Thursday, May 10, 2012

Getting a Handle on Easy Readers

When I decided to try writing easy reader books, my first move was to see what kind of instructional material I could find. After all, there are lots and lots of books about writing for kids.

At least that's what I thought. The truth was a little different.

There are lots and lots of books about writing picture books. And there are lots and lots of books about writing young adult books. Easy reader and chapter books generally get a handful of pages in those books. And those pages generally give you a few simple guidelines and not much more. The most frequently given advice is to study some of the existing books and do the same sort of thing.

I guess the most profitable areas for writers are the picture books and YA books. It makes sense that they would get the most attention.

But it's not much help if you really want to write easy readers or chapter books.

I'll try to pass on some of what I've learned about writing them in future posts. In this post I'd just like to tell you about my approach.

The way I see it, there are two ways to get better at something. One is to study the nuts and bolts of what's involved, and the other is to just try doing it. Both are important.

Let's say you want to get better at playing basketball. You'll end up spending some time practicing -- learning how to dribble, how to pass, and how to shoot. You'll focus on proper mechanics and learning the rules of the game. This can be a dreary part of the process, but it's important.

But it's equally important to just get out there and play some basketball with friends. It's more fun, of course, and it doesn't feel like practice. But you learn a lot when you do it. You learn to tie all those things you practiced into a coherent whole, and you learn skills that you don't necessarily learn in practice. For example, you learn to anticipate where your teammates are going and how to match wits with your opponents. And most people can play for a lot longer than they can focus on practicing, which helps them get better in other ways.

You learn to read the same way. Most easy readers are closely graded so youngsters can learn important vocabulary and sentence structure. They need graded readers. But if graded readers are all they get to read, it can be like practicing all the time.

It's just as important to find books that aren't necessarily a challenge to read but are fun to read. When kids have books that they want to read, that allow them to just "play the game" for a while without worrying about learning new things, they get better at what they already know. They develop the ability to do it for longer periods of time without strain. And in the process, they gain a greater capacity to learn new words and read more complex sentences because reading gets easier and less like work.

That's the approach I decided to take with my writing. There are plenty of graded readers out there. I'm trying to write books that are a little longer than the graded readers they use in school, but that focus on words they already know. I want the sentences to sound the way they really talk, so they feel more comfortable and natural. And I want them to feel that reading these fun books is fairly easy. If they feel more successful, hopefully they'll want to read more.

And the more they "play," the better they'll get at reading. The better they get, the more they'll enjoy reading. And the more they enjoy it, the more they'll want to read.

Of course, my books are "graded" as well. I don't want them to be too hard to read -- that would just make the kids give up too soon. But I'm not trying to push their reading levels as much as their comfort levels. I want them to get so good at reading that it's like play.

So that's how I decided to approach easy readers. I want them to be fun. And that's shaped the way I write them. As I said, I'll get more into that in future posts.

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