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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.

"Why is there swearing in your book?"

My young-adult novel The Revealers includes these words: crap, ass, damn, hell. And, just once, shit.

When the book was nominated for Florida’s Sunshine State Young Reader Award, one mother went all the way to the governor’s office, campaigning to get it taken off. Just over the border in Georgia, fundamentalist protest letters to local papers denouncing a school’s work with the book intimidated the teachers and got the project stopped, in mid-read. And when I visit middle schools across the country to talk with kids who have read The Revealers, I often get asked about the language. My favorite phrasing came from an eighth grade girl in Vermont; she said, “My parents teach me not to swear. How come there’s swearing in your book?” And she waited, arms crossed, for the answer.

Here’s what I always say. First I welcome the question, because it points us toward the heart of the responsibilities in this work — and the choices that can sometimes be hard. I write realistic novels for young adults, and my main responsibility, as I see it, is to the truth of young readers’ lives. If I produce stories that don’t respect these truths, that aren’t honest about the stuff kids have to cope with every day, then my books are lame and have no value.

At the same time, if middle schoolers read my books, as they do each year with The Revealers and with its sequel True Shoes, then I also have a responsibility not to write shocking stuff just to get kids talking and expand my audience — because that too can have an influence. And I am responsible for that influence.

The crux is finding the balance. But what the crux is not — not ever, if you ask me — is trying to make stories about how life should be. This is no part of realistic fiction. That’s not to say stories shouldn’t reflect or contain morality: they have to, because our lives do. To pretend that this is a cold, amoral world with no consequences is to be unrealistic. But so also is pretending that everything would be okay if people were just nice, or if they were to follow a certain set of values. Like mine. Or ... like yours.

I think the truest value of any decent piece of fiction for adolescents, who are struggling to find the person they will be in the world, is that if it’s good, it is experience — and now the reader, to some degree, has that experience. If you see and feel how a choice works out in a story, you’ve seen what can happen and you may not need to work out that same choice in your life. For example, a story about drugs, if it’s honest — like my book Falling, which includes a teenage heroin addict who betrays his brother as his life spirals into theft and desperation — can show you where drugs can lead. I’d rather have a kid find out that way, myself.

But the bottom line is that the story must be honest. I’ve often done an experiment, in talking to middle schoolers, and it always works out the same way. I’ll ask, “How many of you have started to read a book, and you pretty quickly figured out that the writer was trying to teach you some kind of lesson?” Usually around half the hands go up, sometimes more.

Then I’ll ask, “How many of you finished reading that book?” The number of hands that goes up now is always a fraction of before. Maybe one in ten.

And that’s why you have to be honest. Because if you’re not, young adults — who are equipped with what Hemingway once called a built-in, shockproof shit detector — will smell it out, and they will close your book. And then your work, however well-intentioned, can have no value, impact, or meaning at all.

Thank you to Kris Ricigliano, library para at Maple Dale School in Milwaukee, for suggesting this topic.

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