Making the Match: Engaging Reluctant Readers in YA Literature
They are what I term the "gauntlet" kids. They come to class and announce proudly
that they are not interested in any book you have; reading is dumb, boring, stupid,
etc. In essence, they are throwing down a gauntlet: daring you to find a book they
might just crack open and read. Gauntlet kids are reluctant readers. They are kids
who know how to read and have the necessary skills. They simply elect not to join
what Frank Smith (1987) terms the "literacy club." Books that might intrigue avid
readers do not always appeal to this group. How can we motivate these less-than-enthusiastic
readers? Three sets of variables play key roles in this process of motivation. This
article examines one set of variables, what I call "book variables." (The other
two, in case you're curious, are "teacher/school/classroom variables" and "kid variables.")
You Can Judge a Book by Its Cover
Let's start with the book variables. Why do certain books appeal immediately to
readers? Why do other books sit abandoned on shelves? Rollie Welch (2005), a public
librarian and member of the Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers Committee, reminds
us that reluctant readers do judge a book by its cover. A cover that is vibrant
or mysterious or flashy is more likely to gain the attention of a reluctant reader.
While there is no hard evidence to suggest that color is preferred, all you have
to do is hold up two books, one with a colorful cover and one that is mostly black
and white, and ask kids which one they would want to read. The hot pink and neon
green cover from Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging
by Louise Rennison certainly did pull in readers, and now the Gossip Girls series
and others imitate this colorful trend. However, a cover that suggests some sort
of mystery will also attract. The Giver by Lois Lowry
definitely used black and white to its advantage. Neal Shusterman's
Dread Locks lures readers with the dark promise of what is lurking behind
the shaded eyes of the girl on the cover. For a flashy cover, look no further than
Bling Bling, a 2006 Quick Picks book that features the
glam jewelry worn by many of the hip-hop elite. Covers do matter. (Note:
For a suggestion on what to do with books whose covers have no pizzazz, see
my new book, Naked Reading: Uncovering What Tweens Need to Become
Lifelong Readers, 2006).
Okay, we have cleared the hurdle of the cover. Now comes the next book variable:
the title. Ask students which book they would rather read, The
Window or The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things.
Most kids, especially those gauntlet kids, will opt for the latter. Catchy titles
are one way to attract the attention of listless readers. Consider some of the following
titles: Flush, A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl, Invasion of the
Road Weenies, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and
When Dad Killed Mom. How many of these books pique your curiosity
simply from the title? Kids are no different. Paula Danziger knew titles were paramount
decades ago when she began writing books for teens. Remember Can
You Sue Your Parents for Malpractice? or The Divorce Express
or It's an Aardvark-Eat-Turtle World? Danziger continued
this tradition with her books for younger readers, including Amber
Brown Is Not a Crayon and Everyone Else's Parents Said Yes.
Titles can be obtuse, intriguing, funny, or just plain mysterious. They do play
an essential role in motivating reluctant readers.
Blurbs and Beginnings
I see folks in bookstores who flip a paperback over and read the blurb or excerpt
or who take a hard cover book and read the inside front flap. Kids do the same when
searching for a good book sometimes. There is a reason why publishing companies
pay a person to write those blurbs or to select those excerpts―they know this helps
to sell the book to the reader. In addition to the blurbs, though, kids will often
open the book to the first paragraph and see if the book grabs them. Great opening
lines can lure an unsuspecting reader into the story. The opening sentence of The Chocolate War, "They murdered him," certainly creates
some intrigue. The opening two pages of Joan Lowery Nixon's Whispers
from the Dead is a never-fail read-aloud for me when I am talking to
middle school kids about books for pleasure reading. Books such as
Ash by Lisa Fraustino, Drive By by Lynne
Ewing, and True Confessions of a Hollywood Starlet by
Lola Douglas are also prime examples of hooks that lure readers into the opening
chapter of a book.
A Final Note
Opening paragraphs, interesting copy on the book jacket, cover art, and a catchy
title can play key roles in getting reluctant readers to pick up a book. Once a
reluctant reader picks up the book, though, it is the story that must keep her or
him interested and motivated to finish. The books listed in Box 1 are ones that
I have found to motivate even the most recalcitrant reader. Some books are new,
and some are old favorites. They represent a variety of genre including nonfiction
and poetry. Some are guy books, and there are a few chick-lit books as well. Try
out some of the titles with your students and see what happens.
Brashares, Ann. (2001). The sisterhood of the traveling pants.
New York: Delacorte.
Cormier, Robert. (2004). The chocolate war. New York:
Knopf. First published 1974.
Danziger, Paula. (1982). The divorce express. New York:
Danziger, Paula. (1985). It's an aardvark-eat-turtle world.
New York: Delacorte.
Danziger, Paula. (1989). Everyone else's parents said yes.
New York: Delacorte.
Danziger, Paula. (1994). Amber Brown is not a crayon.
New York: Putnam's.
Danziger, Paula. (1998). Can you sue your parents for malpractice?
New York: Putnam & Grosset Group. First published 1979.
Douglas, Lola. (2005). True confessions of a Hollywood starlet:
A novel. New York: Razorbill.
Ewing. Lynne. (1996). Drive by. New York: HarperCollins.
Fraustino, Lisa Rowe. (1995). Ash: A novel. New York:
Hiaasen, Carl. (2005). Flush. New York: Knopf.
Ingold, Jeanette. (1996). The window. San Diego, CA:
Lubar, David. (2005). Invasion of the road weenies―and other warped
and creepy tales. New York: Starscape.
Lowry, Lois. (1993). The giver. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Mackler, Carolyn. (2003). The earth, my butt, and other big, round
things. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick.
Nixon, Joan Lowery. (1989). Whispers from the dead.
New York: Delacorte.
Oh, Minya. (2005). Bling bling: Hip hop's crown jewels.
New York: Wenner Books.
Rennison, Louise. (2000). Angus, thongs and full-frontal snogging:
Confessions of Georgia Nicolson. New York: HarperCollins.
Shusterman, Neal. (2005). Dread locks. New York: Dutton.
Stone, Tanya Lee. (2006). A bad boy can be good for a girl.
New York: Wendy Lamb.
Lesesne, Teri. (2006). Naked reading: Uncovering what tweens need
to become lifelong readers. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.
Smith, Frank. (1987). Joining the literacy club: Further essays
into education. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Welch, Rollie. (2005, Winter). Quick picks for reluctant young adult readers 2005.
Ohio Library Council Division Newsletter. http://www.olc.org/pdf/YADivisionNewsletterWinter2005.pdf.
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