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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 do I, an adult, write for young teens?

Sometimes when I visit middle schools, young people ask me: Why do you write for us? Implied in their question is, I think, two inner queries: Do you really think we matter? And, shouldn't you maybe have grown up by now?

I tend to respond with two answers and one joke. The joke is that I write for middle schoolers because we're on a similar maturity level. Some people who know me pretty well might say that's not totally a joke, but anyway ... never mind about that! Here are my two real answers.

First, books meant a lot to me when I was an awkward, lonely middle schooler. I had been a reader since childhood — my dad was my role model, he was a great reader all his life — but in that difficult time, books became my best friends. I read all the time, and the town and school libraries became my safe places. Years later, when I fell into writing for young adults, it came back to me how much I’d loved good books back then. I remembered how much it had meant when I could relate to the story, when I could connect with the characters. Since the first time I tried it, writing fiction for young adults has felt natural and right to me.

The other reason I do this work is that I find middle schoolers really interesting, and very much worth writing for. Young people are on the leading edge of change. When the next networking technology comes along, middle schoolers will be the first to adopt it, just as they did with texting and MySpace, the original social-network site. Young teenagers are creating the future — and they’re creating the rest of their lives.

In visiting so many middle schools, and talking with kids who’ve read my books, I have realized that this is the most intense, confusing and important time of change that most people ever go through. You come into middle school as a kid; you leave as a young adult. Socially, grades six through eight are the laboratory for the whole rest of our lives — the time when we search and experiment to find out who we are. I’m not a kid any more, so who am I? Is it okay to be me? How do I fit in? Can I trust other people? What will I do to fit in, to have status, to be safe?

It’s no wonder that middle schoolers seem preoccupied with this stuff. Those are big questions! And most young people are searching, in often-awkward and uncertain ways — just like I was, back then — for the answers.

And just like I did, middle schoolers read. I meet them and they tell me about the books they're devouring. I tell them how often adults can name the one book they read when they were this age that saved them, or let them know they were not alone — the book they’ll never forget reading. I want to write those books. Whether I succeed or not, I always think it's worth trying.

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