For the book I co-wrote on reaching reluctant teen readers, I conducted interviews with several YA authors: here are just a few soundbites of authors answering the question: what do you think makes a good book for a reluctant reader?
|Jack Gantos: A book with a voice and story that is genuine to young adults. I don’t see reluctant readers as ‘poor’ readers, but readers who are not often interested in books. For them reading is an occasional choice so when I write a ‘young adult’ book I’m also making a choice to connect with them in an honest, and non-condescending way.
Brent Hartinger: If there’s one thing that I wish I could impress upon all writers for young people, it’s that we’re writing for the reader, not for ourselves. Today’s readers have a million entertainment options, most of which are far flashier and more immediately engaging than books. Rather than lay down our arms and retreat into our tried and well-trod ways of doing things, we need to reinvent ourselves and meet today’s readers of their own terms. The pace of the world has changed, and we simply have to keep up, or we will meander our way into complete irrelevancy. That isn’t to say “The reader is never wrong,” or that we should dumb our books down. But I firmly believe there’s nothing wrong with rethinking things. The era of the “quiet, slice-of-life” novel is probably gone forever, as is the era of the sweeping, Dickensian novel, where it takes twenty pages to describe a tea pot. In short, we need to get to the point. .
Gordon Korman: Often the battle is fought and won before the reader even opens the novel to page one. I find that many of the reluctant readers who enjoyed Son Of The Mob were sold on premise alone. Mobster’s son dates FBI agent’s daughter. It was just something they wanted to find out more about. That’s not to say that the novel itself is irrelevant– it has to hold teens, reluctant readers even more so. I have another book coming out called Born To Rock, about a kid who discovers that his biological father was a punk rock star from the 1980s, that seems to have that kind of hook. That doesn’t make those novels better than my other novels; it just makes them an easy sell to reluctant readers.
Shelley Stoehr: A good book for a reluctant reader should have lots of dialogue–realistic, “teen speak” dialogue. It should deal with issues not often discussed, but which are important to teens. The opinions of publishers, parents, librarians, teachers and booksellers should all come second to the opinions of the readers, and readers should be enabled in the sincere belief that this is a book written for them, that they are reading out of choice, not responsibility.
Amanda Jenkins: By the time readers are teens, their interests are so varied I think it’d be a disservice to say that one or two things in particular make books right for reluctant readers. So I’ll just say I feel there’s too much snobbery about what constitutes worthwhile reading. Some kids are not hooked by straight-on fiction in novel form, but will devour graphic novels, nonfiction, magazines, manga series, or comic books. Some kids do like novels, but prefer books that aren’t considered “literary”–humor and series fiction come to mind. Maybe it’s not that every single one of these kids hates to read, maybe it’s that we aren’t valuing what they ‘do’ like to read. It doesn’t count unless pre-approved as proper reading material, so to speak.
Neal Shusterman: First off, it needs to grab the reader’s attention, and hold it. The reader must care about what happens next, and must care about the characters. A good reluctant reader book will have many levels to challenge the reader — because a “reluctant reader” doesn’t mean a kid who isn’t smart. Many readers are reluctant because they don’t have patience for a book that doesn’t engage them. An engaging book will make a reader think, feel, and allow the reader to delve deeper, if they choose to.
Shelly Hrdlitschka: I think the ‘problem’ needs to be established right from the outset, and the reader’s curiosity must be engaged very quickly. A book with long lovely passages of description will probably lose a reluctant teen reader very quickly. The story should be emotionally engaging, and fairly fast-paced with short chapters. That said, reluctant readers do not necessarily want ‘easy’ stories, ones without substance. I think it mostly comes down to the way a story is told. Reluctant readers probably aren’t patient readers. The want to be pulled in from page one, and kept engaged throughout the rest of the book. The book can have many layers of meaning etc., but the writing should be brisk. If the reader’s mind is given the opportunity to wander away from the story, you risk losing them.
Jess Mowry: Although somewhat of a stereotype, it’s been my experience that youth who don’t like to read are often “cool” or “tough” kids, and/or kids with more experience on the rougher side of life than many of their peers. Though most of my books so far have been set in U.S. inner cities, feature a cast of all black or mostly black characters, and deal with issues and situations these youth face in their daily lives ( “gangs, guns, drugs and violence”) I don’t think it matters a lot to many young readers–readers of any color–where the story is set, or what color the characters are, as long as the story is “on the real” and told in a way–language, description, etc.– that they can relate to. This means that a YA author should try to choose language and expressions that he or she thinks will stay around for a while; or at least language and expressions that (hopefully) will not become so dated as to be “uncool,” or even come to mean just the opposite of what they meant when they WERE cool.
