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.

Joe, Frank and Alex: the Hardy Boys vs. the Rider Adventures

There was a period when I was obsessed — were you? — with the Hardy Boys.

I look at my local library’s shelf-and-a-half that's crammed with the classic books, with their cheesy thin type on royal-blue spines, and everything comes back. The Hardy Boys was the first series I wanted to live in and never come out — just keep on sleuthing those mysteries that kept entangling Joe, Frank and their chums back in old Bayport, which for a classically friendly American town had a really amazing number of criminals and conspiracies.

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A young teacher, an awkward kid, and the turning of a key

Because I often visit middle schools as a writer of novels for young adults, I get asked questions. This is a great privilege. A lot are very interesting, and some recur: “How long did it take you to write the book we read?” “Is this story about you?” “Where did you get the idea?” I do my best to answer in ways that are both candid and interesting — but one question that kept coming up had me stumped, for a while. It was, “How did you get started writing?”

I had to think about that. I’d been a pretty good reader in elementary school, and in high school I got very busy on the school newspaper; but in between those times, something happened. What was it?

Then I remembered. It was Mr. Behr’s class.

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What books live on

When The Great Gatsby was published, on April 10, 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald, living high in France after his early success, cabled Max Perkins, his editor at Scribners, and demanded to know if the news was good. Mostly, it was not. The book received some reviews that were dismissive (“F. SCOTT FITZGERALD’S LATEST A DUD,” a headline in the New York World ran) and others that were pleasant but patronizing. ... For a writer of Fitzgerald’s fame, sales were mediocre—about twenty thousand copies by the end of the year. Scribners did a second printing, of three thousand copies, but that was it, and when Fitzgerald died, in 1940, half-forgotten at the age of forty-four, the book was hard to find.
from David Denby’s May 13 review of the new “Gatsby” movie in The New Yorker

Thousands of books are published each year, and the truth is nobody knows which ones will live on — which will find a permanent place on bookshelves, in bookstores, in libraries and in our hearts and minds. Nobody knows.

In 1925, the year of Gatsby’s publication, these were the top five bestselling books, according to Publishers Weekly:

1. Soundings by A. Hamilton Gibbs
2. The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy
3. The Keeper of the Bees by Gene Stratton Porter
4. Glorious Apollo by E. Barrington
5. The Green Hat by Michael Arlen
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Together in the land of picture books

After an exhausting day, with all the tensions that come up between small child and parent, at last you make it to bedtime. There’s still some low-key power struggling, because the child does not want that light turned out and the parent longs for the blessed sliver of personal time that follows this ritual. And then ...

Then you settle together into a picture book.

And in that closeness of reading out loud, in the sharing of a story, the pointing to favorite places on the pages and the gradual shared relaxation, comes the redemption of everything. These times can be so warm and sweet that, years later, they’re almost too poignant for the aging parent to remember. And if you should one day spot one of those favorite books, or hear about someone else’s read-aloud memories, it’s like finding the memento of a long-ago love affair. Because, really, that’s what it was.

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"You should write a story about ..."

Writing for young adults, and talking with middle schoolers on school visits, gives me glimpses like little windows into American life today. Early adolescents may not yet be paying bills or carrying mortgages, but they very often feel the crunch of family stress, and the tension between hope and fear or dreams and despair, more intensely than they ever will again in their lives. They see things clearly — often things they can only live with, that they have no power to change.

Last week I shared some entries that middle schoolers had made in my pocket notebook, after I'd talked with them at their schools over the past year or so. Today I’m looking at a small stack of lined paper, each sheet the size of an index card. Eighth graders at a school in suburban-rural New Hampshire each wrote an idea for a realistic novel on one of these pages, after we talked recently. Their teacher then sent the stack to me.

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What middle schoolers have written in my pocket notebook

If you were to make another story Mr. Wilhelm I think I would be an interesting character because I am fabulous and myself. I am bold and out there. My name’s Nathan. I am friends with 8th grade girls middle popular. 7th grade popular girls, middle popular. I can’t ever be mean because I feel too bad after the fact. Guys that are jocks make fun of me and I am a good singer (decent), play trumpet, do drama, and that’s me.

That’s written in purple ink on a slip of notebook paper. On a school visit recently, a boy came up after a classroom session and handed it to me.

