Tag Archive for Books for reluctant readers

Great Article: “Horrors! This Child Is Reading Horror!”

Thanks to Google Alerts, I found this terrific & timely article by Paula Willey in The Baltimore Sun. Willey does a great job here, writing calmly and directly about the value of “scary books” for (some) young readers.

My lovely daughter, Maggie, some years back. To our surprise, she loves horror. Loves it!

My lovely daughter, Maggie, some years back. To our surprise, Maggie loves horror. Loves it!

Personally, I got into scary books late in life, after many school visits where I met young readers who loved that shivery, edge-of-the-seat feeling. This is not just a Halloween thing, btw. An affection for horror goes year round. After raising two boys who never cared for horror — and openly said so, I should add — my sweet Maggie came along and she loves those creepy, crawly feelings. Go figure.

Another reason why I wrote “Scary Tales” in the way that it’s written — short, fast-paced, easy-to-read, series format — was because of all the reluctant readers I’ve met over the years. I’ve had them in my own kitchen, munching Doritos, blithely telling me how they don’t like books. So I challenged myself to write stories that attempted to be so entertaining & enjoyable that even these boys would read to the last page (they are, alas, almost invariably boys). I wanted them to experience that proud, “I just finished a whole book” feeling. And to then realize, “Hey, I kind of liked it. I’ll try another.”

In the old days of publishing, we’d call books in this category “Hi-Lo.” High-interest, low-reading level. My estimation is that “Scary Tales” is written somewhere on the 3rd-grade level, but with stories that appeal all the way up to 6th grade. The look is cool and edgy, so there’s no stigma to reading “baby” books.

Here’s a snip from the article. Thank you for the kind mention, Paula Willey!

ONE-EYED DOLL.

Art by Iacopo Bruno from  SCARY TALES: ONE-EYED DOLL.

Picture, if you will, a smiling, well-adjusted child. She’s tucked into a corner of the couch, reading happily, quiet but for the occasional giggle. Is that an “American Girl” book she’s reading? A silly fractured fairy tale? On the cover, you spy a slime-drenched, bloody snake; the title is spelled out in dripping, neon-bright letters: “The Zombie Chasers: World Zombination!”

Horrors! This child is reading horror!

Many grownups are a little uncomfortable when a kid exhibits a taste for stories of terror and mayhem. They worry that their children will become desensitized to violence or will have nightmares. Some just want their kids reading “better” books. There’s a perception that scary books like the “Goosebumps” series by R. L. Stine are of low literary quality and have no value.

It’s true that “Goosebumps” books, along with series like James Preller’s “Scary Tales,” “Spooksville” by Christopher Pike and P. J. Night’s “Creepover,” are short, formulaic, and written at a fairly low reading level. However, librarians know that these books sometimes play a crucial role in inviting children into reading, or helping a reader bridge the gap between books he is beginning to find “babyish” and longer books with more complexity.

Art by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES: NIGHTMARELAND.

Art by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES: NIGHTMARELAND.

Many people who grew up to be very accomplished readers — and writers — claim to have read nothing but “Goosebumps” for years when they were kids.

In addition, children are very aware of their ability to handle scary stuff. When I help a child pick out a book, I’ll often ask, “How do you do with scary books?” Of all the questions that I ask during the book selection process, this is the one they answer most forthrightly: “No scary books!” or “I can handle medium-scary.” And then there’s the little angel who proclaims, “The scarier the better!”

 

For the full article, click here.

Paula Willey is a librarian at the Parkville branch of the Baltimore County Public Library. She writes about children’s and teen literature for various national publications and online at unadulterated.us. 

 

 

Finding Inspiration for SCARY TALES: A New Part of My Writing Process (and an Excerpt, Too)

I just handed in the revised manuscript for my SCARY TALES series, which is chugging along. I have to say, I love writing these books, it’s like a faucet has been turned on all the way. I’m just gushing words, plot twists, stories.

