Monday, January 28, 2008

The Secret Lives of Books

I used to believe that books lived forever—and if you wrote books, you would, too. So it was a shock to me when I found out what a short life most books have. Two or three months, tops, and if they’re not selling like hotcakes they’re purged from the bookstore shelves to make way for the next wave. The good news is, sometimes wonderful teachers and librarians keep them alive long after they’re off the shelves and out of print.

Mary Sexson, a teacher at the Children’s House in Indianapolis, is one of those. Every year her eighth graders read my YA novel, Wish You Were Here, and every year I visit the school to talk to them about it. It’s one of my favorite things to do! Children’s House feels like a home filled with a huge family of kids—which, I guess, it is. When I come in, there’s a beautiful baby being fussed over by one of the teachers while his mom goes out to start the car. Little kids are doing some kind of dance activity in the room down the hall, and a girl, maybe six, slips out for a hug and then hurries back to her classmates. A glance into other rooms reveals book-filled shelves, comfy chairs for reading them, an art room full of color and light. Mary appears, smiling, and takes me to the cozy little room where we always talk.

I always get a kick out of seeing kids with my books, and it’s a special pleasure at Children’s House, since I know that Mary hunted down these particular copies of Wish You Were Here in used bookstores and on the internet. This year, it’s just two kids, Seth and James, leafing through battered copies as they ask and I answer their questions about the book. Like...

Q: Where did you get the idea for the book?
A: From watching my high school students grieve over their parents’ divorces in the mid-1980’s and realizing they were the first generation of kids to have to deal with that. From getting a little obsessed about Elvis after visiting Graceland. From one of my students, whose best friend ran away. From still, always, trying to figure out what adolescence is.

Seth and James are cool guys. We have a great talk, about all sorts of things. I show them the weird “process” books that I keep for each novel I write—full of notes, maps, outlines, lists of names, freewriting, abandoned passages, and possibilities…frighteningly like the very cluttered inside of my mind.

Wish You Were Here was published before they were born, we figure out! This makes me totally, irrationally happy; it makes me totally, irrationally happy just thinking about it now. So does the fact that FLUX is bringing out the book in its first paperback edition this spring.

Maybe books can live forever. I imagine one of Mary’s battered copies or a dog-eared FLUX paperback unearthed years and years from now by some kid living a world I can’t even imagine—and he opens it, and enters mine.

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