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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Twelve years ago I made a book with 18 young writers, thanks to an Internet-based business that made it easy. That business went bust, but I never understood why. If you made it easy for anyone to make a book — a good-quality printed book, not an ebook, which feels, at least to the creator, like a different thing — then wouldn’t people all over want to do that?

Apparently they would. The most inspiring article I’ve read lately is about another business that staked its future on the idea that people do still want books — and that if anyone could make a book, even just one printed volume ... then millions of people would.

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In almost every middle-school library I visit, screens are where the action is. Kids are at them, cruising websites or working on projects, often in clusters with a teacher moving from one terminal to another, corralling focus. “You’re supposed to be doing this — not that. You know this.” This interaction I think captures the situation schools are in, as adults try to keep young people on task while the world — and by “the world” I mean our screens, with all their messages, drama and distractions — appeal every moment to pull the focus away.

Meanwhile, the books. They’re nicely displayed, librarians having taken time to lean up on little stands the titles they know the kids like, or think they would. And books do get borrowed and read — middle schoolers will often describe passionately the fantasy series they’re reading, and sometimes will even mention a realistic novel. But picking up a book is to enter a deeper, quieter encounter. You can, in contrast, stand in a school library and see the hopping energy that screens attract, the sugary fascination they have for us all.

I got into thinking about this after I picked up a paperback called Hamlet’s BlackBerry in an airport bookstore. Written by media critic William Powers, Hamlet’s BlackBerry looks in inspired, historical depth (Hamlet’s “BlackBerry” was an erasable, book-sized tablet that was wildly popular, among busy Elizabethans, for note-taking and organizing) at the struggle we’re almost all enmeshed with, to evolve with our technology. How can we live well and happily amid the magnetizing pull of our screens? How can we build, as Powers’s subtitle puts it, “a good life in the digital age”?
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Years ago my dad passed along to me a New York Times article on writers’ most humiliating moments. (He also once gave me a book — for Christmas — called Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews and Rejections. My dad had a lively sense of humor.) My favorite story in this wonderful article — here it is — is about a writer who found one of his books in the garbage. “‘Under the signature, in my own handwriting, are the words ‘To Mum and Dad.’”

I remembered this yesterday when I visited a magical little bookstore that specializes in titles for young readers. And athough not looking for my books, I swear that's true, I spotted a hardcover of mine, for sale on the shelf, that I had signed.

In 2003.

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The most unusual public library I ever had a passionate relationship with was inside a white-painted palace in Kathmandu. When you came into it, you were greeted by a stuffed tiger and two standing suits of armor. Past these you saw antique volumes in hand-crafted cabinets that filled an expansive room, with a ceremonial staircase rising in the center and oil-painted portraits along the upper walls of aristocrats from another age. It was here that I discovered the magnetism of fantasy — and not just because of how the Kaiser Library looked. It was because of what was in its books.

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I’ve had the flu all 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.

Wodehouse wrote over 90 comic novels, featuring immortal dim-bulb aristocrats like Clarence Threepwood, the wooly-headed, prize-pig-obsessed Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle, and marriage-phobic young dandy Bertie Wooster, whose man Jeeves employs his superior brain power ("he positively lives on fish," Bertie declares fairly often) to extract Wooster from his tangles. Wodehouse’s novels are generally predictable and always a boon to the complicated spirit, because a complicated spirit was never what, apparently, the author had. What he had was a love for the stubborn best in people and a wondrous command of the English language. Witness a sentence like this, from Jeeves and the Tie that Binds, written when Wodehouse was 90: “Her departure — at, I should imagine, some 60 mph — left behind it the sort of quivering stillness you get during hurricane time in America, when the howling gale, having shaken you to the back teeth, passes on to tickle up residents in spots further west.”

Writing like this helps me feel better. It’s not just the language, either; it’s the story.
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I’m down with the flu and thinking about libraries. An article from the Huffington Post’s UK edition caught me this morning; it’s a very human piece about the very human value of one community library that, among many in England, is headed for severe downsizing — if not closure. Here’s the piece, "The Real Cost of Library Cuts." It’s well worth reading.

Then I came across this data-rich essay: “Public and School Libraries in Decline: Why We Need Them,” by Yvonne Siu-Runyan, president of the National Council of Teachers of English, in the NCTE’s monthly journal Council Chronicle. Siu-Runyan, professor emeritus at the University of Northern Colorado, cites these findings of recent surveys and research:

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This week I started working with a small team of educators and issue specialists to develop a curriculum-resource package that will enable middle schools to address cyberbullying, and meet reading/literacy standards — plus technology-integration standards — by reading and discussing all or parts of True Shoes. Cyberbullying is such an urgent issue, and Shoes, the new sequel to my widely used YA novel The Revealers, opens up this tough issue in a suspenseful ensemble story that both young readers and school professionals are responding to very strongly.

