Reading Matters blog

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.

Nine good YA novels that place an American kid in another culture

As I prepared last year to launch Street of Storytellers, I asked teachers, school librarians and bookstore people to suggest middle-school and YA novels that, like Storytellers, place an American main character in another culture or country. This is a strong way to connect American young readers with diverse cultures — plus, I’ve always liked reading novels like this.

From the recommendations that came in, I selected and read 10 novels. Here are the top nine, from my most favorite on down — with summaries of what I thought:

1. Endangered (Congo), Eliot Schrefer. No realism is spared in this gripping story of an American girl at a bonobo sanctuary that’s brutally overrun in a spasm of civil war. A
powerful narrative, vividly written, with mind-opening honesty about what two species of primates (bonobo and human) are capable of.

2. Nowhere Boy (Belgium), Katherine Marsh. A privileged American and a desperate young Syrian refugee meet in a most unexpected way — and the American’s life finds a purpose. This is a rare achievement: a novel with moral intent that’s also a strong and honest story.

3. Laugh With the Moon (Malawi), Shana Burg. A girl closed to her own grief opens up to the village world where she has to be for a summer. I loved this book.

4. Darius the Great Is Not Okay (Iran), Adib Korram. Awkward, unconfident Darius travels with his family from their U.S. home to Yazd, his mother’s hometown. This is not a novel of dramatic events, but as Darius gradually makes personal connections in Yazd, the story grows deeper and more meaningful on the inside.

5. Habibi (Israel), Naomi Shihab Nye. This 1997 novel’s narrator has a Palestinian dad and an American mom, and one day her family relocates from the U.S. to a tense, polarized Jerusalem. At first focused on conveying the Palestinian side of heavy-handed Israeli rule, the novel opens up into something broader and deeper, yet still challenging.

6. Listen, Slowly (Vietnam), Thanhha Lai. The cultural immersion here is richly detailed and engaging. The story itself, about an American-born Vietnamese girl enlisted in the search for a grandfather lost in the war, isn’t quite as strong, but it's a rewarding read even so.

7. Escape Under the Forever Sky (Ethiopia), Eve Yohalem. An American ambassador’s daughter is kidnapped — then escapes. In this thrilling adventure deep into a totally different world, the human spirit pushes through stark dangers and striking cultural differences.

8. Small Damages (Spain), Beth Kephart. A pregnant high schooler is shipped secretly, and reluctantly, to rural Spain to have and then give up her baby. The storytelling can be confusing, but it makes us think and feel. I’d love for all boys to read this.

9. Elephant Run (Burma), Roland Smith. I wanted to like this WWII yarn, about a colonial planter’s son caught by the Japanese invasion in a community of elephant drivers, more than I actually did. An inventive plot, but flat storytelling and characters.

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Message and meaning in YA fiction: why the difference matters

I used to do an experiment on author visits to schools. I’d ask a group of students, How many of you have ever started reading a book that’s a story, that’s fiction, and you pretty quickly realized the writer was trying to teach you a lesson? 

Between between half to three quarters of my audience, however small or large, would raise a hand. Then I’d ask, How many of you finished reading that book? Now about one in ten kids raised a hand.

The difference was always that dramatic. No one goes to a story for message; along with entertainment, we go to a story for meaning. But that is very different.

Message is something a writer tries to slide in, and it makes for a bad and/or boring story. Even if the writer was clever enough to disguise the message, when you realize it’s there it leaves a bad taste, like you’ve been fooled or manipulated.

 Meaning is what, beyond enjoyment, we most hope to find in fiction — and it’s not something the writer can insert or disguise. Meaning can only develop inside the reader, when that one person’s emotions and experiences connect in some deepening way with the story on the page. It’s not something any novel or short story will ever make happen in every reader, because the reader is half of this relationship, and every reader is different.

I’ve noticed that writers of YA fiction like myself tend to think differently than teachers about this. On a visit to a high school, I saw the rubric that a wonderfully good teacher, whom I had known for many years, had developed to help her students write their own pieces of fiction. One of the steps was that the writer should decide what is the theme. I wondered, How many working writers even think about theme? 

I understand that educators have to help students break things down and understand, and this is important; but the creative process is usually much less directed or analytical. I think what’s regarded as theme is a dimension that grows or develops along with the work, and is noticed more after that process is complete.

A good story deals with things that are difficult, challenging, meaningful in life — and this dealing-with later looks like a theme. But really it’s just what the story, its writer and its characters, were dealing with, what brought tension and suspense and coherence to the narrative. The writer didn’t choose it, I bet, as a component part: He or she just built the story, draft by draft, from the seed of an idea where the tension was already there. 

To a decent story, message is death, but meaning is life — it’s what we most hope to find. And it’s always personal. This is, I think, why stories matter so much: not because they preach at us, but because they speak to us.

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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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I only laugh when it hurts: writers’ golden memories

Years ago when my first “regular” YA novel was about to be published (after eight books for the Choose Your Own Adventure series), as a Christmas gift my dad gave me Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews & Rejections. I thought, What’s the message here?

I think it was: Be ready. The book world can be hard on writers. I did know that; my first book had been rejected 75 times, and by that Christmas I had collected somewhere above 115 total rejections on four books, none of which ever saw print. Still it was fun to see how reviewers old and new had trashed a truckload of actual classics: “A vulgar and barbarous drama,” Voltaire on Hamlet; “A gross trifling with every fine feeling,” the Springfield Republican on Huckleberry Finn; “An absurd story,” the Saturday Review on The Great Gatsby.

