“your book on my honor is horrible.” Savannah
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!”