This next one, the fifth in the series, will be titled either “The One-Eyed Witch” or “The One-Eyed Doll.” Honestly, doll is more accurate, but witch might be more appealing, especially to boy readers looking for any excuse NOT to pick up a book.

When I wrote the story, I paused early in the action to cast around the internet for images that would help me, and perhaps help the artist, Iacopo Bruno. It’s a new part of the process for me, which I started on the previous as-yet unpublished manuscript (that was set on a distant planet).

I have to admit, I feel a touch pretentious whenever I talk about “my process.” But at the same time, I find it interesting and know that others do, too. If there’s a take-away, maybe it’s that I published my first book in 1986 and that my methods of working are in constant evolution. It’s not like I’ve figured anything out yet. I’m still groping in the dark, searching.

Here’s the one image that really stuck in my head for the fifth book. Check it, people:

Don’t you love her? Don’t you want to hold her tight?

Or does she spell trouble?

Now maybe I shouldn’t do this, exposing my warts, but here’s a sample from the UNEDITED, UNCORRECTED manuscript I just handed in. The raw material. I think the scene explains itself, three kids, Malik and his little sister, Tiana, and a boy nicknamed “Soda Pop.”

———-

“Whatchu guys up to?” Soda Pop asked.

“Treasure huntin’,” Malik drawled. “You can come if you want.”

Soda Pop scratched his round belly, thinking it over. He said, “Got nothing else to do.” And he followed along.

Tiana skipped to the lead. The boys talked about baseball teams and how the all-star game didn’t mean nothing any more. “My dad says it ain’t what it used to be,” Arthur said.

Malik mused, “I can’t think of anything that is.”

“Take a look what I got,” Arthur said. He pulled out a thick stack of baseball cards from his back pocket. The two boys paused there on the ragged sidewalk, dandelions popping up from the cracks, flipping through the cards and commenting on each one.

After a while, Malik lifted his head. He looked up the street. He looked down the street. “Where’d she go to now?” he wondered aloud.

Soda Pop shrugged, unworried. “Off somewhere’s, I suppose.”

Malik peered down the road and there it stood in the distance, like a beaten fighter after fifteen rounds in the ring. The old place. A shivery feeling squeezed Malik’s heart like a sponge. “Come on,” he said, hurrying in the direction of the old place.

“Hold up,” Soda Pop said. He had dropped his cards to the curb.

“Not waiting,” Malik said. “Catch up if you want.” Off he went, walking fast, half running, in the direction of the old place. He called as he went, “Tiana? Hey, Tee? You holler if you hear me! Tiana, I’m not fooling around.”

There was no sign of his sister.

Malik walked the length of the block and now stood staring at the old place.

The dusty yard was overgrown with tall grass and untrimmed bushes. The front was closed up –- no easy way inside – and Malik figured it was unlikely that Tiana was in there. But his heart still had that squeezed-out feeling.

“Tiana!” he hollered. “You best not be inside that house.”

Malik’s nerves jumped like live wires on the street. An inner voice told him, This is no place for a little girl. Find your sister right now.

Pasty-faced Soda Pop pulled up, bent over and wheezing, short of breath. “Anybody –“ pause, gasp – “ever told you –“ pause, pant – “you walk too fast?”

“Let’s check around back,” Malik replied, all business.

“I ain’t going back there,” Soda Pop said. “Not for a bag of gummy worms, I wouldn’t. You know what folks say. A widow lady went crazy in there, before we was born. They took her away, loony as a jay bird. Place is haunted. Nope, I’m not going back there.”

“Suit yourself,” Malik shrugged.

And he went off, careful not to pass too near the old place, still looking for his lost sister.


——


He found Tiana squatting in the dirt about fifty feet behind the house. The edges of her dress were dirty and soiled.

“Tee,” he called out. “You shouldn’t be back here.”

“I found something.”

