Not long ago I heard from a Houston high school teacher that my novels The Knife and the Butterfly and What Can’t Wait had gone “viral” among students. It wasn’t that a teacher was requiring kids to read the books; it was that students were sharing the books, telling their friends about them, and reading them under the table when they were supposed to be doing their science homework.
This is the situation anybody who cares about kids and their reading lives should want.
It’s especially important for reluctant readers who can count their successful encounters with books on one hand. And it’s most important for reluctant readers in lower-income brackets minority groups, where becoming an avid reader (the earlier the better) may be what helps close the gap between their academic performance and that of their “majority” middle-class peers.
We can’t transform readers’ lives by micromanaging their choices, whether by insisting that they focus on “great works,” or by shoe-horning in saccharin PC reads. Encouraging personal connections to books is the way to make books go viral.
In my experience, when you set aside big hits like Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games, the books that get passed around and talked about by teens are those that speak to their own experiences in some important way. And that’s not just about race or ethnicity, either.
While the biggest issue that may be hindering the success of young Latino readers is the relative lack of high-quality literature that features Latino protagonists at all, a related (and less discussed) issue is the lack of representation of diversity of experience within the Latino community. A recent New York Times article made precisely this point in terms of young Latino readers:
Kimberly Blake, a third-grade bilingual teacher, said she struggles to find books about Latino children that are “about normal, everyday people.” The few that are available tend to focus on stereotypes of migrant workers or on special holidays. “Our students look the way they look every single day of the year,” Ms. Blake said, “not just on Cinco de Mayo or Puerto Rican Day.”
On a recent morning, Ms. Blake read from “Amelia’s Road” by Linda Jacobs Altman, about a daughter of migrant workers. Of all the children sitting cross-legged on the rug, only Mario said that his mother had worked on farms.
This passage from the NYT article resonated with my own experience as a bilingual literacy tutor in East Austin some ten years ago and as an English teacher in Houston. I also reviewed Spanish-language books for Reading Is Fundamental, and almost without exception they were translations of popular children’s books in English with white characters. Why is this an issue? For one, it exercises a subtle pressure on students to value the commercialized image of mainstream U.S. culture over their own family lives and culture. Even for students from other backgrounds, seeing more Latino character has considerable value, as this balanced and thoughtful response highlights.
Many of the comments on the NYT article (also see this post and comments, including my own) were depressing in their willful misunderstanding of the issue. The point is not that children can only relate to books with characters from their own background or experience. Clearly, that’s not the case or much of literature—including most of what was written by dead white guys—wouldn’t appeal to any of us. The point is that there is something inherently unjust and damaging about never or rarely seeing anyone like you (whether in terms of socio-economic status, gender orientation, race, or ethnicity) in books.
As one commentor, BorincanoDC, wrote:
Even 45 years ago it would have been a good idea for me and kids like me to pick up a book in the classroom and see intelligent, decisive, challenging characters like the kids in my family and neighborhood. And it would have been a pretty good idea for the OTHER kids to be presented with a world a little different from their own where characters named Juan and Maria lived valid and coherent lives.
Speaking of names... May I please weigh in that, while a name change may be better than no representation, I found myself biting my hands to keep from screaming when I read one high-school English teacher’s strategy for getting his Hispanic “bibliophobes” to read: “I have quite a few stories in Word format that I print, including some I’ve written. I’ve taken the liberty of changing characters’ names to Hispanic just to see what would happen. I’ll try almost anything.”
I hope he’ll try something else—anything else. If his students are anything like mine, they can smell condescension a mile away.
He could start by handing his reluctant readers The Knife and the Butterfly, which I wrote specifically with my Latino guys in mind. Other great picks are Jack Gantos' Hole in My Life and anything by Matt de la Peña. For guy-friendly short stories by Latino authors, he could check out Junot Diaz's Drown and Oscar Casares' Brownsville.
One last point: if any group needs support in overcoming educational disenfranchisement, it's the Latino population in the US, especially those who have parents and grandparents who moved through the public education system. Whereas African Americans prior to the civil rights era moved through segregated schools in which, however inadequate the resources, they were taught by other African Americans who did believe in their potential, most Hispanic students prior to the fifties and sixties were forced out of schools (the methods used to accomplish this were myriad) or taught in overcrowded classrooms by white teachers with little investment in educating their pupils. In 1930s Houston, for example, there was virtually no access to high school for the majority of Hispanic students. (More on segregation here, and more on race in writing here.)
