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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.

On the pale road: the art of describing

It’s not just the words on the page — the inner dimension of written fiction is what the reader brings to the experience. One good way to look at this is to examine a couple of famous bits of description by great novelists. For me at least, what brings these examples to life is not their cleverness; it’s the connections they make between the writer’s words and what those bring up inside the reader.

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Creative avoidance: it's just so key

Back in the 1920s, the great humor writer Robert Benchley did a piece called “How to Get Things Done.” In it he suggested, based on his own rich experience of avoiding the writing of his column, that “anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.”

This is also key in my productivity. In fact there was a time when my writing deadlines were the only reason anything in my office ever got cleaned.

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Libraries in my life: Vienna

In February of my sophomore year at Kenyon College, I decided I couldn’t stand another long, rainy winter stuck under leaden skies in central Ohio. So I found a study-abroad program in Europe — in Vienna, where the heavy, drizzly gray sets in around November and never goes away until April. I didn’t know that, of course, when we left for the year on our discount charter plane full of undergrads. We were going to Europe!

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When readers say you didn't tell them enough

“We are upset with the ending of the book of your story, The Revealers,” began an email I got this week from five middle schoolers in Ankeny, Iowa. “It lacked the proper ending, and it did not sum up the story AT ALL! We loved the story line but we are not pleased with the ending.”

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"Why is there swearing in your book?"

My young-adult novel The Revealers includes these words: crap, ass, damn, hell. And, just once, shit.

When the book was nominated for Florida’s Sunshine State Young Reader Award, one mother went all the way to the governor’s office, campaigning to get it taken off. Just over the border in Georgia, fundamentalist protest letters to local papers denouncing a school’s work with the book intimidated the teachers and got the project stopped, in mid-read. And when I visit middle schools across the country to talk with kids who have read The Revealers, I often get asked about the language. My favorite phrasing came from an eighth grade girl in Vermont; she said, “My parents teach me not to swear. How come there’s swearing in your book?” And she waited, arms crossed, for the answer.

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"Notice & Note": fanning the reader's fire

Sometimes when I visit schools, I get to see something new — something that’s eye-catching, because it seems to work to open students’ eyes.

This is one of those things.

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On teens & libraries: building the new literacy

I wrote last week, and promised to write again, about the very meaningful findings of a just-released report on re-engaging teenagers with libraries. Issued by YALSA, the young-adult services arm of the American Library Association, “The Future of Library Services for and with Teens: A Call to Action” notes that this is a time of powerful need among teens for what libraries can offer — and that creates powerful opportunities.

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YALSA on libraries, teens & changing times

There are over 40 million American adolescents, “and they use libraries.” Nearly half are young people of color, 22% live in families below the poverty level — and about 3 million drop out of school every year. Are libraries giving teenagers what they need to not drop out, to succeed in today’s world?

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Books & new media: the sea change

Driving to my sister’s house on Saturday, to work on a Kickstarter video — we hope to win support for publishing a “bridge into reading” chapter book for second and third graders — I heard a TED talk on the radio, about young people putting their work out through the new media. The presenter said, “We don’t feel like we have to ask permission.”
And boy, is that different. I want to write today about how it’s different, and what this may mean for writers and readers of books.

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Libraries in my life: Millburn Public

I still dream, sometimes, about the library in the town where I grew up.

In the dream, I find an upstairs room I never knew was there. The room is big and open. It’s full of books and places to read, like cushions and comfortable chairs — and it’s full of people reading. A warm quiet liveliness fills this room; I come up into it and, in the dream, I have found where I want to be.

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What if the 'new media' were 2,000 years old?

However we feel about the rise of social media, we tend to assume it’s new. Right? But the British author of the new book Writing on the Wall argues that this has been the dominant way that ideas and arguments have spread for all but, oh, about 150 of the last 2,000 years.

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Writing for a living: the tradeoffs

I used to wonder why January first got labeled New Year’s Day, when the working year seemed to kick off after Labor Day. But I get it now. This is the reflecting time.

