Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His 13 novels for young adults include The Revealers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools; its sequel, True Shoes (Long Stride Books, 2012), and Doug's newest book, The Prince of Denial (Long Stride, 2013).

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Writing for young adults, and talking with middle schoolers on school visits, gives me glimpses like little windows into American life today. Early adolescents may not yet be paying bills or carrying mortgages, but they very often feel the crunch of family stress, and the tension between hope and fear or dreams and despair, more intensely than they ever will again in their lives. They see things clearly — often things they can only live with, that they have no power to change.

Last week I shared some entries that middle schoolers had made in my pocket notebook, after I'd talked with them at their schools over the past year or so. Today I’m looking at a small stack of lined paper, each sheet the size of an index card. Eighth graders at a school in suburban-rural New Hampshire each wrote an idea for a realistic novel on one of these pages, after we talked recently. Their teacher then sent the stack to me.

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If you were to make another story Mr. Wilhelm I think I would be an interesting character because I am fabulous and myself. I am bold and out there. My name’s Nathan. I am friends with 8th grade girls middle popular. 7th grade popular girls, middle popular. I can’t ever be mean because I feel too bad after the fact. Guys that are jocks make fun of me and I am a good singer (decent), play trumpet, do drama, and that’s me.

That’s written in purple ink on a slip of notebook paper. On a school visit recently, a boy came up after a classroom session and handed it to me.

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I write for middle schoolers, and here’s a sample of what millions of them are reading:

honestly no one cares for you even your parents don’t want you, there gunna put you in care

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I’ve had the flu this week, and when I don’t feel well I turn to humor. Written humor, not YouTube videos (though I’m not averse to those, and I’m a regular online watcher of “The Daily Show”). I have a bookshelf that’s a collection of the American humor writers who have meant a lot to me, from Robert Benchley and James Thurber to Calvin Trillin and, yes, Dave Barry — but the guy I love most when I’m sick was English. P.G. Wodehouse.

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When I first saw that mindfulness, the practice of moment-to-moment awareness, can make your life suddenly snap to life, I was walking on a street in New Delhi on an ordinary morning, in the neighborhood near the railroad station where the travelers’ hotels are. I was 22, and I thought: I just figured it out.

I had come to India, as was not uncommon back in the mid-70s, from western Europe by overland bus in the company of hippies, mystics and other motley travelers. Weighing down my backpack was a load of books on Indian philosophy and Buddhism and the like. (The backpack is in the attic now, somewhere. One of the books is still on my shelf.)

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Innovation and communication are keys to success in the 21st century economy, and employers consistently call for schools to develop these skills in young people. But among the toughest challenges that educators face is how to do that well — especially how to teach the creative process, the more so at a time of bone-cut curriculum budgets.

As an author of 14 novels for young adults, and a self-employed professional writer for almost 30 years, working with the creative process to get stuff written effectively is what I do. Can I share what I’ve learned about how to do it?

I think I can — and I believe I just have.

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Although he wrote and published 39 books, the Viennese psychiatrist, neurologist and author Viktor Frankl is known around the world for just one. He wrote that one fast, in the first months after he was liberated from three years in Nazi ghettos and concentration camps during World War II. The Holocaust had taken his wife — who died in Bergen-Belsen, as did Anne Frank — along with his father, his mother, and his brother. In its original German, the book Frankl first published in 1946 is called Trotzdem Ja Zum Leben Sagen: Life in Spite of Everything. Its English title is Man’s Search for Meaning.

Fifteen years after Frankl’s death in 1997, Man’s Search for Meaning is ranked 193 on Amazon.com, where it has 900 customer reviews.

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I want to write about meaning. I know you’re not supposed to.

You’re supposed to be ironic, to pretend you’re too clever for any direct discussion of meaning, for God knows what pitfalls might await if you ever went there. But as I’ve visited middle schools around the country in recent years, to talk about my book The Revealers at the end of all-school or gradewide reading projects, I’ve found myself talking about meaning — in front of a crowd, no less, of adolescents.

