Reading Matters blog

Resilience part two: the story of Street of Storytellers

Last week I shared a resilience story, of how my first book was rejected 75 times and what I learned from that. As it turned out, the story has a second half.

The original book recounted a journey I made with a portable typewriter into Muslim Asia in 1981. I had left my newspaper job at the end of the Iranian hostage crisis, hoping to find some understanding of this world that seemed about to become our country’s new global adversary. Over 10 years of working on it, and all those rejections, the book never sold. But a sense of purpose behind it never seemed, somehow, to let me go.

The best part and second half of the book took place in Peshawar, a very old crossroads city by the Khyber Pass in Pakistan’s legendary North-West Frontier. The city was home in the early 80s to the Afghan rebellion against the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan next door; after 9/11, it became clear that Peshawar was where the global extremist movement known as Al Qaeda and ISIS had been born. By then I was writing realistic novels for young adult readers; and against all apparent sense, I found myself thinking about a story. It had to do with an American teen named Luke, unwillingly brought to Peshawar in the early 80s by his history-professor father over Christmas vacation.

I did new research about the extremist movement, about the local Pashtun culture and its rich musical tradition — Luke, a big music fan, would make a connection with this — and about an ancient Buddhist civilization that had left great ruins in the Peshawar Valley. Luke’s father would have returned to Peshawar to finish a book on those ruins with a Pakistani colleague, while Luke, furious with his dad about a recent divorce and this trip, would find friends in an old-city neighborhood and be drawn dangerously into the tension over the rise of extremism. I saw the story as a way to engage young readers with another culture, through the lens of an unwilling American who at first knows nothing about it. Over time a “thriller with ideas,” as I thought of it, became a draft. Then several drafts.

Nobody wanted it. The novel was rejected by every publisher that didn’t ignore the submissions by my increasingly wearied agent. With no traditional path left, I happened on a new enterprise in Montpelier, Vermont, where I had lived for years: a tiny publisher called Rootstock that had adopted an emerging model called hybrid publishing, where the house is selective and the team is professional but the author supports the cost of publishing. Rootstock wanted my book, Street of Storytellers (named after a famed Peshawar bazaar), and I began to see the chance to produce it as a community project, with an editor, a designer and a mapmaker whom I had known for years and who all had world-class book-making skills.

In autumn 2019, just after it came out, Street of Storytellers won first prize for YA fiction from the Independent Publishers of New England. It was the first book award I had ever won. Then this spring while I was coping with a case of covid 19, the novel won the Independent Press Awards gold medal for YA fiction, the Benjamin Franklin Awards silver medal for teen fiction, and second top prize for all fiction from the IndieReader Awards. This is my 17th book for young readers, and most likely it’s my last. I just wanted to share the story with you.

I hope you'll stay well and find good ways to enjoy your much-deserved holiday break. Thanks for reading this blog, and for now at least, so long.

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My first book, my 75 rejections, and the lesson I learned

When I was doing a lot of school author visits, I was often asked how I got started writing books, and I’d mention that my first book was rejected 75 times. Lately here I’ve been writing about stories that inspire resilience, and this was definitely one of my resilience experiences.

In January 1981, just as Ronald Reagan was about to be inaugurated, I left my job editing a weekly newspaper in New Jersey, where I grew up. I took a backpack and a portable Olivetti typewriter, which had a steel plate on the bottom so you could sit pretty much anywhere, and type — it was slim, but it was heavy — and I flew to Dubai on the Persian Gulf. From there took a soon-to-be-retired British passenger steamship, the last of its kind in the world, to the base of Pakistan. This was at the end of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-81, and my aim was to travel in Muslim Asia and talk with people. What was on their minds, and why did so many of them to be so angry with my country? I hoped that an unprogrammed, nonfiction journey story (I had made no reservations, had only a general itinerary) might, if I was lucky, produce a book with the shape of an adventure, and maybe the value of insight.

I did the best I could. After nearly a year traveling in Muslim regions, I got a job teaching English and wrote for a tourism magazine in Kathmandu, Nepal while straining to get my book off the ground. I typed and then threw out ream after ream of paper. Eventually I came back home. I moved to Vermont, got work with a cabinetmaker while giving early mornings to the book, and I did get it written, and it was rejected 75 times. I had two successive agents and came very close with some excellent people in the publishing world, but never got an offer. Overall I worked on the book for ten years, and not a word of it ever saw print.

The great late author John Gardner once wrote that every serious writer has one big first book sitting on his or her shelf that no one would publish. This one was mine, and it wasn’t a disaster, really. I learned a whole lot from the feedback I got; and to make the work possible I built a career, here in Vermont, as a freelance writer, which I’ve been doing now for over 30 years. I did 17 subsequent books that actually were published. But anyway.

Telling middle and high schoolers that my first book was rejected 75 times often prompted questions. How did you deal with that? How did you keep going? I would say, “Well, I learned something. I learned that a publisher had the power to reject my book, but they did not have the power to make me quit. Only I had that power, and I could use it — or not."

I’m glad I got the chance to share that.

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With my thanks, here’s our list of the most inspiring middle-school and YA novels

Last week I asked for your help in building a list of the most inspiring middle-school and YA novels, noting that, to me, an inspiring story is one that enters into difficulty and challenge and finds the energy we call resilience. I offered my own three nominations — Holes by Louis Sachar, Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick, and The Goats by Brock Cole — and invited yours.

