Young Readers

“I am still learning.” Michelangelo

I have been doing a bunch of presentations for grade 11 and 12 students in the Sea to Sky corridor over the past few weeks. It’s an honour to be asked and while I’m always excited to meet people who have read my novel, I can’t help but be anxious too. A bit of nervousness is always good. I’m okay with that. It pushes me to do my best. Still, these particular audiences are different. To start with they are younger.

Will they understand what I was trying to do? Is the subject matter too harsh, too dark for them? How do I make this experience a positive one? That was only a sample of the concerns running through my mind.

I typically give a short PowerPoint presentation about my research and why this particular topic, the refugee crisis, compelled me to write a novel. A reading, then a question and answer period, follows. During each reading, I have felt the silence of an audience completely immersed in the text. There is no fidgeting, no scrap of chair against linoleum, and no whispers among friends. The kids are listening.

In one school, we have gone a little further with the presentation and reading model.

Most refugees use their cell phones as a lifeline to family left behind or to smugglers guiding their journey ahead. Asylum seekers will typically give up almost all other possessions, but not their cell phones.

So, in order to both bring the stories in the novel to life, and help students experience the plight of refugees, one class was asked to draft, then record a conversation between two people during a cell phone exchange. One character needs something the other doesn’t want to give. Both characters have to be involved somehow in the refugee process. For example: a son might be calling home to tell his mother he hadn’t made it to Germany. He might be frightened and looking for reassurance while his mother might be scolding him for not having started the process that would get the rest of the family out of Syria. Or, a smuggler might be asking a reluctant refugee to steer a boat in exchange for a reduction in the price of passage.

The possibilities are endless and I’m looking forward to going back to hear these presentations. I’m sure they will be as engaging as the discussions have been.

And on that note, let me go back to my initial concerns. I’m not sure why I was worried. During the school presentations I’ve given so far I’ve come to realize how committed the students were to my novel and how carefully they read it. And as it turns out, global issues, dark or otherwise, don’t frighten them. They want to know what is going on around them.

The questions the students asked were both thoughtful, and for me thought provoking. How and why did you pick that particular disease for Sanjit? How did you come up with the characters’ names? Was Greece your inspiration or were you inspired by the topic and then chose to set the novel in Greece? How can a parent leave a child behind? Why did you not name the two young sons? Did you want them to be sort of anonymous bullies?

I have answers to all these questions and others that were asked, but that last one stumped me. I went back into my novel and notes. I thought I had named the police officer’s sons, but apparently I hadn’t. It’s incredible to me what careful readers pick up. They always see something, or in this case, the lack of something that I didn’t pick up myself. I have lots to learn from readers. And for this I’m grateful.

I’m also thankful to the Whistler Blackcomb Foundation and Telus for their generous support of the Whistler Authors in School Program and for all the schools in the Sea to Sky corridor that participated. We could not have done it without you.

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