Kids and Summer Reading

Here’s a subject with which I’m intimately familiar. Having raised three kids, I spent many summers trying to figure out how to get two of them to do even just a little reading. My oldest –  my daughter Morgan – was, quite fortunately, an avid reader and considered a trip to Barnes & Noble better than a trip to the amusement park. My middle kid and my youngest kid – well, that was a different matter. These two each had a learning disability that impacted their ability and interest in reading. My middle child – my son Ryan – had an issue with comprehension. He could read several pages to you with fluency, but when you asked him about what he’d read, he had only the vaguest of ideas. My youngest – my daughter Amanda – had a different issue. Her learning disability was communication centered. For her, letters and words were just lines and squiggles. She struggled to make sense of the words on the page, but if you read to her, she could repeat almost word for word what you’d read.

Trying to get my younger two kids to read often seemed a more difficult task than performing a root canal on a crocodile.

crocodile_teeth

Without anesthesia.  I tried bribing, I tried taking away privileges, but this turn reading into something my kids resented or felt was a chore they were being forced to endure. As a writer for children, I couldn’t bear the thought that my kids would hate reading and books because of my efforts to help keep them engaged and learning during their time off from school. So I came up with a plan that was sort of a compromise. I told my kids that we would go to the book store. They could pick out one book, any book they wanted. Morgan went for Harry Potter – because they were new and all the rage. My son wandered around, looking at things like the Guiness Book of World Records. Eventually I managed to lure him to the Young Adult section. I pointed out a few sports themed books, and casually mentioned that I had met Walter Dean Myers.  The book Slam was on the shelf, a book about basketball (well, more than basketball, but that is my son’s first love, so it was all that mattered). My son had found his first of what would be a long-term affinity for Walter Dean Myer’s books.

Somehow, my youngest daughter discovered Manga books. For those not familiar with Manga, they are graphic novels which feature Japanese anime style drawing along with text. I have to say, at first I wanted to tell her no, she needed a “real” book, but then I remembered that I said they could pick “any” book. And thus began a love affair with Manga and graphic novels that my daughter enjoys even now that she’s in college. It’s easy for her to follow, and she can read them over and over. She’s moved through a variety of series, and I’m so grateful I didn’t tell her no all those years ago.

mangabooks

Many years ago, when the  Goosebumps series first started, many adults were outraged by the books and fought to steer kids away from them (and in some places, tried to ban them outright). But many writers and educators defended the books, and in one interview I read at the time, a wise parent said, “I’d rather see this book in my son’s hands than the remote control to a video game.” I absolutely agree! If it’s a choice between a book (even one deemed “trashy” or “worthless”) or the X-Box, I’d far rather the kids’ version of pulp fiction than mindless zombie blasting.

My advice for summer reading? Let your kids pick. Even if it’s not on their teacher’s summer reading list, give them the choice. My married oldest daughter is still a voracious reader. My college student son still reads sports books, and he still reads Walter Dean Myers. And while my youngest college student daughter still enjoys Manga, she also stole and read my Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe.  Give kids the freedom to choose their own entertainment through a book, and it won’t feel like you’re sentencing them to an agonizing chore. (But if you happen to recommend my books, that would be okay, too!)

And here’s a great summer reading tip for young kids: personalized books! Emergent readers (those just learning to read) get an absolute thrill when they see their names in a book! Surprise one of your favorite youngsters with this very special gift. Many companies are encouraging parents to spend time with their kids, and nothing is more fun than having your child on your lap with a book in hand! The wonderful people at Personal Creations are making this easy by offering delightful books for young readers, customized with their names! To learn more, visit http://www.personalcreations.com! Make summer reading more fun, and spend some valuable time with your kids. Trust me, they grow up way too soon, so don’t miss those opportunities to connect!

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Writing to Trends

At the workshop I attended this past weekend, there was some discussion at lunch about trends in writing.  At previous workshops and seminars, this same topic has generated a great deal of talk and even debate. 

For example, when Harry Potter first arrived on the scene, everyone and his or her dog had a wizard story, or a story about magic and apprentice witches or wizards.  Yes, many of them were published, and often they were designed to look a lot like the Harry Potter books.  But the fact is, they weren’t as good as the original, and these copy cat books didn’t arrive first.

Now it seems that everyone and his or her cat is writing about vampires.  The success of the Twilight series is the catalyst for this movement.  After all, if the writer of Twilight can break the rules of over 100 years of vampire tradition, then certainly every Bob, Carol, Ted, and Alice can do so likewise and be just as successful, right?  Well, not so fast there, fang face.

Here’s the problem with trying to write to a trend: timing.  It’s not just that you need to be the first person to market with your book, but when you consider how long it takes for a book to become a book, by the time your particular version of the trend arrives, the trend itself is probably waning, and the public’s attention is shifting to something new and different.

A book released today was most like written two to three years ago.  It was submitted to an agent or publisher – quite possibly rejected by a few of them, too – before being accepted by the editor or agent who ultimately sees something of value in the story.  That process alone can take anywhere between three months and a year depending on the publisher’s acceptance policies.  There are committees involved in making these decisions (very few editors have the ability to by a manuscript on the spot), and as the old saying goes, “For God so loved the world that He didn’t send a committee.”

Then there is the revision process, which takes anywhere from a few months to a few years depending on the writer, the deadline, the editor, the publisher, etc.  Then there is cover design, scheduling or calendaring (which works the novel into the publisher’s release schedule), then the time it takes for printing and so forth.  That’s why a book accepted for publication today may take 18 to 24 months before it is released.  And many publishers are actually backlogged, meaning the books they are scheduling now may not see a shelf for almost three years.

All of this means that by the time the book is released, the kids who are interested in wizards or vampires or space travel will have aged two to three years and the trend will be dead.  The new group of kids may or may not share that same level of interest in the subject.  And series books are even harder to accomplish with trend writing because of the realities of writing series.  The first book may sell well, however, subsequent books very rarely do as well.

When I wrote my critical thesis for my Masters degree, I studied series books and compared them against individual novels.  The truth is that, even with books like Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, after book one, subsequent books do not sell as well.  R. L. Stein’s Goosebumps series is evidence of this, too.  Though there were close to 100 books in that series (perhaps more, I forget at the moment how many), only book one ever sold a significant number of copies.  The other books in this series lagged quite far behind.  And these are books where the publisher was releasing a book almost every three months to keep its prepubescent readers adequately supplied.

Writing to trends is a waste of a good writer’s time.  Leave that to the writers who aren’t original enough to come up with innovative story lines and unique characters who actually speak to contemporary readers.  Yes, there are still publishers who are looking to cash in on the latest thing in the middle grade and young adult market, and they will produce a book that fits that thread.  In fact, they may even rush it through production to get it on the shelves as quickly as possible.  But the next time you walk through your local book store, see if you can’t identify these books.  Here’s a hint: they are typically located on the “bargain” table, selling for less than half their retail value.

A better suggestion for writers with integrity: write from your heart.  Tell the story that only you can tell in the way that only you can tell it.  This keeps your soul intact and satisfies your desire to write, rather than giving in to some Faustian need to achieve success at all costs.

Now go write something GOOD!