Here are the titles you recommended, with your notes when you included them:

From Jolene Bullis, District Librarian, Carlisle (Iowa) Community Schools:
The Seventh Most Important Thing, by Shelley Pearsall, and Restart by Gordon Korman

“Here are a few of my favorites,” from Diana Greenleaf, Media Specialist, Windham (N.H.) Center School:
The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle, by Leslie Connor
The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise, by Dan Gemeinhart — or “any of his books — each one has made me cry, and that is hard to do.”
Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus, by Dusti Bowling
Fighting Words, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

From Janet Kanady, Library Media Specialist, Dover (Arizona) High School:
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. “The story of a gorilla who lives in a mall and befriends a girl.”
Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper. “The story of a girl with cerebral palsy who defies what everyone thinks about her.”
No More Dead Dogs by Gordon Korman. “Hilarious tale of a football player who NEVER lies.”
Schooled, also by Gordon Korman. “This one is about a young man who goes from living in a commune with his grandmother to going to a public middle school after an accident befalls Grandma.”

From Joanna Rudge Long, a former Kirkus Reviews editor in Pomfret, Vermont who writes (in Horn Book, The New York Times, The LA Times, and elsewhere) and lectures about children’s books:
Katherine Paterson, The Great Gilly Hopkins (or The Same Stuff as Stars)
Jill Paton Walsh, Fireweed (or A Chance Child)
Susan Cooper, The Dark Is Rising (“Not to mention her last book [The Boggart Fights Back], in which a Trump character is roundly defeated in his attempt to build an environment-defacing golf course in Scotland.”)

And finally, from Deb Fogg, former faculty member at the Lancaster (N.H.) School, and 2009 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year:
“I would add Wonder [R.J. Palacio] to your list, and of course The Revealers!”

That last one’s by ... me ... so thank you Deb! And thanks to Jolene, Diana, Janet and Joanna.

At this time when we share our gratitude, I’d like to offer mine to everyone who has read Reading Matters this challenging summer and fall. My best wishes for a safely secure and yet still happy Thanksgiving! We’re all in this together, never more so than now.

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Will you help me build a list of the most inspiring middle-school and YA novels?

In this season when everyone needs a little uplift, I would like to develop and share a list of the ten most inspiring YA and middle school novels. But I could use your help.

Honestly, I don’t know enough to come up with a solid ten. Below are my own nominations; I hope you’ll offer yours. And by “inspiring” I don’t mean saccharine, built to fit a religious framework, or preachy in any sense. I think a story that can inspire is one that is honest; that faces reality without premade conclusions, that enters into difficulty and challenge and finds the energy, call it resilience, that people need and can find in frightening times like this.

Middle and high schoolers are among the most stressed and struggling of people right now. So the news tells me, as does my wife, a therapist who works with children, teens and adults; and books that are good stories, true in the deeper sense, can help us find our way through. So here my three nominations, which I hope will inspire you to offer yours:

1. Holes. On school visits I’ve often been asked what’s my favorite novel for middle schoolers, and I say this one. I’ve been consistently impressed, years after its 1998 publication, by how many kids have also read and love Holes. It’s a quirky story that vividly embraces how warped and arbitrary life can seem to a young teen like Stanley Yelnats, who’s unjustly sentenced to a dried-up detention camp where the adults are mostly either mean or evil and the work is cruel, plus possibly fatal. When Stanley escapes, we experience with him that if you take a big risk on breaking free, luck can find you. So can truth.

2. Freak the Mighty. This novel is short, sad and anything but sugary. But the tale of how big, downhearted Max and bullied, disabled Kevin find each other and together become Freak the Mighty, for just a little while, is heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time. Just as genuine inspiration (if you ask me) tends to be.

3. The Goats. Much less well-known, this fine novel tells what happens when a boy and a girl, each one the most awkward kid at a boys’ and a girls’ summer camp that face each other across a lake, are intentionally marooned on an island with their clothes stolen in an annual prank — and do not accept their fate. Their drama builds quietly, and with it grows our appreciation for what two underestimated young people can do, and become, when they decide to defy humiliation and exclusion.

Those are my three. Will you email me please, at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and tell me yours?

 

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The value of reading — and writing — stories that make us uncomfortable

I got a thought-provoking response to last week’s post about why young-adult readers so often hate the endings of YA novels (such as The Giver, A Bridge to Terabithia and Lord of the Flies, according to a survey). I wrote that the exasperated complaint I’ve heard so many times from young readers of my books is that everything isn’t fully wrapped up at the end. My response has been that life goes on, and realistic fiction should reflect that. This generally hasn’t satisfied anyone. Or I didn’t think it had.

Pam Dean teaches at the local K-8 school in Hamburg, a town in northwest New Jersey, and I’ve come to know her on several visits to the school in recent years, where The Revealers has been on regular rotation for reading by the middle schoolers. “Life lessons are powerful, and not always pretty,” Pam emailed after reading my post. “That is what makes your books real. We need to be uncomfortable once in a while; otherwise, we do not learn from our mistakes. In all the book titles mentioned in your blog, the characters made mistakes, and, ultimately, there were heavy prices to pay.”

“What we need to do after reading these books,” she continued, “is ask ourselves, ‘What have we learned from the mistakes these characters made in their lives, that we need to be mindful of while we live our lives?’ Is that not why these books have stood the test of time? Is that not what theme is all about? We need to learn from the mistakes of others, even in books.”

I couldn’t agree more, and Pam takes the conversation to a deeper level. I’ve often wondered why, writing realistic YA fiction, I should presume to make a story that deals with tough problems when I myself have made messes and mistakes in those same problem areas. Should I be writing about bullying when I haven’t always been so kind? When I wrote about the impacts of alcoholism within families, I wondered if I was drinking too much, and how that might be affecting my son. How could I presume to write about a subject I hadn’t mastered?

What I think I realized is that good stories don’t come out of mastering the challenges in our lifes; they come out of struggling with challenges in our lives. Probably this is the case for all creative work that reaches for an audience: If we even imagine we’re sitting above the issues that inspirit our work, that work will most likely be smug, preachy, deadly ... useless.

