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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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