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The scalding messages of cyberbullying — and one student group's antidote

I write for middle schoolers, and here’s a sample of what millions of them are reading:

honestly no one cares for you even your parents don’t want you, there gunna put you in care

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Stories that restore: appreciating good comic novels which are hard to find

I’ve had the flu this week, and when I don’t feel well I turn to humor. Written humor, not YouTube videos (though I’m not averse to those, and I’m a regular online watcher of “The Daily Show”). I have a bookshelf that’s a collection of the American humor writers who have meant a lot to me, from Robert Benchley and James Thurber to Calvin Trillin and, yes, Dave Barry — but the guy I love most when I’m sick was English. P.G. Wodehouse.

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Reading the moment: my long, stumbling search for mindfulness

When I first saw that mindfulness, the practice of moment-to-moment awareness, can make your life suddenly snap to life, I was walking on a street in New Delhi on an ordinary morning, in the neighborhood near the railroad station where the travelers’ hotels are. I was 22, and I thought: I just figured it out.

I had come to India, as was not uncommon back in the mid-70s, from western Europe by overland bus in the company of hippies, mystics and other motley travelers. Weighing down my backpack was a load of books on Indian philosophy and Buddhism and the like. (The backpack is in the attic now, somewhere. One of the books is still on my shelf.)

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"Write Alive!" My new videos on the key ways to open up the creative process

Innovation and communication are keys to success in the 21st century economy, and employers consistently call for schools to develop these skills in young people. But among the toughest challenges that educators face is how to do that well — especially how to teach the creative process, the more so at a time of bone-cut curriculum budgets.

As an author of 14 novels for young adults, and a self-employed professional writer for almost 30 years, working with the creative process to get stuff written effectively is what I do. Can I share what I’ve learned about how to do it?

I think I can — and I believe I just have.

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Here's a Holocaust survivor's book that challenges — and connects

Although he wrote and published 39 books, the Viennese psychiatrist, neurologist and author Viktor Frankl is known around the world for just one. He wrote that one fast, in the first months after he was liberated from three years in Nazi ghettos and concentration camps during World War II. The Holocaust had taken his wife — who died in Bergen-Belsen, as did Anne Frank — along with his father, his mother, and his brother. In its original German, the book Frankl first published in 1946 is called Trotzdem Ja Zum Leben Sagen: Life in Spite of Everything. Its English title is Man’s Search for Meaning.

Fifteen years after Frankl’s death in 1997, Man’s Search for Meaning is ranked 193 on, where it has 900 customer reviews.

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Why message and meaning are opposites

I want to write about meaning. I know you’re not supposed to.

You’re supposed to be ironic, to pretend you’re too clever for any direct discussion of meaning, for God knows what pitfalls might await if you ever went there. But as I’ve visited middle schools around the country in recent years, to talk about my book The Revealers at the end of all-school or gradewide reading projects, I’ve found myself talking about meaning — in front of a crowd, no less, of adolescents.

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Learning to craft sentences from a master

I began to fall in love with sentences when I had my first writing job, as a young, deadline-dependent reporter on a weekly paper in New Jersey. For this burgeoning love I had a matchmaker. He was the same one lots of young American writers had. His name was E.B. White.

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Developing a YA novel about a real town, with help from kids who live there

This morning I got an email from an eighth grader in Ohio who had read my YA novel Falling for her advanced language arts class, and would get extra credit if she could get my responses to some followup questions. Falling is set in a real community, the place where I was living and raising my son when I wrote it — and this reader's questions related to the experience of developing a novel in, and about, the place where you're living. 

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Going "indie" in the changing world of writing & publishing books

Yesterday I had a Skype session with seventh and eighth graders from Messalonskee Middle School in Oakland, Maine, which just finished a community read with both The Revealers and True Shoes. We had a great discussion! Then this morning, the teacher whom I worked with to coordinate the session and I had a quick exchange of emails on how it had gone. I mentioned that True Shoes is an independent publication — last year I created my own publishing imprint, Long Stride Books, to bring out this and future books. The teacher responded:

"I had planned to ask you why you chose to publish True Shoes the way you did. Would you call that self-published?  I just heard a segment on NPR about the self-publishing industry that has emerged in recent years and it was quite interesting."