“Stories that make uncomfortable endings, that get us thinking, in the end are the stories we remember,” Pam concluded. “I have read hundreds and hundreds of stories over the years, and the ones that make me stop, think and reflect are the ones I remember best, and look back upon fondly. Those are the books that stand the test of time.”

 

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Why do YA readers so often hate the endings of YA novels?

The other day an article in the Washington Post asked, “What book has the most disappointing ending?”

“So much of how we feel about a novel depends on how the novel ends,” writes Post book critic Ron Charles. His piece veers into comedy: After an online retailer “sifted through reviews on Goodreads to identify the Books with the Most Disappointing Endings,” it found that “British writers are particularly disappointing. That hack William Shakespeare wrote the worst finale of all time. In the immortal words of Bart Simpson’s friend Milhouse: ‘How could this have happened? We started out like Romeo and Juliet, but instead it ended in tragedy.’ ... And gazillionaire writer J.K. Rowling magically takes two spots.”

And to me, here something very interesting: The ten worst-endings list also includes Lord of the Flies, Bridge to Terabithia, The Giver, and Stephanie Meyer’s Breaking Dawn. So out of ten consensus choices, five are young-adult novels — or six if you count Lord of the Flies, seven if you add Where the Red Fern Grows.

I have a theory about this, from personal experience. Young readers tend to hate my books’ endings. One called the last chapter of my novel Falling “retarded,” and many (very many) have shared their exasperation with the ending of The Revealers. I’ve had that conversation at least a hundred times.

And the way those novels end is: life goes on.

As Falling ends, ninth grader Matt knows that by keeping a dangerous secret from his girlfriend Katie, he put her at a serious risk; and though he hopes to earn back her trust, he doesn’t know if he can. At the end of The Revealers, we don’t know absolutely that Russell, Elliot and Catalina won the Creative Science Fair with their multimedia project about bullying. Kids want that certainty. Also, they ask, what happens next in their lives?

But for me, that’s the thing: life does go on. A story has an arc, and the arc comes to a place where the story ends — but realistic fiction, at least, should also mirror real life. My characters will come back to school tomorrow. Everyone will not suddenly be nice, there will be things to deal with, and if we are lucky, there will be another day after that.

I wonder sometimes if this is one of the quiet functions of good YA fiction: It helps young readers graduate from childhood stories that tend to be more neatly wrapped up, to stories that are more open-ended.

“We hate endings that are too predictable, and we hate endings that are too surprising,” writes Ron Charles. “We hate endings that are rushed, and we hate endings that are drawn out. And we really hate the endings of books we read in ninth grade.”

Well, what do I know. But maybe this is why.

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Nine good YA novels that place an American kid in another culture

As I prepared last year to launch Street of Storytellers, I asked teachers, school librarians and bookstore people to suggest middle-school and YA novels that, like Storytellers, place an American main character in another culture or country. This is a strong way to connect American young readers with diverse cultures — plus, I’ve always liked reading novels like this.

From the recommendations that came in, I selected and read 10 novels. Here are the top nine, from my most favorite on down — with summaries of what I thought:

1. Endangered (Congo), Eliot Schrefer. No realism is spared in this gripping story of an American girl at a bonobo sanctuary that’s brutally overrun in a spasm of civil war. A 
powerful narrative, vividly written, with mind-opening honesty about what two species of primates (bonobo and human) are capable of.

2. Nowhere Boy (Belgium), Katherine Marsh. A privileged American and a desperate young Syrian refugee meet in a most unexpected way — and the American’s life finds a purpose. This is a rare achievement: a novel with moral intent that’s also a strong and honest story.

3. Laugh With the Moon (Malawi), Shana Burg. A girl closed to her own grief opens up to the village world where she has to be for a summer. I loved this book.

4. Darius the Great Is Not Okay (Iran), Adib Korram. Awkward, unconfident Darius travels with his family from their U.S. home to Yazd, his mother’s hometown. This is not a novel of dramatic events, but as Darius gradually makes personal connections in Yazd, the story grows deeper and more meaningful on the inside.



5. Habibi (Israel), Naomi Shihab Nye. This 1997 novel’s narrator has a Palestinian dad and an American mom, and one day her family relocates from the U.S. to a tense, polarized Jerusalem. At first focused on conveying the Palestinian side of heavy-handed Israeli rule, the novel opens up into something broader and deeper, yet still challenging.

6. Listen, Slowly (Vietnam), Thanhha Lai. The cultural immersion here is richly detailed and engaging. The story itself, about an American-born Vietnamese girl enlisted in the search for a grandfather lost in the war, isn’t quite as strong, but it's a rewarding read even so.

7. Escape Under the Forever Sky (Ethiopia), Eve Yohalem. An American ambassador’s daughter is kidnapped — then escapes. In this thrilling adventure deep into a totally different world, the human spirit pushes through stark dangers and striking cultural differences.

8. Small Damages (Spain), Beth Kephart. A pregnant high schooler is shipped secretly, and reluctantly, to rural Spain to have and then give up her baby. The storytelling can be confusing, but it makes us think and feel. I’d love for all boys to read this.

9. Elephant Run (Burma), Roland Smith. I wanted to like this WWII yarn, about a colonial planter’s son caught by the Japanese invasion in a community of elephant drivers, more than I actually did. An inventive plot, but flat storytelling and characters.

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Message and meaning in YA fiction: why the difference matters

I used to do an experiment on author visits to schools. I’d ask a group of students, How many of you have ever started reading a book that’s a story, that’s fiction, and you pretty quickly realized the writer was trying to teach you a lesson? 

