Reading Matters blog

Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His 13 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; its sequel, True Shoes (Long Stride Books, 2012), and Doug's newest book, The Prince of Denial (Long Stride, 2013).

To read something that MEANS something

I’m so tired of all the pointless noise and digitized chatter around us — I just want to read books that matter, that make a real connection.

For example, I pulled from my shelf this week an old blue Crest Book paperback novel, The Night in Lisbon. This is by Erich Maria Remarque, the German author better known for the World War I story All Quiet on the Western Front, but I remembered reading Lisbon some years ago and being very struck by it. The story deals with two refugees who meet on the waterfront in Portugal’s capital in 1942, when, as the narrator says, “every ship was an ark.”

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My 1,500 words

When it comes to writing, a middle schooler emailed this week, do you kinda set goals? As in do you tell yourself to write a chapter or maybe a page for the idea you have created or do you just write it?

My simplest answer is, I try to write 1,500 words.

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Reading ADD: Who, me?

They say that admitting you’ve got a problem is the first step toward recovery. And this week I’ve discovered: I have a problem. I’m calling it Reading ADD — but it might as well be called the online disease.

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Slow reading & our butterfly minds

We are losing our minds to distraction, to links and pings and popups — and slow reading may be among the best, most available answers.

This is very much what “slow food” is to fast food: something more real and reviving than a drive-through convenience that you consume while doing other stuff, and that really, if we're honest, makes us feel kind of crappy. When you read the way we’re all reading these days — scanning for better options, hopping into links, stopping every 10 minutes to check messages or answer texts — you wind up with an unsettled mind that hasn’t absorbed much but can’t seem to stop. This is no better for the inner system than a Doritos Locos Taco.

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Kickstarter funds my new book!

Thanks to a very successful Kickstarter campaign that raised the funds for publication, my newest book, Treasure Town — my first title for younger readers — will be published in April. Advance reader copies are going out this fall to review journals, book bloggers, and others.

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A writer's work, in one sentence

“What’s the one sentence that best describes the work you do?”

An eighth grader named Angel asked me this, earlier this week in the library (okay, the media center) of Roselle Middle School in Roselle, Illinois. At that moment the room was filled with the school’s eighth grade, all sitting on the floor. I thought about Angel's question for a second and then said, “An act of faith.” But there are a lot of other sentences I could have come up with just as well.

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Making books with kids: the new age

Blurb.com is a business started 10 years ago by Internet entrepreneur, photographer and avid reader Eileen Gittins. She wanted to create and print 40 copies of a book, with her photographs and writeups of 40 people Gittins had worked with. She didn’t have the skills to design a book, but she had money to pay. She couldn’t find a service that would do that — so she started one.

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The library with a stuffed tiger

The most unusual public library I ever had a passionate relationship with was inside a white-painted palace in Kathmandu. When you came into it, you were greeted by a stuffed tiger and two standing suits of armor. Past these you saw antique volumes in hand-crafted cabinets that filled an expansive room, with a ceremonial staircase rising in the center and oil-painted portraits along the upper walls of aristocrats from another age. It was here that I discovered the magnetism of fantasy — and not just because of how the Kaiser Library looked. It was because of what was in its books.

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Fantasy and me: Really?

English teachers talk about the omniscient narrator. This week I’ve been thinking about the omniscient author. God knows, I don’t mean me.

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The girl with quiet dreams

We all have stories, we write them with our lives. You never know what you’ll hear, if you ask.

Yesterday, for example, meeting with 25 inner-city middle schoolers in Rochester, NY at the summer-enrichment program Horizons, I asked a girl about her cap. It was an ball cap with the logo of a business, something about fluid flow, not the usual thing you see on a 13-year-old girl. She said she has a collection of hats and caps. She got them from her grandma, and she wears them. I asked, Are some of them old-fashioned?” Oh yes, she said. And I said, This could be a story. I took out my little notebook, and wrote in it, “My Grandma’s Hats.”

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Working past the fear

The fear is always there, before you start. If you can just start, then you’re in it and you’re okay.

I mean this to apply to writing, because that’s my experience — but how many other things can it also describe? Bungee jumping? I have no idea about that. But what about anything that’s worthwhile, that calls on what’s inside of us? For each of us that's different, it's personal what we’re pushed by ourselves to do, what we long to do — but I wonder if there isn’t this fear almost always.

It gathers before you start, and the answer is ... to start.

