Tag Archives: Reluctant Readers

What’s in a Name?

I recently read a book that featured two characters who had distractingly similar names. Harold and Howard, I think they were. They might as well have been Michael and Mitchell, or Jane and Jen. The point is, it’s confusing. And not just for the obvious reasons.

This is something I cover when I talk to people about writing for reluctant readers. It’s one of those areas of overlap between teaching-related nerdery and writing-related nerdery, and I love it, so please bear with me.

As we learn to read, we tend to look to the first letter of any given word as an important reading clue. I saw this when my daughter was learning to read. Faced with a TH word (the, then, that, those, thing, thistle…), she would nearly always guess “the.” With time, her guesses grew more sophisticated, meaning she would pick a TH word that more or less fit with the way the sentence had been heading. Still, she was ignoring the word endings and clinging to that first letter or letter sound as the best clue to inform her choice.

That’s why it’s a good idea to avoid character names that start with the same letter. Do you really need Kashif and Karyn to be in the same book? You might. Maybe the meaning of each name is important. Maybe you want confusion caused by the name similarity to be a plot point. Or maybe those are the names that speak to you and make the characters come alive, and no other names will do.┬áDo what you have to, but there are lots of great names to choose from. If you can, why not give the reader a break?

As we become more proficient readers, we start to look at all the letters in a word, one by one. This is the sounding-out-the-words stage, even if the sounding-out happens only in our mind. Reading this way is slow but accurate, once you get the hang of it. Still, words that contain too many similar letters can be confusing.

Faster reading happens when we start to recognize words by their shapes. Try drawing a loose outline around Sally and another loose outline around Betty. Up, down, over two tall letters, down around the Y and straight across the bottom. The shapes are similar, aren’t they? Not only would I avoid Michael and Mitchell in the same book (based on first letter, letter similarity and word shape), I would also avoid Sally and Betty.

Again, there are so many great names to pick from. Put some thought into the way the name looks on the page, as well as to its meaning and sound. Do this for names, places, and any other words that you have a choice about.

(For reluctant and young readers, I tend to favour names with phonetically correct spellings as well, but that’s another blog topic.)

I recently rejected Bridget as a name for a character. It’s a great name. I love it. It has Irish roots, which I needed, and a meaning related to fire and light, which I liked. If I’d been planning to write my story in first person, I might have gone with it. But because I needed to use third person narration, Bridget was going to appear several times on any given page. And… it’s a bulky name, isn’t it? Lots of loops and up-bits and down-bits. Wide letters. In the end, I went with Kate. Faster to read, faster to say.

The Bridget/Kate book isn’t for reluctant readers, by the way. I try to take name appearance into account for most books I write.

Kate has formed herself into a different person in my head than Bridget was going to be, I think. It’s hard to know. I’m still playing with the character at this point, so she’s going to evolve no matter what I call her. I’m not too bothered by it; I liked the name Bridget, but I like the name Kate too, and I’m happy with the person she’s shaping up to be. It’s a lot tougher to change a character name once you’ve started writing the book properly and gotten attached to it.

The point I’m trying to make in this post is that books are, generally speaking, a visual medium. They’re oral, too, which is why reading your work aloud is such an important part of editing process. But we don’t tend to hear a lot about the way things look on the page, and that’s part of the reader experience, too.

These naming guidelines are especially important when writing for young children, reluctant readers, readers for whom English is a second language, or anyone who might struggle with reading. We all have off days–days when we’re tired, or when we’ve been away from the book too long and are struggling to remember who the characters are. I’m a pretty good reader, but I have to admit, the Harold/Howard thing stymied me when I’d been away from the book for a few days.

If there’s something you can do to make the reader’s life easier, to reward the process that they’re making in learning to read, to make reading more enjoyable, or to make it easier for them to keep flipping pages… why not do it?

News and a Guest Post

My guest post on Janice Hardy’s blog will be up Tuesday. I’m very excited about it! She asked me to write something on writing for the reluctant reader market.

(Update: You can read the post here.)

Lots going on in my writing life right now. This Friday, I’m heading out to a local school to visit some classes and talk about my books. And, hopefully, get the kids excited about doing some summer reading. And later this month is my visit to the local library’s teen writing group. I love meeting kids who are serious about writing. I haven’t quite worked out what I’m going to say to them yet. “You’re awesome, keep at it?”

And, of course, those deadlines. The end of June is getting closer. Fortunately, my manuscripts are getting closer to submission-ready, too. Just need to keep at it.

