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An Author's Tips for Hooking Reluctant Readers

A while back, I was shopping in the book section of Costco, a tempting place for a book-lover. While browsing the latest thrillers, I overheard this exchange between a middle-school girl and her mother.

Girl: "But why can't I read The Da Vinci Code?" Mom: "It's a grown-up book, honey. Here, take this one." Girl: "The Hobbit? I don't want to read that; it's a little kid's book." Mom: "We want you to read The Hobbit."

At that point, I felt like stepping in and saying, "Excuse me, ma'am, I'm an author. Step away from The Hobbit. Let the girl read what she likes."

The truth is, it's hard enough to get some kids to put their nose in a book. No need to complicate matters by trying to make them read something they don't like.

Educators, parents and authors all want to keep reluctant readers reading. But those readers can be finickier than a roomful of felines at a cat food taste test. Maybe they know what they like; maybe they only know what they don't like.

I believe that all it takes to create a reader is the right book. Finding that tale is the trick.

So how do you pick books that will hook reluctant readers? Each child is different, with very particular tastes. Nevertheless, here are some key elements that engage child readers, along with some suggested titles:

HUMOR Whether you hate or love Captain Underpants, you can't deny that his humor captures readers - especially boys. Kids love to laugh, and if you can put funny books in their hands, they'll keep gobbling 'em up.

Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey Time Warp Trio by Jon Scieszka Bunnicula: A Rabbit Tale of Mystery by Deborah and James Howe The Chet Gecko Mysteries by Bruce Hale Mr. Chickee's Funny Money by Christopher Paul Curtis

SYMPATHETIC CHARACTERS, ACCESSIBLE WRITING Whatever genre the story falls into, it must have a main character that the reader claims as a friend. And just as important, the tale must be told in concise, vigorous writing. Reluctant readers don't have the patience to slog through lengthy or convoluted prose.

Amber Brown by Paula Danziger Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee The Hank Zipzer series by Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver Superfudge by Judy Blume

FANTASY Kids love books that take a compelling "what if" (what if a treehouse was a time machine? what if a boy went to wizard school?) and spin out a story. Alternate worlds, magical happenings, extraterrestrials - all of these can capture the unmotivated reader's imagination.

Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling The Bartimeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud My Teacher Is an Alien by Bruce Coville Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

ACTION With so much competition from movies, TV and videogames, books must move if they want to entice. Slow-paced stories are fine for more experienced readers, but reluctant readers need books that hit the ground running.

Alex Rider by Anthony Horowitz Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer The Redwall books by Brian Jacques Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

THE PROMISE THAT SOMETHING WILL HAPPEN This is why we all read, to see what happens next in the story. A book that builds suspense early on and maintains it will keep kids reading.

Animorphs by K.A. Applegate Holes by Louis Sachar Matt Christopher Sports Series by Matt Christopher Goosebumps by R.L. Stine

SERIES Series are training-wheel books. They provide familiar characters in a familiar world that's easier to lose yourself in with each new title. Series books build literacy skills and create new readers.

A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket Judy Moody by Megan McDonald Percy Jackson & The Olympians by Rick Riordan The Magic Schoolbus series by Joanna Cole

STRONG VISUALS Graphic novels, manga, and comic books, with their strong visual content, will hook plenty of reluctant readers - especially boys and ESL readers. These books can serve as a stepping-stone to longer fiction.

Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai Bone by Jeff Smith Groo the Wanderer by Sergio Aragones Babymouse by Jennifer and Matthew Holm

SEEING THEMSELVES Some reluctant readers don't want fantasy; they want the real world. If we take the time to give them books with multicultural characters they can identify with, those readers will respond.

Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan Bucking the Sarge by Christopher Paul Curtis Who Am I Without Him? Sharon Flake (YA)

Some say that it's not good to give kids certain kinds of books, that it's not wise to let them read comic books or escapist literature. Personally, I'm happy if kids read almost anything - magazines, video game instructions, cereal boxes, or the writing on the wall - as long as they're reading.

First we have to show them that reading can be fun. Only after that goal is accomplished can we offer them more challenging books that will open up their minds.

If we want to have a literate nation in the future, reaching reluctant readers now is our first task. (After that, we can focus on playing "book police" at Costco. Just kidding.)


About the Author

Bruce Hale is the author of over 20 books for kids, including the Edgar-nominated series, The Chet Gecko Mysteries, and the forthcoming graphic novel/fiction series, Underwhere. He speaks at schools, conferences, and businesses across North America. You can find Bruce on the Web at: http://www.brucehale.com

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