Newbery Honor Author, New York Times Bestseller, Time Traveler
I am thrilled to turn my blog over today to Claudia Mills, someone I consider to be the penultimate writer of chapter books. She’s the new Patricia Reilly Giff! I honestly can’t remember where Claudia and I met, but I am certainly grateful our paths crossed. I do remember the first book of hers I read, 7 X 9 = Trouble, which I thought was a perfect book for the emergent/newly confident reader.
Thank you, Kirby, for the generous invitation to visit your blog today in celebration of my brand new chapter book, Kelsey Green, Reading Queen.
Reviews have started to come in, always a terrifying moment. So far they are mostly lovely, but two noted that my title character, a third grader absolutely determined to win a school-wide reading contest, “is borderline unlikable for most of the contest” (Kirkus) and “isn’t always the most pleasant of third graders – but she’s 100 percent realistic” (Publishers Weekly).
So here is my question: how should I feel about this, given that Kelsey is pretty much me?
Claudia aka the Reading Queen
Like Kelsey, I grew up as a voracious reader. Like Kelsey, I was competitive about reading. I wanted to read the most books, the longest books, the hardest books. Each summer I entered the reading contest sponsored by the North Plainfield (NJ) Public Library, delighted when my name appeared in the paper for having read the most books in my grade. I know what it’s like to want to do nothing but read all day long, shunning other activities. I was so pleased when, once I had children, I read in a parenting magazine that the best thing you can do for your children is let them see you read. I was on track to be the best mother ever!
But according to Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, obsessive and competitive readers aren’t all that likable and pleasant.
The larger writing question I’m thinking about here is how authors can create “borderline unlikeable” characters that readers can care about and root for. We certainly don’t want our characters to be perfect people (I hate perfect people myself). We want them to have flaws because otherwise they can’t learn from their flaws and overcome them. But how flawed is too flawed? How can flaws be made appealing?
I think the answer has something to do with what Brenda Ueland, in her wonderful book If You Want to Write, calls “microscopic truthfulness.” If a character is willing to be fiercely honest about her flaws, her candor disarms us. And it helps hugely if the reader can wince with rueful self-recognition: if the character’s flaws are ones we share. Poet Billy Collins wrote,“I don’t think people read poetry because they’re interested in the poet. I think they read poetry because they’re interested in themselves.”
I’m lucky that I could give Kelsey quintessential readerflaws, and that my audience – naturally! – is readers. I hope readers will see themselves in Kelsey, because they, too, are book-gobblers who do not want to leave off at the exciting part to attend a sibling’s band concert or to pay attention in math class. Yes, for better or worse, I am Kelsey, but I’m confident that many of my readers are Kelseys, too, people of various degrees of likeability who want nothing more in this world than to be left alone to READ.
from Kirby: I would write a really scintillating conclusion here, but I am too busy reading Kelsey Green, Reading Queen.