“Nevermind that, let’s go,” Malik said.

“For real,” Tiana said. “Come see for yourself.”

The girl held a short, thick stick. When Malik stepped up, he could see that she had scraped a gash about four inches deep into the earth. And sure enough, something was buried down there.

Malik got on his knees for closer study. “It looks like a piece of wood or –“

“It’s a box,” Tiana said.

Malik turned to look at her. “How would you know?”

Tiana shrugged and blew a wild strand of black hair from her eyes. “I just do.”

“Soda Pop!” Malik shouted. “Best come back here right now.” He waited, listening. He called again, “Tiana maybe found treasure.”

That got him moving.

It took some digging, but the work went faster after Malik fetched a small hand shovel from home. Twenty minutes later, they unearthed an old wooden box about the size of a loaf of bread. There was a padlock on it.

The three children sat wilting under the sun, staring at the box.

“Why would anybody bury a box?” Malik asked.

“Locked shut, too,” Soda Pop said. “Must be something valuable inside.”

“It’s been nailed closed, too,” Malik said. “See here?” He pointed to the nail heads, two on each corner of the box.

Tiana grew quiet, eyes shut. When she opened them, the little girl said, “She wants us to open it.”

Soda Pop snorted. “What are you talking about, Tiana?”

Tiana blinked, mouth shut. There was a far-away look in her eyes. “Nothing,” she answered. “I didn’t mean nothing by it.”

BEA 2013: “James Preller: Pursuing a New Direction” (and a Photo Op with R.L. Stine)

Just passing along an article by the very kind Sally Lodge, who phoned me a couple of weeks back. We chatted for a while and the result of that conversation was this article that appeared in a special edition of Publishers Weekly for Book Expo America (BEA).

And yes, while I was in NYC, I stood next to R.L. Stine and tried to hug him. Thanks to Kathryn Little for the snap!

He might not have loved it, hard to say. But actually, we spoke amiably in front of a video camera, so maybe a cool clip will come of it at some point down the road. But I digress!

Here’s the article:

The author of the Jigsaw Jones Mysteries ventures onto chilling turf in his latest series, Scary Tales, which premieres in July with Home Sweet Horror. James Preller calls the project, published by Feiwel and Friends, a “massive departure for me. I’ve always really adhered to realistic fiction. If someone had said that I would be writing a novel about zombies outside of a school—that happens in the third book—I would have said, ‘That’s ridiculous!’ But what’s interesting to me is how the other characters, ordinary people, respond to and interact with those zombies. With this series, I’m giving myself new freedom, and I’m really having fun with it.”

Preller’s inspiration for Scary Tales had several sources. His most recent fiction has been geared to older readers, including middle-grade novels Six Innings and Bystander, and Before You Go, his debut YA. “I hadn’t written anything for the second- and third-grade audience for a while, and I wanted to get back to that,” he says. “I hear from teachers and librarians that kids love scary books and that there isn’t much that is fresh and new in that area.”

The author’s fondness for old Twilight Zone episodes also fueled his imagination. “I love that the show spans a number of genres, from science fiction to gangster stories,” he says. “I want to do something similar with Scary Tales. I see these books existing on a broader canvas than just being scary. The series is not going to be just one ghost story after another. Each will be different, though all will have an intellectual twist at the end that will blow readers’ minds a little.”

Preller is hopeful that Scary Tales will provide kids with “a positive, fun reading experience” and will snare reluctant readers. “To attract reluctant readers who might need an easier read, a book can’t look babyish,” he observes. “But if it looks cool, they’ll pick it up. I am hoping the series will reach those readers, especially boys. That is a very important readership for me — reaching them is something I feel passionate about.”

SCARY TALES #2: The Rough Cover Becomes the Final

A few months back I posted the rough cover for SCARY TALES #2: I Scream, You Scream.

Today I received a lo-res file of the final cover.

