Reaching Reluctant Reacher

Reaching the Reluctant Reader.
Presented at ALA, June 2005

First of all I’ll start my speech with Grand Theft Syntax. I was one of the gazillion people listening to Laurie Halse Anderson speak at TLA in Austin and I’ll paraphrase her thoughts. “These teens are not “reluctant” they are ‘discriminating’readers. For these kids to read a novel it has to be Gooooooood. Face it all of us in the room are promiscuous readers, book sluts, as it were. We’ll read anything, anytime, anywhere. The ‘discriminating’ readers are much more picky.”

I have felt this for many long years and have tried to explain it, but Ms. Anderson articulated it elegantly enough that I shoplifted it.

I had the honor, and I mean that sincerely, of teaching high school remedial readers. Remedial. Let’s just say I have a problem with that term too.

Some of the students were in my classroom because their reading skills were below grade level. Some were there because they just didn’t want to read. Some were there because they had pissed some other teacher off and they ended up with me because I had pissed someone in the ad ministration off.

But we were together and not too many people came near us so I was able to plan and write my own program. Believe me I ditched those skill sheets and other reading programs in a big hurry and bought classroom sets of novels. I wrote my own units that fit the pattern of these “discriminating” readers and off we went. I was able to find out what novels worked and what didn’t for the kids and for me. And I had empirical evidence. The books that worked were in short supply at the end of the day. The kids stole them to read ahead.

What makes a book gooooood? Here are some of their common traits. It has to start fast from the giddyup. These kids won’t give you more than a sentence to snag their attention. You have to have a great first sentence. And a really good second sentence. And third, And ninth and twenty seventh and maybe if you’re lucky they will cut you some slack and let you have just an okay two thousand and third sentence, but you better pick it back up on the two thousand and fourth. These kids don’t have time to mess with a sloppy writer. They only read the good stuff so everything in the book has to be good.

It has to have a really great main character. Maybe one a little outside the margins. These readers are more broadminded than the promiscuous reader. The main character can be flawed and even unsympathetic, but the character must be understandable. This reader demands the all-important why. Why does this character behave the way he or she does.

Now, it’s not enough just to have good characters. Lots of books have good characters that spend their time just “charactering” around. But the “discriminating” reader wants more. This reader wants his fully developed character to DO something. Something has to happen. The character has to make it happen and it has to happen quickly.

Fast paced. Remember the old adage, immediate gratification takes too long. Good plot. For the discriminating reader, plot is not a four letter word, so throw in a few unexpected turns, please, and a break neck pace, leading to a walloping ending. We like an ending that takes the breath away. Something that makes us say “Wow!” Something that makes us discuss. Or just cuss. Maybe even argue. Maybe offends our sense of justice. Maybe that makes us wonder.

And please do this in under 200 pages. There are books the “discriminating” reader will love that are big and heavy and long. But they are the exception rather than the rule. I love that they love them.

But for the most part teens like books that reflect the teen years. So much is packed in the few years between 12 and 18. Physical changes are huge, intellectual changes are, hopefully, just as big. A kid goes from being babysat to being a babysitter. From riding in the backseat to driving. From carrying a lunchbox to applying for college. It is amazing to me how much change, how many emotions, how much angst, how much STUFF is jammed into so few years.

I think YA books usually reflect that. They are lean, mean, fighting machines. They don’t give themselves up to long descriptive passages about the color of the sky or waxing poetic about what someone is thinking. YA novels don’t tell much at all. They show. They are stripped of author self indulgence. Well, the good ones are and those are the ones that reach our discriminating readers.

And the most important thing of all. The discriminating reader demands that the YA book be honest. The discriminating reader won’t let you get away with pulling the punch at the last minute. You can’t throw the fight. If the character is flawed, you can’t get away with a quick redemption and a promise of happily ever after at the end. The discriminating reader does not want to be insulted. He might be reluctant, but he got that way for a reason. Deal with him or her honestly. Play the story out as the character would, not as the author wants it.

So, how did learning all this from my students affect my writing? I got the germ of the idea for SHATTERING GLASS by eavesdropping on a group of kids when I was substitute teaching so long ago that I refer to that period as “when I was still alive.” The idea nestled in my head for a long time.

I had an idea. How did I start? I will tell you that spent an entire year writing short stories and learning that craft. Not with any intention of writing and selling short stories, but with the idea that most novels start too slowly, but short stories, by necessity, shoot right out of the gate. A year. When I got comfortable with what worked and what didn’t. I started writing novels with a short story type opening. You’re never going to read a lot of them. But when I dredged up the memory of that eavesdropping incident and the ideas it had engendered, I began. And began. And began again. I think I began seventeen times. Until I had it right.

Simon Glass was easy to hate, I never knew exactly why, there was too much to pick from. I guess, really, we each hated him for a different reason, but we didn’t realize it until the day we killed him.

