Books, Life, Storytelling, Teaching, Uncategorized, Writer's Life, Writing Tips

Hooking Reluctant Readers

sitting on books
Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

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.

Catching Interest

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Photo courtesy of Holger Link via

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.”

There’s a reason that writing craft books like Jeff Gerhke’s The First 50 Pages exist. If a story doesn’t hook readers by the end of the first chapter or two, it may have missed its chance.

Even slow first chapters might be leading to something fantastic, but readers—particularly reluctant ones—can get bogged down in the exposition.

story structure
This is a simple adaptation of the Freytag 5-Act Structure that I use with my classes. It maps the progression that many (though not all) stories follow, starting at the left.

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

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Photo courtesy of Anne Nygard via

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

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Photo courtesy of Jeremy Bishop via

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!



17 thoughts on “Hooking Reluctant Readers”

  1. Thank you for this Anne. What you’ve said applies as much to non-fiction as fiction, doesn’t it? I think your students are lucky to have you as their teacher (& your own children lucky to have you as their Mum)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aw, thanks so much 🙂
      I agree- non-fiction tells such fascinating stories, but it’s easy to get bogged down with all of the details, or, especially for young readers, with unfamilar words and places and “lose” readers who aren’t already big fans of it. (Just look at most of the history text books I grew up with…) From what I’ve heard about your book projects, though, I don’t think they will have that problem! 🙂


    1. Aren’t Gary Paulsen’s books wonderful? I had high ambitions to be a sled dog driver for a while because of him… Hatchet was a HUGE help in “selling” Reading class to some of my less enthusiastic readers, AND I have a friend who worked for the National Forest Service, fire fighting, and used to have to work for weeks in the wilderness. He came in to talk to the kids, about wilderness survival after the book- great learning opportunities!
      Judging from your first book, I think you do a great job of making your family’s stories “hook!” 🙂


  2. Being married to a retired principal/teacher and having a daughter who has taught reading, I’ve heard a lot about teaching reading to kids over the years, Anne, not to mention the importance of learning to read. And I’ve heard a lot about having to catch the interest of the particular reader, just as you have stressed. Excellent post, Anne. I know that both Peggy and Tasha would agree 100%. (I was captured early-on by Tarzan comic books.:)) –Curt

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much Curt- sounds like you have a house full of experts!
      Aw, I was just explaining Tarzan to the kids as we were “swinging” on some ivy- I wonder if those are still in print! Comics are great -I had some kids who were thrilled that I allowed them to read those for silent reading.


      1. Reading was a great escape for me, Anne. By the time I was ten, I was hitchhiking three miles to the small library in Placerville once a week during the summer to renew my supply of books. –Curt

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Books that have a compelling hook at the beginning are essential. I, also, marvel at those who manage to have a compelling hook at the end of each chapter. I read a contemporary novel that required more patience recently, so next I took on a Preston and Childs book that would have me racing to the end. I wonder if they have a Preston and Childs version of books for children?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oooh, I don’t know- I haven’t read any of theirs. Another thing to add to my TBR list… 🙂
      Cliffhanger chapters are fantastic in hooking readers. When I read with my classes, I always try to deliberately leave them at a cliffhanger, or at least with a question that they want answered, to help motivate them to finish their assignment 😀 (I hated it when my teachers did that- now I know why they did!)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Love this, Friend! This summer I’ve had to come to terms with the fact my kids just don’t like reading what I like (yet). I would have never EVER picked up the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series on my own to read for myself or for the kiddos, but all three kids love them to the point where Phil can sit and read them aloud for nearly an hour. They’ll even talk about their favorite parts of a book during mealtimes. It’s so cool to see. Sure, I’ll keep trying with fantasies and mysteries, but I’ll never say no to another request for Diary of a Wimpy Kid from the library. We’ve all got to stretch our reading comfort zones! 🙂 xxxxxxxxx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes indeed- and good for you! I gave my eldest my old Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden mysteries, but after a couple she dove into the “Redwall” books (Brian Jacques) this year- I’d never read more than one, but she’s burning through them! (Now she keeps adding titles to my TBR:)) We got the cookbook that goes with the series, too, so we’ve been cooking a bit, which is fun. I’d never used leeks before! Got the middle one hooked on “Horrible Harry.”

      Now I just NEED TO DECIDE which books I will teach. I need to stop picking up other options to check out, OR I need double the Reading class time, please! 😀
      Back to lesson planning! xxxxxxxxxxx

      Liked by 1 person

      1. ha ha! I’ve ordered a couple of the younger type Hardy Boys books for the boys–I think they’re illustrated, or graphic novels, or something. Blondie just won’t touch the Nancy Drew, sadly, but I should try Redwall!

        (Oh–spooky recommendation for your students: SMALL SPACES. I read it last year (by Katherin Arden? Arlen?) But Blondie just read it today and LOVED IT.) May all your cooking adventures be edible! xxxxx

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks for the recommendation- I’ll check it out…when I emerge from the lesson planning. Now that we have a sorta-kinda-fixed schedule in place for the school year, (God willing and barring disaster,) I’m trying to sort it all out into block plans to turn in, keeping in mind that things could change and…well, I had to stop and work out yesterday to prevent me from chucking the computer out the window! Trying again today, fueled by caffiene and hope!

        Liked by 1 person

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