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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When a story helps a kid find courage

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ConvergenceRI: Can you share some of the positive stories in your encounters with kids and young adults in your travels?
WILHELM:
Sometimes kids do share with me stories of things they’ve been through, and they’ll tell me that reading The Revealers or True Shoes has made them feel better, or less alone. They’ll often say they identified with the struggles of one of my characters, and that has helped them know that they can get through it, too.

But when a young person actively changes his or her behavior, I think it’s important to realize that this happens because a combination of contributors came together — and it’s the young person who gets the main credit.

Here’s one of those stories. On an icy night in Michigan several years ago, I was leading a discussion among parents, students and educators in a school auditorium. A boy raised his hand and said, “I’ve got this friend, and he’s not very popular – other guys think he’s weird, but I like him. Sometimes I sit with him at lunch. But I have these other friends, they’re athletes like me, and they don’t want me hanging out with that kid who’s not so popular. They’ve even said that if I keep sitting with that guy, they won’t be my friends any more. I don’t want to lose those guys as friends, but I also like this other kid. What should I do?”

I basically said, “That’s a hard choice – but it’s an important one.”

I said something about how if you choose to sit with a kid that no one else will sit with, maybe someone who is getting mocked and hurt by other kids, you could change that kid’s life. You may not realize the power you have, if you take that risk.

Then the discussion moved on; but after a while, the boy raised his hand again. I called on him and he said, “I’ve decided. I’m going to go on sitting with that kid, because I like him – and if those other guys don’t want to be my friends any more, then they were never my real friends anyway.”

What contributed to that boy making that decision? One factor was that he read The Revealers; the story was part of it.

Another is that his teachers took a skilled, creative approach to engaging him and his classmates with the story. That almost always correlates with kids telling me about making choices like this. So his teachers were part of it. And I’d expect the kid’s parents were part of it; his upbringing helped bring him to the point where he would take the risk of aligning himself with someone who’s seen right now as different, as unpopular. So the family was part of it, too.

So, finally, was the school’s administration – they brought me there, and they organized this discussion where the boy could raise this issue and we could help him think it through.

But in the end, only that kid made that decision. It was a risky decision; and if it wound up costing him something – like a group of friends, or maybe more – then only he paid the price.

It was a tremendous privilege for me to be there, to be part of that conversation, and to know that my book was part of what brought him to that point. But I always give credit to the kids. When you’re in the cauldron of middle school – where every day, every weird look you get, can feel almost like life and death – only you can weigh the pros and cons of standing up to someone, of changing your own behavior, or of standing up for someone.

When kids do share with me a story about how they’ve stopped bullying other kids, in the context of having read my book, they almost always give the same reason. They’ll say, “Now I know how it feels.”

Adolescence is so very self-centered — achieving that kind of empathy, not to mention acting on it, is a very big bridge to cross. And again, the kid gets the credit. But I do hear those stories, from time to time. The Revealers and I have had quite some journey together.

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