I’ve learned so much in working with schools nationwide that have employed The Revealers to both address bullying and engage students in reading and responding to literature. Our new project grows out of that: we’ll offer, here on this site in the coming weeks, an integrated curriculum package that middle-school teachers can easily adopt or adapt to get kids talking about the issues that True Shoes raises. The story centers on cyberbullying — it also deals with multicultural issues, domestic violence, and the ways both cruel and creative that young people are using networked technology. We’ll make pieces of our package useful not just to language-arts teachers, but also to those who teach social studies and tech integration.

I’ve started this project by searching out what good, useful resources on cyberbullying are already out there on the Web. Here’s the best of what I’ve found so far:
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Each year I drive up to northern New Hampshire to visit the Lancaster School for Tolerance Day, an unusual project led by language-arts teacher Deborah Fogg, who was her state’s 2009 Teacher of the Year. What Deb and her colleagues put together works so well that it’s worth sharing — especially this year, when Tolerance Day had a new twist.
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Like The Revealers, True Shoes is a realistic novel for young adults — and that means it deals with some stuff that can be a bit uncomfortably ... realistic. Especially for parents. I’m a parent and I know; we want to protect our kids in a complicated, often scary world. As a writer, when an adult asks, “Why did you have to put that in your book?”, here is my response.
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Just posted on Amazon.com's True Shoes page, this Customer Review from a middle-school teacher and one of her students in Michigan:

I loved True Shoes, the much anticipated sequel to The Revealers. The characters from The Revealers deal with cyber bullying. The reader is immediately drawn into the main character's life and the anticipation of the payback from the royalty group. Needing to know about the paybacks keeps the reader riveted. The answers to so many questions about Richie Tucker, Elliot and Catalina, the characters in The Revealers, made this book REALISTIC.

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I’ve been thinking how, as you bring a novel to completion, you are (at least, I am) very much involved in relationship with your characters — and now, with the book out and my attention shifting to offering it and letting people know about True Shoes, I get to return to relationships with real people.
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I tend to write one of those holiday letters each year. A few years ago, in 2007, I wrote about the very last Christmas that my son, then 21, and I would decorate our tree just us together. The letter seemed to mean something to a lot of people who read it, and I've sometimes shared it again since then. This year I thought I'd share it with you. It comes with my very best wishes for a nice little holiday break, and the very happiest of holidays with people you love.
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Yesterday I was in a school in upstate New York that I visit every year — it’s a middle/high school, and in one particular period I was talking with a roomful of ninth graders about True Shoes. Those students has read The Revealers last year, as the school’s eighth graders do every fall. I introduced the sequel by describing how it grew out of many conversations I’ve had with middle schoolers, on school visits around the country — and how, in so many of those exchanges, as we discussed the cruelties that are so common in middle school, kids told me about the spreading of rumors by text message.

Sometimes when I’m talking with a group of young people, the energies in the room will swing in a particular direction. That happened here.
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If you have a book that’s about to be published, as the date approaches you have a swirling mix of emotions. Anticipation, excitement, fear, anxiety ... I’m sure it’s different for each writer, even for each book. This time, because I was publishing True Shoes independently — meaning that I was responsible for every single aspect of it — I had a new major emotion in the mix. Obsession.

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It’s Sunday and I just finished unpacking, signing, and repacking in smaller boxes 100 advance proof copies of True Shoes. I’m going to give those copies away this Friday, in New Hampshire, at a New England League of Middle Schools anti-bullying conference where I’ll be (thanks, NELMS) one of the presenters. Because this new book is an independent publication (in essence, I’ve created my own publishing company), this means I will go on handling actual books — ordering and receiving them, boxing them up for bulk purchasers, hauling copies to schools where I do author visits.

I like this! Usually when you write a book, someone else handles the physicality of its publication. The writer rarely deals with the actual printed product, except maybe to give away a few copies and sign some more (if you’re lucky and someone wants you to). Taking over the publication process has meant I’ve had the very satisfying experience of assembling and working with a really professional team — illustrator Sarah-Lee Terrat, graphic designer Tim Newcomb, and print-and-distribution service CreateSpace. This has been a lot of work, but it has also been the most fun I’ve ever had in the book-making business. That’s because I didn’t just make the words; this time, I got to work right at the center of making the thing.
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Here's a brief scene from True Shoes. Early in the story, Richie has shown up unexpectedly at Russell's house one evening. Richie of course punched Russell out a couple of times in The Revealers — and now Russell has a new reason to be nervous about him. I won't say why, but it's there. Here's what happens:

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