Continuing Education

YALSA Literature Symposium 2014 | Reporting on: Reaching Reluctant Readers: from creation to circulation


One of the best sessions I attended at the YALSA Young Adult Literature Symposium this year was, “Reaching Reluctant Readers: from creation to circulation.” I learned so much and came to some realizations about myself as well. I have included my notes from the session (in black) and added my own comments (in blue).

photoPresenters: Patrick Jones and Zack Moore (not pictured)

“I hate to read” – what does it mean, why it was said, and what you can do about it.

Fact: “Reading ability is positively correlated with the extent to which students read recreationally.”[1]

 That may seem like something that everyone should already know, but have you really thought about it? I know I hadn’t…until last spring, when my library surveyed Middle and High School students. When asked why students chose not to use the library, many responded with, “I hate reading,” “I don’t read,” or “I don’t have time [to read for leisure].” If students aren’t reading, how are they ever going to improve their skills? And furthermore, if they see themselves as “not good at it,” they certainly won’t enjoy doing it.

 Activity: share one book from your life.

Participants were asked to think about whether or not they were “readers” and provide one book that may have changed their outlook on reading. We did not have a lot of time to go into detail–it was only a 90 minute session after all–but I encourage you, dear follower, to put some though into it.

 During this portion of the session, I chose to share that I, in point of fact, was not a “reader” in middle or high school. I used to love being read to in elementary school, but I was a pretty slow reader and it was incredibly discouraging to see my sister—3 years my junior—surpassing me in reading ability. We would participate in the Summer Reading Program, but I felt so much pressure and anxiety about the task of reading that I would sit with a book and stare at the pages for, what I presumed was the appropriate amount of time before turning the pages. I would watch as my little sister would devour book after book in one sitting, while I struggled through finishing just one. It’s heartbreaking, I know.

Here’s the light at the end of the tunnel. My saving grace, believe it or not, was Broadway musicals. In high school (2004), Joel Schumacher directed a theatrical production of Phantom of the Opera and I loved it. I wanted to know more about this mysterious phantom, so I found the book Le Fantôme de l’Opéra by Gaston Leroux (The Phantom of the Opera) from my local library—they only had it in large print, but that was okay…I actually wanted to read it. And I did. imagesAt first, I only read two or three chapters at a time, but then three chapters turned into four, turned into “OMG, I can’t put this down!” Once completed, I was surprised by how quickly I thought I had done it. I felt really good about myself, but still not good enough to keep reading as an activity I did regularly. wicked-seriesThen, I saw Wicked at the Appleton PAC, and after leaving the theatre, I knew I was going to have to read the book. And I did. This was the book that turned me into a reader. Gregory Maguire captivated me. He sucked me into his version of Oz better than L. Frank Baum himself. I couldn’t get enough of Wicked. I read book 1, and immediately sought out Son of a Witch, but alas, had to wait for publication of A Lion Among Men. I was officially on the reading bandwagon.

 Why They Aren’t Reading

  • By the time many students reach high school, they equate reading with ridicule, failureor exclusively school-related tasks.
  • Students are not excited by ideas. They prefer to experience directly rather than through reading.
    • Encourage them to not finish books if that book is not working for them.
  • Many active adolescents are unable to sit still.
  • Teenagers are too self-absorbed and
  • Books are inadequate entertainmentcompared to what they are used to (their reality).
  • Persistent stress from home and school to read constantly is counter-productive.
  • Adolescents may grow up in non-reading homes; have no reading role models.
  • Some adolescents may consider reading solitary and anti-social.
  • Reading is considered “uncool”and something adults do.
    • This thought process begins in middle school.
  • Can’t find the good books.

 Holy Toledo, yes! Every last one of those points relates to me as a aliterate teen (adj: unwilling to read, although able to do so). Now you may be asking, what kind of books appeal to reluctant readers? Ask and ye shall receive!

YALSA Quick Picks Criteria

  • Cover – catchy, action-oriented, attractive, appealing, good “blurb”
  • Print style – sufficiently large for enjoyable reading
  • Format – appropriate and appealing balance of text and white space.
  • Artwork/illustrations – enticing, realistic, demonstrated diversity.
  • Clear writing without long convoluted sentences of sophisticated vocabulary.
  • Acceptable literary quality and effectiveness of presentation.
  • High interest “hook” in the first 10 pages
  • Well-defined characters and not too many of them
    • Fantasy doesn’t usually work for Reluctant Readers because of the made up places and names.
  • Sufficient plot to sustain interest
    • goosebumpsR.L.Stine: “Almost all of my books are designed for reluctant readers. When I wrote and edited educational magazines, I learned how to write for different reading levels. I try to keep my scary books at a 4th-grade reading and vocabulary level. In addition–short books, fast-paced, lots of surprises and twists, cliff-hanger chapter endings to force them to go on to the next chapter, and plot-driven books with little description to slow down the action.” I loved Goosebumps!!! I may have read every one available when I was in elementary school.
  • Plot lines developed through dialog and action rather than descriptive text.
  • Familiar themes with emotional appeal for teenagers.
    • Show YAs being independent from adults.
    • Reassure YAs they are “normal”
    • Present role models
    • Demonstrate problem-solving in action
    • Allow to feel like winners/overcoming odds
    • Display relationships
    • Capture intensity
    • Help develop socially responsible behavior
    • Explore lives of other teenagers
  • Believable treatment (that does not preclude speculative fiction however)
  • Single point of view / nothing tricky / just tell the story
  • Clear mirrors not pretty pictures
  • Touches of humor when appropriate

 Ease in-library access

When/if a reluctant reader enters your teen space, what do you think they feel? Overwhelmed, that’s what. Patrick likened it to himself walking into an automotive store. He is not a “car guy” so, with a million and one different types of motor oil, he often feels out of his element in that situation. So, too, is the feeling an aliterate teen gets when walking into a library. Here’s how we can help these reluctant readers succeed in the library.

  • Display books in way that appeals to reluctant teen readers
  • Keep it simple
  • Shelve ‘quick reads’ together
  • Book talks
  • Be prepared

 What will reluctant readers read?

  • Books:
    • Series fiction (like : Cirque Du Freak)
    • Urban fiction (like : 16 going on 21Surviving Southside)
    • General Nonfiction
    • Nonfiction Biography
    • Nonfiction illustration heavy books
    • Nonfiction informational books in series (generally: “Girls want to read something, boys want to read about something“)
    • Nonfiction pop goes the culture (books that reflect pop culture)
    • Graphic novels
    • Collected comics
    • Manga
    • Poetry
    • Magazines
    • Comic books

Ease of access to the greatest library resource…STAFF

  • Read what they are reading
  • Be honest (or lie, “I haven’t read that, tell me what that book is about.” BAM! have what they are looking for/what interests them.)
  • Let peers recommend reads
  • Shut up and listen
  • Get an author – author visits are invaluable!
  • Get input
  • Get out of the library
  • Get over yourself
  • Keep current
  • Listen
  • Non-judgmental attitude
  • Weed the collection
  • Wave goodbye to just fiction

Follow Patrick Jones –

Follow R.L.Stine –

Follow Gregory Maguire –

[1] National Center for Education Statistics


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