Between between half to three quarters of my audience, however small or large, would raise a hand. Then I’d ask, How many of you finished reading that book? Now about one in ten kids raised a hand.

The difference was always that dramatic. No one goes to a story for message; along with entertainment, we go to a story for meaning. But that is very different.

Message is something a writer tries to slide in, and it makes for a bad and/or boring story. Even if the writer was clever enough to disguise the message, when you realize it’s there it leaves a bad taste, like you’ve been fooled or manipulated.

 Meaning is what, beyond enjoyment, we most hope to find in fiction — and it’s not something the writer can insert or disguise. Meaning can only develop inside the reader, when that one person’s emotions and experiences connect in some deepening way with the story on the page. It’s not something any novel or short story will ever make happen in every reader, because the reader is half of this relationship, and every reader is different.

I’ve noticed that writers of YA fiction like myself tend to think differently than teachers about this. On a visit to a high school, I saw the rubric that a wonderfully good teacher, whom I had known for many years, had developed to help her students write their own pieces of fiction. One of the steps was that the writer should decide what is the theme. I wondered, How many working writers even think about theme? 

I understand that educators have to help students break things down and understand, and this is important; but the creative process is usually much less directed or analytical. I think what’s regarded as theme is a dimension that grows or develops along with the work, and is noticed more after that process is complete.

A good story deals with things that are difficult, challenging, meaningful in life — and this dealing-with later looks like a theme. But really it’s just what the story, its writer and its characters, were dealing with, what brought tension and suspense and coherence to the narrative. The writer didn’t choose it, I bet, as a component part: He or she just built the story, draft by draft, from the seed of an idea where the tension was already there. 



To a decent story, message is death, but meaning is life — it’s what we most hope to find. And it’s always personal. This is, I think, why stories matter so much: not because they preach at us, but because they speak to us.

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Keeping faith: YA realism and the bond of trust

Last week was Banned Books Week, which naturally I didn’t hear about until it was almost over. I’ve never had a book completely banned, but The Revealers did get some people trying. One cluster of parents in a rural town in the northeastern corner of Florida successfully pressed teachers in the local middle school to abandon a reading project in the middle of the book, after two parents wrote a very critical letter to the town’s newspaper that called the novel un-Christian, and focused on the word choices on a single page.

I heard about that, so I wrote a letter too. Here’s part of it:

Young adults are demanding readers. The second they think a novel is preaching at them or sugarcoating reality, most of them will put that book down. So a YA novel that’s full of an author’s ideas about how people should act, instead of how they actually do, simply won’t do young readers much good. On the page in my book where the letter writers find offensive language, the character speaking is a bully whose word choices mimic what an abusive parent has been saying to him. Many real children live in similar situations. Can I tell them exactly how to solve that problem? Is growing up today really that simple?

I don’t think so. All through their lives, our kids will have to deal with other people’s choices, including those that are hurtful or dishonest. They’ll have to find their way through the Internet age’s flood of communication, entertainment, exploitation. We need to help them learn to guide their lives wisely. There are many resources that can help. Religious books, of course, are one. I believe that honest realistic fiction is another.

What can a story like mine do for young people? It can give them an experience that respects the realities they have to sort through. It can help them see how different choices may work out in real life — and it can help them learn to empathize, to feel what another person is going through. In short, it can help them to grow up.

But to do any of this, a realistic story has to keep one basic trust: It has to be honest. It can’t pretend that people never hurt, lie, or swear. It has to keep faith with the realities of kids’ lives. That’s what I tried to do with The Revealers, which has been read by public schools, private schools, Christian schools, Catholic schools, Jewish schools and at least one Muslim school, so far without any corruption I’ve heard about. I hope that in the future, my book will be read in Callahan Middle School once again.

(P.S. — I don’t think it ever was.)

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I only laugh when it hurts: writers’ golden memories

Years ago when my first “regular” YA novel was about to be published (after eight books for the Choose Your Own Adventure series), as a Christmas gift my dad gave me Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews & Rejections. I thought, What’s the message here?

I think it was: Be ready. The book world can be hard on writers. I did know that; my first book had been rejected 75 times, and by that Christmas I had collected somewhere above 115 total rejections on four books, none of which ever saw print. Still it was fun to see how reviewers old and new had trashed a truckload of actual classics: “A vulgar and barbarous drama,” Voltaire on Hamlet; “A gross trifling with every fine feeling,” the Springfield Republican on Huckleberry Finn; “An absurd story,” the Saturday Review on The Great Gatsby.

It’s helpful to bring humor to this work, especially to the business of getting out and promoting books, which I can’t believe anyone actually likes. My writer friend (and Vermont state senator) Philip Baruth once wrote a hilarious parody of the scene in Death of a Salesman where Willy Loman trudges up the stairs and lies to his wife, having completed a sales trip without making a single sale. In Phil’s version it’s a writer returning from a bookstore reading to which no one came. I asked, “Phil, did that really happen?” He nodded, ruefully. “In Brandon,” he said.

I once did a reading in Brandon, Vermont at which the only person who came was ... well, “my stalker” would be too strong, but someone who had made me very uncomfortable. She sat silently and stared as I read. And I did a reading in Montpelier, Vt. on a brilliant summer’s day where not one person came, but that time my young son and I were relieved. We didn’t want to be inside either.

But my best story comes from the St. Petersburg Book Festival in Florida. One Saturday morning there I gave a workshop, well enough attended, on how schools were working with The Revealers — and I’d been told that each author would have a designated time that afternoon, to sign books in an open-air plaza. At the table next to mine, the schedule said, would be Martina Navratilova with her just-published autobiography.

