Hi-lo books must engage both a reluctant and struggling reader. To that end, they have great covers, short word count, and feature subjects and a story that draws the reader in. There’s lots of white space and dialogue on the page. In other words, these books are a fast read.
Associate Publisher Ruth Linka on their hi-lo line:
“Orca has been publishing books for emerging readers for about 15 years. The hi-lo texts are written by authors passionate about literacy and excellent story. Unlike many other literacy-friendly texts ours are not abridged or simplified, they are written with the purpose of sharing the world of reading with kids who are not reading at level …
With all of our hi-lo fiction we aim to engage students in reading. This is done with excellent writing, engaging stories and also a broad range of characters who appeal to readers from all walks of life, cultures and interests. Our main goal is to make reading accessible and interesting to young readers.”
As you can see from their submission guidelines
, Orca, like many educational publishers, are looking for well-written, highly engaging books that are inclusive and appeal to a broad range of readers, ones that are written at a grade two to six level for readers working to improve literacy skills.
In fact, Orca is now looking for books for teens that hover around the grade one reading level for their new hi-lo series, Anchor
So, there is a market for hi-lo books. But should you write them?
Let’s look at the cons and pros of writing hi-lo.
First, hi-lo books are obviously very different from other kinds of writing, even within the children’s market. The subject matter must be interesting for a reader at a given age, but the reading level is low, which means a much more simplified sentence structure and vocabulary.
This may create problems for you, the author, when it comes to your established readership. I remember seeing a few confused reviews from readers. Why was the writing in my hi-lo books for adults so different from my literary novels?
The answer of course, was that I was writing for a different market, the educational market, with very different expectations and reading level.
I found myself explaining what hi-lo books were to my established audience. This may be true of those of you who write children’s or young adult fiction as well. For your established audience, the difference in reading level may prove confusing.
And the advances on these books, as with most children’s books, is small. So it’s important to work out an outline beforehand and write quickly to make the time you put into the project worth the return. But that’s true of nearly any writing project and, let’s face it, we always put more time into a project than we hope to recover financially.
Still, when writing hi-lo, I make a point of writing a synopsis first, and then outlining, so I’m clear on the story before I write as doing so saves so much time and grief.
In fact, editors at my publisher, Orca, usually ask for both a synopsis and a chapter-by-chapter outline going in.
Armed with a solid synopsis and outline, I can now usually write one of these short hi-lo books or novellas within a month. The editing process takes longer, of course, but once you get the hang of writing these books, they can come together very quickly.
However, that wasn’t the case for my first hi-lo book. Writing a literacy learner novel is challenging, especially as we learn how. The first one I wrote took about a year from first idea to finished draft (though I was working on other projects in between).
Even if you have written children’s or young adult fiction in the past, it does take a little time to learn how to write a high interest, low reading-level story, one that will still appeal to the right age group.
The editing process can also be a long one, in many ways longer than for other writing I do. When a book is written at a grade two to six level, and geared towards ESL students or the struggling reader, every word counts.
Okay, so those are the cons of writing hi-lo. It takes time to learn, editing is more involved, the advances are small and your established audience may wonder what you’re up to. Let’s turn to the pros.
Once you get the hang of writing hi-lo, again, the writing can go quickly. It’s satisfying to pull together a book in a month and, perhaps, write more than one of these hi-lo books in a year. I now have eleven hi-lo on the shelves
, and three more on the way, for a total of fourteen hi-lo books.
And, financially, they do stack up when it comes to Public Lending Right
points. The hi-lo books are usually listed in libraries, so these books will lead to annual money from the Public Lending Right. It’s a nice little gift that keeps on giving.
Writing hi-lo within the educational market can also open up whole other markets and surprising opportunities.
For example, my YA hi-lo book Iggy’s World
was picked up by a publisher in Korea, was a JLG Gold Standard Selection and short-listed for the Chocolate Lily Book Awards. My three hi-lo thrillers, the Claire Abbott
series, are published in Sweden. And my hi-lo middle school novella The Ride Home
was short-listed for a BC and Yukon Book Prize
this past year. These were all delightful surprises that would never have had happened if I hadn’t risked stepping into this new educational market.
