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Practically Paradise
Inside Practically Paradise

Award Lists & How Nancy Werlin saved my reputation

The short of it:  I handed a student The Rules of Survival based solely upon the fact that A) Nancy Werlin wrote it, B) it was a National Book Award finalist, and C) was on our TN state reader’s choice award list for this year. The Rules of SurvivalI staked my reputation on Nancy’s ability to reach readers. SUCCESS!!! The student now trusts me to be right some of the time.

The long of it:  A teacher drags a 6’2" student to me and says to him, "Ms Chen will find you something, anything, but you’ve got to read a book." By now you are thinking to yourselves, "Oh boy, this student is really receptive to anything you suggest right?" HA HA! The student we’ll call Jay crosses his arms defying me to reach him and says, "I hate reading all these goddamn happy books. I hate reading."

My response? Clasp a hand to my chest and pretend to dramatically fall to the floor. Then I dramatically tell a group of students that they have the desk because I’m on a mission. I lean confidentially towards the student and say, "let’s get away from this teacher." We then stroll over to the stacks and stacks of review books, ARC’s, waiting to be cataloged books that have accumulated, and personal copies of books I have brought in from home that are best for sharing with just 1-2 students;  and we turn our backs on everyone else. 

I give my usual speech that he should be more precise, it’s not that he hates reading (because I have witnessed him reading in corners of the school). It’s that he hates reading the stuff the teachers cram down his throat as if they are good for him. I commiserate that I can’t stand some of that either, but fortunately I have access to all the good stuff for people who are discerning readers.

Then begins the reader’s advisory stuff that truly distinguishes great library service from blah! service. What was the last good book he read that was worth his time? What titles have people given him that made him think reading wasn’t for him? How does he want to feel when he reads a book? and on and on as the reader cooperates or doesn’t depending upon the situation.

Jay tells me that he cannot stand these happy books as if life is going to be okay. So we chat about how books impact us. Sometimes we want a nonfiction self-help book. Other times we want to learn something new or about something real. 

Sometimes we want to escape from everything in a fantasy world. Sometimes we want to pit ourselves against the book character and solve all the riddles before the end of the book. Sometimes we want something light that won’t overly stress us. Sometimes we want such deep thinking ideas that our brains actually hurt from all the stimulation. 

Sometimes we want books with such impossibly happy settings that we can pretend we are living there. Sometimes we need to see book characters who are dealing with really bad things (maybe not exactly our things) just so we see how somebody else copes. Sometimes we need a little hope. Sometimes we need to see societal despair flung in someone’s face to force them to look around and wonder if anyone else is suffering. 

Then begins the wild presentation of books. Librarians should tease and tempt readers more. Pull out lots of different things, take some of them and put them back, give brief hints as to what’s inside or how it will make you feel. Demonstrate the decision-making process. Read aloud little bits from the back or from inside. Share insights as to the author. Let the reader know it’s okay to delay reading a book. Talk about why the author wrote a title. Then take a step back and let the student hold several titles in his or her hand. Let them take them out, put them back, and dither. Dithering is good. Dithering shows thinking. Dithering shows decision-making. Dithering ends.

Share the message: The important part of choosing a book is not giving up on all books when the book in your hand doesn’t match your mood. There is something out there and it may take time to find it. 

Back to Nancy Werlin. For a brief time I wasn’t able to keep up with all the YA novels that came out. I was busy with elementary, my family, and very focused on school issues. I had not yet read The Rules of Survival. Remember when Double Helix came out? I read Double Helix in ARC and mentioned it to Toni Buzzeo while we were preparing for the Youth Media Awards that year. Toni proudly waved her hand to her left and there was Nancy Werlin. I was so excited to sit with them through my first Youth Media Awards ceremony. So, this week I knew who the author was. 

This year I was impressed anew with Impossible by Nancy Werlin. This week I knew this author knows teens. But, I had not read The Rules of Survival. I knew a little bit "about it" such as the fact that it was dark and involved child abuse. Was I willing to stake my reputation as a book matchmaker on this title? Yes! I took the gamble. I put the book in his hand and said, "Trust me that this book is different."

Jay returned 29 hours later with the book and said, "Give me another and you choose." We went through a book a day every day this week. Thursday afternoon we had a serious conversation about why he liked Cut so much. Jay shared that he and his sister were survivors and had both been cutters during the terrible time. Even though they’d been seeing counselors, he still needed some book somewhere that didn’t sugarcoat the bad feelings. I shared with him my concern that my #4 son had been cutting lately and I didn’t know how I was supposed to react. Jay was able to share his feelings and concerns. 

We built a closer bond because I trusted the award lists and Nancy Werlin. I didn’t rush out for the most popular book based upon sales, I looked for quality. 

This is why we need award lists like the Newbery, the Caldecott, the Printz, and the National Book Award to help the best of the best rise to the top. Any time you put a book in a student’s or a teacher’s hand, you risk your reputation and your relationship. Sometimes the risks are worth it. Thanks Nancy and get back to writing the next book. It’s needed.

Readers, be sure to check out LibraryThing’s approach to The Rules of Survival. I’m sure you’ll be able to identify potential readers.


  1. Judith Freeman says:

    This is a gorgeous post–you made it happen for this kid, and for you, too, it looks like. It wasn’t just the magic of Nancy Werlin, it was the way you took the time to connect, and Jay got it. I love your Sometimes we want/Sometimes we need list. It’s 1 a.m. & I was going to trudge off to bed, but I decided to check a few blogs before I did. So glad I read yours first–it made my night. Now I can go to sleep with a smile.

  2. Nancy Werlin says:

    Dear Diane, I read this blog entry with great joy — out loud, in fact, to my husband Jim. Thank you.

    So much of writing is about letting go, and never knowing (and learning to not have it matter too much, actually) what happens with a book after publication. Do readers care? (Some, perhaps, not all, and some not at all, and you just can’t go too far down that road.) But I remember working on Rules of Survival and thinking nobody would want to read it; it was too bleak. Yet I needed to write it then, just as a couple years later, I needed to write a joyful book like Impossible.

    Thank you for thinking of me, and of Patricia McCormick and CUT, and I’m grateful you were there with your reader questions to make sure they went to a reader who wanted and needed them.