Horrible

“your book on my honor is horrible.”                                                                                                                                                                    Savannah

On My Honor

The e-mail sent to my website made me smile.

No, I’m not a masochist reveling in abuse.  Rather I’m a lover of honesty, even when someone honestly dislikes one of my books.

Most of the letters I receive from young readers pass through teachers’ hands before they reach me, and they are clearly written primarily to please the teacher.  “I loved Runt because you used so many similes and metaphors.”  or “When I read On My Honor I learned never to lie.”

I’ve always wanted to respond by saying, “Oh come on now.  Really?”

I try to write in the simplest possible way, consciously employing a style that avoids calling attention to language.  And that’s not just because young people are my audience.  I believe the best writing for any audience is always the simplest.  I don’t object to teachers using my books to point out similes and metaphors, of course.  I hope, though, they will always honor the story, the feelings it engenders and the truth imbedded in those feelings, first.  And if my readers truly respond primarily to my similes and metaphors, I have failed.

But it would surprise many earnest teachers to know that I have never written and never will write a piece of fiction meant to imprint a lesson on my readers.  Rather I write with the hope of moving my readers and through moving them perhaps even changing them, which is a different—and far more dangerous—mission.

To return to Savannah, though, whatever her teacher was hoping she would learn from my 1987 Newbery Honor novel, On My Honor, she was clearly having none of it.  And I admire Savannah for her fierce independence.  Not every book is for every reader.  I could name some pieces of great literature that I am “supposed to” love that fail to speak to me.  Or perhaps it would be more fair to say that I fail to hear them.  And so I empathize with Savannah’s one-word review.

I wrote to tell her so, but, as happens too often, teachers give students access to my website’s e-mail address without checking to see whether their school’s e-mail security system will let my responses through.  My e-mails bounced back, and Savannah and several other students’ in her class who expressed a more positive opinion of my book will go unanswered.

Since I can’t reach Savannah, I decided to send my response into the ether of the Internet.  And here it is:

“Thank you, Savannah!  I’m grateful for your honesty.  My story is meant to touch your heart, but it isn’t necessarily meant to be loved.  I would, in fact, rather have you hate it than be disinterested.  If you hate it, that means it has still reached you.

“So thank you for writing, and thank you for having the courage to speak your truth.  I hope you will go on to find another book by another author, because I know there are books out there that will touch you in a more positive way.  There are even books that you will love.”

And to Savannah’s teacher: “Please check your school’s e-mail security system.  Find out what you can do that will allow responses to come through when you have encouraged your students to e-mail.

“And please, help Savannah find another book!”

12 thoughts on “Horrible

    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Yes, I hate finding myself unable to get through the school’s e-mail security system. It’s frustrating and, I know, disappointing for the students. I wish the teachers would realize what’s happening and figure out a way to deal with it.

      Reply
  1. P Cone

    Years ago, after reading *On My Honor*, I spent many days thinking about its ending. I could not get over the incredible simplicity and powerful depth offered in that last scene between father and son. I kept asking myself how it could be– this ending–a son’s huge burden and a father’s gentle scaffolding.

    This book–and ending–were s peak at what is possible in the face of extraordinary despair.

    Reply
  2. MManion

    Oh, the pile of “Classics” I was “supposed to” love that I loathed instead is higher than I’m tall. Was it the fault of the author, who did nothing more than write what she or he loved (I’m looking at *you*, James Joyce), or the fault of the Literary Gatekeepers or whomever it is who decides that certain books are such diamonds that anyone who isn’t dazzled by them is blind?

    I love the honesty of young readers when a “well-intentioned” teacher isn’t breathing down their necks. I agree, if Savannah finds “On My Honor” “horrible” because it was too powerful, too authentic in its voice and pain, then that’s a compliment. If so, I hope she returns to the book when she’s older and welcomes it with recognition.

    I can only say that “On My Honor” was the inspiration and impetus for a middle-grade book I’m writing (still! It grows, it evolves) because of its authenticity and power.

    Reply
  3. Uma Krishnaswami

    And you know, if “horrible” means “it made me cry,” well that memory may well feel different to this child in ten or twenty or fifty years! This is both the challenge and the joy of writing for readers-in-progress.

    Reply
    1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

      Yes. It’s interesting that young readers sometimes resent books that make them feel too strongly. I wonder if in classrooms we talked more about feelings in regard to literature they would be more ready to drop their defenses and let a story grow inside them.

      Reply
      1. Uma Krishnaswami

        I agree, Marion. We live in a culture in which feeling bad is something to run away from, rather than part and parcel of being human. One of the most powerful reading memories I have from my childhood (you know, in the last century!) is of sobbing over an illustrated edition of Hans Christian Andersen tales. The Little Match Girl and The Little Mermaid in particular. It was the most amazing things, finding out that a story could make me cry–even if it made me feel, in kid terms, “horrible.”

        Reply
        1. Marion Dane Bauer Post author

          Ah yes, and then you need to live in a home where tears do not have to be hidden. If a story ever brought me to tears, I couldn’t let anyone–not even myself–know. That is, no doubt, why I became a fiction writer, so I could experience through story what was withheld from me in my daily life.

          Reply

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