It’s helpful to bring humor to this work, especially to the business of getting out and promoting books, which I can’t believe anyone actually likes. My writer friend (and Vermont state senator) Philip Baruth once wrote a hilarious parody of the scene in Death of a Salesman where Willy Loman trudges up the stairs and lies to his wife, having completed a sales trip without making a single sale. In Phil’s version it’s a writer returning from a bookstore reading to which no one came. I asked, “Phil, did that really happen?” He nodded, ruefully. “In Brandon,” he said.

I once did a reading in Brandon, Vermont at which the only person who came was ... well, “my stalker” would be too strong, but someone who had made me very uncomfortable. She sat silently and stared as I read. And I did a reading in Montpelier, Vt. on a brilliant summer’s day where not one person came, but that time my young son and I were relieved. We didn’t want to be inside either.

But my best story comes from the St. Petersburg Book Festival in Florida. One Saturday morning there I gave a workshop, well enough attended, on how schools were working with The Revealers — and I’d been told that each author would have a designated time that afternoon, to sign books in an open-air plaza. At the table next to mine, the schedule said, would be Martina Navratilova with her just-published autobiography.

When I showed up, the tennis legend sat with her back to me, busily signing, as from her table stretched a fantastically long line of waiting people, every one clutching her book. On my table next to hers, someone had dumped a car seat with a sleeping child in it. That was it.

A photographer from the St. Petersburg Times was there, and I said “Ohmygod please take a photo of this! This is the funniest thing ever!”

I wish I still had that photo. I really truly thought it was hilarious. And anyway, at moments like that the best thing you can do is laugh.

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The school writing workshop: trying my three “secrets”

Last week I described my three “secrets,” one for each main phase of the writing process, that I’ve shared with students around the country as the core of the creative-writing workshops I’ve led, when asked, in schools. Here’s how I invite students to try those “secrets,” within a class period of 45 minutes to an hour:

1. Brainstorming: I ask if anyone has a way of brainstorming on paper that works for them. Always some do: writing a list, filling a page with random scribblings, making a “spider web” with the main idea in the center. One girl said she writes a song about her topic. I'll say, “Great, and here’s one other way — the ’t’ chart.” I’ll draw a lower-case t on the board and say, “We’re going to create two characters, a boy and a girl your age. Which should we start with?” I’ll ask for a first name; we may vote on several suggestions. Then I’ll ask for attributes, interests: what is she like with her friends? what does he like to do? does this person have a secret? The ideas I like, I write on the ’t’ — and in a few minutes, we have two characters.

Now I’ll say, Whatever method of brainstorming on paper is fun for you, do that, because that’s what your brain likes — but do it on paper. Don’t skip this step, because it makes the next phase, starting the draft, much easier and less scary.

2. Drafting: I give them the secret of writing your draft a little fast, to help leave behind your fear. We talk a little about that fear of writing, which everyone has. I may say, We want to open up your flow, and leave that fear behind — so I’m asking you to try this. For just four minutes, I want you to start writing a story or a scene with our two new characters. Anything you try is fine; the main thing is to just start writing, and try to keep going a little fast. If you hear yourself thinking “This is dumb” or whatever, keep going anyway. Try not to stop! You won’t be graded and you won’t have to share this; it’s just an experiment. Four minutes of your life. Ready, set ... go.

A sound that I love is all the scratching of all the pens and pencils moving across the page. When four minutes is almost up, I’ll ask, “Do you want one more minute?” Invariably they’ll say, “Yes!”

3. Editing/revising. I usually ask if anything was surprising about that writing experience. Usually students will say, “It was much easier,” or “I was surprised by what came out” — things like that. There generally isn’t time to actually revise, but I explain the third secret (see last week). And I’ll say, You can try this approach to any type of writing; and as you grow from year to year, you’ll be able to be confident in doing more and more challenging writing work. If you keep on trying it, you will see.

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School writing workshops: sharing my “secrets” to the process

From 2005 until a few years ago, I was doing dozens of author visits each year to schools that were working with The Revealers — and at some point I was asked if I’d include a writing workshop in the day’s program. I said, sure. Then I had to figure out how.

I had been a full-time freelance writer since the mid-1980s (still am), and I’d written a number of books for middle-school and YA readers. I decided that, given a period of 45 minutes to an hour to work with, I would try to do three things: build on what students were already learning about the writing process; help them make it their own process — what works for them? — and help them open up to their own flow of thoughts and ideas. I’d keep it simple: I would focus on the three main phases of the process, and for each I would share the “secret” that, for me, has been key to opening up that phase. Each “secret” I have learned by trial and error. Error, mostly.

So here they are. I would write each of the quoted sentences below on the board or flip-chart paper, leaving the final word blank. I’d ask what that word is. Almost always, it would hit them as a surprise.

1. Brainstorming: “Do it on paper, in a way that’s [?].” The word here is “fun.” There are so many ways to brainstorm; but whether the way that works best for you is orderly or messy, linear or spider-webby, the key is to do it on paper, so you have something to work with in the next phase — and to do it in a way your brain likes. Thus, “fun.”

2. Drafting: “Write your draft a little [?].” The word is “fast.” I learned this early in my career from an essay by Malcolm Cowley, a legendary 20th century editor who worked with some of the great American writers of his age. He noticed that many of them wrote their first draft quite speedily. Doing this can help you leave behind your anxiety, your fear and your inner editor, which only gets in the way in this phase. So I tell kids, Your draft is not supposed to be perfect. Expecting to make mistakes, knowing you’ll come back to it, frees you to try things.

3. Editing/revising: “Think about the [?].” The word (which they never seem to guess) is “reader.” When you draft fast and fluidly, you're self-absorbed; it’s just you and the paper, or screen. If you then read your draft while thinking how it may present to someone else, you will see what needs to be done. Sentences too complex? Straighten them out for your reader. To little information, or too much? Do the work so the reader won’t have to.

