Monday, October 20, 2014

Hitting the Target Without Really Trying

     The question I am most asked by parents is "What is the reading level of your books?"

     I am currently teaching an adult class on writing for children.  The first question I am usually asked by those students is "How do you write at an appropriate reading difficulty for an age group?"

    Those questions are not as easy to answer as you might think.

     Carmela's Friday post stated that in reaching "reluctant readers" a writer should simply write whatever they are passionate about and the readers will follow.  I have most certainly found this to be true.

     When I first began writing, "targeting" a group, or writing with a specific grade level vocabulary never crossed my mind.  Thanks to years and years of working in children's library service, I have read thousands and thousands of children's books for all ages.  When I write, my brain goes into "child mode."  That's just the way I write, period.  My normal style involves short sentences and short paragraphs using simple words.

     I was not aware of my writing style, until my then elementary school-aged daughter introduced me to "Accelerated Reader."  This was the program her school used for "pleasure" reading. (I am not sure how pleasurable it was since it was required.)  Only books on the Accelerated Reader program were counted for the reading grade.  Books had point values, based on complexity of language and interest level.

    I was thrilled to learn that all my books were on the Accelerated Reader list, which increased the likelihood of their purchase by a school library. However, I was puzzled to learn that my middle grade books, Yankee Girl and Jimmy's Stars, were not being read by the fourth and fifth graders, my intended audience.

     The mystery was solved when one of my daughter's friends told me how much she liked Jimmy's Stars "even though it doesn't have many points."  A trip to the school library informed me that both of the books had a point value of 3.  For comparison, anything written by J.K. Rowling had a point value of upwards of 7.  That particular year, my daughter was supposed to read 7 points worth every six weeks.  How could I compete with Harry Potter?

     A little digging into the mysteries of Accelerated Reader yielded the information that while my middle grade books had a third grade reading level, their content was appropriate for upper fifth grade and sixth grade students.  Considering that the subjects of those books were Civil Rights Era Mississippi and the ravages of World War II, I thought that was a fair evaluation.

     Then parents began to ask me that troublesome reading level question.  This was often prefaced with something like, "My daughter is in second grade but she reads on a fourth grade level. She should be able to read your books, right?"

     I found myself in the strange position of talking down my own books. While the child in question would be able to read and recognize the words I had written, would they be able to understand the events in the book?  It had never occurred to me that a seven-year-old might read those books.  Tough things happen in them:  racial prejudice, death, violence.  Although I didn't "target" my writing, I didn't think anyone under ten would be reading them.  I started hedging my answers by telling parents they could buy the book but perhaps they should put it away until their child was older.  Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't.  No matter what I said, some parents completely missed the fact that some "low reading level" material might contain concepts too mature or sophisticated for a first grader who was "a really good reader."

     What did I learn from this experience?  Did this cause me to become a cautious, self-censoring writer?  Do I now write in a more complex style?


     I write what I am passionate about.  I write for my inner eleven-year-old.  It's the best that I can do.  It's all any of us can do.

     Don't forget to enter our latest book giveaway for a chance to win a copy of the 2015 Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market.  See Carmela's post for details.

     The giveaway ends Oct 31.

     Best of luck,  Mary Ann


Carmela Martino said...

Great post, MA! This is especially valuable for writers who are new to writing for children/teens!

LInda Baie said...

This topic of AR makes me grit my teeth. I know that some schools won't allow children to read any book not on their AR level. Of course your books shouldn't be for 7 year olds, they should be for children interested in the topic, wanting to learn more via good historical fiction. I think AR just hurt my grandson's love of reading. A school where he was in 4th & 5th grade used it. I never thought of it from the author's pov, ugh, what a big problem. Glad you wrote about this, Mary Ann!

April Halprin Wayland said...

Here, here, Mary Ann:

"I write what I am passionate about. I write for my inner eleven-year-old. It's the best that I can do. It's all any of us can do."

Thanks for waving this flag high!

mary ann rodman said...

Linda--It's good to find a sympathetic soul in the matter of proscribed reading programs. My daughter' school was one where only "books on the list counted"
AND they had to be "at your grade level or higher" leaving only third graders reading my books. When money got tight, AR books were the ONLY books bought by the school. Sigh.
April--That's the great thing about what we do...we right what excites us. If we aren't passionated about what we write, we can't expect readers to enjoy reading it.

Bobbi Miller said...

What a strong, and relevant, discussion! Thank you!