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The wings of compassion

I was trying to learn in Chicago in around 1920 and was searching for the unnoticed things that made emotions, such as the way an outfielder tossed his glove without looking back to where it fell ... These were the things which moved you before you knew the story.
Ernest Hemingway, interviewed by George Plimpton for Writers at Work, Second Series, 1963

Two subjects I’ve read about off and on for years, always returning to them and finding inspiration, are Hemingway’s approach to writing and the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, or simple attention to what’s happening now. I’ve just lately seen a connection between those two — one that to me at least is illuminating, and that I’ve never thought of before.

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Making friends with my notebook again

I like an old-fashioned copybook, with the black-and-white marble covers, and I don’t like lines. You have to send away for those. Mine come from Roaring Spring Paper Products, of Roaring Spring, Pa., and I like how that sounds. But for a long time my notebooks sat in my closet, unwritten-in, untouched for months. Even as I urged middle schoolers who were interested in writing to “make friends with a notebook,” I had let my own relationship, a key one in my life, lapse and fade.

So last week I brought the last-used notebook back out.

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Where did the flow go?

During the school year I talk all the time to middle schoolers about keeping a writer’s notebook — about observing and noting and encouraging your creative flow. And this year I felt like a fake.

I’ve been at this work so long, earning my living as a fulltime freelancer for 30 years now, and you have to produce so much stuff to pay the bills and stay afloat ... it seems as if the flow of ideas and observancy, for me, has been dredged out or pounded away. I don’t write in my notebooks any more. I’m not sprouting ideas for new stories or projects; I’m turning the crank.

Does that sound familiar?

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What should we tell an avid young writer?

Writers are continuing to write no matter whether publishing is dying, or closing itself off to all but the bestsellers, says an online op-ed piece posted yesterday at The New York Times. The essay, by a Times editor, describes “staylit” — writing by writers about continuing to write. Apparently this is now a thing.

I continue to write too, so maybe at this moment I’m producing staylit — except that the Times piece got me thinking less about my own stuff, and more about a group of eighth graders that I sat with in their school library about ten days ago, at Hanscomb Air Force Base in Bedford, MA.

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Launching a kids' book with Kickstarter: What worked for us

An illustrator and I put up a Kickstarter campaign to fund publication of our new children’s book — and we've succeeded. So what have we learned?

I think this is a question worth answering. Kickstarter has become, so it says, the largest funder of creative projects in the world. Assuming this is true, it’s pretty revolutionary — because this is not a corporate funder, not Sony or Disney or Scholastic; it’s a crowd-sourcing funder. Almost anyone can now easily become a front-end contributor to the creative economy. You can pledge as little as $10 to support a project. And just about anyone with a creative project, like a new kids’ book, now has the chance to get it funded and launched.

But about three-quarters of Kickstarters fail. To give a campaign its best shot, Kickstarter itself gives you some good advice. Do a good, short, genuine video. Offer affordable rewards. Solicit good critical feedback, and tweak carefully before you launch. (You can find this advice and more by going to the very bottom of the www.kickstarter.com home page and selecting Kickstarter School.)

So what can we add?

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The last of Anna Madrigal

Beginning to read Armistead Maupin’s new Tales of the City book feels a little like walking into a college reunion that you know will be your last. Except, to be honest, I feel as if I know these characters better than I ever got to know anyone at my old school.

If you’re another one of the millions who’ve loved these books — and if you've read on the dust jacket that The Days of Anna Madrigal, in which the series’ unifying figure, around whom the others have revolved, is 92 now and preparing for the end of her days, will be the final installment — then you know what I mean. If you haven’t yet discovered these stories, you’re lucky! You have the chance to read them for the first time.

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The Wonder of a moral story

Vermont where I live has an annual children’s book award chosen by young readers, and this year’s winner is R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, about a fifth grader with severe facial deformity. The novel is also the focus of this year’s Vermont Reads, a statewide community reading program. I read Wonder on an airplane early this month — and what I most admired, among much to like in a touching and thought-provoking story, is this:

By taking us into the experience of a child whose appearance can seem horrifying, this writer finds a way to do what almost nobody gets away with doing, in YA fiction today: be vulnerably honest about kindness, about decency, about doing the right thing.

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Brother, sister, Kickstarter

Writers and illustrators have always had to go hat in hand (if we could afford a hat) to major publishers to ask if they would bring out our stuff. This system didn’t work too badly when there were many major book publishers — but today there are five, and they’re all so corporate that trying to approach them can be like talking to the TV. You are not going to get a response. 



But there are new, emerging ways for creative work to find an audience. One of the biggest barriers, of course, is money; and one of the most powerful and fascinating new developments is Kickstarter.

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The treasure box

The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a nationwide partnership of foundations, nonprofits, states, and communities, starts with a striking premise: “Reading proficiency by third grade is the most important predictor of high school graduation and career success.” But there’s a huge gap in that proficiency, between children of low-income families and the rest of our kids.

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