Column Description: Join Alicia Abdul in each issue as she recommends a book or two through the lens of lifelong learning. Be it fiction or nonfiction, using a format like a verse or graphic novel, books can teach us, inspire us, and reconnect us. So, what better way to pay tribute to the things that keep us reading just one more chapter past our bedtime or that we can’t see over when stacked tall as we leave the library than hyping them here?

I have had a fascination with death. A quest to know more, ask questions, and think about the topic that others would prefer to avoid like, well, the plague. Astrologists would say it’s because I’m a Scorpio. My parents might attribute it to growing up next to my aunt and uncle’s dairy farm (and they both grew up on farms) where animal death was frequent enough to warrant dinner time discussion. My English professor who taught “Sex, Death, and Salvation” would say it’s because she made us talk about it as college sophomores. 

Truth is, I don’t know where it comes from. However, my kids know that mom likes to visit cemeteries and will always ask if they want to come too. I’m not afraid to kneel during an open-casket wake. I can feed the fascination too with Caitlin Doughty’s YouTube channel and her books. Then there’s The American Way of Death Revisited by Jessica Mitford and the oft-recommended Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach. So it was no surprise when I saw Hayley Campbell’s book All The Living and the Dead: from Embalmers to Executioners, an Exploration of the People Who Have Made Death Their Life’s Work on a few lists that I would queue up to read it. Campbell asks the questions that others might not think or want to ask– of the person whose job it is to “flip the switch” on death row whose own family didn’t know what he did to the employees who work to recruit and cryogenically freeze the bodies of those hoping to find new life in the future. She explores why even a gravedigger is creeped out by cemeteries at night and what motivates the cleanup crews that go in after the crime scene tape has been removed to remove all evidence that a crime was even committed. 

Let’s celebrate the power of books! For a few hundred pages I can be whoever I want folded in between the pages. What horrifies one person is my bedtime story. Every reader, her book. Every book, her reader. Which brings me to my second point and how I began this article, that my fascination with the morbid is worth celebrating, not hiding. Clearly at least four other people (Campbell, Doughty, Mitford, and Roach) share this affinity. By allowing books to be published that provide any range of connection from escape to information, it allows readers an outlet. Then to be able to get to a point where readers are no longer embarrassed by what they like to read is another milestone that I hope everyone can enjoy sooner rather than later. Veronica Roth talked about it in a speech over a decade ago as her star was rising in YA literature when her boyfriend at the time shunned her reading of Twilight. At twenty-something, she put the book down but soon realized (after she broke up with him) that no one had the power to tell her what she could read or like. I want everyone to get to that point of proudly bandying around your beat-up copy of Colleen Hoover because if that’s what you like, that’s what you’ll read and we all need to encourage more reading. One thing will lead to another which is how I went from Stiff to All The Living and the Dead

Not only did I learn that cancer is one of the last parts of a body to incinerate in a crematory but that I also have the power to steer my knowledge quest on whatever journey I want. In the words of one of the best characters to come out of the bingeable Netflix series Stranger Things, Dustin Henderson said to the librarian in season two: “I am on a curiosity voyage, and I need my paddles to travel. These books… these books are my paddles.”

Alicia Abdul is a high school librarian in Albany, NY, and teaches young adult literature at two universities. She shares her reading (and dresses) on Instagram @ReadersBeAdvised and blogs at She's served or chaired several YALSA book committees, presents at local, state, and national conferences on books, programs, and graphic novels, and recently became an adjunct for two graduate programs on young adult literature.