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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.

The value of reading — and writing — stories that make us uncomfortable

I got a thought-provoking response to last week’s post about why young-adult readers so often hate the endings of YA novels (such as The Giver, A Bridge to Terabithia and Lord of the Flies, according to a survey). I wrote that the exasperated complaint I’ve heard so many times from young readers of my books is that everything isn’t fully wrapped up at the end. My response has been that life goes on, and realistic fiction should reflect that. This generally hasn’t satisfied anyone. Or I didn’t think it had.

Pam Dean teaches at the local K-8 school in Hamburg, a town in northwest New Jersey, and I’ve come to know her on several visits to the school in recent years, where The Revealers has been on regular rotation for reading by the middle schoolers. “Life lessons are powerful, and not always pretty,” Pam emailed after reading my post. “That is what makes your books real. We need to be uncomfortable once in a while; otherwise, we do not learn from our mistakes. In all the book titles mentioned in your blog, the characters made mistakes, and, ultimately, there were heavy prices to pay.”

“What we need to do after reading these books,” she continued, “is ask ourselves, ‘What have we learned from the mistakes these characters made in their lives, that we need to be mindful of while we live our lives?’ Is that not why these books have stood the test of time? Is that not what theme is all about? We need to learn from the mistakes of others, even in books.”

I couldn’t agree more, and Pam takes the conversation to a deeper level. I’ve often wondered why, writing realistic YA fiction, I should presume to make a story that deals with tough problems when I myself have made messes and mistakes in those same problem areas. Should I be writing about bullying when I haven’t always been so kind? When I wrote about the impacts of alcoholism within families, I wondered if I was drinking too much, and how that might be affecting my son. How could I presume to write about a subject I hadn’t mastered?

What I think I realized is that good stories don’t come out of mastering the challenges in our lifes; they come out of struggling with challenges in our lives. Probably this is the case for all creative work that reaches for an audience: If we even imagine we’re sitting above the issues that inspirit our work, that work will most likely be smug, preachy, deadly ... useless.

“Stories that make uncomfortable endings, that get us thinking, in the end are the stories we remember,” Pam concluded. “I have read hundreds and hundreds of stories over the years, and the ones that make me stop, think and reflect are the ones I remember best, and look back upon fondly. Those are the books that stand the test of time.”


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