For Better and For Worser, a guest post by Jennifer Ziegler
Witches can be right. Giants can be good. You decide what’s right. You decide what’s good. – “No One Is Alone,” lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
The process of writing Worser started out like my other novels. First came the sparkly new idea. In this case, it was Worser himself, the main character, talking to me in that exacting and rather blunt way of his.
At that point it was a matter of coaxing more information out of him. Who was this character? What forces in life have molded him into the person he currently is? What does he want? What does he need? Worser was cooperative, and I gradually began to see his world and story. Only, there was something about him that made me uneasy…
Worser wasn’t very nice.
I realized I hadn’t dealt with this before. Not really. Sure, previous characters of mine had lied, lost their tempers, and made decisions that hurt those they cared about, but for the most part, they tried to be pleasant while interacting with others. Not Worser, though. He spoke his mind in such an unfiltered way, it could be jarring. He was direct, precise, and usually honest, but he came off as impolite.
Having figured out his backstory, I knew there were good reasons why he behaved this way. For one, he was rather imperious about the English language, and he was not going to choose a “softer” word when another was more accurate. Also, he was the child of two luddite English professors, and rather than hang out with children his own age, he spent his free time reading, writing, and doing word games with his mother – who, I should add, was just as brusque in her manner.
I knew Worser had a good heart. He wanted what we all want: to be in his place with his people, to belong. He was not going about it in the right way, but we have all been guilty of faulty thinking. This is what life and growth are all about. At their core, this is what novels are about.
The problem, I realized, was with me. My social conditioning to always be nice was at war with my writer self’s understanding that Worser was just being Worser. But how could I get over this discomfort and finish my novel?
I took some time to consider and ended up with three key realizations:
- It was my job to try to understand him, not to judge him. My characters have to be true to who they are, and my job as a writer is to maintain that honesty. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Worser, over the course of the book, does become more self-aware and gets better at interacting with others. However, this growth had to be earned.
- Likability is not the same as relatability. Likability implies privilege. It is judging rather than understanding. It’s saying, “I don’t have to care about you unless I find you likable.” It’s wanting the character to be more like you rather than finding the sameness, the humanness, you can identify with. Besides, who among us is always nice? Who doesn’t have churlish, ungracious thoughts now and then? Like it or not (word play intended), we can all relate to being unlikable at times.
- No child should be deemed unworthy of being portrayed in a book – including an inadequately socialized, persnickety middle schooler with a graduate-school-level vocabulary. If the world of film, TV, and adult literature can be full of antiheroes, why not children’s literature? As a classroom teacher I’ve worked with and cared deeply about many young people whose wounds and environment make them difficult to get along with. I knew then that if I wanted them to learn, thrive, and evolve, I had to try to meet them where they were – to empathize and accept even if I couldn’t fully understand. And if I could have that mindset for the students I’ve taught, why not for my own characters?
Thanks to Worser, I now understand my calling more clearly.
If we writers only create characters that appeal to us – or to a certain group of readers – that will not portray our true world. We must also be able to write characters, situations, and themes that make us uncomfortable.
Novels are meant to illustrate some truth about the human spirit. Therefore, even the most unpleasant characters can teach us something about ourselves. In fact, how better to recognize our own flawed, weak, or damaged parts? Why settle for a merely pleasant experience when you can have a transformative one?
After all, as Little Red Riding Hood sings in the late Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods, “Nice is different than good.” And recognizing reality, warts and all, is always good.
Meet the author
Jennifer Ziegler is an author of books for young adults and middle graders, including How Not to Be Popular, Revenge of the Flower Girls, and Revenge of the Teacher’s Pets. She is on the faculty of Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA program on Writing for Children and Young Adults. Like Worser’s title character, she is a lover of words, word play, puzzles, libraries, and bookstores. Unlike Worser, she was never sent to the principal’s office. Jennifer lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, author Chris Barton.
A bullied 12-year-old boy must find a new normal after his mother has a stroke and his life is turned upside down.
William Wyatt Orser, a socially awkward middle schooler, is a wordsmith who, much to his annoyance, acquired the ironically ungrammatical nickname of “Worser” so long ago that few people at school know to call him anything else.
Worser grew up with his mom, a professor of rhetoric and an introvert just like him, in a comfortable routine that involved reading aloud in the evenings, criticizing the grammar of others, ignoring the shabby mess of their house, and suffering the bare minimum of social interactions with others. But recently all that has changed. His mom had a stroke that left her nonverbal, and his Aunt Iris has moved in with her cats, art projects, loud music, and even louder clothes. Home for Worser is no longer a refuge from the unsympathetic world at school that it has been all his life.
Feeling lost, lonely, and overwhelmed, Worser searches for a new sanctuary and ends up finding the Literary Club—a group of kids from school who share his love of words and meet in a used bookstore– something he never dreamed existed outside of his home. Even more surprising to Worser is that the key to making friends is sharing the thing he holds dearest: his Masterwork, the epic word notebook that he has been adding entries to for years.
But relationships can be precarious, and it is up to Worser to turn the page in his own story to make something that endures so that he is no longer seen as Worser and earns a new nickname, Worder.
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 03/15/2022
Age Range: 9 – 12 Years
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
SLJ Blog Network