I’ve now led this workshop many, many times. Next week I’ll describe how I invite the students to try these secrets, all inside 45 minutes to an hour.

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When we hit the barrier of fear

There’s a slim book, still quite popular though it was published almost 25 years ago, that’s titled Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. It has helped and encouraged a lot of people. I read it years ago, and I remember that you really just need to read the title. That’s the message. On this week after Labor Day, as the country struggles with the start of a school year that’s way too burdened, way too uncertain and so very frightening, I remember that title. I wish I had more to offer. What can anyone offer but compassion and encouragement? We should have been in a different place by now but we aren’t; it’s not fair, it’s very scary, and people all over the country are just doing it anyway.

My teacher friends are stressed to the very edge of coping. One told me she submitted her resignation on a Tuesday, the week before school started, then withdrew it on Wednesday. I live in a college town that’s tense with anxiety as the students come back to campus and go through the testing, the waiting, the supposed quarantining. We see clusters of college-age kids on the street or outside a cafe and wonder: Are they following the rules? At a normal time they’d be here to experiment with choices, after all. Will their choices today spread the contagion? There’s fear and anxiety everywhere.

The first night I had covid-19 last April, I couldn’t take a full breath. About two-thirds of the way it hit a barrier of pain in the lungs. There was that pain, and there was the fear. Would this grow tighter, like a curtain slowly closing? I didn’t know anyone, at that point, who’d had the virus. I had no way to know.

What I found I could do, that first night, was accept the fear. Panicking would only make the breath come tighter and faster. If I stayed with things just as they were, I still hit the pain but I could breathe. I could. I arranged pillows so my head was higher, and I tried my best to just take it breath by breath. That was all I could do, but it was something. Breath by breath I did settle down, and I got through the night. And the next day, and the next.

Driving yesterday, I saw a sign: “We WILL get through this.” And when we have, we will owe a debt beyond measure to those who worked through the endless-seeming exhaustion, uncertainty and fear because they had to. Because we needed them. It may be a wan hope, but I do hope we will come through this with a new sense of what community means, what interconnectedness is. We will have a whole lot to rebuild, and we can only do that together.


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Learning to write by writing with kids: my Bedminster story

On a bookshelf here I have a booklet with a faded blue cover and the title “I Wish Truth Could Be a Wish” — Student Writings from the Bedminster School 1977-78. I had spent a weekly lunch period, that year, leading a writing workshop with a group of students in the small K-8 school in Bedminster, N.J., a town best-known today for having a Trump club. I was on my first job as a reporter, covering Bedminster for the weekly Bernardsville News, when I got involved with the local school. At the year’s end my publisher, Cort Parker, kindly offered to print a collection of the students’ work. I’m paging through my old copy now, remembering.

When someone at the Bedminster School suggested the project, I thought why not? Even though I had about one year’s professional writing experience at that point, I figured I’d go in and share all that was important to me about this important work. I may have mentioned The Elements of Style. The kids stared at me, and fidgeted.

This went on for another session or two, until some kind soul suggested that the students had come to a writing workshop to write — and that I might look into Wishes, Lies and Dreams, a book by a poet, Kenneth Koch, who had taught poetry writing in New York City schools. Koch had sort of stumbled onto his first idea, which was to invite each student to write a poem whose every line began “I wish,” and to make the wishes either real or crazy. I went in the next week and said we’d try this, and the kids all grabbed paper and started to write.

The title of the collection I pulled together at year’s end came from the last line of one boy’s fine poem; and that day was just the start. Each week I’d come in with another idea to take off on (I didn’t know the word “prompts”; I didn’t really know anything), and they’d just go. We wrote about cheese, places we’d never been, fruits we’d never heard of. “I criticized very little — told them not to worry about rhyme, paragraphs, spelling, that we could fix the mistakes up later,” I wrote in a wordy introduction to our booklet. “I did not believe I could or should replace the conventional teaching style ... I believed, or hoped, I could reinforce in my students the child’s natural delight in writing, to help them survive all the years of learning to write well.”

I don’t know if any of my long-ago students got anything from our time that stayed with them — but I did. Writing is scary. It’s risky, it’s revealing yourself. Our sessions helped me learn how to deal with that: look for a way to begin, let go of what you think you know, and just start. I’ve been just-starting for a long time now. Each day it’s new, and generally it’s still scary. I try to do as the kids did, and just start anyway.

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The all-school read: five keys to an unforgettable project

This month’s School Library Journal has an article, “One School Reads United Students and Staff.” The piece leads with this quote from middle-school librarian Terri Gaussoin in Albuquerque: “I believed before covid-19 — and still do today — that reading and books can unite us, and we need that now more than ever.”

I’ve been a witness to how true that can be, and I hope it’ll be useful to share the best of what I’ve learned. I wrote a middle-school novel called The Revealers, which deals with bullying and has, to my ongoing amazement, been the focus of reading and discussion projects in over 1,000 schools. Most were all-school reads, usually the first time a school had tried one, and often I got to visit as part of the project’s culmination. Here are five lessons that, for me, stood out the most:

1. The most powerful schoolwide reads engage everyone in the building, not just students and teachers. To students this says, “We’re a community, we’re in this together, and we’re going to talk about it.”

2. A project comes to life when teachers and students bring their own creativity to engaging readers. At Jaffrey-Rindge Middle School in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, I joined the students in the auditorium to watch a hilarious “Family Feud” created and performed by the Drama Club. With questions drawn from a schoolwide bullying survey, it pitted the “Girl Gang” against the “Nerds” and came down to a final, tie-breaking question. The show kept us laughing — and got us thinking.