When I showed up, the tennis legend sat with her back to me, busily signing, as from her table stretched a fantastically long line of waiting people, every one clutching her book. On my table next to hers, someone had dumped a car seat with a sleeping child in it. That was it.

A photographer from the St. Petersburg Times was there, and I said “Ohmygod please take a photo of this! This is the funniest thing ever!”

I wish I still had that photo. I really truly thought it was hilarious. And anyway, at moments like that the best thing you can do is laugh.

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The school writing workshop: trying my three “secrets”

Last week I described my three “secrets,” one for each main phase of the writing process, that I’ve shared with students around the country as the core of the creative-writing workshops I’ve led, when asked, in schools. Here’s how I invite students to try those “secrets,” within a class period of 45 minutes to an hour:

1. Brainstorming: I ask if anyone has a way of brainstorming on paper that works for them. Always some do: writing a list, filling a page with random scribblings, making a “spider web” with the main idea in the center. One girl said she writes a song about her topic. I'll say, “Great, and here’s one other way — the ’t’ chart.” I’ll draw a lower-case t on the board and say, “We’re going to create two characters, a boy and a girl your age. Which should we start with?” I’ll ask for a first name; we may vote on several suggestions. Then I’ll ask for attributes, interests: what is she like with her friends? what does he like to do? does this person have a secret? The ideas I like, I write on the ’t’ — and in a few minutes, we have two characters.

Now I’ll say, Whatever method of brainstorming on paper is fun for you, do that, because that’s what your brain likes — but do it on paper. Don’t skip this step, because it makes the next phase, starting the draft, much easier and less scary.

2. Drafting: I give them the secret of writing your draft a little fast, to help leave behind your fear. We talk a little about that fear of writing, which everyone has. I may say, We want to open up your flow, and leave that fear behind — so I’m asking you to try this. For just four minutes, I want you to start writing a story or a scene with our two new characters. Anything you try is fine; the main thing is to just start writing, and try to keep going a little fast. If you hear yourself thinking “This is dumb” or whatever, keep going anyway. Try not to stop! You won’t be graded and you won’t have to share this; it’s just an experiment. Four minutes of your life. Ready, set ... go.

A sound that I love is all the scratching of all the pens and pencils moving across the page. When four minutes is almost up, I’ll ask, “Do you want one more minute?” Invariably they’ll say, “Yes!”

3. Editing/revising. I usually ask if anything was surprising about that writing experience. Usually students will say, “It was much easier,” or “I was surprised by what came out” — things like that. There generally isn’t time to actually revise, but I explain the third secret (see last week). And I’ll say, You can try this approach to any type of writing; and as you grow from year to year, you’ll be able to be confident in doing more and more challenging writing work. If you keep on trying it, you will see.

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School writing workshops: sharing my “secrets” to the process

From 2005 until a few years ago, I was doing dozens of author visits each year to schools that were working with The Revealers — and at some point I was asked if I’d include a writing workshop in the day’s program. I said, sure. Then I had to figure out how.

I had been a full-time freelance writer since the mid-1980s (still am), and I’d written a number of books for middle-school and YA readers. I decided that, given a period of 45 minutes to an hour to work with, I would try to do three things: build on what students were already learning about the writing process; help them make it their own process — what works for them? — and help them open up to their own flow of thoughts and ideas. I’d keep it simple: I would focus on the three main phases of the process, and for each I would share the “secret” that, for me, has been key to opening up that phase. Each “secret” I have learned by trial and error. Error, mostly.

So here they are. I would write each of the quoted sentences below on the board or flip-chart paper, leaving the final word blank. I’d ask what that word is. Almost always, it would hit them as a surprise.

1. Brainstorming: “Do it on paper, in a way that’s [?].” The word here is “fun.” There are so many ways to brainstorm; but whether the way that works best for you is orderly or messy, linear or spider-webby, the key is to do it on paper, so you have something to work with in the next phase — and to do it in a way your brain likes. Thus, “fun.”

2. Drafting: “Write your draft a little [?].” The word is “fast.” I learned this early in my career from an essay by Malcolm Cowley, a legendary 20th century editor who worked with some of the great American writers of his age. He noticed that many of them wrote their first draft quite speedily. Doing this can help you leave behind your anxiety, your fear and your inner editor, which only gets in the way in this phase. So I tell kids, Your draft is not supposed to be perfect. Expecting to make mistakes, knowing you’ll come back to it, frees you to try things.

3. Editing/revising: “Think about the [?].” The word (which they never seem to guess) is “reader.” When you draft fast and fluidly, you're self-absorbed; it’s just you and the paper, or screen. If you then read your draft while thinking how it may present to someone else, you will see what needs to be done. Sentences too complex? Straighten them out for your reader. To little information, or too much? Do the work so the reader won’t have to.

I’ve now led this workshop many, many times. Next week I’ll describe how I invite the students to try these secrets, all inside 45 minutes to an hour.

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When we hit the barrier of fear

There’s a slim book, still quite popular though it was published almost 25 years ago, that’s titled Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. It has helped and encouraged a lot of people. I read it years ago, and I remember that you really just need to read the title. That’s the message. On this week after Labor Day, as the country struggles with the start of a school year that’s way too burdened, way too uncertain and so very frightening, I remember that title. I wish I had more to offer. What can anyone offer but compassion and encouragement? We should have been in a different place by now but we aren’t; it’s not fair, it’s very scary, and people all over the country are just doing it anyway.

My teacher friends are stressed to the very edge of coping. One told me she submitted her resignation on a Tuesday, the week before school started, then withdrew it on Wednesday. I live in a college town that’s tense with anxiety as the students come back to campus and go through the testing, the waiting, the supposed quarantining. We see clusters of college-age kids on the street or outside a cafe and wonder: Are they following the rules? At a normal time they’d be here to experiment with choices, after all. Will their choices today spread the contagion? There’s fear and anxiety everywhere.

