Writing for children – especially reluctant readers

Blog about reluctant readers written for Reading Zone, 2015

As any writer will tell you, writing for young readers is much harder than it looks.

Half the skill lies in self-control; when you write for adults your tools include a vast vocabulary, a range of literary devices and, if you so choose, complex sentences littered with idiom, punctuation and implication. For youngsters, you must limit the number of ‘tricky’ words and learn to say everything you want to say without boring your reader, or leaving them utterly confused.

That is one reason why illustrated books such as Dork Diaries and Wimpy Kids are so popular with reluctant and struggling readers; they can enjoy the flow of a story using visual clues to carry them along, providing a ‘scaffold’ for the more challenging lexical semantics.

Graphic novels, comic strips, manga and anime books take this concept further. The writers (who are often the artists too) have to strip their words down to the bare minimum, and mostly rely on dialogue and their artworks to tell a convincing story. The sentences are usually short, simple and to the point.

How can we use graphic novels with reluctant or struggling readers? These books cross genres and ages, which means that struggling readers can be introduced to them as books that adults like too – which is good for their self-esteem. Those who are skilled at art, or computer animation, enjoy developing their own storylines in a visual format. Reading pictures, rather than words, is less tiring for a student with visual or dyslexic problems, so a graphic novel gives them the opportunity to read a book more fluently and experience a faster pace of reading. As recalling images is often easier than remembering words, graphic books are also useful tools in developing narrative and summarising skills.


Hildafolk series by Luke Pearson

  • Hilda and the Troll
  • Hilda and the Black Hound
  • Hilda and the Midnight Giant
  • Hilda and the Bird Parade

Published by the magnificent and innovative Flying Eye Books.

I’ve fallen in love with Hilda – and so have my students! Hilda is the hero in Luke Pearson’s Hildafolk series of graphic novels: a gloriously quirky girl with huge eyes, blue-green hair and stick-thin legs. She sets off on various adventures, encountering mythical creatures and scary situations along the way, but always approaching them with courage and verve. The muted colours of the artworks are lovely, and the book design is superb, with good paper and all the qualities that make you want to keep and treasure a book.

I handed over some of Hilda’s stories to my students – all girls from Year 7 to Year 9 and either struggling or reluctant readers – and asked them to dip in and let me know what they thought. And silence fell…. Twenty minutes later I had to ask the girls to take a break and give me first impressions… I got a few comments along the lines of ‘I really like it’, before they asked if they could return to their books. Not another word was uttered before the bell rang. I can’t give a finer recommendation than that!

Non-fiction matters

Blog written for Reading Zone to celebrate Non-fiction November, 2015

I believe non-fiction books are every bit as important as stories, but I sometimes feel as if I am a pariah for saying so. So it’s wonderful to be able to celebrate National Non-Fiction November.

I’ll admit I’m biased: I write non-fiction books. And as a child I was just as likely to be transfixed by a copy of Look and Learn or the back of the cereal box as I was by an Enid Blyton tale of derring-do.

At university I discovered that my arts-studying friends thought this bizarre. Dare I say it, but they were a bit snooty about science, and ‘facts’. And yet non-fiction engages the imagination just as much as fiction – taking us all over the universe and through history to experience people’s stories, ideas, discoveries and places.

For very young readers, there’s no distinction. A book on tractors is as much fun as a book about a singing bear. But somewhere along the line many readers move towards fiction and leave non-fiction behind. Perhaps it is part of the natural pattern in children’s development, as they gain a sense of self, learn empathy and begin to identify with characters.

However, I think we need to keep the door open to non-fiction and regularly practise the skills used when reading it. Design and visuals in non-fiction are often superb, giving a rest to tired eyes and clues when the words are tricky. Text is often presented in short, snappy blocks and readers can dip in and out. Readers learn to extract key information, seeking out more explanation when they need it. Some students simply really enjoy reading facts, and develop into adult readers who love biographies, histories, self-help books and suchlike. In addition, non-fiction reading skills are essential as students progress to A level and academic life beyond.

