Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Michael: The Books That Made This Writer (slow-track edition)

I am dyslexic. This is the #3 ranked fun fact about me. (The first two involve Jonathan Swift and bees, in that order.) I repeated second grade in honor of my, you know, brain problem, but I am "highly functional" now. Or so I claim. I still read letter by letter, rather than gobbling up words in bunches—I'm still amazed people can do that—but what I lose in speed, I make up in accuracy and recall. 

It may not be an issue now, but it definitely affected my reading habits when I was a kid. Which is to say, I didn't have any reading habits when I was a kid. I began reading for myself late, haltingly, and only because my brother seemed to be having so much fun with it. But while Matt would blast through a thick Stephen King novel in a few days, I labored. I mostly chose short books, and they had to be worth it. 

The first book I remember reading as something other than a homework assignment was The Book of Three, the first in a five-book series by Lloyd Alexander. This was completely because of my brother, who read all five and liked them so much that he named his main Dungeons & Dragons character after one of Alexander's creations. That was an almost unfathomable compliment in our world, and I just had to see why he'd done it. 

I loved The Book of Three—featuring Taran, the heroic assistant pig-keeper!—and even made it through the second book, the very awesome  The Black Cauldron. Loved that too, more even, but that was as far as I got. It was a lot of work, this reading for fun, and I already knew how the series ended from my brother.

So even after that postive start, books weren't a big part of my life. When it got too dark for climbing trees and riding bikes, there was TV and Atari. The next book that had a major impact on me was Watership Down. Technically, that was a homework assignment, but I devoured it in a way that was above and beyond the call of academic duty. That book floored me. Floored me. Still does.

That was fifth grade, fifth or sixth, and again, I didn't run out and start reading everything I could get my hands on. It was more of a growing suspicion that this reading thing could be kind of amazing sometimes. At about the same time, I started writing some poetry because, basically, it was short and I liked rhyming. Still, that was when I started writing for myself.

My dyslexia was thoroughly beaten down by then. It is, essentially, a problem of processing the symbols that make up language in a non-standard way, and years of assigned reading and individual attention in my no nonsense, small town elementary school had effectively retrained me to process those symbols properly. In the space of a few years, I'd gone from Special Ed to the gifted program, and that was really more about my teachers than me.

So now I had the mental tools for advanced reading and knew it could be fun, but I still wasn't an avid reader. That wouldn't happen until Robert Cormier. And then S.E. Hinton. I guess that was seventh grade. The Chocolate War, I Am the Cheese, The Outsiders, Rumble Fish... Kids were passing these books around: You have to check this out.

The books were darker than anything we'd read before. I'm not sure if anyone would have actually disapproved, but we acted that way, passing the little paperbacks around like contraband. And what seventh grader can resist something both portable and forbidden? 

The books were fantastic and now they were cool, too. That was that. I read pretty consistently from that point on. And then, in 10th grade English, we read the poem "Hawk Roosting" by Ted Hughes. Floored again, gobsmacked, whatever. I'd never heard anything like it:
There is no sophistry in my body;
My manners are tearing off heads...

It was the same thrill I'd felt reading Cormier for the first time. How could something be so dark, resonant, and cool and made only of words? And it was my old friend poetry again: still short, though no longer rhyming.

I was an English nerd 4eva after that. I plowed my way through all of Faulkner and then through NYU and into a job in publishing. Eventually, I started writing fiction, and when I made my way to YA, there was no doubt what sort of books I wanted to write. Something dark, something for kids who aren't necessarily avid readers, something they could pass around under their desks.

Will they? I guess we'll find out in April, when Gentlemen comes out. In the mean time, if you'll excuse me, I have some reading to do. 


  1. Interesting post, but now I want to hear something about Gentlemen. A teaser? A line or two...something. Come on, you can tell me. Pretty please...

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience learning to love books. I see many of my students struggle with the same issues of finding books that speak to them – they hate the idea of quitting, so they’ll keep slogging through a book that doesn’t appeal to them. Then reading becomes work…
    I’m constantly saying: “There are too many good books out there to waste time with ones you don’t love. Life’s too short to read books you don’t like. You’re not going to hurt the book’s feelings if you don’t finish it.” And then there’s that moment when they find a book they love and have that realization that reading is – dare they admit it? – fun.

    I’m looking forward to reading Gentleman and having another book to recommend to my reticent readers.

  3. Ah, Suzelle, don't tempt me! I am a bit reticent to plug my book in this shared space—but you can expect a visit on your Live Journal!

    Thanks, Tiffany. You are so right about that. I think I was like a lot of kids, dyslexia notwithstanding: sports-mad, hyper. I would see my brother spending an entire afternoon reading, and I knew there must be something there, but then I'd pick up one of the books and it was like that map in Harry Potter, like he could see what was amazing about it and I couldn't. A big part of it, and I didn't really understand this at the time, was that we mostly liked different kinds of books.

  4. Interesting post. I agree with you totally. On another aspect, my take is that child development during the early stages is extremely important and no parent should ever forget that.

  5. Hi Konnie. Totally true. Taking it a step further, diagnosis plays a huge role, as well. I was very lucky to have been diagnosed in second grade. It's kind of a sea of misspellings and varied learning curves at that age, but I had an excellent teacher who spotted specific things. If that hadn't happened, I'm sure my mom would've been very supportive and encouraged me to try harder, but the outcome could've been very different for me.

  6. "And what seventh grader can resist something both portable and forbidden?"

    Fantastic line.

    And I will happily plug GENTLEMEN here, as I had the honor of reading an early version: It is an amazingly well done book--a poignant and true read that will have readers, reluctant and avid, watching Michael's books for years to come.