Adrienne Pettinelli is the Director of the Henrietta Public Library in Rochester NY and author of Helping Homeschoolers in the Library (2008, ALA Editions). She’s served on several book award committees, including the 2015 Caldecott Selection Committee, and she’s a reviewer specializing in picture books and beginning readers for Horn Book Magazine. She teaches for the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. When she’s not reading, Adrienne is trying to squeeze every bit of fun and happiness as she can out of her life with her husband, family, friends, three cats, and sweet little puppy named Bob.
Is there an author or a book that you think is highly overrated? Why?
Yes, oh my gosh, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov knows how to write a sentence, and I think he captures the self-delusion of an active pedophile, but also this book mostly has the place in the canon* it does because of the large number of people who fetishize it and have a little too much in common with Humbert Humbert, which is gross. I think people can read the book and get an angle on an ugly aspect humanity, sure (and no doubt it’s effective, because I read it 25 years ago and am still irritated about it), but also, as a woman who was once a young girl fending off people like Humbert—a common experience—I have a hard time understanding why this perspective is held up so highly when so many other excellent books are considered niche reading. I’m thinking of a book like Passing by Nella Larsen, which is finally finding its more correct place in the canon, being largely ignored for many years while college students were being forced to read Lolita instead. There are examples of powerful writing that examine more worthwhile subjects, is my point. The NYT recently ran this great interview with Walter Mosley, and the way he talks about Philip Roth is kind of how I feel about Lolita (as well as most of Roth’s work, aside from “The Conversion of the Jews,” which is brilliant).
As a coda, here’s the one people will fight me on—I couldn’t even get past like chapter five in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. When you Google the title, one of the suggested alternate searches is, “What is the point of Gone Girl?” Google is wrong a lot, but in this case, I concede the floor to Google.
*I don’t believe in the whole concept of the canon, btw, but that’s a whole other subject, and also I can’t deny that the canon exists even though I don’t love it.
Is there a book you’ve read that you wish you didn’t?
The Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin. It’s like I started and then got in too deep to quit, even though I am clearly never going to get some of those images out of my head, and my belief is that Martin isn’t even going to finish the dang series. Now I’m just here having invested in these giant, violent, misogynistic tomes, and I can’t even see how the stories end.
Do not talk to me about the TV show.
What was the first book you read by yourself as a child?
It must have been Swimmy by Leo Lionni or Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm by the Provensens, which are books I read until they fell to pieces and deeply shaped my perspective on life.
Do you have a favorite picture book? What and why?
You’re talking to a picture book expert here, so the answer is way too many to list. Today, though, I’ll pick Nana in the City by Lauren Castillo, which is a perfect, beautiful, life-affirming book, and I have a piece of art from it tattooed on my leg. When you love a book enough to put a piece of it on yourself permanently, I suppose that’s a solid candidate for favorite.
What book would you recommend to heal a broken heart?
Lean into your broken heart with some teen fiction. I myself love a teen romance when I’m feeling defeated. Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan has it all—heartbreak, drama, humor, new love, music.
What is a favorite quote from a book?
From A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean:
“My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”
I first read this when I was nineteen, and I’ve returned to it and this book again and again in the thirty years since. It’s as close as I can get to a personal life philosophy.
How do you treat the books you read? Do you make notes in them? Dog-ear the pages? Keep every page (and the spine!) pristine?
I believe the only worth a book can have is in being read, so I’m not precious about how I handle books. I read a lot of library books, and I’m careful with those. I also buy books that I only intend to read once or twice and then pass on, and I’m careful with those, too. Books in my personal collection are written on, they’re dog-eared, they have broken spines. I find reading so enjoyable, but also I consider myself a student of both literature and life, and I read primarily to learn and, I hope, grow and maybe even become a slightly better human. All my books are workbooks.
Where do you get your book recommendations?
I get a lot of great book recommendations from friends and colleagues—I know many readers! I also learn about a lot of books from listening to the All the Books podcast from Book Riot (highly recommended for anyone looking to diversify their reading), and I get a lot from reading Horn Book Magazine (which I also write for).
What is the funniest book you ever read?
How am I supposed to pick? I love funny books, and I read and reread so many of them! People don’t think of The Odyssey by Homer as hilarious, but oh my gosh, that story’s nuts. Always makes me laugh. An offbeat favorite is Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome, a 19th Century slightly-fictionalized account of a trio of ill-prepared men taking a boat trip on the Thames. And then after you’ve read that, you simply must read To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis’s raucous time-travel novel that riffs on Three Men in a Boat. Almost everything by Connie Willis is funny. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons is another book that reliably makes me laugh out loud. If you want to laugh, I also recommend books by Jenny Lawson, Phoebe Robinson, Sarah Vowell, David Sedaris, Allie Brosh, and Mindy Kaling. I haven’t even gotten into children’s and teen books and authors. I could write a book about funny books.
Do you ever judge a book by its cover? What attracts you to a cover?
Yes, totally. I always think I’m going to like books with black covers and books with bright pink covers. I like a bold image—more graphic than not, but also I’ll respond to any cover that is striking in some way. I don’t enjoy reading rebound library books that have those plain cloth covers; I feel the lack of cover art as a loss. I’m someone who will happily engage in a lengthy argument about which cover art is best for favorite books and authors, and I get angry when excellent books are given unattractive or misleading covers. I can’t conceive not having strong feelings about these things, honestly.
If you had a Narnia closet, what literary world would it lead to and what’s the first thing you would do there?
I am a reader of sci-fi and fantasy, and I often hear people say things like, “I wish I could visit Narnia” or “I wish I could visit Hogwarts,” but way too many bad things happen in those places. I do not want to go to any of them. That counts double for any time in the past, when women were subjugated and no one had refrigeration or washing machines or antibiotics. No, thank you.
You know what I would like to do, though? I’d like to go sit in the kitchen with Golly and have cake and milk. I’d like to follow Harriet around all day, in fact, but instead of writing in my notebook, I’d just copy everything she ate, because everything she ate sounds delicious. So I guess that’s where my Narnia closet would go. Either that or I’d like to go to one of Julia Child’s kitchens, although perhaps not on one of the days when she dropped the chicken on the floor.
What was the last book you read that challenged your world view?
I feel like I read a lot of books that nudge my world view, but challenge is a big thing. I’d say Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi is the last book that profoundly changed my understanding of some things. It’s this tiny little novella that has the impact of a supernova.
Thank you, Adrienne, for this insightful profile! If you are interested in doing a Reader Profile, please contact me at patricia.uttaro (a) gmail.com.