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Joy Ann Ribar Asks Are You What You Read?

Joy Ann Ribar is the author of the Deep Lakes cozy mystery series. You can find out more about her at her website JoyRibar.com, or by clicking here. You can read her last post here, and see her books here.

Authors spend a lot of time talking about writing techniques, plotting, creating characters, and whether or not we’re plotters or pantsters. One thing I don’t often talk about is what kind of reader I am.

Author Joy Ann Ribar holding copies of Pride and Prejudice and Hamelt
Joy Ann Ribar

I do spend a lot of my reading time doing reading favors for fellow authors.  It’s not that I don’t want to read their books, but because authors are inherently good people, we take part in book exchanges.  “I’ll read your book if you read mine, I’ll give you feedback if you give me feedback,” is how we help each other in this business.  Our friendships are real, but also often transactional.

Today, I want to talk about the kind of reading I do that’s my passion.  Literature, and literary classics in particular, own my heart. I spent 15 years teaching Advanced Placement English Literature with high school seniors seeking college credits.  If you’re a teacher, these are the students you salivate over; students who discuss and write about Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Erdrich, and Keats without complaint.  Yes, they do exist and they’re not from another planet.

Every year in May, AP students take a three-hour long grueling exam divided into four parts.  The exam begins with 55 multiple choice questions based on several reading excerpts. These questions make college instructors cower in fear, so imagine an 18-year old on the cusp of high school graduation facing the same.

The exam next progresses to three essay questions.  The first is based on a poem; the second on a prose excerpt; and the third offers a provocative open-ended question with a list of suggested book and play titles from which to write the essay.  Each essay is allotted 40 minutes. Written in long-hand, students are certain to suffer hand cramps, fatigue, and general malaise at some point.

Grading the exams

When all is said and done, more than 400,000 students in the U.S. and abroad will take the AP English Literature exam.  Of course, someone has to read those 1.2 million essays.  I am one of those “someones.”  Each June, during the cream of summer weather, I travel to Salt Lake City and spend eight consecutive days, eight hours each day, leading other teachers through a scoring guide and grading exercises as we do our darndest to give a fair and accurate score on every written essay.

I’ve been asked if I’m mad or crave toture when I tell people I do this.  But, you must understand, it is a labor of love.  There are about 900 of us from everywhere, the chosen ones, the Readers.  The 900 who talk about James Joyce as if he were a drinking buddy, who chat about Virginia Woolf without fear.  Teachers who love their students so much they will subject them to William Faulkner and Annie Dillard.  Teachers who force their students to write Petrarchan sonnets just for fun. These are my people. 

This exam is the culmination of a school year spent in classroom discussion about topics most high school students will not have the chance to consider. Literature provides entry points for talking about how women have been written over the centuries; whether it is Medea (a woman with power who is deemed a witch) or Nora slamming the door on her marriage in A Doll’s House, or Shakespeare’s wide-eyed innocent Miranda from The Tempest, these characters testify to female experience from the page.

Signs outside the Salt Palace convention center and grading site

Where else would my students have the occasion to talk about colonialism, except through the lens of books like Things Fall Apart or Heart of Darkness? Social issues reveal themselves in texts like Beloved, The Grapes of Wrath, and A Thousand Splendid Suns. There are hundreds more titles I could mention.  

For me, literature is an endless offering to the world, telling timeless stories of universal human experiences through deeply flawed characters. Their voices fuel our discourse and engage our minds to digest anew.  In that digestion, we come to new realizations about the world and ourselves.

Every time two or more people share a reading experience, the conversation begins again.   

From my time spent with the Readers, I can testify that these conversations make our students feel smarter and turn them into seekers of more knowledge and wider experiences. 

This is the best testimony I can offer for the reason I spend two weeks every year in a windowless, concrete room in a convention center reading about 150 to 200 essays a day, dreaming about the better world that will exist because these young people chose to read.

Getting back to my fellow authors:  Reading each other’s works is where relevant and lively reading conversations blossom.  I appreciate you all and wonder in the next 100 years, which of you will be considered essential reading.  (I know at least a few!)

Joy Ribar

Joy Ann Ribar writes the Deep Lakes Cozy Mystery series, inspired by Wisconsin’s four seasons and friendly quirks. You can find out more about her on her website joyribar.com, where you can sign up for her newsletter, or follow her on Facebook, or Instagram.