3. There’s real impact in engaging the community beyond school. Thompson Intermediate School in Houston recruited participation from the local newspaper, school board, community college, sheriff's department, churches, Chamber of Commerce, and the 1-149th Attack Helicopter Battalion. On the big celebration night I joined a bank vice president, college soccer coach, newspaper owner, college dean, army colonel, judge, school principal, and local ministers in a panel and audience Q&A on bullying. What the kids saw was that their whole community cared about the choices they made.

4. Recruiting students to help make a project possible gives them a stake in it. At Discovery Middle School in Granger, Indiana, the first thing students shared with me was that they’d been told the schoolwide read could only happen if they could raise the money — so they did. This had become not an assignment, but an achievement.

5. Students are empowered when they can follow up. During a reading project in the wake of a student’s bullying-related suicide, eighth graders at the Albert D. Lawton Middle School in Essex, Vt., designed and carried out a schoolwide survey on bullying — then presented their findings, some of them eye-opening, to the faculty and administration.

I’d like to think an all-school read is do-able even in a year like this. I certainly agree with Terri in Albuquerque — reading and books can unite us. And that’s something we surely do need. (More on these stories and many others is at

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A simple little story that opened the way

So much is going on right now, and this is not about any of it. This is about reading and writing, and it’s personal:

My lawyer son was up from Philadelphia last week. Late in his last afternoon I quit work early so we could spend some time, just us, out in the sunshine. We’ve always read together and he had his book, so I glanced at the shelf and pulled out The Middle-Aged Man on the Flying Trapeze. In there I saw “The Evening’s at Seven.” And I remembered.

I was a college kid on a year abroad and I was trying to write, to be clever and impressive — and this wasn’t going well at all — when I discovered James Thurber. He was a writer of short, mostly funny pieces from the 1920s through the 50s whose work Hemingway and other “serious” authors loved. I happened on a Thurber collection when I was poking around in the American Library in Vienna (I remember its bright-colored plastic chairs, in that somber old city). “The Evening’s at Seven” was in there, a short little story, not comedy but something else. Rereading it now, it came home that this was the one that opened the way — that showed how deeply  simple, clear, careful writing could go.

Thurber was a lot like us: confused by much of life, observant mostly of his own confusion. His writing seems casual, but he worked and worked on every piece. This one begins so simply: “It was a quarter to seven in the evening and it was dark and raining.” Leaving his darkened office for dinner at home as usual, a man calls for a taxi instead, and finds himself giving an old girlfriend’s address.

“It was dark in the room, and still raining outside,” he finds once he’s there. The plain words “dark” and “raining” deepen in meaning as they are repeated — and by the time the man leaves the woman’s apartment, a few minutes later, even though he has hardly said anything and nothing has really happened, something has.

“She went to the door with him looking lovely, and it was lovely and dark and raining outside and he laughed and she laughed and she was going to say something but he went out into the rain and waved back at her (not wanting to wave back at her) and she closed the door and was gone ... And now he was going home.”

For years after that as I started doing newspaper work I read all of Thurber I could find. I pored through a volume of letters where he shared how he would rewrite and rewrite, searching for precisely the right words, working for that relaxed simplicity. There were others whose work, for me, also pointed in this clarified direction — William Saroyan, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Hemingway. But more than any other it was “The Evening’s at Seven,” this simple little story, that spoke the lesson to the heart.

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My Choose Your Own learnable moment

I had hardly ever tried writing fiction before I got asked to write a book for the Choose Your Own Adventure series in 1992. I learned a big lesson, doing that; and I learned it, not for the last time, from a kid.

I was a freelance writer, then as now, and I had about given up on writing books. My first, a ten-year nonfiction project, had been rejected 75 times, and I’d produced three more manuscripts that no one wanted either. I had a divorce to cope with and a little boy to love and was doing my best just to hold things together when I got a call from Ray Montgomery, the Vermont writer and entrepreneur whose series of innovative, interactive novels for young readers by then had over 130 titles, by Ray and a number of other writers.

As I remember it, Ray said, “I proposed a book about a planet that gets forgotten. That’s all I know. Can you write it? It’s due in a month. We’ll pay you $2,000.”

I had never even read science fiction. But it was the holidays, $2,000 was good money for me, and this would surely be more fun than the nonprofit newsletters and annual reports I was mostly turning out. So I wrote a draft of The Forgotten Planet (Bantam, 2003).

My nephew Chris was up visiting on his holiday break, and I asked if he’d read the draft. He was 12 or 13, a good reader. He said yes, and after he'd finished it I asked, a little nervously, “What did you think?”

“Well, it’s okay, Uncle Doug,” he said, “but you don’t die anywhere.” I said, “Oh, I don’t want you to die.” (Choose books have multiple threads and you have to come up with a number of endings. So I had thought about this.)

He said, “No, you don’t understand. If you don’t die, it’s no fun.”

Well! Over the years I’ve done 10 Choose books (Ray passed away a couple of years ago, but the series is still going through Chooseco, the indie publisher he and his writer wife Shannon created). I’ve had you shot down in a space-fighter battle, killed by pink-dolphin poachers in the Amazon, killed in a shipboard sword fight, shot in the back trying to escape from Robert E. Lee’s headquarters camp at Gettysburg, even dematerialized and injected into a stream of electrons, though I can’t remember in which book that last one happened. (Or why.)

What I learned from Chris is that stories need risk. Something should be at stake. Teachers often talk about stories needing conflict, but I believe that’s too narrow. I think more about tension. What creates it, what deepens it, how is it resolved? Something is at risk, whether it’s the world or one heart. The reader needs to care.

Stories are life, and lives are stories. “If you don’t die ... it’s no fun.”

