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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After college in the mid-70s, and after a summer and fall of painting houses, I traveled by train and bus from London to India and Kathmandu, with a backpack half full of books. In Delhi late in the trip I was still buying books when I could, mostly about Hinduism and Buddhism — and in a bookshop on Connaught Circus I found and invested in a Penguin paperback titled Thinkers of the East.

Back at the Venus Hotel in the travelers’ neighborhood by the railway station, I was a little let down to find that this volume of stories and anecdotes was from the Muslim world, collected by a man named Idries Shah. But there began a lifelong interest in the wisdom stories and teaching tales of the Sufis, who in Islam follow paths of personal search and illumination.

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In 30 years of writing fiction for young readers, I’ve had one book take off; and that was an interesting experience. So much of what happened was a sort of underground process: stuff would pop, up here and there, from a mostly invisible percolation. “I’m telling everyone about your book!” “Hey, someone was recommending your novel at a teachers' conference in Arizona.”

Stuff like that. And what I noticed most about that was the vital, catalytic role that champions played.

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For the past 30 years, I’ve been putting the basic skills (in my case, they’re basic) of finding and writing true stories to work for nonprofit organizations. Recently I gave a couple of workshops, in Vermont and California, on how to do this, and I wondered if I could put my main points in a single, simple post. So here goes:

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I know that if I read a good book for 20 minutes or half an hour before going to bed, as opposed to lurching around the Internet for no good reason, then I’ll sleep better. (I know this because I have, oh definitely, tried both.) But could reading fiction at night actually give me a better-connected brain?

Lord knows I could use one. I do the meditation, and I’ve tried the ginkgo and so forth; but now a new study, reported in the journal Brain Connectivity, finds that reading a novel at night can have a measurable positive impact.

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I have a true story to tell, about a made-up character and a real person who have the same name. The story ends with me, the writer who thought up the fictional character, spending a night in the teenage bedroom of the real person, who’s now grown up and off living her life.

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It’s not just the words on the page — the inner dimension of written fiction is what the reader brings to the experience. One good way to look at this is to examine a couple of famous bits of description by great novelists. For me at least, what brings these examples to life is not their cleverness; it’s the connections they make between the writer’s words and what those bring up inside the reader.

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Back in the 1920s, the great humor writer Robert Benchley did a piece called “How to Get Things Done.” In it he suggested, based on his own rich experience of avoiding the writing of his column, that “anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.”

This is also key in my productivity. In fact there was a time when my writing deadlines were the only reason anything in my office ever got cleaned.

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In February of my sophomore year at Kenyon College, I decided I couldn’t stand another long, rainy winter stuck under leaden skies in central Ohio. So I found a study-abroad program in Europe — in Vienna, where the heavy, drizzly gray sets in around November and never goes away until April. I didn’t know that, of course, when we left for the year on our discount charter plane full of undergrads. We were going to Europe!

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“We are upset with the ending of the book of your story, The Revealers,” began an email I got this week from five middle schoolers in Ankeny, Iowa. “It lacked the proper ending, and it did not sum up the story AT ALL! We loved the story line but we are not pleased with the ending.”

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My young-adult novel The Revealers includes these words: crap, ass, damn, hell. And, just once, shit.

When the book was nominated for Florida’s Sunshine State Young Reader Award, one mother went all the way to the governor’s office, campaigning to get it taken off. Just over the border in Georgia, fundamentalist protest letters to local papers denouncing a school’s work with the book intimidated the teachers and got the project stopped, in mid-read. And when I visit middle schools across the country to talk with kids who have read The Revealers, I often get asked about the language. My favorite phrasing came from an eighth grade girl in Vermont; she said, “My parents teach me not to swear. How come there’s swearing in your book?” And she waited, arms crossed, for the answer.

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Sometimes when I visit schools, I get to see something new — something that’s eye-catching, because it seems to work to open students’ eyes.

This is one of those things.

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I wrote last week, and promised to write again, about the very meaningful findings of a just-released report on re-engaging teenagers with libraries. Issued by YALSA, the young-adult services arm of the American Library Association, “The Future of Library Services for and with Teens: A Call to Action” notes that this is a time of powerful need among teens for what libraries can offer — and that creates powerful opportunities.

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There are over 40 million American adolescents, “and they use libraries.” Nearly half are young people of color, 22% live in families below the poverty level — and about 3 million drop out of school every year. Are libraries giving teenagers what they need to not drop out, to succeed in today’s world?

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Driving to my sister’s house on Saturday, to work on a Kickstarter video — we hope to win support for publishing a “bridge into reading” chapter book for second and third graders — I heard a TED talk on the radio, about young people putting their work out through the new media. The presenter said, “We don’t feel like we have to ask permission.”
   
And boy, is that different. I want to write today about how it’s different, and what this may mean for writers and readers of books.

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I still dream, sometimes, about the library in the town where I grew up.

In the dream, I find an upstairs room I never knew was there. The room is big and open. It’s full of books and places to read, like cushions and comfortable chairs — and it’s full of people reading. A warm quiet liveliness fills this room; I come up into it and, in the dream, I have found where I want to be.

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However we feel about the rise of social media, we tend to assume it’s new. Right? But the British author of the new book Writing on the Wall argues that this has been the dominant way that ideas and arguments have spread for all but, oh, about 150 of the last 2,000 years.

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I used to wonder why January first got labeled New Year’s Day, when the working year seemed to kick off after Labor Day. But I get it now. This is the reflecting time.

After the holidays, when nights are longest and we’re most aware that another year has passed, we hope, however fleetingly, to make more of ourselves in the new one. Myself, I’m thinking about 33 years of producing words (by the millions) as a self-supporting, freelance writer. Now I’m 61. I have 14 books out, but no savings or retirement. Has it been worth it? Can I, should I, go on doing this?

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It was a dark night in a dark time, in my adolescent life, when I first had a personal moment of connecting with a Christmas carol.

Darkness is relative, of course: what can seem lightless on the inside can look pretty regular, even positive on the outside. Vice versa, too. But in this season when culture after culture has built up ritual that promises and expresses the rebirth of light, of life, within this darkest time of year, you may sometimes remember when the meaning of all that kindled within you, once.

For me it was a Christmas eve.

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When I visit middle schools that have worked with The Revealers and/or True Shoes, I try to open a window into the creative process. I do this partly by showing my notebook — and sometimes, young people respond by writing in it.

I carry around a little pocket Moleskine, without lines because I don’t like lines. I call it my ideas and observations notebook, I tell kids, because those are mostly what I put in it, especially on school visits. Writers keep notebooks in different ways, I’ll add. Some use them like journals or diaries, writing in them every day; I know one fine YA novelist who keep her notebook like a scrapbook, pasting in articles and magazine photos that might give her ideas for characters, or more.

Often, at the end of a session with middle schoolers, one or more will come up and ask if they can write in my little book. I hand it over happily!

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In a high-minded column last Sunday that got pretty haughty, Maureen Down in the New York Times dismissed a recent pledge by Isaac Fitzgerald, book editor of BuzzFeed, to publish only positive book reviews. “Why waste breath talking smack about something?” Fitzgerald said in an interview with Poynter, which I guess is yet another website. (Can you keep up? I can’t.)

This sent Dowd, my personal favorite composer of eloquent snark, soaring on her sense of noble purpose.

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