by Marsha Qualey
The school year is well under way. My kids are all grown and I no longer have resident students, but I’m still aware of the academic calendar because every Friday night now I hear the cheers and play-by-play from the nearby football stadium wafting over the neighborhood and every day when I go for a walk I encounter huge clumps of runners in high school sweats who are oblivious to the concept of sharing the path with middle-aged women. But primarily I’m clued in by the revival of email from students writing book reports.
My mailbag isn’t a huge one; I can and do respond to each and every writer, usually pretty quickly, which is good because many of the report writers need an answer very quickly. ASAP!!! They tell me. The report’s due tomorrow!!! Please, Mrs. Qualey!!!!
I am a fan of the smiley face, as it happens, though I don’t pop them into my own emails, and I enjoy these little icons of cheer that are scattered like seed in so many of the messages. I understand, of course, that their presence is an ironic one—there’s desperation behind the cheer. The book report really is due tomorrow.
I have had an author website for years, and from the first I knew that the site had to be all about answering questions report writers might ask. It’s time to revamp the look of the site, but the content focus will remain the same: anticipating questions. Of course, that only works if students read the site material before they email. Many don’t, and to those students I always remind them it’s not really fair for me to do their work and that the answers they need are on the site.
Often though, they have questions I’ve not addressed, and I try my best. Whether or not there are fresh questions, each and every email is a gift. A big part of the gift is of course the evidence that teens are reading my books. But another part is what I’ve learned from this student email. It may not directly influence my writing, but it does affect how I reach out to readers and the adult gatekeepers of YA literature.
What have I learned?
- The author is now the go-to source, the very first stop, when writing a report. Because all students know this, many beg for a tidbit of information that’s not on the website so that their report will be special. As a result, I keep handy an unpublished list of such biographical or book-related stuff and work through it methodically, doling an item out one by one to the report writers.
- The way YA fiction is used in a classroom has changed. It’s been almost 20 years since I was first published. Way back when, as far as I could see, teen lit wasn’t a classroom option. When finally it was starting to be incorporated, a single title was generally assigned to all students. Now it’s much more likely that a student who is doing report on one of my books picked it from a list of several optional titles. Surely this makes everyone happier. Even so, I still get email from students that begins, “I didn’t think I’d like this book, but…” I am delighted to know that students read my books, but I cringe to think about them being forced to read a Marsha Qualey. Even so, nothing delights me more than knowing one of my books won over a reluctant reader.
- English teachers still focus on Themes. “What is the theme of this book?” Oh, how often I get that question in an email. Even if I wanted to give an answer, I know I couldn’t. If there’s one truly valuable lesson I’ve learned from readers it’s that reader response is so variable. Logically, a fifteen year old will pull different things from a novel than an eighteen year old. It’s the individual’s response, of course, that determines what a book is really about. The theme. Instead of giving a blunt and unhelpful answer (“It’s what you think it’s about”) I created “Write a Great Report” pages for the books of mine that are most often used for reports. These topics aren’t my idea of appropriate themes, but were suggested to me from emails I’ve received over the years. I added some follow-up questions intended to help the report writer flesh out the theme in a paper. Students have often written me afterwards to report on a good grade. I wish teachers weren’t assigning the theme question, but as long as they are, I’ll try to help.
- Most younger readers—perhaps all readers—presume there’s autobiography in my books. And there is, of course, and I talk about that on the website. But they read beyond those obvious connections and often believe they see more. Because I’ve written about some person or some event, many readers feel it can be traced back to my own life. Here are a few questions from just the last couple of years (and the book that triggered the email) that surprised me:
When you were a protestor did you use a bomb like Lucy? (Come in from the Cold)
Do you know any ex-cons? (Close to a Killer)
The question that pleased me the most, even as it surprised me, was the one that indicated the reader had read more than one of my books, or had at least read the website after reading the book she was reporting on:
Are you or any of your kids in recovery? I bet it’s you, because of the sixties. (One Night)
I’m so grateful to have this contact with readers. As I usually sign off on my replies, even after all these years it means so much each and every time a reader takes the time to write, no matter the motive behind the email—a compliment, a critique, a cry for help with homework. If other years are any indication, the steady stream of those cry-for-help emails will get much heavier right at the end of each academic term. ASAP, Mrs. Qualey! I’m ready.
Marsha Qualey is the author of several young adult novels and is on the faculty of Hamline University’s low-residency MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. Her books have appeared on numerous best-of-the-year lists, including ALA Quick Picks and Best Books for Young Adults, IRA Young Adults’ Choices, New York Public Library’s Books for the Teen Age, and School Library Journal’s Best Books of the Year. Her novel Thin Ice was nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America.