In cases like this, I’m not just an author, I’m a fan of the process. I enjoy looking at the subtle variations, the minor shifts in design and emphasis, how we get from Point A to Point B. Most of what we see here I imagine as a result of the art director’s tweaks and refinements, combined with a talented illustrator, Italy’s Iacopo Bruno, getting down to the real work.

I’m a kid in 2nd, 3rd, maybe 4th grade? Yes, I’ll check out that book!

I’ve said elsewhere that as an author I’ve come to think of the book cover as “theirs,” meaning: the publisher’s. They want to sell the book just as badly as I do, and have a ton more expertise. I don’t really have much say in it, so don’t take the blame and can’t accept the credit. The primary job of the cover is to get a potential reader to pick up the book. Cut through the clutter. But not to cheat in doing it, not to promise something that the book can’t deliver. A cover should reflect the book’s best qualities and somehow, magically, arouse a reader’s curiosity.

This is a great cover, in my opinion. I just hope the author didn’t screw up the insides.

Getting Boys to Read: Two Authors Chat About It (Part 1)

Over the past couple of years, I’ve had numerous discussions under the broad subject of “books for boys” with fellow author Kurtis Scaletta. We’re both ex-boys, you see, and we care. So we’ve talked about the gender gap in reading, looked at the typical remedies, passed on book suggestions (Kurtis tells me I have to read this book by William Brozo), discussed the primary importance of modeling in the home, and more.

Recently we’ve encounted several mainstream articles on the subject. And rather than talk amongst ourselves, we decided to continue the discussion in the context of an online chat.

Please: feel free to comment, react, complain, applaud, question. We know that we don’t have the answers. But we also know that there’s something fundamentally unsettling to us as men about the tone and tenor of the entire conversation.

To set the stage, let’s look at a recent Associated Press article, written by Leanne Italie: “How to get boys to read? Try a book on farts.”

You can read the entire article by clicking on the link above. But here’s a few snippets for context:

Can fart jokes save the reading souls of boys?

You better hope so.

Boys have lagged behind girls in reading achievement for more than 20 years, but the gender gap now exists in nearly every state and has widened to mammoth proportions — as much as 10 percentage points in some, according to the Center on Education Policy.

“It certainly should set off alarm bells,” said the center’s director, Jack Jennings. “It’s a significant separation.”

Parents of reluctant readers complain that boys are forced to stick to stuffy required school lists that exclude nonfiction or silly subjects, or have teachers who cater to higher achievers and girls. They’re hoping books that exploit boys’ love of bodily functions and gross-out humor can close the gap.

<snip>

‘Just get ’em reading’

Butts, farts. Whatever, said Amelia Yunker, a children’s librarian in Farmington Hills, Mich. She hosted a grossology party with slime and an armpit noise demonstration. “Just get ’em reading. Worry about what they’re reading later.”

Again, please read the entire article — which quotes parents, librarians, and bestselling authors such as James Patterson, Jon Scieszka, Ray Sabini (who writes under the name, Raymond Bean), and Patrick Carman.

And now for the chat portion of today’s program:

JP: You can’t see me, but I’m slumped in my chair. It’s hard to respond to this article without sounding like a whining ninny.

KS: I see a story like that about once a month in the mainstream press, touting books like SweetFarts as the simple solution to this really complex problem.

JP: I just get sick and tired of seeing the same types of books listed in these discussions. Very lowest common denominator.

KS: It is lowest common denominator.

JP: I find it stultifying when I come across lists of “books for boys” that begin and end with all the usual standbys: bodily humor, nonstop action, cars and trucks, sports, violence, and so on.

KS: I think you give boys those books and you aren’t communicating that you value that boy’s mind very much or that you value reading. It seems to trivialize the whole thing.

JP: And let’s not forget that there are many kinds of boys, or that boys can be many things: sensitive, caring, troubled, dreamy, mild, lonely.

