Saturday, January 24, 2015

Characters Who Don't Read



So, I'm a lady who loves reading and always has. I grew up in a house full of books, with parents who read and a mother who toted me to the library often. I played the school game well and do well with learning from printed text. I have a degree in Spanish & Creative Writing, a teaching license for grades 7-12, and a Master of Fine Arts in Fiction. I read everyday. I visit my library 2-3 times a week. I always have a book in my handbag. And I can't fall asleep at night without nipping into a few chapters of something.

Also, recently I've started publishing my own books. And yet?

I want to see more books with characters who aren't themselves readers. Who are indifferent or failing students. Who don't see themselves as college material. Who struggle to complete high school. Who don't have interests that include academic clubs or varsity sports.

You might be wondering why someone who wants to earn a living selling her books would try to sell books to people who aren't readers?

Well, I suppose empathy is always a nice thing, right? Why not show kids who are readers what it's like to NOT be one?

Being a reader in itself is a kind of privilege: such people represent an incredible convergence of effort, investment and time on the part of parents and teachers and many others. Being a reader who reads for pleasure, for leisure, is still more privileged: having access to books as well as time and space to read them.

I know so many teachers who work their asses off to build readers! They search for the right titles, they buy classroom sets with their own money, they organize read-ins with snacks and comfy clothes and slippers, they build sustained silent reading time into their daily class plans. These teachers know that a good book is the most perfect self-contained curriculum, a dense capsule of information integrating psychology and history and politics and science and sociology and ethics and every other single damn discipline imaginable, in a coherent and holistic little tome. What a perfect package a story in a book can be for teaching and learning! Teachers know that if you make kids into readers, then kids can pretty much do anything else thrown at them academically.

So, I'm motivated to help these teachers, in any way I can. This is why I think we need more characters who don't fit the profile of the reader. In order for more kids to "see themselves" in the pages of books - the mirrors part of the mirrors and windows model - then we need them to see that not all stories are about middle class kids who have their own cars and parents who prize good grades and college application-padding activities.

I'm not saying I don't think kids who lead those college-bound, privileged lives aren't worthy of books. Of course they are! And I'm thankful they exist! What I'm saying, however, is that those kids already have the entire Western Canon available to them, not to speak of loads of YA titles that mirror their values and experiences.

Where do reluctant readers get to see themselves?

I dream of living in a world where everyone, everyone, EVERYONE reads. Not just academics. Not just people who teach school or work at libraries or have jobs in the intellectual service economy. Everyone! The idea that "books" are an elite activity makes me want to lay down and die. I want more books that can appeal to more people because I think a society that reads is one that is more imaginative and more empathetic and much much stronger. Also, just way cooler.

I want to write books about kids who don't take ACT-test prep classes.
I want to write books about kids who hate school and can't wait for it to end.
I want to write books about kids who choose paths that don't include college.

I want to write books about kids who might not see their own salvation in a book...until they maybe see themselves in one, first.






17 comments:

  1. Interesting! I'm glad you posted this. It's something to think about...

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  2. I don't want to be that author, but I'm so going to do that thing where I say, hey, I have a novel like this. It's raw, and no one with a pedigree or even a middle class lifestyle will find themselves in it. Sorry if this seems self-serving. So not the point. It's TAP OUT.

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    1. I'm glad you mentioned this bc I'm going to make a list of titles. Thank you!

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    2. Thanks, Carrie. Glad I came across as intended. TLT's "Rich Teen, Poor Teen" post has some great suggestions, as well as even more in the comments.
      http://ow.ly/HUgot

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  3. Such a good post, Carrie. I can't think of very many YA books that feature non-readers. The kids in Prom by Laurie Halse Anderson? Some of Sara Zarr's books?

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    1. Prom for sure! Also I think Story of a Girl might work...

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  4. I could not possibly love you more than I do at this moment (as I frantically edit my 3rd book with a non-college-bound hero) A world of yes to all of this.

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  5. I will say: as someone who works as a library clerk, day in and day out, how we speak of books inside narrative is NOT how people truly read. I see, smell, hear all kinds of people who read books just as diverse as our world itself. They're usually in the form of Patterson, Clancy, King or some other formulaic mystery/romance/thriller/suspense writer but these are FAT books that people read and read and read. We've a whole library card for a local juvie system, and these kids check out some savvy reads. I love, love, love it! So we need to adjust how we write about readers, as you say, Carrie. Our depiction of readers is dangerously lopsided.

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    1. This was also my experience when I did a class at a county correctional facility. "The only time I read is when I'm in jail," one guy told me.

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  6. I think that kids read more than they realize because social networking sites like Instagram, Twitter (though I do love Twitter), and Facebook all come with captions, Tweets, or status updates that they like to read. It's when they have to sit down and read entire books without pictures or places to leave comments that they often let their minds wander and they become impatient. That doesn't mean that they're not capable of reading entire books; it's just that teachers have to try new strategies to get them to enjoy reading "traditional" stories again.
    Also, I think that you're right that kids want stories about characters that they can relate to; I've stopped reading more than one novel where I couldn't relate to the character's life or values at all.

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  7. Teachers know that if you make kids into readers, then they can pretty much do anything else thrown at them academically.
    The reason I became and stayed a childrens librarian.

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    1. Thank you, Ed, for all that excellent work building readers.

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  8. Graffiti Moon is great for that! The guy MC not only doesn't read but can't read. I don't remember if it mentions exactly why (dyslexia, or something?), but he drops out of high school because he doesn't want anyone to know. When he was in school he got his best friend to write his essays for him.

    It's one of my favourite books.

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    1. thanks, Allie! I've meant to read that book also!

      *adds to list*

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  9. Excellent post! And yes! Casey in Sweet Dead Life is not fond of school. He's very bright, but he's less than interested for various reasons. And yes, Story of Girl and Prom both work! Perhaps this was part of the appeal (beyond everything else!) of Jordan Catalano in My So Called Life… Nah. It was how he leaned against the lockers. And the wall...

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