After the holidays, when nights are longest and we’re most aware that another year has passed, we hope, however fleetingly, to make more of ourselves in the new one. Myself, I’m thinking about 33 years of producing words (by the millions) as a self-supporting, freelance writer. Now I’m 61. I have 14 books out, but no savings or retirement. Has it been worth it? Can I, should I, go on doing this?

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The hopes and fears of all the years

It was a dark night in a dark time, in my adolescent life, when I first had a personal moment of connecting with a Christmas carol.

Darkness is relative, of course: what can seem lightless on the inside can look pretty regular, even positive on the outside. Vice versa, too. But in this season when culture after culture has built up ritual that promises and expresses the rebirth of light, of life, within this darkest time of year, you may sometimes remember when the meaning of all that kindled within you, once.

For me it was a Christmas eve.

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"Can you please write about ..."

When I visit middle schools that have worked with The Revealers and/or True Shoes, I try to open a window into the creative process. I do this partly by showing my notebook — and sometimes, young people respond by writing in it.

I carry around a little pocket Moleskine, without lines because I don’t like lines. I call it my ideas and observations notebook, I tell kids, because those are mostly what I put in it, especially on school visits. Writers keep notebooks in different ways, I’ll add. Some use them like journals or diaries, writing in them every day; I know one fine YA novelist who keep her notebook like a scrapbook, pasting in articles and magazine photos that might give her ideas for characters, or more.

Often, at the end of a session with middle schoolers, one or more will come up and ask if they can write in my little book. I hand it over happily!

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Book Reviews and the Snark Epidemic

In a high-minded column last Sunday that got pretty haughty, Maureen Down in the New York Times dismissed a recent pledge by Isaac Fitzgerald, book editor of BuzzFeed, to publish only positive book reviews. “Why waste breath talking smack about something?” Fitzgerald said in an interview with Poynter, which I guess is yet another website. (Can you keep up? I can’t.)

This sent Dowd, my personal favorite composer of eloquent snark, soaring on her sense of noble purpose.

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Hemingway's lodestone: the style of the Star

In a barnlike used bookstore off I-91 in western Massachusetts, I found a book I’d heard of but never seen before: The Apprenticeship of Ernest Hemingway, by Charles A. Fenton, from 1954. I’ve wanted to learn more about Hemingway came to develop the pared-back, impressions-forward style that changed American fiction writing — and that continues to bring me, along with so many others, back to the simple and real in setting down words.

Well, this book, by a Yale professor, is very earnest. It covers each phase in the young writer’s life with sober responsibility; but if you can get past the stuff about his high school English teachers, you find something both fascinating and obvious: Hemingway learned to write simply and clearly on a newspaper.

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Learning to find refuge in reality

This morning it's snowing in the lightest possible way, first dusting of the year, and I just saw a bluebird out the window. It’s funny that I spotted him, because I’ve wanted to write about the simple miracle of trying — at least trying — to learn to pay attention.

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The darkness and the long walk home

It’s fall, and suicide is in the air. Here in Vermont’s Champlain Valley, a nearby high school has been roiled by the self-inflicted death of a 16-year-old girl, who was reportedly a target of harsh cyberbullying. The national news has featured felony stalking charges filed against two Florida girls, aged 12 and 14, who allegedly cyberbullied a schoolmate, urging her to kill herself until the girl climbed up a water tower and jumped.

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The teacher who walked the path

Skyping today with middle schoolers at Magnolia Science Academy in San Diego, I got asked, “What is the weirdest thing you ever did?” Because I was already planning to write this post, I had a ready answer: I once studied Buddhist meditation from a Hindu businessman at a Muslim retreat compound, in the far western desert of India. I could have added, though luckily I didn't think of it, that it was hot, so I was wearing a skirt.

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Addiction, choices, and stories

In producing realistic novels for young adults, I’ve written about drugs, alcohol, and addiction more than once — so far, without much sales success.

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