Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Writing for Reluctant Readers

By Erin Thomas

JH: Today I welcome Erin Thomas to show us how she does it and teach us a little about writing for reluctant readers. This is a market I've been curious about myself lately, so I'm excited to hear her thoughts on the matter.

Erin is the author of three novels for reluctant readers (Boarder Patrol--Orca Sports, and Wolves at the Gate and Draco's Fire--HIP Books), with two more scheduled for publication next Spring. She is a part-time Occasional Teacher and full-time parent to a voracious reader.

Take it away Erin...

My cousin Christopher is in his mid-twenties now. He just got married. And sometime around last Spring, he started reading books.

I don’t mean that he couldn’t read—although he might have believed that at times. I just mean that reading wasn’t something he did for fun. Or often. Or at all, if he could help it.

Sometime during his school career, someone told Christopher he was stupid. And Christopher believed it. And as much as I would love to go back in time and throttle that person, there would be no point, because the truth is that kids hit all kinds of road bumps and even walls on the way to becoming readers. The best we can hope to do is help them navigate around the obstacles and convince them that it’s worth the effort.

The first time I heard about reluctant reader books was in teacher’s college. I thought it was brilliant—books for kids that matched both their reading level and their interest level. Books written for older kids, but at a lower reading level.

After all, just because a sixth grader is reading at a grade-three level doesn’t mean that he (it’s often a he) thinks like a third grader. Why would he want to read a third grader’s book?

Rule of thumb: kids want to read about kids their age or older. If a girl already struggles with reading, why hand her a book about a younger character? Where’s the incentive? Imagine, if you will, the eye roll that seventh-grade girl will give you when you hand her a ‘little kid’ book to read. There’s a disconnect.

Books for reluctant readers can help bridge that gap.

So what goes into these books?

We need to keep kids turning pages. In books written for reluctant readers, you’ll often see shorter chapters (to provide a sense of accomplishment) and lots of cliffhangers.

That doesn’t mean that these books need to be plot-driven thrill rides. Not that there’s anything wrong with a nice thrill ride from time to time. Kids can have beach reads, too!

One of my current favorites, Back by Norah McClintock, is a beautifully crafted character study. The narrator is outside the action, for the most part. He (or she) is an observer, much like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. But the tension in the story builds and builds until, at the very end, the narrator acts. It’s a short book that packs a ton of punch. I’m still thinking about it, weeks after reading.

And if I could tell you the secret to writing like Norah McClintock, I’d be a happy girl. But I digress.

Sentences are generally shorter, and vocabulary more limited, when you’re writing for reluctant readers. That sounds more restricting than it is. By the time you’ve come up with a believable voice for your main character, you’ve done most of the work. After all, your average twelve year old doesn’t go around spouting words like “unobtrusively.” Find the right narrator. Hermione Granger need not apply.

I don’t worry about reading level until I’m on my second or third draft. And then, it might be as simple as substituting the word ‘blue’ for ‘turquoise,’ or breaking a long sentence into two shorter ones. Because as much as reading level matters, that’s not what’s going to grab a kid. The important thing is the story. Get the story right, and you’re on the way.

You can buy a word guide, which will list synonyms for words and give the grade level for each. I have one. I rarely use it. Going by ear and trusting my character’s voice works most of the time. Reading the work aloud is a good check for this, too. If a sentence is long enough that I stumble over it, or a word jars, I take another look.

(‘Jars’ is a nasty, tricky sort of word for reluctant readers, isn’t it?)

Dialogue can also help keep the reading level down. And let’s face it, well-written dialogue makes a story come alive, so you get double duty out of that one. Bonus.

Reluctant reader books are often part of a series. That means that your manuscript has to meet some guidelines. Length might be non-negotiable. I’m working on my second Orca Sports novel now; it’s 29,000 words. I need to come in under 24,000. These books are a set size for a reason; imagine dropping War and Peace on a reluctant reader’s desk. Imagine the look they’ll give you.

Then get out the scissors.

So there are some boundaries, and you have to be able to work within those. But here’s the main thing: writing for reluctant readers is not that different. All the requirements of good storytelling still apply. Readers want strong characters who are actively pursuing goals and overcoming obstacles that feel organic to the plot. (That’s a mouthful, isn’t it?)

And when a kid who usually isn’t into books reads, and enjoys, a book you wrote—that’s a great feeling.

Christopher read my book, Boarder Patrol, to be polite. Or maybe because I’m his cousin and he was curious, I don’t know. The important thing is, he finished it. And he liked it. And he called me to ask if I knew any other books that he might like reading. (Did I? Does a bear—well, you know the rest.)

Christopher has since discovered the world of adult crime novels. Not my thing, but he’s reading. I turn cartwheels every time I think about it. He even brought books with him on his honeymoon.

You gotta love a happy ending.

About Boarder Patrol
Sixteen-year-old Ryan is determined to be a professional snowboarder, but he’s learned from what happened to his father that doing the right thing can get you in trouble. So when his board is stolen, and he discovers that his cousin knows more than he should about recent criminal activity at the ski resort, Ryan has to choose between career and family, and hope that, for him, doing the right thing will pay off.


  1. That's such an awesome story, and article. My sister is dyslexic and often has trouble getting into a book as a result. It gave an incredible sense of pride that she practically ate my book when she started reading it. I've never seen her get through a book so easily.

  2. Thanks for sharing! I think those "reluctant reader" books are so important. It's great to hear about the process from someone who writes them well.

  3. ERIN! Halloooooo! We met at last year's Novel Writing Marathon in Huntsville and you actually wrote and I actually goofed around. You signed a copy of your book for my kids, which they loved. So thank you!
    Nice post here - so glad Christopher discovered reading and you must indeed be over the moon to have sent him on his readerly way.
    So nice to see your smiling face here - what a pleasant surprise! Good luck with everything!

  4. I didn't even know there was a genre for "reluctant readers". What a fabulous idea! I'm so glad someone is taking the time to write for people who are just waiting to become readers :) Bless you!

  5. After taking your workshop, Erin, I read a whole stack of these books. They're not (on the surface) so different from other engaging stories written for young people. They don't look any different either. The accommodations for reluctant readers are nuanced in. Because who wants to be centered out for reading "easy readers"?

    Thanks for doing such a great job of pointing out the subtleties of a high-low book, both in your workshop and in this post. You've got me all fired up about writing an Orca title of my own.

  6. Thanks for commenting, everyone! Paul, that's a wonderful story about your sister. I'm so glad that she loved your book. :)

    And Andrea, I agree--these books are important. I'm not sure I write them "well" yet, but I'm working on it. Norah McClintock is a brilliant writer to look at, and of course Eric Walters. I also really liked "Squeeze" by Rachel Muller.

    Cathy, it's great to hear from you--are you going to be at MNM this year? I'm not, but I wish I was!

    Angie, it's a surprising thing, but a lot of teachers haven't even heard about it, either. And schools are one of the best places for these books to find homes. But I think there are a lot of books not labelled as "reluctant reader" books that do the trick just fine--I've heard good things about "Stupid Fast" by Geoff Herbach. It's on my to-read list. :) And I bet anything by Ken Oppel would get kids reading.

    And Heather, you are absolutely right, of course--the whole point of these books is that they're books that anyone can feel good picking up and carrying around. Nobody wants a giant label across the cover. So yeah, the differences need to be subtle, and they need to serve the story. I hope that you keep going with your sports story--I want to read it!