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John Lewis’s MARCH and the soul of resistance

Ninety years ago this month, a young reporter for the Chicago Tribune flew from Europe, where he’d been covering the rise of fascism, to India to write about the “peculiar revolution” that was gathering there. He met its leader, a spindly, bright-eyed little man who sat making thread for homespun cotton.

“How could so humble a man, I wondered,” William L. Shirer wrote in Gandhi: A Memoir, “spinning away with his nimble fingers on a crude wheel as he talked, have begun almost single-handedly to rock the foundations of the British Empire, aroused a third of a billion people to rebellion against foreign rule, and taught them the technique of a new revolutionary method — non-violent civil disobedience — against which Western guns and Eastern lathis [police batons] were proving of not much worth. ... So I simply said: ‘How have you done it?’

“‘By love and truth,’ he smiled. ‘In the long run no force can prevail against them.’”

I found Shirer’s memoir when I was scouring my bookshelves during the shutdown for something to read. He was the first Western journalist to spend time and talk closely with Gandhi, who spent over 2,000 days in British jails before his nation finally won its freedom in 1947, entirely through nonviolent resistance. That inspirited liberation movements in Asia, Africa and elsewhere that altogether freed some 13 nations and almost 1.7 billion people from white colonial rule.

Last week I read March, John Lewis’s graphic-novel trilogy about his life in the American civil rights movement. Martin Luther King and his fellow early leaders of the movement adopted Gandhi’s approach to resistance, which the Indian leader called “soul force.” As a student in Nashville, Lewis found a workshop on nonviolence in a Black Baptist church, where he “met people who opened my eyes to a sense of values that would forever dominate my moral philosophy — the way of peace, the way of love, the way of non-violence.”

It’s a beautiful trilogy, soul-stirring and deeply informative. And last week, like so many others, I read the valedictory op-ed Lewis wrote for the New York Times. Having visited a Black Lives Matter protest in D.C. the day before entering the hospital for the last time, he recalled hearing Dr. King decades earlier on an old radio. “He was talking about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out.

“In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”

I have no stature to add anything to this. I just hope we’re on the way, as a nation, to choosing the path these great men opened.

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The power of reading locally

I live in a smallish town, a college town, where we have one of the country’s remaining excellent weekly newspapers, the Addison Independent. For the past several weeks, everywhere I’ve gone in Middlebury — and I do mean everywhere — people have asked, “How are you? Are you better?”

There’s a connection there. And it showed me, yet again, how much having a local paper, reading a local paper, can mean.

I had covid-19 in April. The Independent heard about it in early May, and I got an email from John McWright, the news editor. He asked, “Would you be interested in talking to a reporter about your experience with the virus and the disease? We've been wondering how to get across to readers the idea that it is still a serious thing and they shouldn't let their guard down too soon.” I said, sure.

I knew I was in good hands from the long, detailed phone interview I had with veteran reporter John Flowers. I’ve had the sinking feeling of talking to a reporter who wasn’t really listening, then rightly dreading the result — but John’s story, which led page one in the May 14 issue, was careful, thorough and precise. Not cringeworthy at all.

Except. When I saw my face on top of the paper in its rack in the drugstore I wondered, What'll happen now? Next time I step into a store, will someone rush up with arms waving, saying “No no! Not you!”

What happened was the opposite. For weeks to come, every place I went into in town, someone asked if I was better. “How are you feeling? I saw that story in the paper.” At the hardware store, the food coop, a gas station in the middle of the night. Everywhere. I got so used to it, I kind of miss it now.

This week the New York Times reviewed a new book, Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy. In the face of fake news, the paper said, “What [author Margaret] Sullivan writes about is a ‘real-news problem’ — the shuttering of more than 2,000 American newspapers since 2004, and the creation of ‘news deserts,’ or entire counties with no local news outlets at all.”

I have enormous respect for the people who fill the local papers we still have. I couldn’t hack the work, myself; I still have nightmares that I’m back at the weekly I was hired to start, at age 28, with a staff of one reporter and 30 pages to fill. I bailed after two years ... but that paper is still coming out. Like the Independent, it’s what you read to find out, these days, how people are coping, what help is available where, and what they’re going to do about the schools.

And sometimes there’s more. Sometimes a local paper shows you what it means to live in a community, one that includes everyone. That’s a great thing to have. And a sad thing to lose.

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A story that speaks quietly, across scary times

In a time so frightening for so many reasons, I bought the one book I hadn’t read by a writer I’ve loved, as so many have. He wrote this story at another time of fear and upheaval and anger, righteous and otherwise. What he wrote doesn’t address any of those troubles. Or maybe, in the writer’s own way, it does.

Last week I read E.B. White’s third and final children’s book, The Trumpet of the Swan.

It was 1969, and White was 69, when he submitted his manuscript for Trumpet. He and his wife Katherine were both in poor health, especially Katherine, and his country was in turmoil, over war, civil rights and a bitter generational clash. He’d been worried about providing for Katherine, though Charlotte’s Web of 1952 was still a bestseller. Had it not been for his worries, according to Scott Elledge’s fine biography, White might have held onto the new book longer and rewritten it more, as he had the previous two. But he went ahead; and it came out in 1970, the year we got Nixon.

Here’s what I found. Trumpet is not a wonderwork, like Charlotte, and it won’t be a treasured personal favorite, like Stuart Little ... but it’s interesting. I suspect that White, as he worked, may have had in his mind what he wanted to leave us. He put together a story whose characters — Louis the voiceless trumpeter swan, his practical mother and bloviating father, and Sam the boy who loves wild places and all creatures— are not, to me at least, terribly convincing. White's third novel again lightheartedly dispenses with the gap between what an animal can do and what it might do, if it were more like us: Louis compensates for his muteness by learning to write on a chalkboard and to play the trumpet, the latter so well that he has a short, lucrative musician’s career.

