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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.

Ordinary miracles: the life of a story

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.

Here’s why. I had been watching a DVD of a play version of my young-adult novel The Revealers, as adapted and performed in March by the National Children’s Theatre of South Africa. Their Traveling Troupe, a multiracial cast of powerful actors, took the story, which deals with bullying, into 20 schools in Soweto and Mamelodi, historically black townships in Johannesburg and Pretoria. Those schools don’t have many computers, nor anything like the schoolwide network — my characters call it KidNet — that is a key part of the story. So at the end, the actor Gamelihle Bivana summed up everything in a newly added speech, which I had just watched when the cafe guy got my attention:

We had KidNet. You might not have KidNet, but you have something much more powerful: your voice. Use your voice to tell your story. And tell your story again and again, until somebody listens.

That’s why the tears, okay? If you’d been me, you’d have had them, too.

I was in Greenfield because of another remarkable project. A group of eighth graders at the local junior high school, having read The Revealers together over the summer, this year created an initiative they called “Bullying Hurts: Just Stop It,” and had won funding from a local foundation that made possible a schoolwide read of my book, which culminated with a day when all classes were suspended for a program of bullying-awareness activities, including group conversations with me. This had been a great day — the first time, among many dozens of school visits I’ve done with this book, when a group of young people actually thought up a reading project and made it happen.

And then, the DVD. I’d been a little scared to watch it, to be honest. What if it wasn’t good? What if I couldn’t recognize my story? But it was far more than just good; it was brilliant and inspired, and, watching, I had thought: It’s all about the story. It’s always about the story.

It’s a great privilege to be asked to come in and talk — but sometimes I would like to just stand up and say, “It’s all about the story,” and sit down. I can’t, of course; but it’s true. If it has the capacity to make connections with people, a story can develop a life of its own. People build relationships with it. And once you've read that story, it’s yours; no one else has your relationship with it. It’s yours.

If you sometimes get to witness this, as the person who had the first relationship with the story, I think it’s a lot like watching your grown child have a memorable moment in the world. You’re moved and you’re proud, but the part you played is mostly in the past. The work you did, the care and love you gave, you watch that come to fruition in someone else’s experience. It’s a deep feeling, because this is how it should be. It’s an ordinary miracle.

That was far too much to explain to the Starbuck’s guy, even if I could have put it into words just then, which I couldn't. As for the frappa-cappa-mocha-whipped-creamachino thing ... boy, they make those things sweet, don’t they?

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