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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous 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.

Why kids need us to stick up for libraries

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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On cyberbullying: the best online resources for teachers

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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A school's new twist on Tolerance Day

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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Is the book business dying — or diversifying?

1. Nearly all the traditional publishers have been absorbed by large corporations. This tends to shift their decision-making processes toward quick and sure successes — toward books that are much like the ones that are already selling. Books that could find a modest but solid audience, or may take time to build one, seem much less often to be getting the chance.

2. On-demand digital printing technology, plus ebooks, means that anyone, basically, can publish a book today, and the Internet creates the chance to market it. Not long ago, publishing a book meant a pretty hefty investment — and without a publishing company’s marketing operation, authors who went their own way tended to feel marooned and ignored. Now that doesn’t have to be so.

3. Just because nearly anyone can publish a book doesn’t mean that anyone can publish a good book. Without the traditional system of editors, copyeditors and proofreaders, even a professional writer is challenged to bring out a book with really professional content on his or her own. It can be done — I think True Shoes is the best book I’ve produced, out of 14 published so far — but publishing independently with competitive high quality is not easy at all.

4. The old molds are cracking open — and nobody quite knows what new forms of book publishing are emerging. I think what’s happening in the book business is very much like what happened over the last 10 or so years in the music industry. The prominent music labels got swallowed up by big corporations, and began looking just for the next Mariah Carey or Backstreet Boys. Bands that were good but had individual style — the emerging talents the industry should have been cultivating — couldn’t get signed. But at the same time, digital recording technology gave anyone with a laptop the chance to make a CD — and MySpace first created the chance for bands to market themselves. As the old mold cracked open, the indie music scene became a major force — but not without a whole lot of determined work by the best independently publishing bands.

That’s what I think is happening with books. More and more published writers like myself are choosing to publish independently. The book establishment doesn’t like it and will not help us; True Shoes will not get reviewed, for example, in any of the traditional review journals. That’s okay. If I work very hard and am smart about exploring today’s networking opportunities, I can find my readers.

Does this make me part of an indie-publishing movement? I think so, yes. Is this a deadly threat to the book business? Only to its most corporatized, distant-from-the-actual-reader forms. Is that a bad thing? I don’t think it is at all.
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Did you have to write about THAT?

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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A teacher and a student review True Shoes

Just posted on'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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Hey! Relationships with real people!

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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My new year's project: student writing sites

Happy New Year! One of my projects for January is to develop a series of blog postings on good, safe sites where young people who are interested in writing can post their work, and can read work by others.

In my school visits I'm often asked what young writers can do to get published. In fact, thanks to the Internet there are more opportunities to be published today than ever before. The site I always recommend is — it's a fantastic resource, both a website and a monthly print publication that is entirely written by young people. If you don't know it and you're interested, check it out! Also, in Vermont we have the incredible Young Writers Project, which through hard work by its founding director, Geof Gevalt, and his many collaborators around the state has become an active, well-read venue for emerging writers all over Vermont. I wish every state had a Young Writers Project; but as far as I know, ours is unique.

So what else is out there? I'm interested in checking out, and reviewing here, any sites — including fan-fiction sites — that are good places where young writers can be published, can read work by others, and that are safe. Can you suggest any?

Internet publication is publication. It's a way to get your writing out there, to get it read, and potentially to get feedback and develop an audience. We're in a new age for sharing our creative work, so what's out there?

I'm not so interested in blogging sites; anyone can create a blog, but this can be a pretty solitary undertaking. Where are the sites that are creating communities of young writers and readers?

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My boy, our tree, and me

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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Incident in a Ninth-Grade Classroom

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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How it feels when your book (okay, this book) is published

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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On “indie” publishing: the good feeling of making a thing

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 scene from True Shoes

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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True Shoes is at the printer!

True Shoes has gone to the printer. On Monday I should receive what's called the bound proof — that's a copy that looks like the final paperback, but is really meant for me to review and make final corrections, if any. We should make our Dec. 1 publication date — just barely, but it looks like we will make it!
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Here's the inked-in cover art

Sarah-Lee has done the inked-in cover drawing ... today she's adding color, and sometime this week we'll have the actual full cover of True Shoes. I'll continue to post every stage!

Here's the black-and-white drawing. Thanks to everyone who commented on the sketches, for your help!



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Thanks for the random announcements!

Thanks so much to everyone who responded to my plea for random PA announcements from your school lives. The many postings below are often bizarre and hilarious — just as I'd hoped. One of my very favorites is the announcement that says, "Please pardon the interruption" — and that's all it says.

