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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.

Ten questions. Ten answers.

The teenager daughter of two friends actually read four (!) of my YA novels, and asked if she could send a few questions. I said, Sure. She sent 10. So here they are, with my answers:

1. What inspired you to write these books?
I'm generally inspired by real kids, by the things they share with me and the things they deal with.

Growing up isn't easy, and the middle-school years can be the most challenging, confusing time of all. This is the period of developing, through all the turbulence and intensity, from children into young adults. A very large part of our attitudes, our values, our sense of ourselves and how (or if) we can fit in, what we hope to do and to be, are formed during these years. So I'm inspired by the challenge of writing meaningful, suspenseful stories that connect with this time in people’s lives.

2. Why did you decide to write books for children my age?
I was a very awkward, ill-fitting middle schooler, and books were really important to me. That's one reason. Another is that I'm a parent, and my son and being a dad have always meant a whole lot to me. At the time I was writing The Revealers, I was able to observe and interact with Brad and his classmates and friends. I wanted to write stories that might matter to them. A third reason is that I just sort of fell into writing for young adults. Years ago, I was asked to write a book for a then-popular series for this age group, and I found I really liked it. From that point on, I just grew into doing more.

3. Do you enjoy writing?, If so why?
Writing is hard work — but if you're lucky enough to find work that comes from who you really are, and matters a lot to you, then it's something you want to do and are grateful to do. And even though it's usually hard work and often frustrating, I do enjoy it.

4. When did you start writing?
I started in secret, in ninth grade. I had a very modern-minded English teacher who, instead of telling us what we should think about the books we were reading, asked us what WE thought. I usually didn't say much in class because I was very awkward and had no self-confidence. But Mr. Behr insisted that everyone had something to say and the right to say it; so in time I started to raise my hand, to share my thoughts. That year, in my room at night, I started to write. Stories and poems came pouring out; I was even working on a play. I didn't share this stuff with anyone, and I didn't save it — I don't even remember what I was writing about. But for the first time ever, I felt like I had found something I could DO. This was big for me.

5. Where do you get your ideas from?
Really I get most of my ideas from kids. I visit a lot of middle schools that are reading my books, especially The Revealers, and I always bring along my little writers' notebook. I try to note down any observations or ideas that come out of the conversations I have with kids. Often students will ask to write in my notebook, after I've shown it to them and talked about it. So I have notebooks that are more full of kids' ideas for stories than mine!

6. How long does it normally take for you to complete a book?
Each book is different — but for me, I think the average is 2-3 years. Next month, however, I'm publishing a book that I've been working on, on and off, for over 20 years — and I'm now working to finish a different book that I've been working on, again off and on, for over 30 years. So you never know! 

7. What’s your goal in writing books that a early teenager could relate to?
I never want to preach or teach; I think stories should be experiences rather than lessons. I try to write realistic stories that have characters readers can care about, and suspense that makes you want to turn the pages. Those are the kind of stories I like! And I think good stories have both an outside — what happens on the surface — and an inside: what happens inside the characters, and inside the reader. If I can make a story like that, it's just possible that some readers, at least, will connect with it in a way they'll always remember.

8. Which of your books would you say is your favorite?
That's hard to answer. I really liked Falling, which came out after The Revealers; I thought it would really take off, but it never did. I also really like True Shoes, the Revealers sequel. But The Revealers is the most special in that so many kids, and adults, have connected with the story and shared it with each other. That book has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools! I'm very grateful for what has happened with it.

9. Who’s your favorite writer?
I've had several favorites, at different times in my life. I love E.B. White, who wrote Stuart Little (my favorite of his) and Charlotte's Web. My favorite book is a story about an orphan boy in India who becomes a secret agent. It's called Kim and it was written by a British author, Rudyard Kipling, in about 1900. At one point, Kim was the most famous and popular novel in the world.

10. Is there anything you would recommend for children if they have an interest in writing but don't know how to start the process?
I suggest that you keep a writer's notebook. This doesn't have to be fancy or expensive! It should be something you can carry around, that can become a friend in your life. I think the idea of having an appointment each day with your notebook, especially when you're just starting with it, is a good idea — but you don't have to write down everything that happens to you or anything like that. What you write should be up to you. Have fun with it, but come back to it every day for a few minutes — like a musician practicing an instrument.

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