K—

“What will you do with your life?” I asked my sophomores. “You’re the hero of the story. You can be anyone. Do anything. Who will you be?”

K—‘s turn. “A trophy wife,” she said. Proudly. Defiantly.

I might have cried. I worried about K—.

I worried about what all those beauty pageants had done. I worried when I learned what he had done. I worried when they made her relive it all in the trial. I worried.

Years passed. I worried more. With each year, I found new students to worry about. I worried about so many girls growing up aspiring to be worthy little objects. I taught lessons. I graded essays. I worried more and more.

“What will the moral of your story be?” I asked my senior class last week. “What will future generations learn from the tale of you?”

K—‘s turn. Chin up. “Be your own trophy wife,” she said. Proudly. Defiantly.

I might have cried. I worried less.

K—

 

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WHY AREN’T THEY KISSING YET?

An open letter to a sharp young reader who would like my characters to just kiss, already.

Dear ______,
Thank you very much for writing to me. It makes me very happy that you liked Jackaby and that you care about how he and Miss Rook interact. You are not alone in your desire for a “ship” between them.

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Relationships matter, and not just the squishy ones.

There’s nothing wrong with “shipping” characters if you see chemistry—that’s awesome. It shows emotional investment and speculation—but platonic relationships benefit from strong chemistry, too.

Speaking of chemistry, biochemist Tim Hunt recently insulted one of the most intelligent communities on the planet by suggesting female scientists have no place in a man’s laboratory. To be fair to Mr. Hunt, he didn’t denounce women altogether, he just called them crybabies and told them to go build their own treehouse if they wanted to split atoms and cure cancer. Simply put, “the trouble with girls” according to Tim Hunt, is that men and women fall in love, and that gets in the way of important work (link).

Hunt can’t imagine a world in which men and women might value and respect each other without romantic entanglements. Why should he? Authors and publishers can’t seem to imagine it either. Hollywood certainly can’t imagine it. Storytellers paid to do nothing BUT imagine absurd realities can’t be bothered to imagine such a thing, so why should Hunt be held to a higher standard?

The fact is we’re more comfortable imagining superheroes fighting aliens above the streets of New York or genetically mutated reptiles practicing eastern martial arts beneath them than we are prepared to imagine their sole female companion might NOT become a love interest.

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Assemble a funny group of men or women and you’ve got a “buddy comedy,” but mix the genders and it invariably becomes a “romantic comedy.” Rom-Coms are great, but there’s something wrong with the pernicious theme that romance is the ONLY way men and women can interact.

To be clear, I’m not against love. Romance is exciting and sweet and—well—romantic, but there are already plenty of lovers in YA. What I’m against is raising another generation incapable of imagining male/female relationships that are NOT romantic. When we read about flirtation, passion, and heartbreak, we are learning valuable lessons about how to love, but there are other relationships—relationships with mentors, allies, colleagues, friends—which can teach us to respect the other people in our lives, too.

Stories matter. How many great women never rise to their full potential because they are perpetually taught that their role is to marry a hero, not to become one? How many great men subconsciously believe that the only women who matter are the ones destined to love them? Is it any wonder so many men grow up to act either dismissive or aggressive toward women?

I realize that these are gargantuan sociocultural issues, and I also realize that you are 11 years old and trying to enjoy your Summer vacation, so I’ll tone it down a bit as I wrap this up.

Basically, _______, what I’m trying to say is you’re sharp and you’re capable. You can handle big words like “sociocultural,” and you can handle it if my characters don’t kiss. Someday you’ll be able to handle flying jets or running for president or working in a lab. When that time comes, don’t let some sexist old fart tell you that girls are too much trouble.

Kiss. Don’t kiss. Find relationships of value and cherish them—all of them—for what they are.

Sincerely,
—Will Ritter

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LeVar

LeVar Burton is pretty much the coolest person ever. In addition to maintaining the heart of the USS Enterprise and keeping kids like me boldly going where no one had gone before for years, LeVar Burton is STILL changing the world one children’s book at a time.

