, if you want kids to love reading and keep doing it when you aren’t around to nag them, it really helps to let them read what they want. Even if it’s a book they’ve read before or one that technically is below or above their reading level. (Personally, I read and love and benefit from A LOT of books that are below or above my reading level.)
I’ve seen parents — in bookstores and libraries — redirect kids from the book they’re clutching in their hands by saying things like: “That's for babies. You’re too old for that” or “That's a book for girls, don't you want this instead?” or “Graphic novels don't count” or similarly dismissive things. Let your kid read the book they want. Or listen to the audiobooks they want. And then, read or listen to it yourself so you can talk to them about it. That book might be just what they need at that time for reasons you or they don’t even know yet.
Kids end up having to read lots of books they might not choose themselves during their educational career. So let them read what they like on their own. Even if you don’t see the appeal. It will remind them that books are fun. That words tell stories. It will give them a place to escape and think and dream.
And if they hate the book they chose? Let them stop and pick a new one. I don’t finish every book I start. Kids shouldn’t have to either.
[Editor’s note: AMEN!]
You’ve published thirteen books (including a New York Times bestseller, Be Kind) and have ten titles currently in production.
Which is your favorite? If that is too much like asking if you have a favorite child 😊, do any of them have particularly special meaning for you?
It’s always hard to pick a favorite. But my first book, Sophie’s Squash, has special meaning to me because it was inspired by my youngest daughter who fell in love with a butternut squash when she was small. That same daughter also inspired my latest release — What Can You Do With a Rock?, so I have warm fuzzy feelings about that book, as well.
And, I’m quite fond of Be Kind and its companion book, Be Strong. They’re about the same group of kids figuring out the best ways to be kind and be strong. What I like most about those titles is that the characters think about and try things that don’t always work before coming to their own conclusions about kindness and strength. It’s not adults telling them what to do.
On your website you have a long, fantastic list of books that you love (my children and I are going to work our way through that list title by title, believe me).
Are there any — old or new, on that list or otherwise — that have made you think, this one is so important I wish I could put it on every kid’s bookshelf?
That’s a great question, and one that’s hard to answer because there are so many types of kids and types of emerging readers. And the perfect book for one kid is not the perfect book for another. But, having said that, I’m choosing these picture books:
Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodsen and E.B. White. This is one of the most true-to-life stories I’ve ever read about how easy it is to make mistakes and not do the things you should. Beautiful story. Beautiful art. Every reader of any age will see themselves in one of this story’s characters.
Two of a Kind by Jacqui Robbins and Matt Phelan. This is another story that perfectly captures human nature and how easy it is to want to fit in with a certain group or be perceived a certain way even if that’s maybe not the best fit. Again, most readers will have had similar experiences in their life they can reflect on.
The Dot by Peter Reynolds. A great book about making your mark and finding the courage to try something new.
Thanks to Pat for taking the time out of her busy book-writing-and book-dreaming schedule to respond to my questions, and thanks to you lovely people for reading today.
For more information about Zietlow Miller’s work, visit her website. Otherwise, hie yourself to your nearest library, bookstore, or open browser tab and get your hands on some of her wonderful books.
(And, side note: graphic novels absolutely count! If you’d like more information about the importance of reading choice, see the April issue of (How) Can we read?, which was about strategies for raising readers; as well as the October issue, which covered choosing good books. And I’m gonna repeat it because it’s important: graphic novels count!)
(How) Can we read? does not come out in December so until next time — until next year! — keep reading to the children in your life, keep putting books in front of them, keep going. You’re doing a better job than you know.
*a quote from the FAQ on Zietlow Miller’s website