Joyce Sweeney: My books tend to get nominated and chosen for Quick Picks much more than for BBYA, (Takedown, Players, Free Fall, etc.) so over the years I’ve come to think of myself as a writer for reluctant readers. I think that’s more organic than strategic, meaning, I just write the kind of books reluctant readers like. I personally like to write plot-driven, high action stories, often with male protagonists. I’m interested in sports (and sports entertainment!) I like the outdoors and frankly, I love to write a good fight scene.
Michael Cart: One is that the subject must be of compelling interest to the potential reader; that’s why I try to find themes that are directly relevant to teens and address issues–love and sex, family, the future, etc.–that impact their daily lives. A second is brevity, which is why short stories are good to use with reluctant readers, though the Harry Potter phenomenon proves that if the book is sufficiently interesting, length really doesn’t matter.
David Lubar: Plot is key. If you can’t give a good, concise answer to “What’s it about?” you can’t interest a reluctant reader in a book. Stuff has to happen. But plot is more than that. A good book has a series of unanswered questions woven through it like threads through a tapestry. Some threads stretch across the whole book (will Martin get out of the alternative school?), while others are just long enough to make the reader turn the page or go to the next chapter (where’d that scream come from?). From ancient times through to the present, writers have held readers by telling a good story. Dialogue brings a book to life. It also makes a page look less daunting. There’s nothing that will turn a reader off faster than a hulking block of unbroken text that stretches for a couple pages without any sign that the writer has a functioning TAB key. A book isn’t just words. It is words on a page. I often break up a paragraph if it looks too long. Just as I’ll insert dialogue into a scene if there’s too much unbroken exposition. This is not a trick or a gimmick. It’s part of the craft, and needs to be done with skill. The dialogue has to be authentic. Each character has his own voice. The reader needs to hear the words come alive. Description is essential for creating an image in the reader’s mind, but excessive description is murder. The point of description is not so show that the writer is clever or owns a thesaurus. Description must serve the story. Flaubert lost me on page two when he dedicated a whole paragraph to describing a hat. This doesn’t mean I have a problem with a long passage of description–not if the writing is interesting. But, to return to the tapestry metaphor, I tend to weave snips of description among bits of action and dialogue.
Kathe Koja: When I find myself reluctant to read something, it’s almost always because to me, that particular book looks like all work and no play: too long, or too dull, or too much like a mental bran muffin. Books meant for reluctant readers need to indicate that there’s pleasure to be had inside. By this I don’t mean it has to look like Teen People or be pamphlet-sized, but it has to convey (cover art, flap copy, etc.) that reading this will feel good to your brain.
Julie Ann Peters: Relevancy, authenticity, character identification, story, accessibility, and any number of intangible factors. Speaking as a reformed non-reader myself, the books I eventually chose to read were ones where I could see my own life reflected in the characters and their stories. Good books for reluctant readers have the same quality as books for enthusiastic readers: Intimacy and resonance.
Will Weaver: Probably a thin one. The book cannot be intimidating in size. As well, cover art is a big part of attracting the reluctant reader; the right visual signals are needed, ones that do not suggest “weird” or complicated matters. And of course, subject matter: matching the reader with the right book, which is where attentive teachers and librarians come in. All of this is not to say that novels for reluctant readers must be bone-head simple; rather, I’m speaking more of the overall style of the book (size, cover art, prose, etc.). We all know books that are deeply layered in meaning—for example, The Old Man and the Sea–yet at first glance appear thin and very simple. A better word than ‘simple’ might be elemental—pared down to the essential elements of narrative, but with a worthwhile plot–that’s my idea of a novel for the reluctant reader.
Marilyn Reynolds: I don’t think there’s any particular formula for reluctant readers. Most readers, ranging from reluctant to avid, want a good story that’s well told, with believable characters worth loving and/or hating. A bit of humor helps. We readers don’t like to struggle with who said what, when. We want the dialogue to be clear and zippy. In books, as in life, we’re not wild about characters who speak in lengthy paragraphs. Most of all, we want a story that, in some usually inexplicable way, feeds our soul. My own with reluctant readers has mainly been with those who fall into the “at-risk” category. These potential readers are often hungry to read something that reflects life as they know it. Something that allows them to think they’re not the only ones with big problems, and that allows them to consider such problems at a safe distance. These kids gravitate toward edgy, realistic teen fiction, and once they get started there’s no stopping them.