Playing With Fire, my latest literacy learner novel, is now out with Orca’s Rapid Reads program. It’s the second in a mystery series featuring Claire Abbott and I’m delighted to say it was included on 49th Shelf’s list of “Unputdownable” thrillers.
The book is my fifth literacy learner novella and I have another Claire Abbott book coming out next year. I love writing these short novels for ESL students or those working to improve their literacy skills. But they have sometimes confused other readers who wonder why the books are so different in style, content and reading level from my literary novels.
So, I’ll explain.
First off, these literacy learner novels are geared to a very specific market, one that had, until recently, been all but ignored by most publishers. They are written for ESL or adult literacy learners, those struggling with literacy issues, or, as the Rapid Reads program description puts it, “anyone who wants a high-interest quick read.”
As a result, the novellas are very short, between 12,000 and 20,000 words and the reading level is kept purposefully low. My novella Coyote’s Song is written at just a grade two level. Others are up to grade six.
I was first asked to write these books within ABC Life Literacy's Good Reads Program, published by Grass Roots Press, and enjoyed the experience so much that I jumped at the chance to write for Orca's Rapid Reads.
Writing a literacy learner novel is more complex than one might imagine. We have to consider that many of our readers may not understand a given cultural reference or metaphor, or the kind of subtext that most readers take for granted.
Chapters are short, between 500 and 1,000 words. Sentences must also be short, and simple, no more than fifteen words in length. Word choice is everything. We go for the simplest, most common word. As a result, I find editing one of these projects is often more time consuming than with my literary novels. My editor and I often debate whether or not a reader will understand a given word or phrase, and what we can replace it with.
The struggling reader may also have difficulty keeping tabs on a number of characters. So the narrative can feature, say, a cast of five characters at most and their names must be very different from each other.
Flashbacks can confuse a literacy learner, so we avoid these. And we steer away from subplots which, again, can confuse a struggling reader.
Most importantly, the whole point of writing these books is to engage a reader who struggles to read, to keep them reading. So plot is everything. Where, in a literary novel I would spend much more time focussing on character development, in a literacy learner novel I take a page from the writing of my commercial brethren and focus much more on that narrative arrow, on what’s happening, what’s at stake, to keep the struggling reader involved in the story. For the first time in my writing career, I end chapters with cliff-hangers.
Lastly, I’m writing for adults, not children or teens, so the content and perspective must be relevant to them. As this Toronto Star article points out, for so many years, adult ESL and literacy learner readers were forced to read books written for teens or children. How disheartening.
But now the adult literacy learner books look like any bestseller geared to the adult market. I’m hearing back from many adult literacy learner readers who tell me one of my novels was the first they ever read and that experience inspired them to become avid readers. For a writer, there is no greater compliment than that.