But the biggest reward for me and for most hi-lo writers are the library, school and classroom events, the new audiences I meet, and the many new readers who fall in love with reading through the books I and other hi-lo authors pen.
For many of these new readers, the hi-lo book is the first novel they have read and, engaged, they go on to become enthusiastic readers. For ESL students, hi-lo books open a doorway into reading in English, and to broader opportunities. That’s hugely empowering. I’m genuinely more excited about writing literacy learner books than my literary novels for these reasons.
Okay, let’s get down to specifics.
How do we go about writing hi-lo books?
To start, here is an overview of the submission guidelines
directly from Orca Associate Publisher Ruth Linka and the Orca submission guidelines page on the three hi-lo series they currently publish:
Orca Currents: short novels of about 15,000 words for readers who are between 8 and 12 years old. Each book is written at a reading level between grade 2 to grade 5. The novels should appeal to pre-teens and offer straightforward plots and engaging characters.
Orca Soundings are short novels (about 15,000 words) for readers who are 12 to 16 years old. Each book is written at a reading level between grade 2 to grade 5. The novels are more mature, some are grittier and should appeal to teens.
Orca Anchor is Orca’s newest series and responds to a demand for lower reading levels. These novels are about 6000 words, for readers who are 12 to 16 years old and written at a reading level between 0 and 2.
To find your reading level on Word, go to review, then editor, and click on document stats. Under readability, you’ll see the Flesch-Kincaid grade level for your manuscript. And here’s a link to free online reading level tools
On top of these submission guidelines, the cast of characters must be kept very small and the names distinctive.
Cultural references, that many of us may take for granted, must be explained for the ESL reader. 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.
Flashbacks can confuse a literacy learner and we also 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, and to keep them reading. So hi-lo books contain interesting subject matter, and a fast-paced read.
Where, in a literary novel I would spend much more time focusing on character development, in a literacy learner or hi-lo 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. Here are a few more guidelines on writing hi-lo
When it comes to content, the subject matter is similar to what you’d find in any novel or non-fiction book for a given age group, but as you look at the guidelines and sample books from each series of a given hi-lo publisher, you’ll see each series as a general focus.
There is a huge school and library market for middle school books, of course, and boys read a lot at this age. And more of the struggling readers are boys
. So consider that you want books with male protagonists and about subjects that appeal to boys of this age as much as girls. For example, my latest hi-lo, Bigfoot Crossing, is a middle-school hi-lo book with a boy protagonist about a subject that appeals to boys: Bigfoot. (And it was a lot of fun to write.) Here's a link to a few more tips
on writing hi-lo.
As always, you want to keep in mind that the young protagonist is centered in the action and is not saved by the adults around them. They need to fix the situation themselves, so the adults are often missing from the story or rendered ineffectual in some way. In Bigfoot Crossing, Dad is kidnapped and my young hero has to find and save him.
No matter what you write about, drop the message or lessons. As Caroline Adderson
says in her guest blog on my site,
“If you want to teach children something, no matter how worthy, write a non-fiction book. The only ‘message’ you should be deliberately imparting is that reading is a pleasurable activity. Everything else should rise organically from the story, and will, if it’s well-written.”
Having said that, if you look through the Orca catalogue, you’ll see this publisher welcomes books on topical and difficult subjects, like the climate crisis, and is all about diversity.
When contemplating subject matter, a good place to start is the catalogue of the publisher you’d like to write for. Obviously, if you are interested in writing hi-lo for the educational market, then reading hi-lo books is the place to start. You can find them in your library.
If you Google, you’ll find quite a few publishers of hi-lo. Here's a short-list:
I’ll end on another quote from Caroline Adderson’s blog. She says, “Understand that it’s harder, not easier, to write for children.”
I would add that it’s harder yet, not easier, to write hi-lo. But well worth the effort.