Saturday, March 10, 2012

About the connections we make with each other

Erin Hollingsworth, the children's librarian at Tuzzy, our local library, told me something wonderful yesterday. She said that one Inupiaq girl checked out a copy of Blessing's Bead and said she had read it four times. It was her favorite book, she said, and she and her mom read it together sometimes.

(Erin told me this in answer to my rather snippy question: why aren't my books displayed with the others? They are all checked out, she told me. Yes, I felt appropriately guilty for snapping.)

This is why I write books. This is why I started writing books for young people. This is why I write books set within the context of  the culture I live in. There were not enough books that reflected Inupiaq life as I knew it. Understatement. I would be happy, I said at the start, if just a few Inupiaq kids could read my books and say: yes, that's us. 

I'm happy.

Sometimes, though, as our careers progress, we have to remind ourselves of why we write. We have to remember to see the faces of our first readers and see them clearly. My first readers are Inupiaq.

We want all readers to relate to our work, of course. And when we start to receive wider recognition, it's wonderful. When I got my first review for Whale Snow, a review in the prestigious Publishers Weekly, and when the reviewer clearly understood the book, even though it was about the whaling--not a politically popular subject beyond my world--when they liked it, even, I celebrated. When I went to an Alaska Library Association meeting in Anchorage, years later, and saw saw a young Barnes and Noble sales rep, Renee Sands, hand selling Blessing's Bead, I was deeply touched--and surprised. I hadn't expected it. I thought I had to go out and push my books, but she'd found it on her own and she was celebrating it. And when I got that call saying the My Name is Not Easy had been named a finalist for the National Book Award, I was breathless. Who knew my books could reach so far?

Now I am in a political tug of war within the industry. Renee writes with regret to say that My Name is Not Easy will no longer be sold at Barnes and Noble because my small publisher was bought by Amazon and Amazon is at war with Barnes and Noble. Publisher's Weekly writes stories about the war that make Amazon look like the devil itself. But they've been good to me. And what about me? What about my books? I take a stand. I take multiple stands. Remember, people, I say, it's about writers, readers and books. That's the core of it, isn't it? It's the young girl reading my book for a fifth time because it touched her--that's what we're talking about. And the boy in New York City--as far removed from the Inupiaq world as it is possible to be--who said he'd read My Name is Not Easy twice, less than a month after its release. That's it, really. That's the heart of it. That's all there is of importance.

So this is me, reminding myself to remember this. Telling myself to just keep writing. Artists are not politicians. Books are about the connections people make with each other, nothing more and nothing less.

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