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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.

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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