I think every teen in the world, marginal or not, has had a person they hated. And maybe they didn’t even know exactly why. And hated so much they’d liked to kill. They don’t, of course. But this opening sets off a series of questions that lets the reader know that he or she isn’t the only person ever who harbored such internal rage. And they want to find out what happens if that secret rage is fulfilled.

Things had been getting a little better until I got a letter from my dead sister.
That more or less ruined my day.

That is the opening of DEAD GIRLS DON”T WRITE LETTERS. I get a lot of e-mail from teens. Some that like my books and some that don’t. And some that say “Ms. Giles, you are the greatest writer ever. I was assigned your book for my class. It was the greatest book I ever read. Could you write me back today and tell me the plot, the theme and some thumbnail sketches of the main characters? It is very important I have these today.” But other than these desperate attempts for me to be the greatest writer ever of their book reports-- I have gotten more e-mail about Sunny that any character I have written.

Now look at what we know about Sunny from her opening remarks. Wow, she gets a letter for her dead sister and it RUINS her day. Worse, it MORE OR LESS ruins her day. She’s not only hard hearted she’s sarcastic to boot. Flawed? Check. Unsympathetic? Double check.

But our discriminating readers want to find out why Sunny might be this way. Believe me, they may have wanted a sibling disappeared a time or two themselves. Maybe not for real, but. . .enough to keep reading and see if Sunny has reason not to want to hear from her dead sister. And how does one get a letter from a dead sister anyway?

And they find out. Sunny wasn’t an only child but her older sister Jazz certainly was. How many letters have I gotten from the “forgotten” siblings? Those unfavored children in the family, the ones that don’t quite live up, the ones that stand in the shadow of another sibling’s glow? This was THEIR book. The one that said, I can love my parents and my sibling and be rightfully angry at the same time. And while they were finding that out—it didn’t let them laze around. Things happened fast and in remarkably few pages. Remember the rules my students gave me—the characters have to do stuff, do it fast and in under 200 pages. This story essentially takes place in under nine hours.

Next thing those students wanted was an ending that made them wonder and argue. Let me talk about e-mail again here. Shattering Glass. Lots of e-mail about “how can you break up Young and Ronna? How can you let Rob get away?” My biggest surprise was that no one questioned the killing of Simon or of Young’s guilt. The kids found these things inevitable and thanked me for the honesty, for not backing away, but I wounded their sense of justice about Rob’s run from the law and their romantic sensibilities about Young and Ronna. Good for them. Losing is hard and not just the overt bad guys lose when you get caught up in bad things.

The end of DEAD GIRLS has produced more e-mail than anything else. I love this. Provoke the reader to wonder. I have been called upon to settle arguments between readers. Did not-Jazz exist or not? Ah, I say, that’s up to you. There’s evidence there to support either conviction. A puzzle within a puzzle.

“Make your choice. Me, you, my parents, your sister. Who do you want dead the most?” She put the barrel once more to her temple.
Back to me.
Back to her.
Now I knew there were levels of rage. And I had just reached critical mass.
She had moved the gun back to me. I stared into the barrel. I stared into those dark eyes.
And I hated.
She moved the barrel back to her own temple.
Who did I want dead the most?
I didn’t look away when I spoke.
“You,” I said.
I think the shine in her eyes was tears.
And her lips moved.
But I’m not certain what she said.
I couldn’t hear over the roar of the gun.

This is the conclusion of PLAYING IN TRAFFIC. A conclusion that validates Matt’s opening lines that he was doomed from the moment he meet Skye. This is the book about the colorless kid. The kid that flies under the radar and hopes he gets out of high school unscathed. In high school he doesn’t have anyone to hate or anyone he especially feels close to—he just goes along to get along and get out.

And then it all changes. How can he refuse that impulse to be the bad boy, or if he can’t do that—to hang out with the bad girl? To play in traffic for just a little while? So many of my e-mailers liked Matt, many of them actually liked Skye, but the readers knew their collision would inevitably lead to damage. It hurt the reader to see that damage, but there was no honesty if it didn’t occur. I couldn’t flinch. Those “discriminating” readers wouldn’t have allowed it. So as much as the readers hated it—Skye ends up dead and Matt ends up ruined.

I don’t write books to change the world. I don’t write books to change the world one kid at a time. I don’t want to change anyone. When I was fourteen, a librarian handed me a bookmark. I have always been powerfully affected by the quote on it from C. S. Lewis. “We read to know that we are not alone.”

That’s why I write. That’s why I hope teens pick up my books and read. I think that’s what the reluctant reader is searching for. The book that tells him or her “What you too? I thought I was the only one?” And for that day and for that book they are not alone. And maybe the next time they feel alone it will be easier to reach for and read a book, knowing there might be a friend waiting for them within the pages.