Sunday, March 21, 2010

In all fairness, the response.

My husband woke me up this morning and said, "Roger Responded."

My first thought was, "Why don't I know when to keep my mouth shut?" Followed quickly by thoughts of the conversation I would have to have with my editor about how I had managed to offend somebody else in the book world. Luckily, Roger was very nice, here is his response:

Thanks for coming by, Janette. I am not picking on your book in particular or on the genre of commercial fiction in general, either, just pointing out that our attitude towards it (as evinced by the comments that follow yours) differs from the way we regard similar books for adults. When you say your editor asked you to write it, do you mean that you were presented with a concept and asked to write a book that would fit? To me, that is definitionally commercial fiction. That's not to say it "needs to go out with the trash" and I'm not sure how Amber inferred that from what I wrote. I read and enjoy tons of commercial fiction (those who know me know I can quote entire passages verbatim from the complete works of Judith Krantz).

But I think librarians who believe that it doesn't matter what people read need to examine that credo closely. First: Really? It doesn't matter what people read? People read all the time on their computers; does that count? Or do you mean it doesn't matter what people read so long as they read books? Why are books special? And so on. My point is that most defenders of the innate value of reading "anything" are in fact far more particular in their definitions than they admit.

And why is reading, beyond the kind of functional reading people need to do to survive in contemporary society, good? Why is recreational reading better than watching TV or playing a game or whatever else a non-reader might prefer to do? Why is reading "something" better than reading nothing? Is "at least they're reading" truly a powerful defense of the practice?

Okay, Janette here again. So of course I couldn't keep my mouth shut after that post. (After all, he did ask me a question and getting-kids-to-read is one of my favorite soap boxes.) Here is my response (unabridged with typos included--why don't I catch those before I hit post?)

Hi Roger,
Putnam likes me to present them with a bunch of plot ideas I could turn into novels and then they choose which one I write. That way, if they already have a novel coming out about a girl who decides to climb Mt. Everest, I don’t inadvertently write another one. This last time I sent in many well thought out and meaningful plot outlines and I also sent in a one line idea: A girl who doubles for someone famous.

That’s the one they choose. I quickly realized it was a very narrow plot idea. For example, if you’re writing a romance about a girl who doubles for a rock star (and there’s very few jobs a teenager could have that she would be famous enough to need a double) there is really only one possibility of who she can fall in love with: another famous rock star. If she fell in love with some guy from the lighting crew there would be no danger for her character, and thus no tension. He wouldn’t care that she wasn’t famous. He might even be glad. Nope, it has to be someone way out of her league so she has something to lose if the truth comes out.

The more I plotted this story out, the more I realized the plot points had already been determined in those original seven words.

I didn’t want the book to just be about fame and money, so I choose a character who is looking for a father who doesn’t know she exists. Her job as a double allows her to meet him. In my mind the story is all about family and the desire kids have to be loved and accepted by their parents. But that doesn’t sound nearly as cool on a flap copy.

As for getting kids to read and what they should read, I could talk for an hour on that subject since I have two reluctant reader sons. Keep in mind that 1 in 5 children have a reading disability. I myself am dyslexic. (Thank goodness for spell check!) When my oldest son was in 4th grade his teacher came to me (after the school refused to get him extra reading help) and she told me, “I’ve seen this happen a thousand times. Kids struggle with reading, then they fall behind in school, then they hate school, then they get in trouble and drop out of school. If you don’t want that to happen, you need to get your son reading help.”

I homeschooled him for fifth grade so we could concentrate just on reading.

My Harvard educated father was aghast that I let my son read Calvin and Hobbes and counted it as reading time, but comic books are a great thing for reluctant readers. The pictures and punch lines keep the kids there reading, and while they’re doing that, they’re learning important reading skills like vocabulary and visualization techniques.

I went from disdaining Captain Underpants to getting every book in the series. And when my son stayed up until 3:00 a.m. in the morning to read The Lightening Thief, I decided that if I ever meet Rick Riordan I’m going to kiss him. A lot. Security will have to pull me away.

This same son is reading The Iliad now. (Okay, not willingly, but he’s still reading it.) My philosophy is that kids need to learn that reading is fun first. It’s not like calculus homework that very few people do for enjoyment. Once we’ve taught kids that reading is fun, we open up a world of possibilities to them. Until they think it’s fun. It might as well be calculus homework.

Again, thank you for the part you play in helping kids connect with books.



Kathi Oram Peterson said...

Janette, you go girl!!! I understand where you're coming from by saying as long as kids are reading it's good because once they get hooked on books they'll read more and more. And while there are no new plots, it's the author's voice that will make a story memorable. You have a wonderful writer's voice in your books. Keep 'em coming!!!

Danyelle L. said...

Janette, you are my hero. This isn't fan girlishness speaking (even though I can't wait to meet you at Storymakers).

Stories, even genre/commercial stories, can have a huge impact on their readers. I like your stories because they're about life. Great points about why reading is so important. :)

Stephanie Black said...

Loved your response, Janette. Reading is so vital to a child's success, and books that get them excited about reading and show them reading can be fun are wonderful things.

Jackee said...

I'm glad you weren't offended by Rog. Because his post sounds a bit pretentious if you ask me. Then again, he picked a contentious subject to entertain. I'm proud of you for standing up for yourself. To echo Danyelle--you are my hero!

Shari said...

Go Janette!

Karlene said...

I have a son with reading difficulties. He hated to read. Until he found a comic book about dinosaurs. Then he struggled to read above his level books on dinosaurs. Then he moved on to other books.

As an adult, he still struggles to read but I think you hit it right. First, they have to WANT to read and whatever does the trick is fine in my book. Then once they have the skills, they move on to "better" books.

I also have friends who read very little until Twilight came out. Definitely commercial fiction. But they were enamored with the story and with reading, and now they're branching out to meatier titles. Good thing in my book!

Heather Moore said...

Who would have thought you'd have to defend a fun YA book? Great reponses.

Nikki said...

I wholeheartedly agree with your response - and I am a primary teacher, so I speak from experience! Making reading fun is absolutely the key to reading success, and I've made it my personal goal to get my kids to love reading. Because really, when they struggle with reading, they struggle in all the other academic subjects too....even math requires you to read! I'm so frustrated that schools nowadays are micromanaging how we teach reading, because its taking the fun out of it!

Janette Rallison said...

So true! I'm glad there are still teachers out there like you, Nikki!

Jessie Clark said...

That was a good strong response. I loved hearing about how you propose your book ideas. I can't wait to get my copy of My Double Life, and to see what else you come up with!

ScarletPhoenix said...

On a completely unrelated note,I'll be pre-ordering My Double Life later today. YAY!

Susan said...

I too, have bought every Captain Underpants book for my reluctant reader son. And Calvin and Hobbes. Now he's reading Seekers every night on his own. He's in fourth grade and that's a 300 page book. Yay! I love your opinion on this. It matches my own. See you at Storymakers, I hope.