In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Reading humility

Dear Annie,

It was so delightful to see you and all of yours this weekend!  I read two books to Isabel; Eleanor read two books to me.  And it was a pleasure to meet the newest relative: young Will was wonderful.

As you know, I was in New York for Book Expo America, the annual booksellers' conference.  It always provides a few unexpected moments that make me glad I was there; this time the surprise came from a wildly successful 24 year-old writer of YA dystopian fiction.  Veronica Roth has sold 3 million copies of
and its sequel,
.  Divergent has a YA-familiar story line: in a future controlled society, teenagers get sorted into different groups which narrowly define them for life.  The government is repressive and more corrupt than originally believed by our teenage protagonist.  There's friendship, betrayal, and a fair amount of hand-to-hand combat.  The book ends leaving fans impatient for the sequel.

BEA's Children's Author Breakfast is often inspirational for the hundreds of booksellers gathered at the Javits Center.  (See Lowry, Selznick, and others.)  In theory, this year Roth had tough acts to follow: she spoke after Mary Pope Osborne (Magic Tree House: 110 million books in print) and Rick Riordan (Lightning Thief and many mythology-based sequels: 33 million books in print).  Osborne's speech had been okay; Riordan's felt like he'd said the same words at every book event he'd ever been to.  Then Roth got up, and with an occasional quaver in her voice, spoke from the heart.

She had, she said, been an obsessive child reader until high school.  She had a boyfriend who felt he was too cool for Harry Potter, ridiculing the excitement around the release of the last book.  She ended up reading it in secret weeks after it came out, not telling anyone that she had.  "After that I became ashamed of a lot of the books I liked and tried to push myself to read the books I felt you weren't supposed to be ashamed of."  This eventually led to her stopping reading for pleasure. "I lost my love of reading at the same moment I started to say, 'I already know' instead of 'I'm here to learn.'  In other words, at the moment that I lost my reading humility."

She said her fans got her back into the love of reading because of their unapologetic enthusiasm for many different kinds of literature.
When I talk about reading humility, I'm not talking about turning off your critical brain. I'm talking about the way you read. Reading like someone who is there to learn means assuming at the outset that a book is valuable and searching it for that value. If, at the end of that search, you don't come up with anything, it's important to be able to figure out why. But it's that starting place, that willingness to love things, that I most admire about young readers.

Roth went on to talk about bringing the "I'm here to learn" attitude to her writing -- both in the editing process, and in dealing with reader reaction.

A few months after my first book came out, several book bloggers in the Young Adult blog-o-sphere made me aware of something. There's a trend in Young Adult books in which a sexual assault is used as a plot device, either to illustrate just how bad an antagonist is or to heighten the suspense, which is harmful for many reasons. Chiefly, that it doesn't engage with the issue of sexual assault with care and respect. The aforementioned bloggers indicated to me that a scene in 'Divergent' participated in this trend.

She went through months of feeling defensive before she acknowledged that she used the assault to advance the plot without incorporating its emotional effect on her character.
I couldn't change what I had written, but I could change the way I reacted to it. So, I talked about it on my blog, and it was humbling. That act of humility, painful and uninviting though it was, it was a gift. I realized that if I wanted to write a character whose experience was different than mine, humility could drive me to diligent research, careful depiction, thoughtful revision and openness to critique. It could make me free to say, 'I'm here to learn' instead of 'I already know.' And if and when I failed I could be free to say, 'Maybe you have a point, and I can do better next time' instead of 'your critiques are not valid.'

I think what I like about Roth is the sense of her as a work in progress: someone who's still thinking and working things out even though she's become a star in the YA world.  It made me think I should pick up Insurgent sometime soon and check out the author's evolution.



Here's the whole speech.

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