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I began to fall in love with sentences when I had my first writing job, as a young, deadline-dependent reporter on a weekly paper in New Jersey. For this burgeoning love I had a matchmaker. He was the same one lots of young American writers had. His name was E.B. White.

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This morning I got an email from an eighth grader in Ohio who had read my YA novel Falling for her advanced language arts class, and would get extra credit if she could get my responses to some followup questions. Falling is set in a real community, the place where I was living and raising my son when I wrote it — and this reader's questions related to the experience of developing a novel in, and about, the place where you're living. 

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Yesterday I had a Skype session with seventh and eighth graders from Messalonskee Middle School in Oakland, Maine, which just finished a community read with both The Revealers and True Shoes. We had a great discussion! Then this morning, the teacher whom I worked with to coordinate the session and I had a quick exchange of emails on how it had gone. I mentioned that True Shoes is an independent publication — last year I created my own publishing imprint, Long Stride Books, to bring out this and future books. The teacher responded:

"I had planned to ask you why you chose to publish True Shoes the way you did. Would you call that self-published?  I just heard a segment on NPR about the self-publishing industry that has emerged in recent years and it was quite interesting."

Here's my answer:

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On a memorable long weekend in early May the past several years I’ve taught fiction writing at Bread Loaf, the mountain campus of Middlebury College that is rightly famous in the literary world. The occasion is the annual New England Young Writers Conference. On a Thursday each spring (this year, it happened last week), talented high school writers from all over the Northeast and even farther — I had a student this year from Paris — travel up the winding road to Ripton, Vermont to work with professional poets, novelists, playwrights, and journalists over three-plus days that tend, you hear this over and over at the conference, to change people’s lives.

Picture the setting, because Bread Loaf itself is a revelation.
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For many years I was just a writer, producing novels for young adults, and didn’t worry much about changes in the book industry. But these changes have become so huge — I’ve seen experts say this is the most profound time of upheaval in publishing since the invention of moveable type — that I got caught up, and everything changed for me. Now I’m doing much more than writing; and I’m trying my best to understand, or at least keep up with, whatever in the world is going on.

And I think if you really look at it, what’s actually happening is less troubling and worrisome than it first appears.

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I ducked into an independent bookstore in Roseville, Michigan this week, en route to the airport after a day at the middle schools in nearby Grosse Pointe, and after hunting around for something good to read on the plane I decided on Jim Lehrer’s Super. The novel’s cover shows the speeding Super Chief, the old Santa Fe Railway's streamlined flagship that was, Lehrer writes, “America’s most luxurious all-sleeper train.” His story unfolds on board in 1956, en route from Chicago to LA. And by midnight, when our cramped US Air jet landed in Burlington, Vermont, I had read the whole novel — and I’d been remembering train journeys that blended with other books in my past.

I was reading something, though I can’t remember what, the night in 1973 when, as a college kid spending my junior year in Vienna, I was on an overnight express that had crossed, late at night, from Holland into West Germany. I had a couchette, a padded bench of a berth that hung from the compartment wall, one of four in two facing rows — and I was on the top berth reading as two older passengers began trying hard, down on the passenger seats, to help an older woman understand how much she needed to pay the conductor for her ticket.

The passengers were Dutch, but the conductor was German — and as the older woman grew more flustered and anxious, the others sought to explain that she needed a certain number of Reichsmarks. How many Reichsmarks? She was confused; she opened her purse. Were these many Reichsmarks enough? She still wasn’t sure — and I, my book laid down, just watching and listening now, was mesmerised.

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One of the best things, to me, about visiting middle schools to talk about my work is feeling part of a larger creative process. Here’s one example that's fun to share.

A few weeks ago I visited the Hamburg (NJ) School, where the sixth grade reads The Revealers every year and I come in every three years, to spend the day talking to grades 6-8. I began, as I often do, by taking out my pocket notebook and telling the first group that I get most of my ideas from them. If I’m going to write realistic young-adult fiction, I told them, I’d better pay attention to the ones I meet — and if I notice something about them, or learn something from them that I want to remember, I’ll write it down. If I record it in this way, that observation might become something: a detail, an idea for a character, or maybe even (you never know) the beginning of a book.

