Then What Happened? A Conversation on Reading and Writing with Joe Novara

Welcome back to the POP QUIZ! This is a regular, yet totally unexpected, feature where we ask students, parents, staff, our friends, and partners to answer a few questions about what they are learning, reading, and thinking about. Today we feature CIS friend, Joe Novara.

Joe was born and raised in Detroit. He and his wife Rosalie settled in Kalamazoo in 1975. Their three daughters all went through the Kalamazoo Public Schools, graduating from Kalamazoo Central High School. One daughter went to University of Michigan and two went to Michigan State University. The Novaras are grandparents to seven, soon to be eight, grandchildren.

As a young man, Joe set out to become a priest, attending Gregorian University in Rome, Italy where he studied theology (in Latin). A retired corporate trainer and freelance writer, Joe has written many books for youth and adults. He has donated more than a dozen of his works to Story Shares, a non-profit organization devoted to inspiring reading practice and improving literacy skills.

Alright, Joe Novara: pencil out, eyes on your own paper. Good luck.

Pop Quiz

What is something interesting you’ve recently learned?

Fish are unpredictable. Last year at this time, my son-in-laws and I were catching steelhead and salmon in the Kalamazoo River. They were jumping all around the boat. This year, fishing in the same location—downstream from the Allegan Dam—we didn’t see one and we didn’t catch any. Now, what’s interesting is that at the Allegan Dam this year, the fish are jumping like crazy, but not downstream. You can’t count on them!

What are you currently reading?

I like popular fiction. I appreciate an interesting story. I’m also getting fussy as I get older. If I’m reading a book I think isn’t good, I put it down. I like to find something to sink my teeth into, and then I’ll read the whole thing.

What’s the title of a book you’ve sunk your teeth into, lately?

The Trespasser by Tana French.

What is your favorite word right now?

Truth. There is so much deception involved these days, I’ve been thinking about truth and lies in terms of politics and the elections, wondering, “Who’s lying, here?” So, truth!

A favorite restaurant in Kalamazoo?

We like to go to Saffron, especially for their lunch.

Behind every successful person is a caring adult. Who has been your caring adult?

A classmate of mine. We were in seminary school together and he connected with me and helped me through a time of transition in my life.

I planted some trees in our backyard and call them Charlie’s Grove. He passed away a while ago, but for some reason I’ve been thinking about him recently…Charlie was generous in sharing his insights and observations. “Read this book,” he’d say. “Here’s what I’m thinking.” “What are you thinking about?” “Think about this.” One of the books he suggested was quite influential in helping me decide where I was and where I was going.

On your website, you say that “Writing is about sharing.”

I don’t think of the writer as a mad scientist up in their tower writing all alone. As a writer, you need people to read and interact with your work. Life is about sharing and conversation and so is writing. Delayed conversation, you could say! Writing is what you could have said if you thought about it later. You can form your thoughts and share what you see happening around you. It’s a way to be mindful of what’s going on in your life…

Where have the years gone? people will say. I like to say, It’s gone into my writing. Writing is a way to digest and share what’s gone on in your life. Writing allows you to track life, digest it, and reshape it, if you want.

If writing is sharing, what would you say reading is about?

There are three parts to that. Writing is a craft. It’s as much fun to do it well as sewing or any other craft. When we are reading, we can appreciate someone’s craft, and learn from it.

The second part is that reading bring insights. Reading helps tune you into what others are seeing and learning.

Plus, there is also the fun of simply reading a good story, to experience the emotion, puzzle, and satisfaction of a good story well told.

As you know—you’re the one who told us about this resource!–Story Shares is a non-profit devoted to inspiring reading practice and improving literacy skills. They stock their library with what they term “Relevant Reads”—books that are both compelling and approachable for struggling teen and young adult readers. We counted, and they have 13 of your stories on their on-line shelves. Tell us how you got involved with Story Shares.

I never wrote my stories with reluctant readers in mind. I wrote those stories aiming at the young adult market…. My writing is pretty straightforward. For many of the stories I sent to Story Shares, they’ve assessed them at a third and fourth grade reading level. Story Shares does a nice job of identifying the work in terms of grade levels, readability, and relevance.

How do you think of or define the term, “reluctant reader?”

Reluctance comes from a number of things. It could be a kid who struggles in reading. I have to decode everything and I need to work hard to do this, so I’d rather watch a movie. Or, it’s hard to sit still and focus. I’d rather be walking around than sitting here and reading.

When it comes to reluctant readers, subject matter is especially important. If you don’t hit that right on the head, these kid are going to say, This story doesn’t say anything to me so why should I bother to keep reading? If this book was a television show, they’d change the channel. Relevance is key.

What advice do you have for parents of reluctant readers?

Read to them. Let them see you reading. It’s important to model it and get them used to the medium of reading with books.

One really important thing I did with our girls as they were growing up—I think this would work well with kids whether reluctant readers or not—is encourage them to create their own stories. When it was bedtime, I’d get our girls to tell their own stories. I’d encourage them along by asking, Then what happened? So then they are roasting marshmallows and then what? A squirrel stole the marshmallow! Wow! And then what happened? She went up a tree? And then what did the squirrel do? And then? And then?

Asking “What then?” can spur imagination and get kids thinking and looking for secondary meaning in things. It’s no longer just, Here’s what I see or Here’s what it is. It becomes, What else do I see?

When we can get kids to see second possibilities, that’s the basis of appreciating poetry, metaphor and images, film, literature, and art. One of the secrets to encouraging possibilities and stoking imagination is to tell children jokes. Often, jokes involve double meanings. Kids like learning that words can convey more than one meaning and, in the process, they learn that there is more than one way to get at something.

What you are talking about—helping kids go beyond and search for that second “right” answer reminds me of the book, A Whack on the Side of the Head, which speaks to the role imagination plays in problem solving. So…anything else we should know? Any project you’re working on?

I have a book coming out today, as a matter of fact. It’s an e-book published by Gypsy Shadow.
I’m Here is about silver romance between older people in a retirement home.

Doesn’t sound like it would meet the relevance factor for reluctant readers.

[Laughs.] You’re right about that!

One last question. How does it feel being married to a Champ? [Joe is married to CIS volunteer Rosalie Novara. She received a Champ award in 2014 and you can read more about Rosalie, here.]

Joe and Rosalie at the 2014 Champ Celebration.

[Laughs.] I love it! I think it’s marvelous to be married to her. Her mind is so sharp and her energy is so high. She’s always looking for ways to help out in the community, like tutoring through CIS. She’s also certified as an SLD Read tutor. Rosalie is marvelous, and I say, more power to her!

Thank you, Joe, for hanging out with us at Ask Me About My 12,000+ Kids.