Hook the reluctant reader.
It’s the phrase that pays. I’ve heard it many times over the last year. Almost every editor at the last two conferences I went to said it, and last week I heard literary agent, Mary Kole say it.
But I am also familiar with the concept, not just as a writer, but as a mom.
Because I gave birth to not one, but two reluctant readers.
I love to read, always have, so of course my kids went to the library and story time every week. I read to them every day. Every birthday there was always a book along with whatever else they asked for and their shelves were filled with A Series of Unfortunate Events, Junie B. Jones and of course Harry Potter.
Still they didn’t always see books like I did—a companion, a gateway into another world, or simply pure entertainment. When they cried, I am bored! I pointed at their bookshelves and they shrugged.
They didn’t want to curl up with a book, not like I longed to do when I was a kid.
Oh sure, my son read every Harry Potter book, but it really was an exception.
My kids read, but sparingly.
So I turned into a book pusher.
Especially when it came to my son, because like I learned at the last SCBWI conference, agents are always looking for that elusive boy book. When they talk about their wish list, they get that faraway look, the one that makes me wonder if they see it as some sparkly, unattainable unicorn.
So what will these boys read?
Well, when my son was in elementary school he read Captain Underpants, Andy Griffith’s Butt series and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. You get the idea. It had to be funny, outrageous, and weird if he was going to read it.
He was also drawn to the Guinness Book of World Records—every year he got the new edition. Again, I guess it was the funny, outrageous and weird.
I brought book after book home from the library, without much luck. Finally, when he was in middle school, I found a winner, Swim the Fly by Don Calame. He read it in record time, even passed it onto a friend (one who read even less than my son did). I read it too, because I needed to know what elixir seeped from Don Calame’s fingers and onto the page.
From the NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW August 13, 2009:
“A raucous PG-13 comedy. Don Calame, a screenwriter, serves up jokes and gross-outs in the style of filmmakers like Judd Apatow… In the war between the sexes on the young adult bookshelves, “Swim the Fly” occupies the low ground of offensive, knuckleheaded fun. Which is to say, boys will probably love it. This one did.”
The magical elixir was humor, the kind your parents often shush you for, so I got the appeal. After that, I searched for books about young teen boys who crush on the girl but don’t have a clue how to talk to her, resulting in funny hijinks.
Storky: How I Lost My Nickname and Won the Girl by D.L. Garfinkle
Carter Finally Gets it by Brent Crawford
King of the Screwups by K.L. Going
Some delved into deeper territory and yet he still read:
Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson and books by Chris Crutcher.
Then my son started high school. I told him about John Green’s Paper Towns. It had a lot of the key elements, the out of reach girl, the friendships, the adventure, it was a bit more sophisticated than Swim the Fly, a little more thoughtful, but still I thought it was great and there were parts where I laughed out loud.
So he bought the book, but he still hasn’t read it.
Really, it’s not the book. I think he would’ve read it two years ago. After all he bought it based on the book’s blurb and what I told him about it. It was just that now that he’s in high school, there’s too much to compete with—homework and the books he has to read for English (by the way he did “like” Fahrenheit 451, but he is cursing Hamlet), the internet, video games, hanging out with his friends, cross country practice, piano practice.
Is he too busy or is it a serious case of Reluctant Reader? If a new Harry Potter book came out right now, would it *gasp* languish unread? I don’t know. I imagine (and hope) he will eventually find his way back to reading for fun.
This week I asked him, “If you wanted to read, what would you look for?” The answer wasn’t so mysterious–male protagonist, a crush (even if it doesn’t play a prominent role) and some adventure or issue. Interestingly he said the book no longer has to be funny. Or feature Quidditch or gas.
There are so many books I would recommend to him, if only he wanted to read:
OKAY FOR NOW BY Gary D. Schmidt, READY PLAYER ONE by Ernest Cline and TRAPPED by Michael Northrup are just a few.
So maybe you can pass these gems on to a younger reader (or less reluctant one), because I can’t stop with the book pushing. I am already on the hunt for something a little older for my son.
Because as Mary Kole pointed out– kids read up. A book’s audience will often be a couple of years younger than the protagonist (or decades older in my own case).
I keep thinking about Harry Potter standing on platform 9 ½ at the end of the last book, all grown up. Like HP, kids grow up.
But thankfully like HP, there is the next generation standing on the platform ready for the world, or the next great book.
So keep pushing and writing great books!
What magical books do you push? If you write for kids, do think about the reluctant reader?
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Have a great week!