I met the incredibly energetic Beth Bacon through the Vermont MFA program, even though she and I are practically neighbors here in the northwest. Beth gave a reading from a heart-stopping short story she’d written, one I will truly never forget, and we’ve stayed in touch. (She even recruited me to be one of the presenters, along with the talented illustrator Jennifer K. Mann for the SCBWI-Western Washington Weekend on the Water retreat; more info about weekend here.) When I learned Beth had created a series of books to hook in reluctant readers (I Hate Reading; The Book No One Wants to Read; The Worst Book Ever and Blank Space), I had to know more. And I knew you would want to know more, too! I was so pleased when Beth agreed to take time out of her busy schedule to talk about those books for Friend Friday. And, as a special treat, The Worst Book Ever is free today, on Amazon. Here is the link if you want to add it to your library or know of a reluctant reader who needs a copy! Take it away, Beth.
Writing for Kids Who Don’t Like To Read
“Oh, magic hour, when a child first knows she can read printed words!” Betty Smith, the author of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, wrote this wistful phrase. Reading is truly a magical experience. But for some kids, reading isn’t a joyful entry into fantastic new realms. Kids who struggle with reading associate books with anxiety. Anxiety leads to resistance. Resistance turns into conflicts with parents and teachers.
How do authors write books for beginner readers who are reluctant to read? It’s a question I ask every day. The simple answer is to acknowledge these kids as we write. Kidlit is full of characters who love to read… take for example Francie Nolan in A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. Her goal is to read every book in the library. But how are reluctant readers seen in stories? If they’re acknowledged at all, they’re usually the troublemakers. Reluctant readers, just like any underrepresented group, need to see themselves in books! They need to see themselves as positive, successful problem solvers.
Some of my books take the idea of acknowledging reluctant readers to the extreme. In The Book No One Wants To Read (Pixel Titles), the narrative breaks the fourth wall and addresses the kids directly: “You’re not one of those kids who thinks books are boring, are you?” Not all books need to be that direct, but a little authenticity goes a long way with these readers. One parent wrote that her daughter “just felt discouraged and different because she truly does not like reading anything. Then I forced her to read this book [my book titled I Hate Reading]. Within 2 pages, she lit up. She found her tribe. Other kids feel the same as her!? What? They pick books with big pictures so there are less words? Like she does? This book touched her in a place that no other book has and honestly made her feel not so alone.”
Helping kids realize they’re “not so alone” in their experience is a powerful benefit of reading. How ironic, then, that some kids feel isolated and inadequate by reading itself. Honoring the experience of struggling readers begins to gain their trust.
Challenging Kids To Make Meaning As They Read
Writing books for reluctant readers does not mean “writing down” and simplifying my stories. I never try to avoid using advanced vocabulary words. Sure, my books are generally written in plain language with simple sentence structure. But more important, like any writer, I choose words for their sounds, their puns, their precision… for example, in The Worst Book Ever I include the word “notoriety.” It’s the perfect word for a “bad” character who wants to be famous. When I read this story aloud to kids, I stop and ask if they know that word. To most members of my first- through third-grade audience, the word is completely new. But they seem to know what it means through the context.
I include a few words that are not on a typical third grade vocabulary list because I want them to get familiar with the feeling of not knowing a word, examining the context, guessing the meaning, and continuing. Reading sometimes means being uncomfortable. It sometimes means not knowing exactly what is happening in a story. It often requires making your best guess and moving on.
Isn’t life like that, too? We don’t always have complete assurance that every situation will work out well for us. But we must pick up on the clues that are offered in our environment and continue on with cautious confidence. Sometimes I wonder if reluctant readers are reluctant because they haven’t built up enough confidence in their own meaning-making.
Writing for Both Parents And Adults
I mentioned above that I talk to the kids as I read aloud. It’s important for me to read my books regularly in classrooms, camps and libraries. That’s because for kids who are still in the process of learning to read, reading is not yet a solitary activity. They are still unable to sit by themselves with a book and create the stories inside their own minds. Beginner readers need to be guided through the text with someone who is already a fluent reader.
When grown-ups take time out of their own days and read with a child, they’re not just bonding and modeling the joy of reading (though, of course, they are doing this, and this is oh, so necessary). But in our cultural conversation about the importance of reading with kids, I think we sometimes miss the even more fundamental role of reading with kids—actually helping them sound out the words.
Have you ever heard of a parent who encourages their kid to ride a bike by pushing them down the driveway then ducking into the kitchen to cook dinner? Of course not. But we often give our kids a book then turn away to do other things.
I want parents, teachers, grandparents and siblings to read my books alongside their kids. So I layer my books with lots of meanings as well as verbal and visual jokes that keep the grown-ups satisfied, too. For example, in The Worst Book Ever (Pixel Titles), the book itself is trying to be banned from the library. There’s an image that shows some other banned books. One of the books has a little lightning bolt on its forehead. It’s a nod to Harry Potter, one of the most banned series ever. If a reader notices this reference, great. If not, that’s okay, too.
Active Books for Active Kids
Reading is not yet a solitary experience for beginning readers—and it’s not yet a “sit-still” activity. Elementary school kids are activity machines, even though the average school day is structured mostly around sedentary work. I’m a substitute teacher in my hometown. When I work in Kindergarten through third grade classrooms, we always take a moment between activities to stretch and twist. I call it “getting the wiggles out.” Almost every elementary teacher I know uses some sort of short physical activity motif like this during transitions.
Kids this age are simply not sedentary by nature. But reading is a sedentary activity. No wonder reading is a challenge! Only after a child’s physical control is adequately developed can they truly be fully literate. That’s why in my books for beginning readers, I frequently incorporate physical activities right into the stories. Why make kids sit still if you don’t have to?
In The Book No One Wants To Read (Pixel Titles), the book itself is the narrator. It offers, for example, to shake hands with the reader. Then it realizes it doesn’t have hands. Here, I play with the concept of interactivity. I also play with puns, similes and metaphors: of course the book doesn’t have hands… but it does have a spine!
“Just shake me anyway,” the book offers, inviting the readers to physically jostle the volume. It asks the reader to shake it again and again and again. This particular book, like many of its young readers, has a tendency to overdo things. Things get messy and the book, as well as the readers, are forced to respond and readjust.
In my stories that ask kids to get up and move around, I’m also very mindful of helping them to settle down, too. I work very conscientiously on the pacing in my books and I test them out by reading them to real kids and assessing their energy levels, how and when they laugh, and when they seem to be confused.
This kind of real-kid testing is possible for reader-participation books, but I’m not recommending it for non-interactive books. I test out the pacing to see how affects their behavior. Do kids settle down at the right time? Do they respond as I expect? Are the games in the books too complicated? I don’t ask kids what they think of my books because I don’t believe they make good critique partners. I observe how real kids respond and make adjustments.
Writing is fun. Reading is fun.
Writing books for kids who don’t like to read is actually really fun. It lets me think outside the box and play with the format of books. When I studied literature in college, I loved authors like Borges and Kafka who used meta-storytelling techniques. When I studied picture book authors during my MFA program, I loved the way Mo Willems and Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith played with the form of the book itself to make reading a participatory event.
Reading doesn’t have to always happen silently inside the mind. Having fun, being a little bit cheeky and moving around are great ways to help kids transition into the magic of reading.