|Tomorrow will see the start of An Awfully Big Blog Adventure’s first online lit-fest! Two days of celebration of children’s and young adult books, hosted and organised by children’s and young adult authors themselves.
Prior to the event, I’ve invited one of the authors involved, Anne Rooney, to stop by and chat about her writing and specifically on writing for reluctant teenage readers.
Don’t forget to visit the A.B.B.A blog tomorrow and follow the #ABBAlitfest on Twitter!
Some kids take to reading like a duck to water. Others sink straight to the bottom, like an innocent witch.
There are many reason a child doesn’t become a confident reader at primary school. They may have a learning disorder, such as dyslexia. They may have a physical or emotional problem that makes it difficult for them to hold, look at or read a book, or pay attention for long enough to read. They may speak a different language at home and are struggling with English. Or reading may just not ‘click’ for them at that time.
Books that are easy to read are generally written for children of five or six. They’re about talking owls, monsters, naughty babies and children who resent a new sibling. A non-reading 11- or 12-year-old will never be lured into reading by such stuff. They’d probably rather poke their eyes out with the corners of the book than read such fluff and nonsense. [I’m allowed to say that, I write for five-year-olds as well!] So if a child has missed the boat, for whatever reason, they’re going to need something very special to help them catch up.
That something special is the growing body of books written specifically for older struggling, reluctant and emergent readers – for kids with a higher chronological or interest age than their reading age. You might find them labelled hi-lo, easy reads, quick reads, and so on. The stories have fast-paced plots and usually deal with teenage characters and mature themes, but the vocabulary and syntax are simple and accessible. Factual books, too are pitched to the interests of the older age group but written simply. Some cover aspects of the national curriculum but others are just fun (or more fun) – the challenge is to persuade these kids that reading really IS fun. For some of them, every word is a struggle. If they aren’t rewarded with something interesting, they won’t carry on. Why would they?
There are many steps on the path from being a non-reader to whizzing through full-length novels, and not everyone gets to the end of the journey. Reluctant reader books range from 200 words short to 10,000 words long so there’s something for an emerging reader at every stage of their development. Telling any kind of a story for older kids in 200 words is really difficult. Too difficult for me – I stick to 1500 words plus. One of the most popular series at that level is the Dark Man books by Peter Lancett, published by Ransom. They don’t all have resolved narrative, they are dark, gritty, full of mystery and would be far too hard for a younger child to understand. This is just what the struggling older reader needs: something that never patronises, something that deals with the same dark and complex themes that are tackled in the films and computer games they enjoy. These kids are not stupid, and they’re not big babies – they just can’t read well yet.
Books for reluctant or emerging readers mustn’t be easily identifiable as such, as that invites stigmatising and bullying. The covers must be age appropriate, and not embarrassing and the titles must sound edgy and interesting. The books are thin, and the type is larger and more spaced out than in other books for young teens, but as long as they’re categorised in libraries and bookshops as ‘quick reads’ or given some other non-derogatory label, there should be little stigma attached to being seen with one.
There are reluctant reader books in all genres. I’ve written love stories, crime, horror, thriller, futuristic dystopia and vampires for reluctant reader teens, covering bullying, racism, sexual obsession, conflict with the police, people trafficking and climate change. I know other writers who’ve written romance, historical novels, fantasy, sci-fi, adventure, and covered drugs, rape, knife crime, love, family breakdown, pregnancy and almost any other topic you can think of it. It’s a very far cry from the mermaids, fairies, hamsters, funny aliens, underpants and talking animals of most books with the same level of language and style.
The books I write are not for the readers who really struggle, but for those who are now fairly comfortable reading whole sentences and a full page of text (as long at it’s not too dense). They might tackle a book of 8,000 words or a little more, as long as it is broken into manageable chapters. Or they may prefer a collection of three or four short stories, or a graphic novel. The stories are equally accessible to confident readers who just want to read something short. Because they’re not infantilised, children of all reading abilities can (and do) read and enjoy them.
I’m currently writing a series of vampire novels for reluctant-reader teens. It was the publisher’s idea: the teens want to read what their friends are reading, but Twilight is too long and daunting (whatever else we may think of it!) and so we’re giving them their own series. But ours is sharper, of course – it’s gritty and dangerous, it has sex and violence in it, and the girls are feisty. It also has Elvis Presley, a guillotine, and a dangerous disease. A lot is packed into each short book. And as for these teens wanting to read what their peers are reading – they can! Many, many mainstream writers have also written for this market, including such big names as Frank Cottrell Boyce, Anne Fine, Diana Wynne Jones, Michael Morpurgo, Malorie Blackman, Bali Rai, Jeremy Strong, Andy Stanton, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Mary Hoffman, Joanna Kenrick… the list goes on.
It’s a market that doesn’t pay well and can be frustrating. You won’t get rich or famous writing these books. But nothing is more rewarding than a letter from a teacher or parent saying a young person read all through your book – and it was the first book they have ever finished. That’s worth more than a large advance or being on the Carnegie shortlist. And, of course, the more teens we turn into readers, the more readers there are for all our other books. It’s a sort of grow-your-own-readership project.
Some of my titles for reluctant readers are Off the Rails (Evans, 2010), Rising Tide (Evans, 2009), Soldier Boy (Evans, 2008), Grim, Gross and Grisly (Barrington Stoke. 2010) and – forthcoming – Die Now or Live Forever; Drop Dead, Gorgeous; and Life Sucks (all Ransom, 2012)