Thursday, 24 November 2016

Writing for 'reluctant' readers - Sue Purkiss

Some years ago, I had a lovely job working as a teacher with a Youth Offending Team. Very few of the young people we worked with were securely and successfully in full-time education; most had problems with reading. My job was very varied. A lot of it was about advocating for them, trying to make sure they had access to whatever was the most appropriate education for them. It was difficult, and it typically took a long time, so in between, I would do some work with them. If they were excluded from school, they would usually have a tutor, and the school would set work for them.

But a surprising number slipped through the cracks and had nothing, and with these, in the short time we had available, I would do whatever seemed most likely to engage them. With one sixteen year-old boy, we wrote a letter to his soon-to-be-born child, writing about his life and expressing his hopes for the future. With several, I got them to write poetry - they needed a framework and help with the actual writing, but the words and thoughts were their own, and their shy pleasure at having created something complete was a joy to see. With another, we created fliers for a small business he hoped one day to set up. With that same boy, I read a story about bullying and we talked about it.

The cover of my new book, which is for 'reluctant' readers.
We managed to access a small funding pot, and with this I bought a collection of books - mostly Quick Reads and books from Barrington Stoke. It wasn't easy to make best use of them; the young people's lives were pretty disorganised, and it was a major feat getting them to remember to turn up for sessions. But there were some who borrowed one book, and realised that these were stories they could manage and enjoy - and then they'd borrow another, and another, and another.

Since becoming a writer, I've always hoped to have the opportunity to write for readers like this. I think 'reluctant' is actually a bit of a misnomer; they're only reluctant because they find reading so hard - and so then they pretend to scorn it, because that's what you do, isn't it? If there's a club you can't join, you shrug your shoulders and say that you never wanted to belong to it anyway. I wrote about a boy like this - Ash - in The Willow Man: I think he's still one of my favourite characters. But although the book was in part about a boy who found reading difficult, it wasn't for a boy such as him: you would need to be a confident reader to access it.

This year, I finally got my chance. A Time To Live, which has just come out, is published by Ransom. It's set in France during the war, and it's about a girl who shelters a British airman who has been shot down and injured. At first, she has to do it in secret, because her father feels the best way to keep his family safe under German occupation is to lie low and do nothing to antagonise the invaders; he's not a coward, but his overriding priority is to keep his family safe.

So there's a lot of conflict, a lot of tension. When I put in the proposal, the editor wondered if this was going to be too much to get into 5000 words. Well - it was certainly a challenge. It meant getting rid of any excess baggage: paring the story and the characters down to their essence. I loved it. And if just a few - even one - teenager reads it and enjoys it and then thinks: Well, that was fun - maybe I'll try another! - then I'll really feel as if I've achieved something.

Liz Kessler, who usually posts on the 24th, will be back in 2017.


Joan Lennon said...

I loved Ash in The Willow Man - such a good book! And how wonderful to see A Time to Live - congratulations on an incredibly important job well done!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Reluctant reader books, high interest-low-reading-level are very important. There are not enough of them and many publishers just don't understand. I remember being at a writer conference where an education publisher and a writer proudly showed off a charming book aimed at Grade 3 readers. I asked what they had for teenagers reading at that level and was met with a bewildered stare from both. Well, I work with teens, some as old as 16 and 17, with interrupted schooling. They don't want cutesy books aimed at primary children. They want books of interest to themselves. And there are very few. Barrington Stoke is good, but we need more. So well done!

Lynne Benton said...

Well said, Sue - a thought-provoking post in praise of writing for a valuable market. Books for "reluctant" readers are so important, and not that easy to do. Looking forward to reading yours. (And I entirely agree with Joan about "The Willow Man" - an excellent book!)

Penny Dolan said...

I enjoyed hearing about your work with the Youth Offending Team, Sue Purkiss, as well as the news about your reluctant reader book.

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks, everyone!

Steve Gladwin said...

Yes Sue, it really does make you think about just how important even a simple book can be to change young people's lives and how the struggle to read even the simplest thing is worth it as soon as you see the glowing result on someone's face. I too loved The Willow Man.

Sue Purkiss said...

Thank you, Steve!

Anne Booth said...

That's such a good thing to have done!