Sunday, April 7, 2019

Judging Readers and Writers

I’ve been doing this teaching gig for awhile now. Over twenty-two years and eight grade levels, I’ve met all kinds of readers. This past week while standing in line at the grocery store, thirty miles from home, I was surprised to find a former student’s mom behind me. Actually, former students’ mom, seeing as I’ve taught three of her kids. Overhearing our conversation, the checker and bagger of our lane learned that I was a middle school teacher. While we all had a fascinating conversation about the importance of recess, the conversation turned as it often does, to my reputation as a teacher and how I get kids to love books.

I never know what to say.

See, I truly don’t think it is any magic skill. I respect kids. I build relationships with kids. I surround them with books. And, important for the topic of this post, I don’t judge what they read.

Do you want to read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone for the seventh time? Awesome. Are you devouring graphic novels like I devour chocolate chip cookies? More power to you. I want kids to read. I want kids to love what they read. And, quite frankly, who am I to judge?

Judgement is a funny thing. Many teachers I know are with me in this. We battle back the folks that say graphic novels aren’t “real reading”. We stock our classroom libraries with these books, typically by purchasing them with our own money. And yet, when I have proclaimed loud and proud that I’m addicted to reading romance books, I’ve gotten one of three reactions, often from the same people who are helping me fight the good fight in our classrooms. These responses include:

A high five from a fellow romance reader who also waves her romance flag high. We exchange the names of favorite authors and begin to text recommendations to each other on a regular basis. These are my people.

A whispered confession that they read romance too, as they look over their shoulder to ensure no one is overhearing them.  I want to hug these people, to empower them.

A derisive laugh and a label of these books as “fluff” and a comment that they only read “real books.” My reaction here is unprintable.

I’ve now crossed over into attempting to write romance books. This is scary territory for me. One, this is not a genre I’m feeling like I’m comfortable writing in yet. I doubt myself. A lot. I’ve written about my inner editor, Helga. She is always present. But after a book and a half drafted, 145,000 words waiting to be edited and crafted into something better, I’ve learned that romance writers are dismissed as swiftly as romance readers.

So far the responses to the notion that I’m writing a romance book have included:

A high five and a plea to read it ASAP. Once again, my people.

Awe that I would even attempt it along with a confession, along with flushed cheeks, that they read “those books.” Again, I cheer these folks on, telling them to own the books they love.

Incredulity that I’d write a book with romance and, gasp of outrage, possible sex scenes if I teach kids. Surely I won’t write this under my own name. Note, you all know I am using a pseudonym, but my picture is with it. As much as I love my given name, it doesn’t scream romance writer to me. These people irritate me.

And then there are the comments that continue about the content about the books - that it is porn (nope), romance writers aren’t real writers because they often publish the books themselves, how can you be a feminist (or Christian) and read/write these books,  etc., etc.

To be honest, I’m struggling with this. A lot. It isn’t that the reactions make me want to stop reading and/or writing romance books. The reaction baffles me. How is it that a genre largely written by and for women is being disparaged in this way by women as well? (Not to disparage the fabulous guys reading and writing romance. I see you all too.) It truly puzzles me and makes me think of one of my favorite t-shirts

Because to me, romance books are empowering. They celebrate women. They celebrate relationships. Yes, they are about love between a couple, but often also are about love in a family and among friends. My favorite romance books make me see everyone around me in a better light. They fill me with happiness. How is this a genre to dismiss - in regard to readers, but also writers?

Today as I sat down at Starbucks to sit and write for a few hours, I saw a Tweet from one of my favorite romance writers. I’ve included the screenshot below.

I’m sorry, what on earth makes anyone think that’s ok? Victoria has published ten amazing romance books and I’ve loved Every. Single. One. My only complaint is that I’d love more books from her. I wish she was the only author I’d seen this type of comment directed at, but sadly that is not the case.

Here’s my thing, friends. Then I promise I’ll step off the soapbox. This world is pretty ugly at times. We need more people putting art into it. We need more people trying to change it in a positive way. And if their way isn’t your way? If it isn’t something you’re “into?” One, make sure you know what you are dismissing. In the case of this genre of books, try some. Or, two, maybe just don’t be ugly? We don’t all have to like the same things. Just because you love one thing doesn’t mean I have to, and vice versa. But I won’t belittle your interests or, more importantly, I won’t belittle you. Maybe we can all do the same?

I should note, this is not directed at any of my blog readers. You all have been the best cheerleading team as I’ve gone on this journey. Hugs, high fives, and love going out to all of you. I appreciate you more than you know.

After seeing Victoria’s tweet this morning, I had to address it. I’m firm in my belief that if we judged less and talked more, we’d be happier as a result. It reminds me of sitting in my class last week. I was stretched out on an armchair next to one of my students for a reading conference. I asked what he was reading and he held up Diary of a Wimpy Kid, book one. This would make the fourth time he had started, and finished, the entire series this year. As I’ve mentioned above, I’m all for everyone reading (and rereading!) whatever they want. But I was curious. I nodded, recording his title on my iPad, then said, “So, do you mind telling me why you’re starting the series again? I mean, I am a huge fan of rereading, so you’re welcome to read it. I just wondered…”

He looked at me, then shrugged, “I guess I’m scared to start a new series. This is the only one I’ve ever liked.”

I nodded, thinking about the kid and what I knew about him. “Well, I’m fine with you reading this, but I also can recommend a book if you’d like.”

He messed with his hair, paused, then said, “Yeah, I was going to ask you, but I also thought about trying one I know you like.”

Now I was super excited. “Which book?”
The Lightning Thief?”

I have to admit, I sprung up, raced across the back of the room to get one, and then proceeded to sit back down and read the first page to him because, I mean, Percy. Sigh

Yeah, my convo with that kid, my glimpse of Twitter this morning, some discussions I had over the past week about writing, and I’m more firm than ever in my resolve that relationships, books, and writing can change the world. We just need to get away from judging others. Instead we could find a way to celebrate and connect with them instead.

Happy Sunday, friends.