Locker Combinations is a Book Case feature by BookPage contributor and young adult (YA) literature expert Jill Ratzan. Using a variety of literary, cultural and educational perspectives, Jill guest blogs about the latest in YA lit and the general direction, trends and changes of the field. This month, Jill tackles reluctant readers.
"My teacher told me to pick out a book," the seventh grader standing at my library reference desk complains. Clearly, she wishes she'd been sent to choose a poisonous octopus instead.
Avid readers can easily be boggled at best—and horrified at worst—by teens who seem completely uninterested in reading. As adults who love the written word, we want the teens in our lives to love it too. So how can we reach out to teens who don't like to read?
Librarians use the term "reluctant readers" to describe young people like the one above. The term is both alliterative and subversive: Reluctance doesn't imply refusal, just hesitation. The idea is that the right book can overcome a potential reader's misgivings and inspire them to give reading a chance.
Reluctant readers love lists: They're easy to follow and present information in quick, short chunks. In that spirit, here's a list of four ideas for matching reluctant teen readers with books they're likely to enjoy. Or, at least, not likely to hate.
1. Take advantage of resource lists.
The American Library Association publishes an annual list of Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, including a Top Ten Quick Picks list. These lists feature "books that teens, ages 12-18, will pick up on their own and read for pleasure; [they are] geared to the teenager who, for whatever reason, does not like to read."
On this year's list, I love Game by Barry Lyga, the second book in a series about a boy who vows to catch serial killers . . . starting with his own father. The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey, about an alien invasion, has also been a big hit with the reluctant readers in my neighborhood.
Many public libraries put together their own lists too. For example, check out the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's "But I HATE to Read!" list for teens, whose refreshingly honest title speaks directly to its target audience.
2. Choose books with inherently high-interest topics.
Alien invasions and serial killers are usually good bets. In a press release announcing the 2014 Quick Picks choices, Derek Ivie, chair of the Quick Picks committee, enumerates other topics and formats of perpetual interest, including "zombies, dystopias, dogs, crafts, [and] graphic novels." (He goes on to apologize that "there are no graphic novels of zombie dogs making crafts in a dystopian world" but adds, "Maybe next year?")
3. Choose books that don't look intimidating.
Page counts should be low and amount of white space should be high. Illustrations, if they're relevant, should be plentiful. And, of course, cover art should be inviting and book description blurbs should be attention-grabbing. My favorite blurb from this year's Quick Picks list is for Eat, Brains, Love by Jeff Hart: "Jake and Amanda just ate most of their friends. They feel really bad about it."
University of Richmond Department of Education Curriculum Materials Center director (and BookPage contributor!) Angela Leeper has the right idea when she assembles this terrific list of Books Under 200 Pages for Booklist magazine. These 20 choices are sure to be hits among teens who might eschew more intimidating-looking tomes.
(Of course, rules were made to be broken: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, which takes up only 72 pages in its Dover edition, is a much more difficult read than the 870-page Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. But in general, shorter books help reading seem more manageable.)
4. Discard your avid-reader instincts.
Gold and silver award seals, like those of the Newbery and Printz medals, can be off-putting to reluctant teen readers, who associate them with uninteresting, difficult books that carry that known kiss of death: adult approval. (Again, every rule has its exceptions: Rainbow Rowell's love story between two misfit 1980s teens, Eleanor & Park, was named both a Printz Honor book and a Quick Pick for 2014.)
While avid readers often relish the cracking sound that a pristine hardcover makes the first time it's opened, a reluctant teen reader might have just the opposite view. A creased spine and worn out pages indicate a book that's been well-loved. Teens are observant people and they notice these cues.
So what about my seventh grader? After being assured that it had not won a Newbery—but that it had been made into a movie—she left with a well-worn paperback copy of the YA suspense classic I Know What You Did Last Summer by Lois Duncan. I hope she didn't hate it.