Jordan Cleary from Winchester Library tells us about his favourite Young Adult (YA) books, LGBTQ+ stories, and the importance of representation in our reading.
Where is your favourite place to read?
I don’t read as often as I would like, but when I do get a chance to read, I like to do it in what I call a reading nook. It’s actually just a chair in the guest bedroom next to a bookshelf, but I like to call it that so it sounds more elegant than it actually is. I’ve tried reading in bed before, but I just can’t get comfy. Whichever side I lean on, one of my arms goes dead, so I usually just go to the nook.
Before I worked at Winchester Library, I was at New Milton Library which meant an hour commute on the train every day. I used to get through so many books because there’s not much else to do on a train and it was a good amount of time to just sit down and get stuck in a book. Now I work in Winchester and my commute is about 5 minutes. It’s much more convenient for me but I do miss having that dedicated reading time.
How do you read?
In an ideal world I would read about 20 maybe 30 books a year. We don’t live in an ideal world, so I read roughly 5 books a year. I don’t like reading in small chunks, I like to have proper sessions where I can just get my head in a book. I don’t like dipping in and out of a story because I like to really spend some proper time with the plot and the characters. I usually finish a book in three or four sittings, so if I don’t think I have enough time to read, I just won’t. I have tried audiobooks before, but I always find myself having to skip back because I’ve lost track of what’s going on in the story. So, for me, it can end up being more stressful than just reading. I do always carry a book with me though in the hope that I might find an hour spare.
I personally would never dog-ear a book; I really like to treat my books with care. Though I did once have my collection of the Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries by Robin Stevens displayed on a windowsill before I knew how badly books can be sun damaged. Each cover is a different bright colour, so they looked really nice all in a row on the windowsill. But the sun aged the paper and bleached all the colourful covers. Never again have I put a book on a windowsill. But I’m pragmatic in so far as, if you have bought a copy of your own book, I don’t care how you treat it. It sounds sentimental, but I actually think it’s really nice how we leave traces of ourselves in the books we read. Whether it’s a note in a margin, a coffee stain, or a folded page, the book can take on qualities of us and almost become a memory in itself.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’ve been getting into graphic novels a lot because that’s one of my stock areas at work and YA is one of the genres that I really love. I’m reading the Heartstopper series by Alice Oseman at the moment. It started off as a webcomic and is actually running as one still, but it became so popular that it began being published in volumes as a graphic novel. It’s a really sweet love story about two teenage boys in a British sixth form. There’s a lot of YA romance out there but I found Heartstopper quite different because it takes the story at quite a deliberate pace. I think where it started as a webcomic, the relationship is allowed the space and time to evolve in a far more realistic way. It also carries on after they fall in love as well and it’s really far more about their relationship after getting together which is quite rare in YA I think. It touches on a lot of different topics that are so important for us to learn from, from eating disorders and mental health, to homophobia, it’s the kind of book I wish I had as a teenager.
My reading goes in cycles. I’d say I’m primarily a fan of fantasy, crime, and YA, though I do like natural science and true-crime books too. I picked up my interest in true crime mainly from my mum. Before I went to university, we would quite often stay up watching forensic documentaries and true crime stories. Right now in my genre cycle I’m in a YA phase, but I’ll probably come back to reading crime soon, it’s dependent on my mood.
I often check book blogs for recommendations, especially because I like LGBTQ+ novels and books that are quite off the beaten path. Although I don’t really believe we should pigeonhole a book based on its cover, it is often the first thing that jumps out at you about a book and covers often do a good job of telling you what kind of a read it’s going to be. If a crime novel has a dark, gritty aesthetic then you know that’s going to be quite a different book to the fluffy one next to it. It’s a good way to pick a book if you don’t have much time.
First loves, best loves
When I was younger my favourite author was Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart series. They’re beautifully written, setting heavy novels and they have maps to help the world building in the front too; I love a good map in a book! Dragon Rider is another one of her novels that I loved when I was a bit younger. It’s about a boy trying to help a dragon find its home and they fly all over the world together, it’s very sweet and probably where my love of fantasy came from.
The lack of variety of books when I was growing up was a big problem in the early to mid-noughties. I grew up in a time where Section 28 was still enforced which meant that local authorities and government-maintained schools couldn’t promote or endorse LGBTQ+ content or represent those families. Even though it was repealed in 2003, it took quite a long time for schools, libraries, and councils to catch up and take up an equality angle. So, even in secondary school, I don’t remember being taught or shown stories that reflected me or others from the LGBTQ+ community. I’m sure they were out there somewhere if you knew where to look, but when you’re that age and coming out you don’t really know where to turn. I think unless those things are shown to you it’s quite easy to think that there are no books anywhere that actually represent who you are. But publishing houses are improving greatly at that and I think it’s great that schools and libraries are able to wholeheartedly promote these books and showcase these stories now. I didn’t have that growing up and it’s something that I feel like I really missed out on. I’m 26 now but I’m still reading a lot of YA fiction, I feel like I’m catching up on the books I would have read growing up if I had had the chance to.
I think children’s books are quite an odd genre because often it becomes dominated by celebrity authors who are marketed really well but aren’t necessarily popular for the quality of the books. I would really encourage people to explore some of the lesser-known children’s authors that are writing incredible books. The last children’s book I read was Amari and the Night Brothers by B. B. Alston. Many people may not have heard of him because he’s a debut novelist, but it’s a brilliant urban fantasy about the ‘bureau of supernatural affairs’. One of things I love about this book is that it features a black girl, Amari, as the main character. Too often when people of colour are included in books it’s as a supporting role. But Amari is prominently shown in centre stage of the front cover as the main character. It’s a children’s book, of course, so it doesn’t get too heavy, but it does touch on classism and bullying in a really interesting way and it explores that through some of the fantasy elements too. I would definitely recommend it if you’re looking for an alternative to Harry Potter.
Another I would recommend is Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co series which is aimed more at young teens. It’s set in an alternate London where, because of something they call “the Problem”, ghosts appear at night and attack the living. Young people are the only ones able to sense the spirits so agencies are set up for them to investigate “the Problem” and fight the hauntings.
For me, I would like to get into horror. I don’t really enjoy horror films because I find them too scary, but I’d really like to try the book alternative. I’d love to read some of the classic horror novels like The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.
Jordan Cleary is a Library Team Assistant at Winchester Library and the Vice Chair of Hampshire County Council’s LGBTQ+ Staff Network. Jordan was speaking with Isaac Fravashi.