A Teacher’s Challenge
Where has summer gone? July is waning, and I’ve had to ease off on my writerly pursuits as another school year looms on the horizon. This summer has posed some new planning challenges—particularly figuring out just how teaching will look in the face of ongoing health concerns.
While the possibility of being required to teach on-line again is (honestly) a bit daunting, it’s not my current focus. No, just now I’m wrestling with the question that plagues me before every school year: Which novels should I choose for my Reading classes?
This year I’m picking books for 5th-8th graders (ages 10 to 14ish.) I’ve been burrowing through piles of MG and YA books all summer, rereading them to pick the PERFECT books—the stories that will hook the boys and the girls, the athletes and the academics, the avid and reluctant readers. (Easy, right?!!!)
This isn’t just a challenge for teachers. Parents (some of whom are doubling as teachers) struggle to convince their own reluctant readers that books are just as fascinating as the newest app. Authors who just want someone to read their stories seek that elusive element, that hook that will pull readers in.
While I don’t claim expertise in this area, in my years as a teacher, parent, reader and writer, I’ve noticed some commonalities in books that hook.
A couple of years ago, I asked my upper grade class what they liked to see in books. Being young teens, many of them avoided eye contact, hoping I wouldn’t call on them. Finally, one brave soul piped up: “When the first chapter’s not boring.”
Even slow first chapters might be leading to something fantastic, but readers—particularly reluctant ones—can get bogged down in the exposition.
The exposition of a story is the section where we learn about the novel’s “normal.” Who are the characters? What is their world like? What do things look like there? Exposition is important to ground readers in the story’s universe, and it can be done well…or laboriously.
The narrative hook is the place where the “normal” is interrupted. The first novel that I’ve picked for my 7th and 8th grade class this year is Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet. Without giving away any more than the synopsis does, I can tell you that by the end of the first chapter the protagonist, 13-year-old Brian, is in a small aircraft over the Canadian wilderness with a pilot who has just suffered a heart attack. (I love watching the faces of my students when we get to that part, the chapter ends, and no one wants to stop.)
Books with a strong narrative hook make the job of engaging readers—even the reluctant ones—much easier.
What about the books that don’t have a strong early hook? Every story can’t incorporate intense, life-threatening scenes into the first chapter. Some amazing books —notably many of the classics that rightly earn the name—include quite a bit of exposition. This is where teachers and parents can step in and assist.
I grew up loving The Sound of Music. The first time I pulled out the DVD to play for my children, they were…skeptical. However, once I told them that they characters would have to escape over the mountains from “bad guys” at the end, they were ready to plunge in. The promise of excitement to come got my little ones through the musical numbers (even the romantic ones!)
I do NOT recommend that parents and teachers give away the endings of books to get kids reading, but offering hints and foreshadowing of things to come can help kids get through the sticky bits. On the author end of things, a good book blurb that teases and entices without giving away too much (Or misleading readers—that just makes the kids angry) can make a huge difference in a reader’s interest level.
Use the Right Bait
There’s a reason libraries are divided into different categories: A book can have an excellent hook and beautifully delivered exposition, but if it’s in the hands of the wrong audience, it’s as unlikely to “catch” a reader as a fisherman is to catch a fish by substituting pizza for the lure. (This is why it’s so important for writers to understand the audience for their genre, their interests and their expectations.)
Parents and teachers, if you have a reluctant reader in your life, perhaps changing the books you’re offering might help. Most of my students love fantasy, but I have some who like non-fiction better, or sports stories, or books about animals. (Confession: I tend to avoid books about animals in the YA category. They’re always too sad.)
Sometimes, the difficulty isn’t the topic so much as the format. I’ve found that some reluctant readers struggled with reading when they were younger and are now convinced that reading is more work that pleasure—they don’t enjoy it, so try to avoid it. Of course, if you avoid something, you don’t improve at it, so as texts become more challenging, reading becomes more difficult and slow, and it’s more tempting to avoid reading…
Changing up the format can help these readers. There are a lot of excellent graphic novels (read: fancy comics in book form) on all sorts of topics—even retellings of classic stories. The pictures give readers another tool to help them interpret the text and the text can still give great reading practice.
Hearing a story versus just looking at text can be a powerful comprehension booster. I still read aloud to my teenage students, and encourage those who are comfortable to read aloud to the class. Some students that have had a hard time sitting down to read a chapter have been able to engage with stories through audio books, though I still encourage them to follow along with the written text as they listen.
By providing high-interest books and the tools to comprehend them, the stories themselves have a chance to capture the imaginations of reluctant readers.
The Power of Story
There’s a reason Jesus taught in parables, turning spiritual truths into relatable images. There’s a reason that oral legends and fairy tales from hundreds of years ago have survived to be animated and slapped on lunch boxes and t-shirts. Stories are strange and powerful things, with the ability to pull us in, immerse us, and linger in our minds even after they end and we return to the everyday world.
Here’s to another school year, another writing year, another reading year, and to finding the right stories to amaze and enthrall all of the readers in our lives!
These are just a few thoughts on this topic—what do you have to add?
Readers, what kinds of stories “hook” you? Writers, do you have any tips on creating stories that readers can’t put down? Can anyone think of any YA animal stories where the pet DOESN’T die or have to return to the wilderness????
Thank you so much for stopping by today!