LeVar

My wife and I supported the Reading Rainbow kickstarter and I was excited to play the app with my 4-year-old. He took to it instantly. We listened to the first few books, narrated by various voice talents, and then the third book started and a familiar voice came on. I was instantly four years old, sitting right beside my son, and LeVar Burton was reading me a story for the first time in twenty years. I might have teared up a little.

Much as I adore him, LeVar Burton’s awesomeness is also the source of one of my most embarrassing childhood stories.

In 3rd grade I petitioned my mother for my very own Starfleet uniform—specifically I needed a gold engineering uniform with 2 1/2 pips. The one indicating a Lieutenant Commander. Yes, that one. The one that would make me Geordie LaForge.

Celebrity City

She spent hours on it. It was perfect. I was so proud I smuggled it to school beneath my coat for picture day. My friends all looked ready for awkward 7-year old job interviews in their very traditional class pictures. I looked like I was ready to charge some freaking warp nacelles with dilithium crystals. Bam.

To be clear, this is not the embarrassing part of my story.

The real purpose for my mother’s hard work came a few weeks later—October 31st. Halloween. I donned the uniform and my best black slacks. I borrowed my sister’s headband and a couple of rubber bands and strapped on my visor, which was undeniably and obviously cool. But I still didn’t quite look the part. Something about my porcelain Irish complexion was lacking. Luckily, the Halloween grease-paint multi-pack had the solution.

I know. Lord, I know. In retrospect, I see the painful irony of a white kid wearing blackface to honor the lead from the film Roots. I see it now. I also understand in hindsight all the pursed lips and knowing looks my neighbors shared when they opened their doors.

“Hey kids—oh. Oh, hi little William. Is that, um, is that you with yer face all…?”

“I’m Geordie!”

“Of course you are.”

Because nothing says entitlement like demanding treats for appropriating a culture.

Misguided though it was, even as a child I respected the hell out of LeVar Burton. I write YA books now, and I teach Literature to high schoolers. I encourage gleeful, unbridled nerdiness at every opportunity. I’m 30 years old, and I’m still a Reading Rainbow kid. I can think of no higher heights to which I might aspire than to help my childhood hero change the world, one children’s book at a time.

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SHIP

In the world of fandoms and Internet forums there exists a term called “SHIPPING.” Chances are good you already know this means supporting a relationSHIP between two characters in a book or TV series. Character SHIPs are a thing. Everybody knows this, apparently. I did not. Not until well after my first book was published.

It was then that I stumbled upon* a forum conversation about my novel that went something like this:

Reader: This book was really good! Just a little disappointed in the lack of SHIPs.
Friend: Aw, I was thinking about reading that one. No SHIPs at all?
Reader: Well, there’s a little bit of a SHIP, but it’s really not about that. Still good! I guess I was just hoping for more. I always look for a good SHIP in my books.
Friend: Me too!

This seemed like an oddly specific need. I mean, I did have a ship in my novel, as the reader had observed. It was a passenger carrier which docked in New Fiddleham in the first chapter—but as the reader had also noted, the book was not about that. Aside for bringing my narrator to town, the ship served no significant role in the plot.

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Surprised though I was to learn that anyone based their reading preferences on the presence or absence of seaworthy vessels—and more surprised that her friend seemed equally invested in the matter—I chalked it up to the Internet being a strange world. Who am I to judge? To each her own.

A few days later, a blog review popped up**, completely separate from the initial post, confessing a deeply felt hope that the next book would spend more time exploring SHIPS.

How profoundly disappointing my next storyline was going to be, I thought, to the apparently burgeoning community of naval aficionados. The next one had more mystery, more supernatural elements, and even a little more romance, but no ships at all.

I began to realize how devoid of boats my prose had become in the latest manuscript. I was reminded of the 1-star review for “To the Lighthouse” which accused Woolf of being “Not lighthouse-y enough.” I might be able to work in a rowboat or a dinghy somewhere—but no! Artistic integrity forbade pandering… besides, the plot took place completely inland.

It was not until the third mention, weeks later, that I realized something was up.

“I could totally SHIP Jackaby and Rook.”