But really, these characters and the story itself feel like overlays on what this quiet, thoughtful writer was sharing with us, one last time: his attentive, abiding love of nature and its creatures, and of music, which he hadn’t written much about before. Much as Stuart ends with exploring for its own sake and backyards worth finding out about, Trumpet concludes with this:

“Darkness settled on woods and fields and marsh. A loon called its wild night cry. As Louis relaxed and prepared for sleep, all his thoughts were of how lucky he was to inhabit such a beautiful earth, how lucky he had been to solve his problems with music, and how pleasant it was to look forward to another night of sleep and another day tomorrow, and the fresh morning, and the light that returns with the day.”

We are all still creatures of this lovely earth. Whatever happens, we can still hear its music, and its light returns again each morning. I like thinking about that. It’s a gift.

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Guest — Alice Christian

Good choice!

Loved that book back when I was a kidlet, Doug! -- Alice
Friday, 24 July 2020 18:05
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A fine old river journey comes alive again

I got covid in April (I'm fine now, yay), and during the two weeks I was sick and the long, up-and-down recovery that followed, I read and read and read. The library was closed so I kept on scouring my shelves, and the book I’m most grateful to have found is a novel about journeying down the Mississippi River in post-Civil War America. I had loved it after my dad, who was a great reader, gave it to me at about 12 — then I found it again a while ago, in a wonderful used-book store here in Middlebury, Vt. It’s not Huckleberry Finn, it’s Robert Lewis Taylor’s 1961 Journey to Matecumbe.

Matecumbe is kin to Huck not just in its geography but also as a treatment of racism. Huck’s raft-mate the runaway slave Jim is sympathetic and smart, a bold portrayal for a white author of the time; Taylor’s young narrator Davey is on the run from Kentucky with his Confederate veteran Uncle Jim, after they’ve violently blocked the Ku Klux Klan from burning out a Black landowner and his family. Both novels are bright and vivid yarns, with deep humor, abiding humanity and one escapade after another — and both sketch memorable scenes on the great river.

“We were under way by dawn nearly every morning,” Taylor’s Davey relates. “The river has a good smell then; wet, and fishy, and cool, but sometimes a little too fishy, if it’s dropping and dead ones are left lying along the banks to rot.” Or this, describing a paddlewheeler at night: “Here came one along, lit up like a jack-o-lantern, furnace doors open, blowing out sparks, decks gleaming like ropes of jewels even this late, and bows grinning like monstrous white teeth.”

Matecumbe is even a more cohesive novel than Huck, which famously devolves into aimless invention in its latter chapters. All the aspects of Davey and Uncle Jim’s journey are pulled together and resolved, with drama and surprises, after they reach their destination Matecumbe in the Florida Keys. Of course, Twain’s great book is an American classic — Hemingway even once wrote that it’s “the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that” — while Journey to Matecumbe is all but forgotten. It was fairly successful in its day, but it has just eight reviews on Amazon now. You can’t get it for your Kindle at all.

But open Taylor’s book and Davey’s alive all over again, with his skiff-full of unruly characters and his unstaunchable vibrance. “As I look ahead,” he concludes, “I can see all manner of woman troubles coming. But Uncle Jim says I can solve them. ‘Davey, old scamp,’ he says ... ‘You were fifty years old than me the day you were born.’”

He’s ageless now, back on my bookshelf where he'll stay, at least until I can find someone, maybe around 12 years old, who likes to read and might enjoy a good adventure, down an old river in America.

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"I was able to connect even more to the characters" — responses from the first school to work with STREET OF STORYTELLERS

My novel Street of Storytellers has won a third national book award, second top honor for all fiction from the IndieReader Discovery Awards — but it was just as exciting for me this month to help complete the first school study-unit project with the novel. This post shares some responses to the novel by seventh graders and their ELA teachers at Castleton Village School in Castleton, Vermont.

I received and responded to thoughtful letters from the students, and we had a lively Google Meet conversation. I finished with hugely renewed respect for how teachers have somehow helped rich learning happen this spring — and I was uplifted by the connections the seventh graders made with the novel’s American, Pakistani and Afghan characters.

Here are a few quotes from the students’ letters, shared with permission, plus brief reflections on the study unit by teachers Annie Crumb and Karon Chanski:

From the students:
I really loved this book. It was amazing and one of my favorites. I loved how each character changed.

I thought the setting was really cool. I liked how different it was to the United States. I like how every place you go, the culture is different. I find it really interesting.

It was interesting to see how Luke's love of music helped him connect with the local people of Peshawar. Hearing that music was being played nearby was the reason he decided to finally leave his hotel. Have you ever had an experience in your life where you enjoyed one thing and other people enjoyed that same thing, and it helped you connect with them?

Dani is such a believable character and so strong. Even after the head mistress was killed at Dani’s school, Dani did not give up her dream of becoming a teacher.

Was Yusuf meant to be this important in the story? If he had not been a part of Luke’s journey, do you think Luke would have changed his stubborn habits? I have experienced this level of influence in my life, so I was able to connect even more to the characters in this section.

Why did you make it so Luke understands things from other perspectives? I feel like Luke learned to see things from other people's perspective, and by learning that he knows how other people feel even if he feels something different.