And then there is the dreaded term ‘cultural capital’. Yes, I said it, and as horrid as the term is, students today are far more likely to be watching cat-pranks on YouTube than a documentary on lions. Non-fiction books are a highly effective way to pour facts into a student’s head and help them develop into a working adult; a knowledgeable applicant who is interested and engaged in the wider world is far more appealing to an employer than someone who is ignorant.

In one lesson working with just an atlas you can introduce students to a world of knowledge. I doubt I’m the first teacher to discover that not one student in a Year Seven group could identify Africa on a map, find the Pacific Ocean or point to the Equator. (And I won’t even mention how many of them couldn’t locate Britain on a map!)

A final thought: topics covered by Amazon’s list of best-selling non-fiction in 2014 include the Iraq War, modern feminism, hackers, the efficacy of medicine, essays in empathy, a style guide to writing, archaeology, cannibalism and Edward Snowden. What a marvellously eclectic list – and how exciting to think that our students will, as adults, be able to avail themselves of so much incredible insight, opinion and information. So let’s set them on that road to discovery and make November a month of fact-finding.

April 2016:

Parents often tell me they worry about their children not reading fiction. There is a lot of pressure on children at school to read fiction. I believe this is often exacerbated by their English teachers who, being English Literature graduates themselves, can’t quite get their heads around the fact that not everyone loves novels as much as they do. It’s a bit like maths: often the super-smart mathematicians make rather poor teachers as they are unable to see the world of maths in the same way as their less able students. Similarly, English teachers quite often don’t get the joy of non fiction, and cannot understand why some people are not particularly interested in made-up stories. Forcing someone to read stories can sometimes get them a foot on the ladder, but it has to be managed carefully and I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’ve got the time, experience and wherewithal to see it through.

So, if your child doesn’t love fiction, please don’t worry about it. Reading is reading, and non fiction contains stories, just of a different type. What is important, is that your child can still tell a narrative – an important skill for all our lives, readers or not. So, can they describe what happened to them at an important event? Can they retell a story from a film? Can they imagine what it’s like to be someone else, infer people’s feelings and motives, predict outcomes or identify possible consequences? Does your child use complex, interesting sentences with appropriate vocabulary? They will need these skills to succeed in creative writing at school – but if they find imagining things quite tricky then perhaps give them some help with reading biographies, and stories of amazing lives, exploits and adventures. They can then borrow some of those stories’ elements and themes to use in their creative writing. Practise all these things with them, and they will do just fine!

Choosing books for girls

Published at Reading Zone, October 2015

At schools we generally select books for students for theme, literary content and readability – as well as their suitability for whatever specifications we are following. Sometimes, however, those criteria alone may not produce a satisfactory list.

 I’ve been reading through the new list of books and poems that will be studied by students from Years Seven to 13 at a girls’ high school.  Eleven of the 13 books were written by men and all nine of the poems were by men. All books bar two had male protagonists, and one had no women at all. A few of them featured women, at best in stereotypical roles (mothers, wives, teachers), but most of them portray women as victims of violence.

 So, here’s the question. While English teachers struggle to compile lists of books that suit the GCSE and A Level specifications, yet still work with resources they already have (Of Mice and Men, An Inspector Calls, Lord of the Flies, etc.), are we checking that female role models – as both writers and characters – get a foot in the door?

 My concern is that readers – both male and female – of imbalanced study lists will subconsciously pick up on common themes: men beget violence and women do not shape a story (either as writer or character) – they are merely subjected to it.

I wonder whether teachers give their whole book list the once-over and ensure that females appear as rounded, complex characters with key roles in the development of plot? Do women writers make up a significant proportion of the selected authors? I do not advocate quotas as such, but just as directors are being asked to check whether their film meets the Bechdel Test, I suggest that English teachers should also be expected to at least ask themselves if their booklists are suitably diverse. Reading at school not only affects young people’s development into adult readers, it also shapes their attitudes towards society, themselves and the opposite gender.


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