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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Writers are continuing to write no matter whether publishing is dying, or closing itself off to all but the bestsellers, says an online op-ed piece posted yesterday at The New York Times. The essay, by a Times editor, describes “staylit” — writing by writers about continuing to write. Apparently this is now a thing.

I continue to write too, so maybe at this moment I’m producing staylit — except that the Times piece got me thinking less about my own stuff, and more about a group of eighth graders that I sat with in their school library about ten days ago, at Hanscomb Air Force Base in Bedford, MA.

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An illustrator and I put up a Kickstarter campaign to fund publication of our new children’s book — and we've succeeded. So what have we learned?

I think this is a question worth answering. Kickstarter has become, so it says, the largest funder of creative projects in the world. Assuming this is true, it’s pretty revolutionary — because this is not a corporate funder, not Sony or Disney or Scholastic; it’s a crowd-sourcing funder. Almost anyone can now easily become a front-end contributor to the creative economy. You can pledge as little as $10 to support a project. And just about anyone with a creative project, like a new kids’ book, now has the chance to get it funded and launched.

But about three-quarters of Kickstarters fail. To give a campaign its best shot, Kickstarter itself gives you some good advice. Do a good, short, genuine video. Offer affordable rewards. Solicit good critical feedback, and tweak carefully before you launch. (You can find this advice and more by going to the very bottom of the www.kickstarter.com home page and selecting Kickstarter School.)

So what can we add?

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Beginning to read Armistead Maupin’s new Tales of the City book feels a little like walking into a college reunion that you know will be your last. Except, to be honest, I feel as if I know these characters better than I ever got to know anyone at my old school.

If you’re another one of the millions who’ve loved these books — and if you've read on the dust jacket that The Days of Anna Madrigal, in which the series’ unifying figure, around whom the others have revolved, is 92 now and preparing for the end of her days, will be the final installment — then you know what I mean. If you haven’t yet discovered these stories, you’re lucky! You have the chance to read them for the first time.

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Vermont where I live has an annual children’s book award chosen by young readers, and this year’s winner is R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, about a fifth grader with severe facial deformity. The novel is also the focus of this year’s Vermont Reads, a statewide community reading program. I read Wonder on an airplane early this month — and what I most admired, among much to like in a touching and thought-provoking story, is this:

By taking us into the experience of a child whose appearance can seem horrifying, this writer finds a way to do what almost nobody gets away with doing, in YA fiction today: be vulnerably honest about kindness, about decency, about doing the right thing.

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Writers and illustrators have always had to go hat in hand (if we could afford a hat) to major publishers to ask if they would bring out our stuff. This system didn’t work too badly when there were many major book publishers — but today there are five, and they’re all so corporate that trying to approach them can be like talking to the TV. You are not going to get a response. 



But there are new, emerging ways for creative work to find an audience. One of the biggest barriers, of course, is money; and one of the most powerful and fascinating new developments is Kickstarter.

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The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a nationwide partnership of foundations, nonprofits, states, and communities, starts with a striking premise: “Reading proficiency by third grade is the most important predictor of high school graduation and career success.” But there’s a huge gap in that proficiency, between children of low-income families and the rest of our kids.

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Bob Dylan’s handwritten drafts of the lyrics for “Like a Rolling Stone” and “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” are being put up for auction by Sotheby’s. They may go for $2 million, or more. But the best part (unless you have $2 million to spare) is that we can look at these drafts right here, on the New York Times's ArtsBeat blog. “Rolling Stone” is scribbled on stationary from the Roger Smith Hotel (“One block from the White House”) in Washington, D.C. — and these pages offer a fascinating window into, or a sketch of, the creative process.

The first thing I notice is: they’re written in pencil. That’s worth thinking about.

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After a week of news dominated by two old boneheaded racists, I would like to tell you about a day I spent with a very different group of people. They’re eighth graders at Greenfield (Indiana) Central Junior High School, and they decided that too many people were getting hurt by intolerance and bullying at their school. So they've done something about it.