Discrimination and exclusion of that magnitude is bound to have an effect, and we all can have a part in bringing trust and investment in education back to this community. I write books that I hope will be worth reading and passing around. Teachers, librarians, readers: help us make the good books go viral.
It's a new year, and you are looking to start things off right. Set some goals, sure, but most of all, go write. Here's a tried-and-true idea you can use.
Take a break from structure and write blind (literally, if you can touch type). Set a timer for 10 minutes and write without stopping, not worrying about punctuation or even making sense. Repeat words if you get stuck; there’s no wrong way to do this.
Your goal is to get to a state where your internal editor can’t block anything (some people call this “automatic writing”). Just write—riding emotions, not worrying if anything is “okay” or not. When the timer goes off, look at what you’ve written. Most of it will be gibberish, but you may well have tricked yourself into writing a gem of an image or revealing a raw emotion that you can graft onto a character. If nothing jumps out as immediately useful, file it away and come back to it later. You might see something different then. If nothing else, you'll be surprised at just how weird your brain can be when unmonitored.
This may work best first thing in the morning when your brain is closest to that crazy underworld of dreams. For optimal results, try the exercise every day for a week.
Forget the Grinch! The holidays are the perfect time for indulging in re-reads of favorite books from the year and from years past. If you're looking for a book to cozy up to for a few hours, here are a few ideas. These books are also highly giftable if you're looking for a last-minute selection for a literary loved one.
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry: A beautiful book that shows an odd mix of characters becoming a family--for a brief spell--and ultimately having that joy systematically dismantled by the vagaries of life under a highly corrupt Indian government.
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein: Highly recommended for readers who like a strong female lead, anyone interested in WWII, those who like a kick of page-turning adventure, and budding engineers/techie types. Code Name Verity is a perfect crossover novel with as much adult appeal as teen appeal.
Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer: Funny, tragic, beautiful. A book that makes you feel new things about Holocaust experiences. Superior to Foer's more recent novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
Beginner's Greek by James Collins: This novel immediately made me think of Jane Austen. The characters (who matter) are privileged, marriage is a central concern, and we're wondering from page one to the end if the two who are so right for each other will overcome all the confusion and earn their shared happiness.
Holiday cheers and best wishes for the new year!
"That could be our town," I heard people saying on Friday as the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary began to come to light. "That looks so much like my son's school," one mother said in the doctor's waiting room where we sat watching the news. In the faces of the victims, we see our own children, our own teachers, our own friends, colleagues, and family members.
I am still shuttling between disbelief, sadness, anger, and fear.
Fear most of all.
But yesterday, one mother's words made me realize that my fear--that something like this might happen in my community--was nothing compared to the greater terror of fearing that her child might commit a similar act:
I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me. A few weeks ago, Michael pulled a knife and threatened to kill me and then himself after I asked him to return his overdue library books. His 7 and 9 year old siblings knew the safety plan -- they ran to the car and locked the doors before I even asked them to. I managed to get the knife from Michael, then methodically collected all the sharp objects in the house into a single Tupperware container that now travels with me. Through it all, he continued to scream insults at me and threaten to kill or hurt me. [...]
When I asked my son’s social worker about my options, he said that the only thing I could do was to get Michael charged with a crime. “If he’s back in the system, they’ll create a paper trail,” he said. “That’s the only way you’re ever going to get anything done. No one will pay attention to you unless you’ve got charges.” [...]
No one wants to send a 13-year old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail. But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken healthcare system, does not provide us with other options. Then another tortured soul shoots up a fast food restaurant. A mall. A kindergarten classroom. And we wring our hands and say, “Something must be done.”
I agree that something must be done. It’s time for a meaningful, nation-wide conversation about mental health.
While there has been some debate regarding the "facts" behind the "I am Adam Lanza's Mother" post that has gone viral, I think the basic issue--many young people with mental health problems are not recieving adequate care and treatment--is one we all ought to be attending to with as much care and attention as the question of better gun control in this country.
There. After a whole morning of typing and deleting sentences, I said something about the shooting.
A while back, a blog reader asked this question in response to a writing inspiration post:
I hear authors talk all the time about how awfull they used to be, and how they're glad that first book they wrote won't ever see the light of day, etc. But they say they thought they were hot stuff while they were writing those not so great stories . . . So, my question to you, how can you tell when you work stops being crap, and starts being more like the work you admire? When you publish a book, are you ever afraid that in a few years your writing will be so much better, and you will be embarrassed you let that earlier work into the world?