Sometimes I’ll read a note I made at some recent school, then start to invent on top of that, just to open up the creative process and share that with them. But this time I noticed that two girls, sitting side by side in the front row, each had one black and one pink shoelace. That got me going.

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Like its counterparts all over the U.S., the public library in Montpelier, Vermont is in a challenging time. Its budgetary belt has been pulled very tight, even as its staff faces a growing demand for services. With Town Meeting Day approaching earlier this month, the Kellogg-Hubbard Library faced an annual judgment: voters in the city and five neighboring towns would be deciding whether to approve their year’s local allotment for the library.

That was when Hilari Farrington had an idea.

Kellogg-Hubbard's interim director knew how much people use the library, and she sensed how much they value it. But how to put that into words? She could compose a “10-second elevator pitch,” as she calls it — but that would be the librarian talking.

What if the community spoke instead?

“On a table where we usually do book displays, I put up a little sign: ‘Write a valentine to your library here,’” Hilari recalls. On the table were a big red heart a little mailbox, and a stack of sheets of paper with this heading: “Dear Kellogg-Hubbard Library, I love you because ...”

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Out here in cyberspace, hundreds of blogs are reviewing books for YA readers. Who has time to sort through all these, to find the blogs you might want to trust?

Well, I don’t either. We need a strategy! I figure a good one is to look for the YA book blogs that are written by librarians. After all, librarians are professionals in the field of sorting through new titles to find the ones worth checking out. School or youth librarians also tend to be very well-practiced at discerning which new books will really connect with young readers.

So here are three YA book blogs by and/or for librarians that are worth checking out  — plus an online professional book-review site that is gaining notice and respect, and a compendium site where you can take your own cruise through today's YA book-blogging world. That's what I did, and here are some standouts that I found:

TLT: The Teen Librarian’s Toolbox. You have to love a site whose motto is, For librarians who are short on time, short on money, but not short on passion! And TLT earns the love. They’re creative and proactive; along with reviews, they’ve created the Spark Award, for teen fiction “that inspires social change and ... showcases teen characters rising up to the challenges of life and deciding to be a force for good in their world.”

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The book-publishing business is exploding into all kinds of independent new facets — and so is the world of book reviewing. You can stick to the old reliables, the Times Book Review, Booklist, SLJ, etc. ... but these days you don’t have to. There’s a broad, happy scatter of blogs that are devoted to discovering the best new YA books and boosting interest in this field — and if you appreciate independent voices, and/or reviews from readers who are very close to the YA world, you can get a lot from the book blogs that would speak best to you.

But how to find those? Here’s a first stab at helping. I’ve been going through some of the best-known YA book-review blogs, and here are quick sketches of the first four that are worth passing along:
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All day yesterday, Sunday, I looked forward to getting everything done so I could have a couple of hours in the evening to read. Then those two hours came, and I spent almost all of them online. The book I wanted to start — Roland Smith’s YA thriller Zach’s Lie — lay unopened by me on the couch.

Okay, I had a competing interest, a type of music that’s intriguing me, so I was on YouTube and doing CD searches and wasn’t just doing brain-scatter surfing, of which, like everyone these days, I also do too much. But I kept on glancing at the book, knowing I’d looked forward to it all day. And then, when I did pick up Zach’s Lie at almost bedtime, I got vacuumed into the story, which kicks in fast — and stayed up late reading it, wishing I had time to read more.

And in that is, I think, an important truth.
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Sometimes when I visit middle schools, young people ask me: Why do you write for us? Implied in their question is, I think, two inner queries: Do you really think we matter? And, shouldn't you maybe have grown up by now?

I tend to respond with two answers and one joke. The joke is that I write for middle schoolers because we're on a similar maturity level. Some people who know me pretty well might say that's not totally a joke, but anyway ... never mind about that! Here are my two real answers.

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