For the Book Pushers

(This post is modified slightly from a speech I had the privilege of delivering to my fellow book-pushers in the Pacific Northwest.)

My name is William Ritter. I write books, I teach high school, I raise kids, and I worry.

Mostly I worry.

As a FATHER, I worry that my own kids—kids who love reading and discovery—will be dulled by school instead of inspired by it. I worry that they will start to see reading as work and discovery as a chore. It’s hard for me to watch them go into a place where I can’t hover around them like a helicopter. I can’t remind them to be good or shield them from pain. I want to slip little cheesy inspirational notes into their backpacks. Make good choices! You can do it! Be kind! Be yourself!

Pusher_Backpack

As a TEACHER, I worry about my students. I worry every time I ask “What stories did grown-ups read to you when you were little?” because every year one or two students simply cannot answer because their parents never read to them. Their parents never read. The only reading material in their house is the back of a cereal box. These are the kids who struggle most—not only in reading, but in math, science, and social studies.

As a WRITER, I worry that what I do doesn’t matter. I worry that my YA novels are frivolous “genre fiction.” When I first signed with Algonquin Young Readers, I realized the list of books they would be publishing alongside mine were meaningful stories about war and persecution, about racism and homophobia, about overcoming loss and confronting mortality. My novel, on the other hand, was a fanciful tale about a magical detective. I worried that I was fluff in a world that needs substance.

But what I do matters. What we do matters. Books matter.

Truth time. By third grade, literacy scores have a direct correlation with high school graduation rates. Readers see more success than non-readers. Raising readers matters. If teachers do nothing more than promote a passion for reading, they achieve infinitely more good than drill-and-kill literacy lessons and high stakes tests. Students who read for pleasure see even greater success—and as it happens, readers like reading books that they LIKE. Who knew? What’s more, studies have repeatedly shown that reading fiction—yes frivolous genre fiction even more than serious non-fiction—increases empathy. In a world so full of greed and fear and hate, we need empathy. We need readers.

So I try my hardest to help books reach kids. I push books.

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing from a student in my care that our class novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, was the first book he had ever read.

“What?” I said. “No, you read a novel last year with Mrs. Walloch.”

“No,” he said. “The class read a novel. I never read a single chapter.”

“Well,” I said. “Congratulations. How do you feel about reading a novel?”

He looked thoughtful for a moment. “I want to read another one.”

BAM.

There it was. I felt the instant self-satisfied pride that I imagine is usually reserved for really talented drug-dealers.

It was awesome.

Pusher_tkam

I taught an ESL class the next year. There were some great kids in that group, including a tricky pair of boys who had not only never read a book, but who took real pride in being non-readers. I went on and on about how that was like a toddler taking pride in never learning how to walk—I told them they’re limiting themselves! None of it got through. So instead of lecturing, I pushed a book across the desk at S.S.R. time. Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time-Indian. I pretended not to notice when the student reached the naughty bit in the first chapter and shared it with his friend. I knew I had him when I caught him reading during break. He finished that book and then told his friend that he HAD to read it next, because “it’s actually GOOD.” That book was later stolen from my room. The thief copped to taking it because it was “the first book that got me, ya know?” I let him keep it. He needed that book more than I did.

That’s how you get ‘em. The first one’s free, kid. Come back for more when ya start jonesing. Soon you’ll be forking over money to a stranger in a dark alley for Ray Bradbury, the Bronte sisters, maybe a heavy dose of William Shakespeare. I have become an unabashed pusher.

PUSHER_ATD

I pushed If You Could Be Mine on a self-conscious, self-critical, self-described “loner” from a conservative family. She read it twice in one night. She was changed. That summer she corresponded with the author, Sara Farizan, and gained the confidence to come out for the first time to her parents. She took over as president of the school’s GSA and as a peer mentor. She has become outspoken, bold, and brighter.

I did more good for all of those students by pushing books across their desks than I did in all of my lesson-planning and teaching. Pushing books matters.

PUSHER_iycbm

I can’t tuck cheesy little inspirational notes into every single backpack, so I tuck them into the books I write, instead. Make good choices! You can do it! Be kind! Be yourself! It helps me worry a little bit less. It helps me remember that what I do matters, too.

When you suggest a good book, post about one on a blog, push one across a desk, or read one to your kids—it matters. Push books. My students need those books. My sons need those books. The world needs those readers.

To all my fellow book-pushers out there, what you do matters. With each push you make a difference, you make a brighter world, you make a reader. Keep pushing.

Pusher_Book

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “For the Book Pushers

  1. I think we might be related…oh wait….Ha. I LOVE this. I keep a book in my purse almost all the time now just in case I come across a friend who needs a little encouragement or a break – any book that’s been blowing my mind I buy two copies so I can give it away without flinching! (As an aside, I’ve ‘borrowed out’ Jackaby twice now, it came back to me both times, and one bought it and the other went out to buy Beastly Bones.) You are SO right, and your writing is so NOT FLUFF!!!!! It is fiction, yes, but full of wit and humor and mystery and characters that are quirky and strong and inspirational. And even if they weren’t, it’s all so damned entertaining that it will continue to inspire readers for generations and gosh darn it SAVE the WORLD one day. You inspire me bro, keep writing. No worries!

  2. Keep pushing, Will. And I will, too. I wish I had a better knack for matching kids to books.

  3. I love this post! Thank-you for taking the time to write it. I will be sharing the link as much as I can.

  4. If you want to know what happens without fluff, ask a duck at an oil spill.
    But yes, reading matters – and stories matter in a particular way. The whole art form is about condensing meaningful experience into long-lasting and memorable gifts. Stories are how we convey the important lessons, how we pre-load kids with the core values and benefits of experience they won’t know they need until it’s too late to ask.
    They help stretch the soul, which can be either challenging or relaxing – good medicine when you’re exploring your identity, or your next steps in life, or just want to take a step away from focused-worry into borrowing-someone-else’s-dreams to get to sleep at night.
    I just got my copy of “Beastly Bones” and I definitely look forward to the next one. This time, I read it before the Terry Pratchett that came in the same box.

  5. Speaking of pushing…

    I started an online YA book club in June called Athena’s Table and I am happy to report that your debut novel, Jackaby, is our August Book of the Month! Congratulations!

    I made the announcement on Monday (17 followers right now, but we’re growing!) and would love to post a mid-month Interview with the Author, if you’re willing/able to answer a few (okay, six) questions. If so, please let me know how you prefer I send them to you (I didn’t think posting them here would be appropriate).

    And please, by all means, check out Athena’s Table at:
    https://athenastablebookclub.wordpress.com/
    (yes, I’m a fellow wordpress blogger!)

    Also, please feel free to e-mail me directly at mkrivo_2000@yahoo.com

    Thank you,
    Maureen Krivo

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