The truth is that I don't know when that frontier from embarrassing to worthy is finally crossed. Usually it happens when I'm not paying attention, when I'm just trying to get from really crappy to less crappy.
There are things about "finished" work that a writer will never be wholly satisfied with. Somebody said that you don't finish a book, you simply abandon it. And he was talking about published work!
What I do know is that there are many writers who will never find readers because they can't bear the gap that always remains between what we write and what we dream of having written. They can't stand for readers to read the work that is, so they never publish at all. But I say that is a shame.
Regarding the last question, I don't think there's anything to be embarrassed about in "young" work. Every book sets its own terms, and its success depends on how well it fulfills those terms. In general, a first novel--my own What Can't Wait included--is a bit less ambitious, trying to do something small well rather than trying to take over the world and failing. (Of course, there are exceptions, like Junot Diaz's first novel, to name just one.) I feel my second novel, The Knife and the Butterfly, attempts something larger and riskier. I stepped outside of my comfort zone with the plotting, for example, and there's something of a paranormal twist.
For me, being a writer means embracing the challenge of working with words--and pushing the envelope of what I'm able to do with each word. I know that I'll (still) write a lot of crap along the way. I don't think the crap every goes away. But most of it stays in writer's notebooks and scrivener files that the reader never sees.
This is another reason that a good editor is indispensable. He or she will usually spot any crap that tries to sneak into the final manuscript.
I'll admit it: my imagination sometimes gets me in trouble.
On my way to the gym this morning, I got to hear Nancy Pearl talk about Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein on NPR. I reviewed (and LOVED) this book, and I loved that a YA novel was being discussed alongside great adult fiction. Right on the heels of the thought, "Yes! CNV so deserves this!" came wild imaginings of one of my own novels featured in a similarly prominant media source.
As much as writers talk about writing as its own reward, I think most of us dream of some kind of recognition. Success takes different forms, from fantasies of praise from a writing workshop leader to dreams of scoring an agent or a book deal. After publication, there are reviews, awards, book lists, and sales, all of which can offer a (usually brief) high for the beleagured writer. Kind of like a cupcake... it's pleasurable, but it doesn't really satisfy for long.
I don't think there's anything wrong with imagining these outcomes or even doing the professional legwork (networking, promotion, etc.) sometimes required to make them possible. But I think it is crucial to keep this secondary dimension of the writing career clearly separated in our minds from the real work of writing: crafting superior stories. Without a clear division of labor and energy (preferrably with the lion's share going to the "real" work), it's easy for the marketing and promotion to take over, and bitterness may result when a writer realizes that effort in does not always match results when it comes to gaining recognition.
Better, I think, to choose opportunities for promotion wisely and to invest most of your energy in writing the best next novel that you can for readers that you care about. Keep that focus, and any recognition that comes along is just icing.
I dragged myself out of the dissertation cave long enough to vote... and to make an appearance at STACKED for the Contemporary YA week to talk diversity. Here's a bit:
Often I hear from readers of What Can’t Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly with questions along the lines of, “How did you know it was like this for me?” Readers of What Can’t Wait sometimes assume that I’m telling my own story (I’m not, except in that something of every author lodges in her books), but since The Knife and the Butterfly deals with gang culture and is narrated from a Salvadoran-American teenage male’s perspective, the question is all the more frequent in that context. How does a nerdy, twenty-something mother make the leap into that world.
You can read the rest of my engaging rambles over here.
It appears I have a new authorly addiction: Skyping with students. In the last month or so, I've been lucky enough to have a Skype author visit with students almost every Friday. Forget chicken soup for the writer's soul--these chats are RED BULL for this writer's soul!
A month ago, I talked with students at Yes! Prep Gulfton (in Houston) which is in the same neighborhood as Chavez High School, where I taught six years ago. In the past two weeks, I've made new friends through chats with book clubs in Georgia and Kentucky, both of which were reading What Can't Wait because it was one of the recommended books on their state's reading lists. (Yay for the awesome librarians who made this happen!)
I do charge for the Skype chats (we have to pay for Liam's daycare somehow), but I am pretty sure I enjoy the experiences at least as much as the students do. They remind me that there are real students out there (some of whom rarely finish a book) who are benefiting from my labors. And their stories and questions send me back to my work revising novel #3 with a sense of urgency, excitement, and energy.
The only downside of Skype is that I haven't mastered the virtual hug. But otherwise--amazing.