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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.

The no-lesson lesson: Thoughts on being required summer reading

This summer, every current and incoming student at Lincoln Middle School in Passaic, New Jersey has been reading my novel True Shoes. Lincoln is the state’s largest grades 7-8 middle school, with about 1,800 students, and school librarian Frances King is running a discussion forum on the library’s website, the LMS Library Link (, on which the summertime readers can comment, ask questions, and discuss.

Ms. King asked me to think about responding to some of the comments and questions, and this month I’ve done that a couple of times. The questions have been good, the comments generally thoughtful — only one kid, so far, has asked, “Why do we got to read in the summer?” Some responses, like this one, have seemed kind of surprised:

At first when our teacher said we had to read this summer I was so mad. I thought the book was going to be boring but it’s not. It turns out the book is very interesting.

And several have sought, or announced that the reader has found, a lesson or lessons in the story. For example:

This Book gives alot of lessons in Bullying, Life, ect.

I really like this book because it is really entertaing from Russell’s point of view of 8th grade. With all the problems going on I already made an inference of what I think the lesson will be about.

How many books have you written including True Shoes? And do u believe kids will get advice and learn new things from reading True Shoes?

True Shoes is a great story that can really teach a lesson.

This is a very good book it teaches you a great lesson about bullying and how it works ...

Well, I thought about those. I understand that kids in school are trained to seek and find the lesson, and most of what they’re presented does have something like that: something adults want them to learn. This is school, after all.

But I’m not a teacher, I’m a writer of realistic stories. So this is how I answered.

... A number of readers, including Laura, Shania and Max, mention looking for the lesson in the book. Can I say something about that? I think lesson books are boring books.

I don’t have the answers for your life — only you can find what those are, and I hope you do! A good story can be part of that for you, but it can’t FORCE that. What I’m trying to do is give you a good story — one that you want to keep reading, that you really get into and enjoy. I want to give you characters that you care about — and maybe in what they’re dealing with and struggling through, you see something of your own life and your own struggles.

If you feel like the writer really cares, if that comes through in the story, then reading the book can be like getting to know a really good friend — and as we know, nothing’s more important in getting through middle school than really good friends. So my best hope is that this book might come to feel, for you personally, like having a really good friend. And half of that friendship is YOU.

That’s how I see it: when you read a book that’s a story, you bring your own life to it — your own issues, your fears, your hopes and dreams — and you develop your own relationship with it. If I try to stuff lessons into that relationship, the book becomes boring, like a friend or teacher or parent who lectures you. But if you feel the book CARES, then you can open up to it — and maybe, just maybe, that friendship with the story will really mean something to you. Because middle school is not easy, and I tried in writing the story to be honest about that.

I hope that makes sense!

... And I hope it does.

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