KS: Those lists and assumptions don’t do very well by boys or by books. They have such low expectations for both. That’s what bugs me the most.

JP: As I’ve said elsewhere, it’s not just farts and firetrucks. It can’t be.

KS: You give a boy a fart book and I wonder where it comes in that he understands reading is important and that you believe he is capable of high intellectual pursuits.

JP: Is it merely THE ACT of reading we value? I don’t think so.

KS: The real reasons boys become passionate readers is because they do find those books that make a real difference to them. “Home Run” books they are called. ONE book is proven to turn a reluctant reader into an avid reader. IF it is the right book. So you have to ask, “Is this likely to be that book?”

JP: But couldn’t it be argued that they need to begin with any kind of positive reading experience?

KS: Yeah, but I don’t really buy the story that teachers are brutalizing boys with all these terrible boring books. Mostly they read books that have had a huge kid response already. Books like The Outsiders or Maniac Magee or some other book that millions of boys have read and loved. So I don’t know where the negative experiences come in.

JP: I think it’s kind of intellectually lazy — and degrading — for teachers and librarians to hand boys some of these books. Though I have to add, that’s not been my observation of the teachers and librarians I’ve met over the years.

KS: That’s ultimately my complaint. My problem isn’t with the books. I think they should be out there and kids can read them if they want to. I just don’t like the message that boys are terrible readers and our only hope is to lower the bar.

JP: Amen.

KS: And I agree, it’s not teachers and librarians touting these simplistic solutions. It’s more mainstream press, reporters trying to find the funny lead to a complex story.

JP: Exactly. In the process, boys get reduced to primitive creatures capable only of banging on rocks and grunting. It’s condescending. And let’s not ignore the fact that, in this article at least, many of the advocates quoted here are the authors themselves. Their POV seems to be, “Buy my book; problem solved.”

KS: Ha. Yes, I admire Scieszka a lot for what he’s done, but of course he has a product line too and it’s hard to ignore that. Now James Patterson has his own “reading for boys” site, and of course he’s making fistfuls of cash off of his kids books line. It sounds bitter and jealous to mention it, but there it is. The handful of guys who are actually making a living at writing for boys are also pitched as the only hope to get boys to read and get to be the experts quoted in those articles. No room for a Preller or a Scaletta in that kind of story. So I guess I do take it personally.

JP: To be clear, in case I haven’t been: It’s not about the books. There are many, many great books out there for a wide variety of boy readers. So, yes, I think the media focus on grossology, etc., is completely misguided. We need to look at how we respond to boys in school and the messages we send. Most of all, I want to see fathers reading — that could make the single most powerful difference of all. When the focus shifts to the books, it all begins to feel like cynical marketing. I have no problem with “butt books” or whatever you want to call them, but let’s not begin to pretend they arrive riding on white horses, looking to save the day.

KS: Yes, I agree. And that’s what Sciezka says and Ray Bean says — that boys need male role models to read. The more I think about it, I just think those newspaper stories are lazy and half-assed. They want a compelling headline and don’t really care about the issue or the solution. We’re letting them frame the story and we shouldn’t.

JP: Word, Kurtis. But you know, I wish we had somebody really smart, like author Lewis Buzbee, to put it all in perspective for us. He’s so good at astute summation.

KS: Yeah, that would be great.

JP: Hey, look. Here comes Lewis now. What a coincidence!

LB: The problem that I have with such thinking is that it supposes that boys are all the same — farts and butts and such. Oh, a lot of boys like such stuff, I know I did. but that wasn’t all I liked. I hate to see any reader reduced to such a cynical — your word, JP, and a good one — description. In a way, such single-minded publishing may actually turn boys off reading. I mean, is that all books are; I can get that from my friends. Books are very intimate places, where one reader with one book can feel and think about the world in ways that are different than they might otherwise think and feel. I know that’s why I like reading.

JP: Thanks for stopping by, Lewis. We are not worthy!