Writing for new readers
Gemma's Open Door Series publishes books specifically targeted to adults who are learning to read. The books are small enough to fit into a big coat pocket and touch on themes from addiction to family life and more. The authors who write for the series are accomplished fiction writers, with a knack for quickly engaging a reader. We talked to author and Open Books' North American editor Brian Bouldrey about the project by phone.
It seems like most things targeted to adult literacy are practical—training manuals, forms, that kind of thing. But you chose to focus on writing fiction books for adult learners.
BOULDREY: I have friends who say, you’re publishing books for people who can’t read. But everyone wants to read. There are just roadblocks: education and language. The way to get through that is to give them something interesting to read.
We started this program based on a program in Ireland. They’ve gotten writers like Nick Hornby to write books. And I was reading them and I could see they were short simple sentences. But they were riveting. I was reading every single one. So I said this needs to be done here.
There are practical aspects too. We’re working with prisoners and ESL learners. We’re actually writing a book for the American Cancer Society, explaining what to do when you have cancer.
How do you write differently for new readers?
BOULDREY: I tell authors who write for us to try to recreate the experience of how they fell in love with reading. Elizabeth Mosier, who wrote the Playgroup, loved A Christmas Carol when she was a kid. And the first line of her book is “The Marley house was empty.” And there are a lot of little things like that, little ghosts throughout the book.
And what was it that you loved as a kid?
BOULDREY: I was a total Tolkien Geek.
That makes sense, your book The Sorrow of the Elves is about a guy with a heroin addiction, but he’s a fantasy writer so there are all these fantasy references.
You end up dealing with so many heavy, gritty themes, like addiction and the loss of children. I read one of the Gemma authors, James Morrison, use to teach adult learners. He had assigned them an E.B. White book and they felt like he was talking down to them because he’s a children’s writer. I was wondering if that was maybe why you had these kinds of themes? That maybe adult learners didn’t necessarily want to read about talking pigs? You needed to prove it was for adults.
BOULDREY: Yes, that’s exactly right. We have this imaginary reader who has worked all day in our heads. They turn on a telenovella and there are three deaths before the credits role.
But the publisher actually asked us to tone it down with the adult situations. I turned in yet another book with a death in it, and she was like, can I get a pie in the face in your next book? And I think that’s right. New readers should know they can get all kinds of stories. I promise you, we are getting some pie in the face really soon.
What have authors learned from writing from your series?
BOULDREY: They all say it helps them remember the basics. They learn to write simple, efficient sentences. And they don’t have time to be boring.
Do you think that’s why you’ve been able to attract so many authors?
BOULDREY: Authors want people out there to read their work carefully. Robert Frost said people who read fast are eye readers and he was looking for eager readers.
I mean, when I was in school they placed people in different reading groups. And me and this girl were the fastest readers so they placed in this broom closet with this machine called the speedy reader 5,000. It was like out of Clock Work Orange, it sped up words and made us read them very quickly. I’ve been trying to undo that my whole life. But these new readers, they are taking it word by word. What author doesn’t want that?