Writers who are eager to break into publishing – or who are wanting to take a break from their usual genre – will be pleased to know there’s a huge and growing market for books that are accessible to youngsters who struggle with reading. Often referred to as hi-lo books, these are short, action-packed books written in easy-to-grasp language. The margins are a little wider, the font is a wee bit bigger, and the words are a smidgeon shorter. As for the rest? Exactly the same as mainstream fiction.
Reluctant readers are just as socially savvy and emotionally mature as kids who find reading easy. It’s essential not to dumb anything down for these youngsters. They crave stories that speak to the concerns in their own lives, yet which are written at a reading level that they can manage.
Until recently, reluctant and weak readers were given simple stories in simple language. But paging through Stuart Little at age 16 isn’t the way to turn a disenfranchised kid onto the magic and power of reading. Today’s youth want to read about the issues that touch their worlds: peer pressure; participation in sports; the seductions – and dangers – of gangs; terminal illness; coming of age; taking risks; fighting injustice…the list goes on. There’s also room for the odd horror story or good old-fashioned romance.
If you’re thinking of writing for reluctant readers, a few tried and true techniques will help you craft strong stories and believable characters. Read – and write – on.
1. Cut to the action. Get straight into the problem within the first couple of pages. If you can’t get the story rolling with something that leads to the main issue, then at least drop your main character into a situation where there is conflict – either between her and another character, within her own mind, or between her and the outside world. In hi-lo fiction, conflict is key. It keeps the story moving.
2. Short and sweet. Keep readability in mind. Books for reluctant readers typically are written to fall within a Grade 2 to Grade 4 reading level. Keep your chapters short and packed with forward momentum (see #4, below). Break compound sentences into simple, single-clause sentences. Don’t be afraid to use sentence fragments. We often speak in fragments; even though they’re not grammatically perfect, they make sense to our brains when we’re reading as well as when we’re speaking. Keep your language simple, and avoid multisyllabic words. Follow Stephen King’s advice for punchy writing: use the first (and often simplest) word that comes to mind to describe something. If Melina wants to run away from an armed thug, so be it. Don’t make her scurry, trot or scamper. Put the thesaurus away and let her run, dammit.
3. Easy on the characters. Reluctant readers spend much of their energy just making sense of the words on the page. Their working memory is occupied with the task of decoding – so expecting them to remember a variety of characters (plus their backstories and idiosyncrasies) is asking too much. Stick to your main character, an antagonist, and one or maybe two sidekicks. Any characters beyond that should be familiar to young readers (a coach, a parent etc.) and simply sketched.
4. Raise the stakes. Give your character(s) a problem. How do they react? Then make it worse. How do they react? Then…make it worse (hey, you’re the boss around here!). How do they cope now? Don’t go easy on your people. We want to see them sweat. The best stories are the ones where characters grapple with and eventually overcome challenges – and learn about themselves in the process.
One more thing about plot…don’t feel like just because you’re writing for teens, you need to jam your story full of capital-I Issues. Sure, some of our nation’s children are dealing with ghetto living, teen pregnancy, eating disorders and emotional abuse – but young readers are just as commonly interested in stories that feature day-to-day issues faced by teens in today’s world.
5. Make your dialogue pop. Your characters should speak on the page like they do in the real world. Not sure how real conversation sounds? Head to your local coffee shop (or play a clip from your favourite movie), turn your back or close your eyes, and listen. We use contractions. We ask questions. We sigh. We interrupt each other. Our intonation changes depending on our level of excitement. Sometimes – you’ll have to open your eyes for this one – we use gestures. All of this should be present in your dialogue, to bring your characters to life. The only things that shouldn’t be there are what we call distractors: the ums, ahs and likes that we tend to pepper our real-world speech with. They’re not noticeable when we’re conversing with our best friend, but if the words keep showing up on the page, they become awkward and – oddly – inauthentic. Study well-written dialogue to see how it’s done.
One last note about dialogue. When it comes to writing for reluctant readers, “said” really isn’t dead. In fact, it’s the best attribution out there because it’s unobtrusive. It functions simply to direct our attention to the character who’s speaking – and it doesn’t take our attention away from what’s actually being said. Newspaper and magazine writers get this. They don’t sprinkle their stories with things like, “I had a great time”, she gushed or “It was a dramatic day in the House of Commons,” he warbled. Stick to said most of the time, and then when you do have occasion to use shouted or yelled or whispered or moaned, it will pack the punch you want it to.
6. Keep it real. There’s a reason people keep lining up to shell out big bucks for Hollywood movies. We like to watch the story unfold in front of our eyes. Just like listening to authentic conversations helps you to write believable dialogue, you must observe people in the real world to write convincing narrative. When you write a scene, pay attention to what your characters actually look like as they’re talking/walking/arguing/chopping vegetables. Write their words exactly as you would hear real people saying them. Write their movements as though you’re watching them with a camera. (When I edit other authors’ manuscripts, Camera up! is my most commonly used phrase. I use it whenever I come across a scene that needs more depth, emotion or real-life feeling.)
7. Hang it up. Remember, you’re writing for reluctant readers. Emphasis on the word reluctant. Once that kid puts the book down, you want him to pick it back up, right? (And I say him, because research shows the majority of reluctant readers are males.) To keep those pages turning, try to leave your chapters on a question, a decision point, or even a cliffhanger. Is he going to do it? What will it cost him if he does? Will she make it out alive? This sets up a desire within the reader to know more, and to keep reading to find out what happens.
There you have it. A lucky seven strategies to help you break into the world of hi-lo publishing. Camera up! And, uh, break a leg.
Following is a list of a few examples of good stories for reluctant readers:
Harvey, Sarah N. — Plastic
McClintock, Norah — Back
Mac, Carrie — Jacked
Rodman, Sean — Infiltration
Schwartz, Ellen — Cellular
Stevenson, Robin — In the Woods
Walters, Eric — Special Edward
Alex Van Tol grew up reading a wide range of books, from Enid Blyton to Stephen King. She taught middle school for eight years, then made the switch to writing for a living. She has published numerous hi-lo titles with Orca, including books in the Orca Currents, Orca Soundings and Orca Sports series. Alex lives in Victoria, British Columbia, with her family. Visit www.alexvantol.com for more information.