Ohio Resource Center
AdLIT In Perspective > 2006 > May/June

Making the Match: Engaging Reluctant Readers in YA Literature

by Teri S. Lesesne, Department of Library Science, Sam Houston State University

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).

Title, Please

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: Delacorte.

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: Orchard Books.

Hiaasen, Carl. (2005). Flush. New York: Knopf.

Ingold, Jeanette. (1996). The window. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace.

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.

Teri Lesesne is a professor at Sam Houston State University, in Huntsville, Texas, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate classes in young adult and children's literature in the Department of Library Science. She taught middle school English and reading for fifteen years. Teri writes the YA review column for Voices from the Middle and an author-interview column for Teacher Librarian, and is the author of Making the Match and Naked Reading, both from Stenhouse Publishers. Currently, she serves on the Quick Picks and Margaret Edwards Commitee for YALSA/ALA. When she is not teaching at the university or conducting one-day seminars across the nation, she might be motorcycling along the back roads of Texas. She can be contacted at tsl@consolidated.net.

Return to top