To me, these oddball blurts — you can read them all below — give a good sense of the comical quirkiness of our institutions, the places where we work together and spend so much of our lives. The TV show The Office does something similar for the corporate workplace. And as I read people's submissions from schools, I kept thinking about the movie MASH, in which bizarre announcements keep coming so memorably over the Army camp's loudspeaker.

I already had a couple of strangely realistic PA blurts in True Shoes ... Now, thanks to you, I will have two or three more.

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We're getting close!

I met yesterday in Montpelier, Vt., with Sarah-Lee Terrat, the artist for True Shoes, and Tim Newcomb, the graphic designer who will design the book's cover and pages. We looked at Sarah-Lee’s final sketch for the cover (you can see it below), and we talked about where to place the book title (we decided to put it above the cover image), and what colors to use. (We'll see what colors Tim and Sarah-Lee choose — they're the artists and color experts.)

In the next few days, I’ll see Sarah-Lee’s final artwork for the cover, and I will post that as soon as I have it. I’ll also see Tim’s design for the cover, combining the artwork with the words that will appear on the cover, plus whatever else has to be there or that we want to include. And I’ll see how Tim lays out the pages of the book.

I will post samples of the inside pages next week, so you’ll get a glimpse inside the book. Today and tomorrow I will go through all the pages one more time, as carefully as I can, responding to edits suggested by three excellent English teachers in Virginia who have been my final volunteer reader/criticizers. We’re getting very close to the final book!
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I really really need a Random PA Message!

Okay, I really need your help for True Shoes — and I need it soon! To help me come up with a final, funny detail to put in my book, I want to know about weird and comical PA announcements that you've heard at your school. 

In Parkland Middle School in my story, as Russell puts it, "Random PA announcements erupted all the time." For example, he and Catalina are having an heated discussion when suddenly the PA crackles and says, “Please excuse the interruption. The cookie dough is here. Thank you." I have two of these random PA announcements in the story — and I need a third. But the trouble is, I don't have any good ideas for a third one.

If you're in middle school, you may hear these kind of comically blurted-out announcements fairly often. What have you heard, that you thought was especially random, weird or funny?

I really need your suggestions! This is the week that the text of True Shoes gets finalized; on Friday, it goes to the page designer. Please use the Comment feature to tell me about a random PA announcement you've heard at your school. Be specific — what was actually said?

Will you help? I hope so!


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Here's the improved cover sketch!

Here's the improved sketch for the book cover. We heard from people, both online and in person, who looked at the first drawing (it's a couple of posts below), that the cell phone could look more high-tech, that there probably should be a shelf in the locker, and there should be textbooks or binders, to make it look real. We listened!

Next, Sarah-Lee will work from this sketch to produce the final color artwork for the cover. We'll post that, too, as soon as it's ready.trueshsrevcvr3

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My volunteer reader/editor/criticizers

In producing a book as an independent publication, you have to put together a team. I’ve been working with a web designer, an illustrator (that’s Sarah-Lee Terrat, who did the drawings above and the cover sketch below), a page designer, even a videographer (we’re going to post a discussion with kids and teachers next month) — but I could not also afford to hire an editor.

When you work with a traditional publisher, you interact with a series of editors: first the book editor, who gives you suggestions and criticisms big and small; then the copyeditor, who reads each page with a magnifying glass and covers it with quibbles, questions and suggestions; and then the proofreader, who reads with a microscope and points out (you hope) the very tiniest errors, inconsistencies and awkwardnesses.

I can’t afford those people! So instead I’ve recruited a series of expert volunteer readers and critiquers. Over the past weeks, the manuscript of True Shoes has been read by two middle school teachers in Vermont, a teenager and a prevention specialist in New Jersey, a well-known sportwriter who’s my neighbor and friend, and a guidance counselor in Maine. I’ve asked them all for criticism — and I’ve gone over their notes on the pages very, very carefully. Each has helped me take the manuscript another stage closer to final form.

The final set of readers is a group of English teachers in Lynchburg, Virginia, where the head of a high school English department is an old friend and a superb teacher. She and some colleagues have gone over True Shoes line by line, looking for, as Patty emailed to me last night, “minor punctuation/consistency things with a few comments on awk wording or word choice.” When I get their marked-up pages in a few days, I will go through the manuscript page by page, paragraph by paragraph, line by line, one more time. I’ll look carefully at everything they marked and suggested.

That’s the only way you can improve your writing — by listening as openly as you can to feedback and criticism, whether it comes from your own reading or from someone else’s. And that’s how important these volunteer readers have been to True Shoes.
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