Hazel Townson on how she sets out to entice the reluctant reader.
Where reading is concerned, reluctance is resistance. We have to break down that resistance by offering pleasure without pain, and by making that pleasure so easy to recognise that nobody can miss it. Once the Manageable Book has done this, then hopefully the reader, no longer reluctant, will move on to bigger and better things.
In my days as a children’s librarian, I was much perplexed by the problem of why some children who are perfectly capable of reading feel unattracted to books. I decided one reason must be that those children have not met in their leisure reading what could be called the Manageable Book. My search for Manageable Books at that time produced very few, so I decided to try to write some.
A Manageable Book needs to look manageable, for the first hurdle is to have it lifted from the shelf. It has a bright, exciting, tempting cover which has been displayed face-forward. (No amount of decoration on the spine will ever be enough to attract a reluctant reader.) It has a snappy, intriguing title suggesting it can compete in entertainment value with other media. (Some of the titles I chose were The Shrieking Face; The Great Ice-Cream Crime; Danny – Don’t Jump!; The Choking Peril.) Most important of all, it’s a very slim volume. To this end, I decided that after writing my books I would cut them drastically to about one-third of the original length, including much of the description. The background work has been done, so I know my scenario and can hint at it economically. In any case, it’s better for readers to use their imaginations.
Once the book has been lifted from the shelf it must immediately prove to be manageable. A quick flick through the pages must reveal decent-sized text; lots of clear, lively illustrations breaking up that text on almost every page; short chapters with tempting headings – e.g. ‘A Body Vanishes’; The Shock in the Cellar’; `A Magic Purchase’ – and an attractive feel from good-quality paper.
I’ve been lucky with my illustrators. For instance, Philippe Dupasquier and Tony Ross both have the exact measure of childhood, felicitous touches of humour and an apparently total recall of their own early days. Each of their illustrations can be dwelt upon lovingly to extract from it more and more delicious detail – such as one of Tony Ross’s illustrations for Terrible Tuesday which shows gunmen threatening a bank manager on the steps of his bank. Not only does the bank manager have his hands up in surrender, but also the passing baby in its. pram and the statue in the road outside. Even a dog has raised its front paws, and the birds their wings. And Philippe Dupasquier’s covers for the Lenny and Jake adventures cunningly suggest a comic paper format, more acceptable to a reluctant reader.
Now, after the quick flick through the pages, comes the moment when hopefully the eye will actually make contact with some of the text, probably the first few lines of Chapter One. So these lines must draw the reader instantly into the story. They are the most vital lines in the book and should contain the promise of an exciting plot, a character with whom to identify – even if this is an animal or inanimate object rather than a person – and a glimpse of escape into a satisfying world of fantasy. (For example, Haunted Ivy begins: “`What your Aunt Ivy needs is a ghost, “said Lenny Hargreaves to his friend Jake Allen. “That would pack the customers in.”‘)
By this time, if all these requirements are satisfied, the eye should have begun to travel further, actually giving the story a chance. So if the pace is fast, the action continuous, the interest constantly sustained, then there’s a fair possibility the reader will stay with the book. Touches of humour will enhance that possibility a hundred-fold, and if that humour puts some adult authority figure into a ridiculous situation, so much the better, as when the headmaster in The Speckled Panic eats some Truthpaste and then, at the school prize-giving, proceeds to tell the truth about his sub-standard school.
A crucial moment comes at the end of Chapter One. Will the reader now lose interest after all? What’s needed here is a cliff-hanger ending to draw the reader forward into Chapter Two to find out what happens next (e.g. `A hand fell heavily on to his shoulder and a voiced cried, “Caught you!”‘). In fact, every chapter in a Manageable Book should end this way, and the final chapter should have such a cleverly unexpected twist in the tale that the reader will be bound to admit, with a sigh of utter satisfaction, `I really enjoyed that!’
If this crafting of the story is skilfully done, there should be no need for over-simplification of vocabulary; in fact, `writing down’ is one of the best ways to put children off books for ever. If the reader comes up against an unfamiliar word or phrase he can always guess from the context, ask, look it up, or simply skip it and read on. In fact, there ought to be, in the simplest Manageable Book, some progression, some way of stretching the reader as painlessly as possible – even a second level at which the book can be read again later and more experience and enjoyment extracted from it than at the first attempt. (The Shrieking Face, besides being the simple tale of one boy’s dilemma when he wins a prize by mistake, is also a send-up of the Art World which callously allows artists to starve in garrets, then sells their pictures for millions as soon as they’re dead.) This discovery of the `second layer’ may take its time, but its revelation will create, however unconsciously, a deeper sense of satisfaction in the reader, even triumph at his discovery.
Far from being put off by new and complicated phrases, children actually like to meet them, and will happily go around chanting them for days afterwards, as happened with Margaret Mahy’s The Great Piratical Rumbustification. I also heard of an infant class which read a picture book called The Sorely Trying Day, and then proceeded to talk about such things as a `sorely trying’ shoelace that wouldn’t stay fastened, or a `sorely trying’ pencil that wouldn’t draw the right kind of picture.
Once the first Manageable Book has been read, it’s helpful if this is part of a series about the same characters, so that the child will move on with confidence to the next book, knowing it will be similar and that his prospects of enjoyment are at least as high, if not higher. But it is essential that these characters should speak realistic dialogue, behave consistently and have strong personal appeal. Which makes it also essential that the author should visit schools and libraries as often as possible to meet, talk to and listen to children.
A humorous approach is of enormous value. There are so few really funny books for children and this is such a good way to gain their confidence. If the author can take a child’s problem and make him laugh at it, by giving that same problem to the hero or heroine, then the child may feel soothed as well. For instance, one childhood problem is hypochondria. I suffered mightily from this in my own childhood, especially once when I swallowed an orange pip and my cousin told me I would get appendicitis and die. So I wrote a book called Pilkie’s Progress in which a boy called Benny Pilkington thinks he has a bad heart, checks in on the Test-Your-Heart machine which promptly falls off the wall, and thinks he’s about to have a heart attack. His reactions are so exaggerated that the reader is bound to feel superior.
Another problem is nagging. Every child suffers from nagging at some stage, and it can be pretty awful when you can’t answer back. In One Green Bottle the boy hero is nagged at constantly for not coming up to his family’s expectations, but at the end of the book he triumphs by inventing a board game even better than Monopoly, which is going to sweep the world and make his fortune.
I’ve also used the problem of yearning to be popular (Danny – Don’t Jump! in which the hero tries so hard to be popular that he gets into all sorts of trouble); loss of identity (Gary Who?, where the hero is mistaken for another boy by his teacher, called Arthur by his grandma because he looks like his dad, mistakenly recognised as Claude by the milkman … and so on); and exploitation (The Moving Statue, where the hero is made to deliver papers against his will because his parents keep a newsagent’s shop).
Hazel Townson, a frequent visitor to schools and libraries, is the author of over twenty children’s books, published in the Andersen Young Readers’ Library series in hardback and in Beaver paperback.