The first night I had covid-19 last April, I couldn’t take a full breath. About two-thirds of the way it hit a barrier of pain in the lungs. There was that pain, and there was the fear. Would this grow tighter, like a curtain slowly closing? I didn’t know anyone, at that point, who’d had the virus. I had no way to know.

What I found I could do, that first night, was accept the fear. Panicking would only make the breath come tighter and faster. If I stayed with things just as they were, I still hit the pain but I could breathe. I could. I arranged pillows so my head was higher, and I tried my best to just take it breath by breath. That was all I could do, but it was something. Breath by breath I did settle down, and I got through the night. And the next day, and the next.

Driving yesterday, I saw a sign: “We WILL get through this.” And when we have, we will owe a debt beyond measure to those who worked through the endless-seeming exhaustion, uncertainty and fear because they had to. Because we needed them. It may be a wan hope, but I do hope we will come through this with a new sense of what community means, what interconnectedness is. We will have a whole lot to rebuild, and we can only do that together.

 

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Learning to write by writing with kids: my Bedminster story

On a bookshelf here I have a booklet with a faded blue cover and the title “I Wish Truth Could Be a Wish” — Student Writings from the Bedminster School 1977-78. I had spent a weekly lunch period, that year, leading a writing workshop with a group of students in the small K-8 school in Bedminster, N.J., a town best-known today for having a Trump club. I was on my first job as a reporter, covering Bedminster for the weekly Bernardsville News, when I got involved with the local school. At the year’s end my publisher, Cort Parker, kindly offered to print a collection of the students’ work. I’m paging through my old copy now, remembering.

When someone at the Bedminster School suggested the project, I thought why not? Even though I had about one year’s professional writing experience at that point, I figured I’d go in and share all that was important to me about this important work. I may have mentioned The Elements of Style. The kids stared at me, and fidgeted.

This went on for another session or two, until some kind soul suggested that the students had come to a writing workshop to write — and that I might look into Wishes, Lies and Dreams, a book by a poet, Kenneth Koch, who had taught poetry writing in New York City schools. Koch had sort of stumbled onto his first idea, which was to invite each student to write a poem whose every line began “I wish,” and to make the wishes either real or crazy. I went in the next week and said we’d try this, and the kids all grabbed paper and started to write.

The title of the collection I pulled together at year’s end came from the last line of one boy’s fine poem; and that day was just the start. Each week I’d come in with another idea to take off on (I didn’t know the word “prompts”; I didn’t really know anything), and they’d just go. We wrote about cheese, places we’d never been, fruits we’d never heard of. “I criticized very little — told them not to worry about rhyme, paragraphs, spelling, that we could fix the mistakes up later,” I wrote in a wordy introduction to our booklet. “I did not believe I could or should replace the conventional teaching style ... I believed, or hoped, I could reinforce in my students the child’s natural delight in writing, to help them survive all the years of learning to write well.”

I don’t know if any of my long-ago students got anything from our time that stayed with them — but I did. Writing is scary. It’s risky, it’s revealing yourself. Our sessions helped me learn how to deal with that: look for a way to begin, let go of what you think you know, and just start. I’ve been just-starting for a long time now. Each day it’s new, and generally it’s still scary. I try to do as the kids did, and just start anyway.

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The all-school read: five keys to an unforgettable project

This month’s School Library Journal has an article, “One School Reads United Students and Staff.” The piece leads with this quote from middle-school librarian Terri Gaussoin in Albuquerque: “I believed before covid-19 — and still do today — that reading and books can unite us, and we need that now more than ever.”

I’ve been a witness to how true that can be, and I hope it’ll be useful to share the best of what I’ve learned. I wrote a middle-school novel called The Revealers, which deals with bullying and has, to my ongoing amazement, been the focus of reading and discussion projects in over 1,000 schools. Most were all-school reads, usually the first time a school had tried one, and often I got to visit as part of the project’s culmination. Here are five lessons that, for me, stood out the most:

1. The most powerful schoolwide reads engage everyone in the building, not just students and teachers. To students this says, “We’re a community, we’re in this together, and we’re going to talk about it.”

2. A project comes to life when teachers and students bring their own creativity to engaging readers. At Jaffrey-Rindge Middle School in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, I joined the students in the auditorium to watch a hilarious “Family Feud” created and performed by the Drama Club. With questions drawn from a schoolwide bullying survey, it pitted the “Girl Gang” against the “Nerds” and came down to a final, tie-breaking question. The show kept us laughing — and got us thinking.

3. There’s real impact in engaging the community beyond school. Thompson Intermediate School in Houston recruited participation from the local newspaper, school board, community college, sheriff's department, churches, Chamber of Commerce, and the 1-149th Attack Helicopter Battalion. On the big celebration night I joined a bank vice president, college soccer coach, newspaper owner, college dean, army colonel, judge, school principal, and local ministers in a panel and audience Q&A on bullying. What the kids saw was that their whole community cared about the choices they made.

4. Recruiting students to help make a project possible gives them a stake in it. At Discovery Middle School in Granger, Indiana, the first thing students shared with me was that they’d been told the schoolwide read could only happen if they could raise the money — so they did. This had become not an assignment, but an achievement.

5. Students are empowered when they can follow up. During a reading project in the wake of a student’s bullying-related suicide, eighth graders at the Albert D. Lawton Middle School in Essex, Vt., designed and carried out a schoolwide survey on bullying — then presented their findings, some of them eye-opening, to the faculty and administration.

