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.

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