Monday, September 28, 2009

On the Road Again

The school visit season is entering into full swing, and I'm trying to keep momentum going on my new novel, coordinating with teachers and librarians about what I'll be doing at their schools, figuring out how to do laundry efficiently on the road, and, most of all, trying to work out where I'm going.

I always ask for directions to the school, and I've gotten quite a collection of interesting responses over the years. One teacher told me to turn at the corner where the gas station used to be. When I asked her what I'd see now, since the gas station was no longer there, she gave me a street name to turn on. Unfortunately, that was the nickname used by people whose great-greats had been born in that town, not the name that was currently on the street sign.

Even more interesting was the time that I received directions a week before a school visit, only to find they led me straight into a road closure, and a detour that vaguely directed me into a woods, and never led me out of them. I had to backtrack until I found a different road that led me to an interstate that brought me into town the long way. When I asked the teacher how long the detour had been there, she said the road had been closed since the previous year, but she'd forgotten about it when she told me to come that way.

Just this week I received directions to drive on one road for 36 miles, then turn north and cross the railroad tracks. No mention of what road number or street name I'm supposed to turn on. I certainly hope that both my odometer and her measurement of 36 miles are accurate, and I actually find the right road and, ultimately, the school.

Apparently, everyone feels that where they live is so familiar to them, that anyone coming to visit must pick up on their local street nicknames or demolished landmarks by osmosis. Perhaps I don't think that way because, as a writer, I need to describe settings that readers haven't seen before in my books. Perhaps I run into problems simply because I'm geographically challenged. While I would never mistake North for South on a road (thanks to the compass in my car), I feel confident that I could certainly cross railway tracks at the wrong place without a street name (preferably the current and correct street name).

As I pack up my presentation materials and load the car to take my act on the road for the next two weeks, I'm certainly hoping that I'm able to find the nine schools, one library, and one Book Festival site where I'm supposed to speak, plus all the hotels along the way. I'm quite sure the experience will be an adventure.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Inviting Readers to Read

Publishers are being urged to reach out to children of color, to children whose family differs from the conventional, to children who feel overlooked or alienated by books that are currently available. Zetta Elliott offers some excellent reasons for this need in her blog. As a writer with a Latino heritage, the question of whether more books about children in specific groups will inspire more children to read makes me examine my own reasons for writing about the characters I choose - or the characters who choose me.

I believe that young readers (including teenagers) read to get a handle on who they are. They read to see what the characters in books do in challenging circumstances, and then ask themselves whether they would do the same thing, or something different. Kids and teens who already love to read willingly read about characters like themselves and unlike themselves, making friends with the characters and then approving or disapproving of their decisions at the climax. With each critical evaluation, they are shaping the person they are growing into.

But I suspect that kids who are not willing readers may find it harder to submerge themselves in the world of a book, any book, until they find a doorway inviting them in. They want to find a friend in the book's cast of characters, and they want to measure their own feelings and judgment against that character's, but difficulties in the act of reading, and a story situation that they can't imagine themselves into, can throw up barriers - not for every reader, but for enough to make this a legitimate concern. If the book makes its world welcoming to less willing readers, perhaps they will put in the extra effort to read it, and once they discover the thrill of vicariously sharing the main character's journey, they'll be more willing to try the next book and the next - until they're stretching to read books about characters very different from themselves, and feeling comfortable and confident about evaluating those characters' decisions in terms of what they as readers would do.

To my mind, books that reflect the worlds of unwilling readers aren't the end of the publisher's and librarian's journey to create more readers - they're the beginning of the reader's journey to discover the power of a book to show them themselves. And, as a writer, my own journey takes me through the lives of many characters of varying genders, racial and religious backgrounds, sexual orientations, and family situations. My writer's journey has led me to the novel I'm working on right now, Permanent Record, in which one of my main characters is Latino, as are many of the secondary characters. We'll see how Ramón makes his way through the story arc, and what readers think of him by the end.