“Ship them where?” I thought. “That’s a weird way to… OH! Oh. I’m an idiot. Okay. Right. I figured it out, Internet. I get it.”

Sometimes, late at night, I still wonder if book 2 wouldn’t be a better manuscript if I had found somewhere to add a boat.

* “Stumbled upon” is a term authors use to refer to something they discovered while obsessively googling anything and everything being written about their book. This, too, is a thing.

** Things have a habit of “popping up” when you are “stumbling upon” them (see above).

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Wake Up!

So this tender moment with my 4-year old happened the other day:
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Still not completely okay right now.

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Powerful Things

I try to instill in my students meaningful lessons, inspire creativity, and encourage deep thought. Conversations such as this one occasionally ensue (direct transcript of a recent dialogue):

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Comparisons

Do you like ____? Well, then you’ll LOVE ___!

This new title is like ___ and ___ by way of ___.

___ meets ___ in this exciting debut!

Literary comparisons are excellent for publicists. A new book can’t sell based purely on strong characters or great style, because readers haven’t read it yet. That’s the whole reason publicists exist. For readers, comparisons can be beacons toward books and authors they might love, but they can also be traps that ruin an otherwise grand experience.

The marvelous Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan was touted by many as “The Next Harry Potter.” Unsurprisingly, the most common criticism in its reviews is that it’s not. Of course it’s not—a comparison is a metaphor; it’s not literal. Eragorn is not The Lord of the Rings. Divergent is not The Hunger Games. Percy is not Harry. Taken simply as books with a kindred spirit, these titles would likely have swept their grumpiest critics along for a pleasant ride, but instead they sank under the weight of what they are not… what they were never meant to be.

When I was five or six, I went through a big science phase. I would fill petri dishes with anything I could find that was smaller than a petri dish, sketch funny looking insects that I found in the garden, and cruise through as much baking soda and vinegar as my parents kept stocked in the house. For weeks I wore a little white lab coat and safety goggles to play in the back yard (embarrassing but completely true).

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My parents couldn’t afford much, but to support my enthusiasm, they bought me a magnifying glass. It was a slim plastic thing I could slip into the pocket of my wee little lab coat—and it had a handle that made it look like it was just an ordinary pen. It was like a secret agent’s magnifying glass, and it WOULD have been the perfect little trinket to accompany my happy obsession, had it not been prefaced by an incredibly helpful comparison.

“Mom and dad got you something that looks like something else,” my sister hinted. I assume she had been instructed not to reveal the gift, but she felt no qualms about dropping cryptic clues.

“Something that what?” I asked.

“You know… like a cane that’s really a sword when you pull on the handle. It’s something that looks like one thing, but it’s really something else.”

There it was. I could not comprehend that the comparison was figurative. I was 100% eagerly anticipating a freaking samurai katana blade concealed inside a stylish British walking stick… and my poor parents handed over a nifty plastic magnifying glass. For a little kid, that is the emotional equivalent of a Wile-E-Coyote painted wall prank. I was done. Science was ruined. I never wore my white lab coat again (tragic and melodramatic, but also completely true). It’s too bad. It really was a fine little magnifying glass.

It’s a quarter of a century later, and I’m still not scientist. Instead, I make up stories in which things often appear to be something they’re not. Also, I own a katana concealed within a walking stick. Don’t judge. That stuff sticks with you.

My book, Jackaby, is currently being publicized as SHERLOCK meets DOCTOR WHO. On one hand, that’s a solid comparison, and I love it. An eccentric detective with impossible insights—a down-to-earth yet indomitable companion—a grim yet cheeky caper with a supernatural twist. It all fits, and it’s a brilliant beacon for precisely the sort of fans likely to enjoy Jackaby. On the other hand—crap! “WHOLOCK” is the fandom equivalent of a freaking katana blade concealed inside a stylish British walking stick, and I DIDN’T WRITE WHOLOCK. I didn’t even try to. I wrote Jackaby.

All I can do is hope that readers will find a way to love my little magnifying glass for what it is. It’s exactly the magnifying glass I set out to write. It’s a really good magnifying glass, and it could fit right in the front pocket of your lab coat, close to your heart, if you let it.

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