On the School Assignment Letter
I wrote this before I got plugged in and had email or a web site, but itís still true. I just now also receive school assignment email as well as letters.
I loveóhow could I not? ó- getting letters from people who have so much enjoyed or been moved by my books that they go to the trouble of writing me a letter about it. I like knowing my books are read, and I am interested in knowing how they are read; and while the great majority of the mail I receive is positive, the only dispraise I ignore is the sort based on the readerís annoyance that Iíve written some other book than the one he or she wanted. I have learned useful things about what Iíve gotten both right and wrong by letter-writers who tell me about the books I did write. With the exception of the very, very rare crazy or abusive letter, I answer all this book mail.
I also personally answer about 80 percent of the school assignment letters I receive. I answer them for the kidsí sake. Iím sure I guess wrong sometimes about studentsí motives and understanding. I canít tell which letter-writers already have a pretty clear idea about the ramifications of the hierarchies they live in, with grown-ups at the top and young people at the bottom; I canít always see when a complimentary letter is insincere, composed because thatís what goes down with adults. But my judgement is a bit clouded by the fact that letters which begin with any of the variations on "I am writing to you for a school assignment" instantly make my blood pressure rise; and the ones that end with "I get extra credit if you answer this" send me into orbit.
The School Assignment Letter dilemma is on my mind more than usual because of a recent round of correspondence with a librarian who took exception to the standard letter I send to the other 20 percent of school-assignment-letter-writers, which ends, having begun by saying that I like hearing from readers who have enjoyed my books, "I object to being made into a school assignment. . . . My books are what Iím offering to my audience, not my self. Iím not a homework project. I AM A HUMAN BEING. I have my own life, and more demands on my time than I can meet successfully before this weekís book mail arrives." She wrote back that I "didnít care about anyone elseís feelings," that she would never purchase another of my books for any of the libraries under her supervision ("even if you win the Newbery again"), and that she was planning on burning the ones already on her shelves. I answered that letter, too, making the same points I hope I am making in this essay, and sent copies to administrators at the school the students had written from. No one replied.
I am at a loss to understand how authors have been so dehumanised in so many teachersí and librariansí minds that blind school assignment letters to an author can appear to be a good idea. Every popular or award-winning childrenís book writer Iíve ever spoken to gets school-assignment letters. Some authors mind less than I do. Some mind more. My "I am not a homework project" letteróalthough it has evolved over the yearsóhas gone out hundreds of times, and the aforementioned is the first response to it Iíve ever receivedóand it certainly wasnít to thank me for successfully communicating my point of view.
Itís not only the involuntariness of my involvement in these school assignments that is so inexplicable. How can a teacher declare that a student will receive extra credit if the author responds? The author is not under the teacherís authority. If this is not moral blackmail, what is it? Nor are the circumstances under the teacherís control. What if the student wrote the most charming, perceptive letter anyone has ever written and the author has earache and is too wretched to answer any letters? What if the letter is eaten by the Great Postal Dragon, and the author never sees it? Nor is the cost to the recipient of school-assignment letters limited to the spiritual. Perhaps ten percent of the students who write include return postage; my yearly expenditure on stamps for book mail comes to a splashy weekend holiday for my husband and me that we donít getóor, perhaps more to the point, about one-quarter of the new furnace and fittings our elderly, cold house urgently needs. Surely the myth that writers are all wealthy is not still current? Those of us who earn enough of a living to give up our day jobs are in the minority; school budgets for enrichment programs are not leaner than most writersí royalty checks. And the energy I use to answer letters is the same creative energy that I need to write my books: coherent sentence production is coherent sentence production, and Iíve only got a few good hours of it a day, and after that Iím an excellent washer of dishes and walker of dogs. Let me stress that the voluntary book mail I receiveóand this includes the letters that say "I was thinking about writing to you and my teacher/librarian/parent/older-person-with-authority encouraged me"óis worth it. Absolutely. I donít in the least begrudge the price of the personal enrichment program of acknowledging the letters from readers who want to write to me. I am a storyteller, and the teller only functions if she has an audience.
What is most discouraging about the book-burning librarianís letter is that she insists on missing the crux of what both my letters to her school district were trying to convey, about the ordinary humanity of authors, and the parameters of their profession. You donít expect your car mechanic to fix your bicycle, gratis, in his spare time. Lucky you if he (or she) is willing to, but you are unlikely to boycott his gas station and write him hate mail if he isnít. And I bet at very least you ask first and say thank-you afterward. For the several thousand school-assignment letters I have answered in the last fifteen-plus years, I can remember once that I was asked in advance and twice that I was later thanked for having responded.