Heart of a Shepherd is the book it is in many ways because I thought it was the one I’d never publish. I did not set out to write a book that centered so firmly around a character’s spiritual development. But when I chose Malheur County as a setting for Heart of a Shepherd, a spiritual element migrated into the story as naturally as the millions of migratory birds who populate the sky of this remote and beautiful landscape. Malheur County is the southeastern most county in Oregon. It borders Idaho and Nevada. It’s the size of Massachusetts and is home to fewer than 30,000 people. It was settled by Irish and Basque immigrants, people for whom Catholicism is, not just their religion, but also a vital part of their cultural identification. It would have been dishonest to leave faith out of this story. The more I thought about Brother’s search for a way to become a man among the men of his family, the more it felt natural for his faith to be part of the answer.
Never the less, having included faith in the story I was reasonably certain I would never be able to sell it. Have you stepped into a chain bookstore lately? The marketplace for books is designed to help people find sparkly, urban, purple and black, undead things. Who would choose this refreshingly blue and green, decidedly unsexy, completely vampire-free story?
Jim Thomas, my editor at Random House, chose it. He was able to say yes, to a book like this because he knows that you are here saying yes to books like this; books that have, not just an engaging plot and fun characters, but also substance, a theme worth discussing. You, and the Oregon Council of Teachers of English who chose Heart of a Shepherd for the Oregon Spirit Book Award, and the Church and Synagogue Library Association who chose it for their Rodda Book Award, and the state book award committees in Tennessee and Hawaii who nominated it for their children’s choice awards. You are the people who make literary fiction for children possible.
Because here is an unhappy truth about the book business; even after the honors I just mentioned, 2 starred reviews, and 3 best book of the year lists, Heart of a Shepherd is still not carried in the chains in hard cover or paperback—not at all by Borders and only to a limited and regional extent in Barnes & Noble. And here is the silver lining to that particular rain cloud—I have not needed them. Heart of a Shepherd earned out its advance in 10 months. It was in its 4th printing in less than a year. This was accomplished almost entirely on the strength of libraries and independent bookstores. It happened because you read this book, loved it, bought it, and told other people about it. And that is real power in the marketplace. Because you and I, and also my publisher, know that children need more than “sparkle” from their books. They want more than “sparkle”. But leave them to face the marketplace alone, and “sparkle” is all they are likely to find.
So thank you, all of you, for the work that you do in the pastures of underfunded schools and aging public libraries—for that fighting spirit that keeps independent bookstores open in the most difficult economic climate in decades. It is a great comfort to me as a writer to know that no child comes to the bookshelf alone but is always there on the wings of parents, librarians, and teachers who have taught them to read, read aloud, and then read along side, and always, always talked with them about the substance of their reading in light of their own life. That is how a nation becomes literate—not just able to pass a reading benchmark, but truly literate. It is absolutely essential, not just to the life of each child, but also to the intellectual and cultural and economic life of this country. Thank you.
It has been an amazing year for this little cowboy and me. I think of all the honors Heart of a Shepherd has received, the one that has moved me the most is this: it was chosen at the Portland Community College’s Adult English Language Learner Program as the first novel in English to be read by their students. Wow! I spoke to the students one afternoon and had a chance to meet a man who told me a bit about his life—two jobs, one car, many children and grandchildren living in his small house. The result was that he often did his homework on the bus on the way to class.
He said to me, “I often feel ashamed because I know my school work is easy—not easy for me—but I know how simple it looks to other riders. But this book; I was proud to read this book on the bus. And now that I know that I can, I will read it out loud, in English, to my grandchildren.”
That, friends, is the birthplace of literacy, and honor enough for a lifetime. Thank you.