From the teachers:
I read Street of Storytellers with a class of seventh grade students. About two thirds of this group are reluctant readers, but my students were drawn into the novel immediately. I found the students really connected to both Luke and Danisha, empathizing with the circumstances that each character is forced to contend with.
      I paired the reading with short cultural investigations into the greater Middle East region, focusing on food, music, and iconic locations within the region that would entice visitors. I used the novel as part of a larger themed unit on perspective. My students analyzed and understood the perspectives of the two professors, Luke, Danisha, and even the troubled Rasheed. They also found many details in descriptions of the setting which helped them understand a time and place very different from their own.
      Street of Storytellers was a new addition to my curriculum this year, but it has earned its place as an anchor text. My students loved it, and I loved the opportunity to widen my students' world view.
Annie Crumb

Middle school students need to make connections in order to learn. Several times, my students asked me if this was a true story because the characters felt like real people. That is the true talent Mr. Wilhelm has. He is able to create such believable characters that the students feel they know them, and then they WANT to know more about the background. Doug Wilhelm makes the connections our kids need to learn.
Karon Chanski

Very sincere thanks to Karon, Annie and the whole Castleton seventh grade!

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Pretty good covid medicine: two national book awards!

The other day I did a Zoom session with a seventh-grade class, and glimpsed what teachers are coping with. All I can say is, summer is coming! Whatever you're coping with, I hope you’re staying well (and sane).

I had covid-19 last month, but I’m steadily recovering, back at work and grateful to still be here. So it was a huge uplift when, on a single day this month, my multicultural YA novel Street of Storytellers — which was rejected by every major publisher, before being picked up by a tiny “indie” house here in Vermont — won national awards from two different competitions.

Here's what happened:

A month after it came out last fall, Street of Storytellers, which has an American teenage narrator and is set in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier during Christmas week 1984, won the YA Fiction Book Award from the Independent Publishers of New England. Then last March, Kirkus Reviews named it an “Indie Editors’ Choice.” The journal’s review, featured in its April print issue, calls Storytellers a "thriller" that’s “an entertaining, thoughtful look at a complicated historical, religious, artistic, and cultural crossroads ... An especially strong, moving, and well-described theme is the power of music to overcome barriers of many kinds.”

GOLD street of storytellers 1Then on May 5, Street of Storytellers was awarded the gold medal for YA fiction from the Independent Press Awards, an international competition. The same day, it won the silver medal for teen fiction from the Benjamin Franklin Awards. Sponsored since 1982 by the Independent Book Publishers Association, the Ben Franklins are the top honors in the indie book world.Ben Franklin silver medal

We’ve been notified that one more award is coming, the most surprising one by far ... but I can’t say anything about that until later this month.

Meanwhile, Street of Storytellers is worth a look! offers for a synopsis, for information on discount bulk purchases, and to see how 11 prominent book bloggers assessed it: “an intense, captivating, riveting, intriguing and significant novel” ... “vividly told, fascinating, and compelling” ... “a beautifully told story about three different families from extremely different worlds discovering how they fit together.”

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Shining a “Brilliant Light” on new books and good writers

Back when the New York publishing world still wanted my books, I wondered if the people there ever got out. Did they talk to people outside their island, beyond their castle walls? They didn’t seem to. Yes, they went to book fairs, where they talked with other book people and reinforced their shared preconceptions. Otherwise they seemed to stay behind those high walls, working and deciding in an insular world.

Now the world has changed. As it did for films and music, the digital revolution has enabled a vast, tumultuous blooming of independently published books. From all over the countryside, floods in the thousands come out each season, unjudged by the gate-keeping of the traditional houses, all of which have been absorbed by giant multinational corporations. So it’s a very different world for everyone — readers, writers, publishers both indie and traditional, and all the librarians and other curators out there.

When you have a good new indie book, the biggest challenge, unsurprisingly, is simply getting seen. You do your very best, you do everything you can, but you’re ignored by the book establishment, the major review journals, the makers of best-of lists; you do not get a look. How can you catch a reader’s eye? After months of trying with Street of Storytellers, my 17th book overall, I felt ready to give it up. Let it go. Even if nobody ever reads it, at least I made the book and it’s good.

Then I got an email from Brilliant Light. This, I learned, is a year-old enterprise run by an energetic small team, with rich experience in writing and publishing, that's devoted to helping readers discover the work of good authors here in New England.

“Our goal is to come up very near the top of the list when searching for New England writers and their books on the Internet,” said Brilliant Light’s unexpected email. I responded by asking the team — writer and artist Jon Meyer, writer, editor and artist Deb Meyer, and publishing-world veteran Scott Lesniewski — to tell me more.

“As it turns out, there are a ton of talented writers and great books out there!” the Brilliant Light team wrote back. “And the amount of effort and care writers put into their craft truly deserves a GIANT billboard (remember those?) on the ‘information super-highway.’”

“For the algorithm-inspired generations of today, we humbly offer a well-researched and maintained selection of New England writers, in various topics, at no charge,” Scott added. For writers, he added, “I think the challenge is still in genuinely connecting to the audience.” That’s for sure.

“Online,” he said, “it is easy to forget there are people (hopefully interested, engaged people) in front of screens and keyboards. An author must begin with something awesome — their excellent work — and then, bring it to their audience in ways that aren't overly pushy or selling... an age-old challenge.” So Brilliant Light spotlights and recommends poets and other writers, features independent bookstores, offers sample pages from new books, and lists upcoming events.

Even with all that, I don’t expect Brilliant Light will work miracles for anyone. It’s still an enormous challenge to get engage readers outside what’s now a very corporate-minded publishing establishment. But discovering that there just is an initiative like this, started and run by very smart people who seem really to be connecting with readers out beyond the towers ... well, this makes it seem worthwhile to keep going. Keep at it.

If we do, who knows? A brilliant light might just shine.

I hope you’ll visit Brilliant Light, at They're well worth a look!