Proper blog post soon. Honest. In the meantime, keep writing!

The Wrong Book

After I shared this story in class last week, Lena Coakley suggested that I blog about it. Our assignment was to identify the one children’s book that influenced us most, either as a reader or as a writer. Not an easy question at the best of times, and I admit, I was caught a bit flat-footed, being asked on the second night of class. So I talked about the time I read the wrong book, and why that experience has stayed with me.

Character

This is me in grade eight: bad hair. Braces. Coke-bottle glasses. A chest that would make an ironing board proud. Brains, yes, I’ve got those in spades, but just catch me raising my hand — not gonna happen. Let’s just say I wasn’t winning any prizes for self esteem back then.

And oh yes, this is an important bit. Nose usually buried in a book. Often fantasy or sci-fi borrowed from Dad’s collection, but really, I’d read just about anything.

Also, I was convinced that the world was going to end in fiery nuclear disaster. I believe I wrote to the Prime Minister (it was Mulroney back then) once or twice to address the issue.

Situation

My grade-eight teacher, Miss Beaton, was either a saint or a martyr. There were 33 of us in my year; usually a full class with a few left over for a split grade. She decided that it was important that we all graduate to high school together, so she took us all on. She had experience on her side, and a student teacher for the second term, but still — a mammoth undertaking.

I don’t know if this was an experiment in self-sorting or if she was just too tired out by Spring to do things any differently, but for the final novel study of the year, she offered each of us a choice. Janet Lunn’s newly-published Shadow in Hawthorn Bay, a “challenging” historical novel with a girly pink cover, or Robert O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah, a much shorter read with some kind of spaceman on the front cover and promises of post-apocalyptic adventure.

She talked about each book. I had already made up my mind.

Choice

It was a no-brainer. I fidgeted, waiting for her to get to the end of the alphabet (T for Thomas), and when she did, I snatched up a copy of Z for Zachariah, relieved that there were still a few left. Funny thing, most people seemed to want Shadow in Hawthorn Bay. Even some of the boys.

Maybe I hadn’t been listening properly when Miss Beaton described it. Maybe I’d been busy staring at the spaceman on the cover of the other book. It didn’t matter.

I had my book. I tucked it into the opening of my desk and started reading.

Fallout

I think it was recess that day when Miss Beaton asked to speak with me. She wanted to know why I had chosen Z for Zachariah. It wasn’t because it was a shorter book, was it? Because she didn’t think I was one to back away from a reading challenge. Really, she thought I would find the other novel a more suitable reading experience.

I still remember how my face heated up. I loved Miss Beaton. I didn’t want to displease her, but I was already partway into Z for Zachariah and fully hooked. Memory says I gripped the tiny paperback, prepared to defend it with the safety pins in my jeans if need be. (Don’t ask. It was an 80s thing.) More likely, I stared at my shoes and stammered something about really wanting to read this book.

She let me read it. When we broke into our novel study groups, I understood better that I had picked the group that didn’t “fit.”

Most of the stronger students and nearly all of the girls were in the other, larger group, reading Shadow in Hawthorn Bay. I was in a smaller group, a handful of students led by the student teacher. It was the reluctant reader group, to use today’s terminology.

These were the kids who got detention, the kids who got into fights. The kids who skipped class to smoke… or at least said they did. Several of them I barely knew, despite having attended school together for eight years. Remarkable and sad when I think of it now, but at the time, I didn’t question it. We were all far-flung planets, but my orbit was on the opposite side of the social sun from theirs.

But the thing is, I really loved the book. And I remember the novel study as a positive experience. And while there were no friendship bracelets or phone numbers exchanged, I had one or two interesting conversations with people I hadn’t had conversations with before. And that was a good thing.

I’ve read Shadow in Hawthorn Bay since, of course. It’s a fine book. But it wouldn’t have spoken to my 13-year-old self the way Z for Zachariah did. So even decades later, I can’t regret having chosen the wrong book. It was the right book for me at the time, and it brought me into contact with people I hadn’t spoken with much before. We traded ideas and talked about nuclear disaster and survival.

I’m glad I read it. I’m glad I had that experience. And I’m glad that I stood up for my choice and read what I wanted to read, and didn’t let the judgemental vibes I was picking up dissuade me. That wasn’t exactly a characteristic move back then. I’m proud for that geeky little eighth grader.

And, as my friend Susan Blakeney pointed out, what do I write now? Books for reluctant readers. Books for boys. Science fiction.

I guess your literary home is where your heart is.