I’d like to think an all-school read is do-able even in a year like this. I certainly agree with Terri in Albuquerque — reading and books can unite us. And that’s something we surely do need. (More on these stories and many others is at dougwilhelm.com.)

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A simple little story that opened the way

So much is going on right now, and this is not about any of it. This is about reading and writing, and it’s personal:

My lawyer son was up from Philadelphia last week. Late in his last afternoon I quit work early so we could spend some time, just us, out in the sunshine. We’ve always read together and he had his book, so I glanced at the shelf and pulled out The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze. In there I saw “The Evening’s at Seven.” And I remembered.

I was a college kid on a year abroad and I was trying to write, to be clever and impressive — and this wasn’t going well at all — when I discovered James Thurber. He was a writer of short, mostly funny pieces from the 1920s through the 50s whose work Hemingway and other “serious” authors loved. I happened on a Thurber collection when I was poking around in the American Library in Vienna (I remember its bright-colored plastic chairs, in that somber old city). “The Evening’s at Seven” was in there, a short little story, not comedy but something else. Rereading it now, it came home that this was the one that opened the way — that showed how deeply  simple, clear, careful writing could go.

Thurber was a lot like us: confused by much of life, observant mostly of his own confusion. His writing seems casual, but he worked and worked on every piece. This one begins so simply: “It was a quarter to seven in the evening and it was dark and raining.” Leaving his darkened office for dinner at home as usual, a man calls for a taxi instead, and finds himself giving an old girlfriend’s address.

“It was dark in the room, and still raining outside,” he finds once he’s there. The plain words “dark” and “raining” deepen in meaning as they are repeated — and by the time the man leaves the woman’s apartment, a few minutes later, even though he has hardly said anything and nothing has really happened, something has.

“She went to the door with him looking lovely, and it was lovely and dark and raining outside and he laughed and she laughed and she was going to say something but he went out into the rain and waved back at her (not wanting to wave back at her) and she closed the door and was gone ... And now he was going home.”

For years after that as I started doing newspaper work I read all of Thurber I could find. I pored through a volume of letters where he shared how he would rewrite and rewrite, searching for precisely the right words, working for that relaxed simplicity. There were others whose work, for me, also pointed in this clarified direction — William Saroyan, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Hemingway. But more than any other it was “The Evening’s at Seven,” this simple little story, that spoke the lesson to the heart.

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My Choose Your Own learnable moment

I had hardly ever tried writing fiction before I got asked to write a book for the Choose Your Own Adventure series in 1992. I learned a big lesson, doing that; and I learned it, not for the last time, from a kid.

I was a freelance writer, then as now, and I had about given up on writing books. My first, a ten-year nonfiction project, had been rejected 75 times, and I’d produced three more manuscripts that no one wanted either. I had a divorce to cope with and a little boy to love and was doing my best just to hold things together when I got a call from Ray Montgomery, the Vermont writer and entrepreneur whose series of innovative, interactive novels for young readers by then had over 130 titles, by Ray and a number of other writers.

As I remember it, Ray said, “I proposed a book about a planet that gets forgotten. That’s all I know. Can you write it? It’s due in a month. We’ll pay you $2,000.”

I had never even read science fiction. But it was the holidays, $2,000 was good money for me, and this would surely be more fun than the nonprofit newsletters and annual reports I was mostly turning out. So I wrote a draft of The Forgotten Planet (Bantam, 2003).

My nephew Chris was up visiting on his holiday break, and I asked if he’d read the draft. He was 12 or 13, a good reader. He said yes, and after he'd finished it I asked, a little nervously, “What did you think?”

“Well, it’s okay, Uncle Doug,” he said, “but you don’t die anywhere.” I said, “Oh, I don’t want you to die.” (Choose books have multiple threads and you have to come up with a number of endings. So I had thought about this.)

He said, “No, you don’t understand. If you don’t die, it’s no fun.”

Well! Over the years I’ve done 10 Choose books (Ray passed away a couple of years ago, but the series is still going through Chooseco, the indie publisher he and his writer wife Shannon created). I’ve had you shot down in a space-fighter battle, killed by pink-dolphin poachers in the Amazon, killed in a shipboard sword fight, shot in the back trying to escape from Robert E. Lee’s headquarters camp at Gettysburg, even dematerialized and injected into a stream of electrons, though I can’t remember in which book that last one happened. (Or why.)

What I learned from Chris is that stories need risk. Something should be at stake. Teachers often talk about stories needing conflict, but I believe that’s too narrow. I think more about tension. What creates it, what deepens it, how is it resolved? Something is at risk, whether it’s the world or one heart. The reader needs to care.

Stories are life, and lives are stories. “If you don’t die ... it’s no fun.”

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John Lewis’s MARCH and the soul of resistance

Ninety years ago this month, a young reporter for the Chicago Tribune flew from Europe, where he’d been covering the rise of fascism, to India to write about the “peculiar revolution” that was gathering there. He met its leader, a spindly, bright-eyed little man who sat making thread for homespun cotton.

“How could so humble a man, I wondered,” William L. Shirer wrote in Gandhi: A Memoir, “spinning away with his nimble fingers on a crude wheel as he talked, have begun almost single-handedly to rock the foundations of the British Empire, aroused a third of a billion people to rebellion against foreign rule, and taught them the technique of a new revolutionary method — non-violent civil disobedience — against which Western guns and Eastern lathis [police batons] were proving of not much worth. ... So I simply said: ‘How have you done it?’

“‘By love and truth,’ he smiled. ‘In the long run no force can prevail against them.’”

I found Shirer’s memoir when I was scouring my bookshelves during the shutdown for something to read. He was the first Western journalist to spend time and talk closely with Gandhi, who spent over 2,000 days in British jails before his nation finally won its freedom in 1947, entirely through nonviolent resistance. That inspirited liberation movements in Asia, Africa and elsewhere that altogether freed some 13 nations and almost 1.7 billion people from white colonial rule.