This Post Has 26 Comments

  1. Laurie Buchanan

    Joy — I love that you’re “one of those someones” who read the completed AP English Literature exams. That’s COOL!

    And as one of those author friends who trade manuscripts for author endorsement blurbs, I just finished the ARC of your DEEP DIRE HARVEST and loved it! I emailed my bite-sized review to you yesterday afternoon.

    1. joyribar

      Thank you for being a reader for me! Readers are our bread , butter and dessert too, for that matter.

  2. Christine DeSmet

    Joy, that’s amazing work that you do for those essayists. They are lucky to have a dedicated reader/writer/teacher like you looking over their work. Onward!

    1. joyribar

      Thanks, Christine. As someone who fosters writers, you are a kindred spirit.

  3. Sherrill Joseph

    Joy, brava to you for being an AP exam reader and former AP English teacher. You and I, as retired teachers, can relish thoughts of students who have so much to offer the world. And we also have a love of the literary classics in common. I marvel at how a long-deceased writer can still speak to me across the centuries. That is truly immortality. It would be fun to compare our libraries!

    1. joyribar

      Sherrill, I’d love nothing more than to chat about our favorite literature over coffee, tea, or a cocktail one day.

  4. Laurie's Story

    Joy, I bet you are an ace on “Jeopardy!” I wouldn’t want to go against you on “Novel Quotes.” Thanks for posting on an interesting subject.

    1. joyribar

      Aw thanks, Laurie. I think Jeopardy is much more fun at home than in person for me. I’m great in my living room!

  5. Joy, what an interesting post. I’m so glad to know this about you. You’re doing such a wonderful service for your students and to readers everywhere!

    1. joyribar

      Thank you for saying that, Margaret. It’s truly one of the best parts of my life.

  6. Sheila Lowe

    of course, what stopped me was “written in longhand,” long enough to say, written in longhand encourages creativity and opens up parts of the brain that keyboarding does not! Great job, Joy.

    1. joyribar

      And this week I’m thinking: wouldn’t it be tons of fun to have Sheila reading beside me to tell me what else is going on with those writers! Moo-ahh.

  7. Jacqueline Vick

    What a wonderful (and necessary) calling. To answer the original question, my reading is so varied the only conclusion anyone could come to is I have multiple-personality disorder!

    1. joyribar

      And there’s nothing wrong with that, Jackie! I think it’s a prerequisite to being an author??

  8. gpgottlieb

    I LOVE this essay – it’s astounding that you still help with the grading process, but it sounds like you enjoy it!

    1. joyribar

      Thank you kindly, Some of us have quirky “loves” don’t we?

  9. What an intense process. I had no idea the tests were graded on a National basis. I can’t even imagine reading that many essays, let alone trying to determine if they hit the salient points. You deserve a fancy plaque and a commendation from the President for this one.

    1. joyribar

      Anne, you’re sweet for saying that. My table mates are thrilled if I bring them chocolates. (I do, by the way. I bought 18 pounds for the week this year!)

  10. Tracey Phillips

    Joy, i’m in awe of you, your experience and your ability to help those young writers. You are a formidable woman in my eyes.

  11. joyribar

    Thank you, Tracey. You use your musical gifts to instill passion and appreciation for the arts every day, too. How awesome that there are many talents to spread around.

  12. saralynrichard

    Thanks for sharing your love of fine literature in this blog. I found out that we are sisters of the heart.

    1. joyribar

      Aw, thank you Saralyn. I know teaching is a passion for you, too.

  13. Donna Rewolinski

    How amazing that after a career in education, you still give of yourself to help students be their best self. That’s great.

    1. joyribar

      Thank you, Donna. I think it’s in the blood. Working with anyone who wants to learn can be contagious.

  14. Sharon Lynn

    I’m a little late to the party here, but great post, Joy! Anyone holding a copy of Hamlet is okay by me. I teach Shakespeare, and made my main character’s mother a Shakespeare professor. As such, my MC is quite versed in the classics and incorporates this into how she solves mysteries.
    And kudos to you for reading all those exams! My goodness, you are amazing!

  15. joyribar

    Thanks for letting me know about your MC. I need to get my hands on your book – it’s coming soon? And, oh-oh, I think my next series might have some things in common with yours. My new MC will be an English Prof, too.

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