Here's my answer:

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Young writers in the mountains: the Bread Loaf conference for high schoolers

On a memorable long weekend in early May the past several years I’ve taught fiction writing at Bread Loaf, the mountain campus of Middlebury College that is rightly famous in the literary world. The occasion is the annual New England Young Writers Conference. On a Thursday each spring (this year, it happened last week), talented high school writers from all over the Northeast and even farther — I had a student this year from Paris — travel up the winding road to Ripton, Vermont to work with professional poets, novelists, playwrights, and journalists over three-plus days that tend, you hear this over and over at the conference, to change people’s lives.

Picture the setting, because Bread Loaf itself is a revelation.
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Creative flow and the changing book business

For many years I was just a writer, producing novels for young adults, and didn’t worry much about changes in the book industry. But these changes have become so huge — I’ve seen experts say this is the most profound time of upheaval in publishing since the invention of moveable type — that I got caught up, and everything changed for me. Now I’m doing much more than writing; and I’m trying my best to understand, or at least keep up with, whatever in the world is going on.

And I think if you really look at it, what’s actually happening is less troubling and worrisome than it first appears.

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Books and Trains: Three Memories

I ducked into an independent bookstore in Roseville, Michigan this week, en route to the airport after a day at the middle schools in nearby Grosse Pointe, and after hunting around for something good to read on the plane I decided on Jim Lehrer’s Super. The novel’s cover shows the speeding Super Chief, the old Santa Fe Railway's streamlined flagship that was, Lehrer writes, “America’s most luxurious all-sleeper train.” His story unfolds on board in 1956, en route from Chicago to LA. And by midnight, when our cramped US Air jet landed in Burlington, Vermont, I had read the whole novel — and I’d been remembering train journeys that blended with other books in my past.

I was reading something, though I can’t remember what, the night in 1973 when, as a college kid spending my junior year in Vienna, I was on an overnight express that had crossed, late at night, from Holland into West Germany. I had a couchette, a padded bench of a berth that hung from the compartment wall, one of four in two facing rows — and I was on the top berth reading as two older passengers began trying hard, down on the passenger seats, to help an older woman understand how much she needed to pay the conductor for her ticket.

The passengers were Dutch, but the conductor was German — and as the older woman grew more flustered and anxious, the others sought to explain that she needed a certain number of Reichsmarks. How many Reichsmarks? She was confused; she opened her purse. Were these many Reichsmarks enough? She still wasn’t sure — and I, my book laid down, just watching and listening now, was mesmerised.

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Mismatching shoelaces and a piano

One of the best things, to me, about visiting middle schools to talk about my work is feeling part of a larger creative process. Here’s one example that's fun to share.

A few weeks ago I visited the Hamburg (NJ) School, where the sixth grade reads The Revealers every year and I come in every three years, to spend the day talking to grades 6-8. I began, as I often do, by taking out my pocket notebook and telling the first group that I get most of my ideas from them. If I’m going to write realistic young-adult fiction, I told them, I’d better pay attention to the ones I meet — and if I notice something about them, or learn something from them that I want to remember, I’ll write it down. If I record it in this way, that observation might become something: a detail, an idea for a character, or maybe even (you never know) the beginning of a book.

Sometimes I’ll read a note I made at some recent school, then start to invent on top of that, just to open up the creative process and share that with them. But this time I noticed that two girls, sitting side by side in the front row, each had one black and one pink shoelace. That got me going.

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A community's love letters to its library

Like its counterparts all over the U.S., the public library in Montpelier, Vermont is in a challenging time. Its budgetary belt has been pulled very tight, even as its staff faces a growing demand for services. With Town Meeting Day approaching earlier this month, the Kellogg-Hubbard Library faced an annual judgment: voters in the city and five neighboring towns would be deciding whether to approve their year’s local allotment for the library.

That was when Hilari Farrington had an idea.

Kellogg-Hubbard's interim director knew how much people use the library, and she sensed how much they value it. But how to put that into words? She could compose a “10-second elevator pitch,” as she calls it — but that would be the librarian talking.

What if the community spoke instead?

“On a table where we usually do book displays, I put up a little sign: ‘Write a valentine to your library here,’” Hilari recalls. On the table were a big red heart a little mailbox, and a stack of sheets of paper with this heading: “Dear Kellogg-Hubbard Library, I love you because ...”

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