Doug's 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).

When readers say you didn't tell them enough

“We are upset with the ending of the book of your story, The Revealers,” began an email I got this week from five middle schoolers in Ankeny, Iowa. “It lacked the proper ending, and it did not sum up the story AT ALL! We loved the story line but we are not pleased with the ending.”

I get asked about this a lot, on school visits. The frustration young readers can have, and aren’t shy (as you can see) about sharing, is that this novel doesn’t resolve everything. The Iowans are upset that the story doesn’t fully explain why Richie, a physical bully with something to hide in his life, does what he does; it also doesn’t tell what may happen in the future to the friendships that develop in the story. And — this is a big one — it doesn’t say if Russell, Elliot and Catalina, the Revealers of the novel, win the Creative Science Fair at Parkland Middle School with their multimedia exhibit “The Bully Lab.”

My first response to Ali, Camden, Christopher, Adam and Mikayla in Ankeny was that most of their questions are answered in the sequel, True Shoes — but they didn’t want to hear that. “We know that there is another book but we needed an ending to the story,” their message says. So I promised I'd respond here.

I have particular answers that are only interesting if you’ve read the book — but I also have a larger answer. Quickly, the particulars:

Richie doesn’t say what’s going on behind the scenes of his life because his whole way of acting and being is built around hiding it. Like a lot of kids with hidden trauma in their lives, that’s the only way he knows how to cope. The Creative Science Fair is judged by adults, and this whole novel is about kids taking power in their own lives — so I didn’t want to end with what some grownups thought. But I do think the Revealers win what they really wanted, which is getting back the respect of the other kids.

The story ends with a sense that life goes in — everything about the characters’ lives isn’t wrapped up neatly and concluded — because life does go on. This is a realistic story, and I wanted it to feel like real life. Russell and Elliot will come back to school the next day, and they’ll see the same kids, and new things will happen. I ended the writing at a place where I felt the story I was telling was coming to a conclusion. As for who stays friends with whom, or who likes whom ... that leads to my larger answer:

The best novels — and I’m not including mine, in this — leave things out. They leave elements to the reader’s imagination; they leave gaps that our emotions, thoughts, or experiences can fill in. In fact, I think that’s a huge part of what makes a good story good: not what the writer puts in, but what is not on the page yet happens inside the reader. Ernest Hemingway, who did write some of the best novels, compared it to an iceberg: most of the story lies below the surface.

If the writer and the book are good, we know what’s under there — we feel it, and it becomes part of us. For example, a really good description gives you just a few good clues; your imagination, drawing partly on what you've experienced, fills in the rest. If everything is described on the page, the reader hates that. It's boring. 

In my story, Richie erupts in rage when Russell says he talks “like a dad from hell” — and he’s not going to explain why. I’ve asked kids, What do you think is going on in his life? One said, his dad died; that’s why he’s mad. Another said, no, his dad’s in prison, that’s why he’s mad. I asked, Do you know someone whose dad is in prison? Yeah, my friend’s dad is in jail right now. Okay, so that’s what you know — and you bring that experience to reading this book. What you know becomes part of the story, and it’s a part that’s only true for you, and now you have a personal relationship or connection with the story. Isn’t that what a reader wants most?

If the writer fills in every blank, explains everything, then that is a boring book. That’s a story with which you don’t develop a personal relationship — and that personal relationship is what can turn a good novel into the one you never forget. At the end, each writer does the best he or she can to find a conclusion that is satisfying. Apparently for a lot of readers, I didn't succeed at that.

So, Ali, Camden, Christopher, Adam and Mikayla: that’s my answer. You’re probably still frustrated — but you can always read True Shoes, where there's a chapter called "Richie's Secret," and where you find out what happens to everyone.

Libraries in my life: Vienna
"Why is there swearing in your book?"
 

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Sunday, 15 September 2019

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