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I would like to explain myself to the Starbuck’s employee in Greenfield, Indiana, who yesterday brought around a tray, with thimble-sized free samples of whatever new frozen frappa-cappa-mocha-whipped-creamachino they were preparing to feature. I’d been looking at my screen with my earbuds in when the guy, bearing his tray, said, “Sir?” I looked up and tears were running down my face.

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Middle-aged adults who were bullied as kids are more likely to be isolated, less likely to be living with a partner, less optimistic about their lives, and more likely to be unemployed. These findings come from a very long-term study, reported in the LA Times and other outlets this weekend, which I’m reading about in the Albany airport as I’m about to board a flight to talk with middle schoolers in Indiana who’ve read The Revealers, my young-adult novel on bullying.

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Middle schoolers write more stuff in my notebooks than I do.

Honestly. I carry about these little blank books that are perfect for me — first, because they don’t have spiral bindings. I learned many years ago that spiral bindings in pocket notebooks tend, over time and use, to unspiral just enough to poke holes in your clothes. And anyway I don’t like them. So I get these pocket Moleskines, good-quality old-fashioned notebooks.
But left on my own with these things, I might never fill them up.

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It’s much harder to write short than long. So why do we assume that fatter books must be better, or that slender novels can’t be great?

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Everyone needs a cause, right? I’m often linked to bullying prevention because of my book The Revealers, and that’s fine; but I’ve found a new cause. Slow reading.

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Young readers are often exasperated by the endings of my books, because they tend not to wrap things up neatly enough. One reader called one ending “retarded,” which is a word better applied to books than people, at least. But today I discovered I’m in company with a far far better writer: E.B. White used to get much the same complaint, if in different vocabulary.

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I’m not worried about the future of writing. But I am wondering what'll happen to rewriting.

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Because March is National Reading Month, which I didn’t realize until this week, and since this is the first week of spring on the calendar — if not outside, where here in Vermont the snow persists and mud season has only just begun to soften up — I went looking yesterday for the perfect spring paragraph.

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As publishers have slashed their marketing budgets and staff, it’s become standard for most book writers to be expected to do nearly all their own marketing. This tends to push your thinking away from wanting to do the best book you can, to wondering what will most likely sell. For writers like me who have left the corporate publishing world and are bringing out books independently, or with small presses, this pressure on our thinking is the same.

Should we resist this, or embrace it? If we embrace it and build a more market-savvy approach, does that mean we likely won’t produce our best work? Or just that we’ll be working more usefully in the real world?

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I’ll always remember the way my dad’s hopeful face fell, when he asked what the YA novel I was working on was about ... and I told him.

I grew up in a family of two alcoholics, both my parents. And though my dad spent the last 30 years of his life sober, he was never able to talk about how his drinking had affected his three now-grown kids. I think it was just too painful. When I told him my book was about a boy whose dad is alcoholic, I could see him struggle to be supportive, as he had always been of my work. I think he was proud that I had a book coming out, but the subject was hard. He tried his best to be positive, but it was never easy.

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Realistic YA novels that deal with tough subjects in kids’ lives can be welcome resources, for schools that hope to open up those issues. But there are issues, and then there are issues.

Many schools these days want to talk about bullying, which is great — this is very often huge in kids’ lives, and it’s especially potent and dangerous in the Internet age. I’ve been involved with hundreds of schools that have worked, often very powerfully, with my two novels on the subject, The Revealers and its sequel on cyberbullying, True Shoes.

But if you write about addiction ... that, I'm discovering, can be a much tougher nut to crack.

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One recent weekend, I read the truth about my brain.

For a few years I’d been vaguely aware that I might to some degree have attention-deficit disorder, but I had never really looked into it. You know ... I was distracted.

Then on a Saturday it surfaced in my mind that my wife Cary, who works as a counselor with children and families, had a book about ADD on her shelf. I looked, and there it was: Healing ADD, by Daniel Amen, M.D. And therein I encountered my own unusual brain.

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