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A library story, slightly damp

The libraries I’ve loved have tended to be not very attractive, appearance-wise. I think of the metal-shelved catacombs that fill the dim-lit, below-ground floors of Baker Library at Dartmouth College, and the chairs of molded plastic that made me feel like I was back home at the American Library in Kathmandu, where I taught English across the street many years ago, and tried to get the writing of my first book started. But the place where I made the deepest connection with what libraries can mean was, probably, the least lovely of all. It was damp and borderline moldy, in fact.
     In Montpelier, Vermont, the Kellogg-Hubbard Library is the capital’s public library, and from the outside it’s a fine, graceful little granite building. But for many years the children’s section was in the basement, where the carpet was nearly always a little moist. But we lived just up Main Street, when my son Brad was a preschooler, and the library was probably the place we loved best.
     They shelved their picture books alphabetically, but only by first initial — so Dr. Seuss was in there somewhere among the S’s. You never knew where. When we’d go down into the kids’ section, Brad at three and then four would hurry to those shelves and efficiently pull out the six or seven titles that just then were his favorites. I never could figure out how he did this.
     First of all, Brad couldn’t yet read. Second, I could never find anything on those shelves! I’d look forever among the P’s for Alice and Martin Provenson’s Shaker Lane, among the M’s for Masako Matsuno’s Taro and the Tofu, among the G’s for Bill Grossman’s great Donna O’Neeshuck Was Chased by Some Cows. Sometimes I couldn’t find them at all — everything within each letter was so jumbled up. But Brad would scan a shelf and unerringly locate each favored title.
     How? Finally, I asked him. “I remember how they look,” he said, and he made a little sliding motion with pinched finger and thumb.
“How they look?” At first I didn’t get it, still, but then I realized: He had memorized the spines. Not the words, but how they looked. That was how much these books meant to a small boy who’d already gone through a divorce, who pored over these stories every evening of each weekend with his dad.
     Then one weekday morning in March when Brad was (I think) five, several huge chunks of ice buckled up and jammed together along the Winooski River, creating an ice dam that suddenly, in about 20 minutes as everyone was heading off for work, flooded nearly all the city’s downtown. Among the most urgently threatened resources was the Kellogg-Hubbard children’s collection. Within minutes, a large collection of volunteers had appeared at the library, gone downstairs and handed all those books up to safety.
     In the years that followed — after Brad and his mom, then I too, had moved to another part of the state — Kellogg-Hubbard mounted a successful fundraising campaign that enabled it to build what’s now a lovely little children’s section, a graceful addition to the back of the building.
     I don’t know if they still lump the picture books together by first initial only. But I have no doubt that there are preschoolers there right now, today, who know just where and how to find the stories they love most. However graceful or not its building may be, relationships like this make every public library among the most beautiful places, if you ask me, in any community that’s smart and lucky enough to have one.

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Libraries in my life: Vienna

In February of my sophomore year at Kenyon College, I decided I couldn’t stand another long, rainy winter stuck under leaden skies in central Ohio. So I found a study-abroad program in Europe — in Vienna, where the heavy, drizzly gray sets in around November and never goes away until April. I didn’t know that, of course, when we left for the year on our discount charter plane full of undergrads. We were going to Europe!
      Anyone who has the chance to study abroad shouldn’t miss it; careers and mortgages set in all too soon. But the notion of roaming free, with a backpack and a Eurailpass ... well, that wasn’t entirely us. We had our chances to travel and we grabbed them, but the main cast of our experience was three seasons, fall winter and spring, within the grand gray eminence of a faded civilization, a massive but still graceful old city that had lost its empire and been shattered by two world wars. We were American kids — we knew next to nothing about this, but here we were, walking wide-eyed along the old streets, by lines of machine-gun bullet holes that ran across the faces of buildings from the street battle the Russians and Germans had fought here in 1945. And then, all too soon, winter set in.
     I found myself in libraries. I had always been drawn to these, and here I searched out two: the library of the British Council, just down the street in the center city from the building where we had our classes, and the American Library, which was farther off somewhere. The British Council had curtains and dark wood paneling, and no one else ever seemed to be there. I sat in a captain’s chair at a polished wood table and read Elliot’s “The Waste Land,” which seemed to be about central Europe in the early 70s, still struggling after its self-made devastation and horror to come back to life. 

I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

The American Library was in a newer section, and it could have been lifted over from a suburban junior high back home. I sat in molded chairs of colored plastic discovering James Thurber and E.B. White, who'd been office-mates on the New Yorker staff and whose work had such a casual grace, such natural lucidity. Reading those guys opened me up to what writing could be — what you might possibly do, if you could ever find the perfect words and make it all seem effortless.
     “The ghost that got into our house on the night of November 17, 1915,” wrote Thurber, “raised such a hullabaloo of misunderstandings that I’m sorry I didn’t just let it keep on walking, and go to bed.” For just that opening sentence, how can you do better than “a hullabaloo of misunderstandings”? You can’t. That’s what I saw.
     A third library was the dim little chamber that our school kept, and what I mainly remember is the fat thesaurus it had. I spent hours in that book, trying to find the naturally perfect words just as White and Thurber had. What I realized eventually, though I’m not sure it happened then, was that somehow you can’t find the essential way to say something in a book. You have to search for it in yourself.
      I don’t know if I figured anything out in Vienna, but my time in the city set me on a path. I would travel and live overseas through a good part of my twenties; and, then and thereafter, I would go on writing the best I could. I’m still searching for the essential words, and for a story to tell in such a natural way that it opens up a clarity inside. For me, Vienna didn’t offer much clarity; it offered echoes, with great and gloomy spaces to walk through and a whole lot to wonder about.
     Eventually, the heavy skies did open up. But I find I don’t remember the spring, which surely was beautiful, so much as I do that long-ago winter, when we wandered the gray streets by the great buildings with the bullet holes, and wondered about civilization, and history, and the meaning of words and our lives. 

What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London

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