Last week I read March, John Lewis’s graphic-novel trilogy about his life in the American civil rights movement. Martin Luther King and his fellow early leaders of the movement adopted Gandhi’s approach to resistance, which the Indian leader called “soul force.” As a student in Nashville, Lewis found a workshop on nonviolence in a Black Baptist church, where he “met people who opened my eyes to a sense of values that would forever dominate my moral philosophy — the way of peace, the way of love, the way of non-violence.”

It’s a beautiful trilogy, soul-stirring and deeply informative. And last week, like so many others, I read the valedictory op-ed Lewis wrote for the New York Times. Having visited a Black Lives Matter protest in D.C. the day before entering the hospital for the last time, he recalled hearing Dr. King decades earlier on an old radio. “He was talking about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out.

“In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”

I have no stature to add anything to this. I just hope we’re on the way, as a nation, to choosing the path these great men opened.

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The power of reading locally

I live in a smallish town, a college town, where we have one of the country’s remaining excellent weekly newspapers, the Addison Independent. For the past several weeks, everywhere I’ve gone in Middlebury — and I do mean everywhere — people have asked, “How are you? Are you better?”

There’s a connection there. And it showed me, yet again, how much having a local paper, reading a local paper, can mean.

I had covid-19 in April. The Independent heard about it in early May, and I got an email from John McWright, the news editor. He asked, “Would you be interested in talking to a reporter about your experience with the virus and the disease? We've been wondering how to get across to readers the idea that it is still a serious thing and they shouldn't let their guard down too soon.” I said, sure.

I knew I was in good hands from the long, detailed phone interview I had with veteran reporter John Flowers. I’ve had the sinking feeling of talking to a reporter who wasn’t really listening, then rightly dreading the result — but John’s story, which led page one in the May 14 issue, was careful, thorough and precise. Not cringeworthy at all.

Except. When I saw my face on top of the paper in its rack in the drugstore I wondered, What'll happen now? Next time I step into a store, will someone rush up with arms waving, saying “No no! Not you!”

What happened was the opposite. For weeks to come, every place I went into in town, someone asked if I was better. “How are you feeling? I saw that story in the paper.” At the hardware store, the food coop, a gas station in the middle of the night. Everywhere. I got so used to it, I kind of miss it now.

This week the New York Times reviewed a new book, Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy. In the face of fake news, the paper said, “What [author Margaret] Sullivan writes about is a ‘real-news problem’ — the shuttering of more than 2,000 American newspapers since 2004, and the creation of ‘news deserts,’ or entire counties with no local news outlets at all.”

I have enormous respect for the people who fill the local papers we still have. I couldn’t hack the work, myself; I still have nightmares that I’m back at the weekly I was hired to start, at age 28, with a staff of one reporter and 30 pages to fill. I bailed after two years ... but that paper is still coming out. Like the Independent, it’s what you read to find out, these days, how people are coping, what help is available where, and what they’re going to do about the schools.

And sometimes there’s more. Sometimes a local paper shows you what it means to live in a community, one that includes everyone. That’s a great thing to have. And a sad thing to lose.

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A story that speaks quietly, across scary times

In a time so frightening for so many reasons, I bought the one book I hadn’t read by a writer I’ve loved, as so many have. He wrote this story at another time of fear and upheaval and anger, righteous and otherwise. What he wrote doesn’t address any of those troubles. Or maybe, in the writer’s own way, it does.

Last week I read E.B. White’s third and final children’s book, The Trumpet of the Swan.

It was 1969, and White was 69, when he submitted his manuscript for Trumpet. He and his wife Katherine were both in poor health, especially Katherine, and his country was in turmoil, over war, civil rights and a bitter generational clash. He’d been worried about providing for Katherine, though Charlotte’s Web of 1952 was still a bestseller. Had it not been for his worries, according to Scott Elledge’s fine biography, White might have held onto the new book longer and rewritten it more, as he had the previous two. But he went ahead; and it came out in 1970, the year we got Nixon.

Here’s what I found. Trumpet is not a wonderwork, like Charlotte, and it won’t be a treasured personal favorite, like Stuart Little ... but it’s interesting. I suspect that White, as he worked, may have had in his mind what he wanted to leave us. He put together a story whose characters — Louis the voiceless trumpeter swan, his practical mother and bloviating father, and Sam the boy who loves wild places and all creatures— are not, to me at least, terribly convincing. White's third novel again lightheartedly dispenses with the gap between what an animal can do and what it might do, if it were more like us: Louis compensates for his muteness by learning to write on a chalkboard and to play the trumpet, the latter so well that he has a short, lucrative musician’s career.

But really, these characters and the story itself feel like overlays on what this quiet, thoughtful writer was sharing with us, one last time: his attentive, abiding love of nature and its creatures, and of music, which he hadn’t written much about before. Much as Stuart ends with exploring for its own sake and backyards worth finding out about, Trumpet concludes with this:

“Darkness settled on woods and fields and marsh. A loon called its wild night cry. As Louis relaxed and prepared for sleep, all his thoughts were of how lucky he was to inhabit such a beautiful earth, how lucky he had been to solve his problems with music, and how pleasant it was to look forward to another night of sleep and another day tomorrow, and the fresh morning, and the light that returns with the day.”

We are all still creatures of this lovely earth. Whatever happens, we can still hear its music, and its light returns again each morning. I like thinking about that. It’s a gift.

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Guest — Alice Christian

Good choice!

Loved that book back when I was a kidlet, Doug! -- Alice
Friday, 24 July 2020 18:05
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