Thursday, 20 November 2014

Writing for Reluctant Readers #scbwicon

Janet Foxley



Following the excellent interviews with Mairi Kidd of Barrington Stoke and Barrington Stoke Author, Anthony McGowan, Janet Foxley gives us an overview of SCBWI British Isles Conference 2014’s Craft Intensive on Writing for Reluctant Readers.





It was all about High and Low. The High of getting one’s first book contract or the Low of receiving one’s hundredth rejection? No, this was about writing High/Low books: high interest level, low reading age.

Mairi is Anthony’s editor at Barrington Stoke, publisher of ‘dyslexia friendly’ books for young (and older) people who, for a variety of reasons, find reading difficult.

Barrington Stoke have designed their own font, with serifs, longer ascenders and descenders and subtly different shapes to some of the letters.

She started off by telling us about the appearance of their books. The text is easy on the eye, printed on a cream rather than a white background. (It’s not cream paper, by the way, but white paper printed with cream ink – I bet you didn’t know that.) The paper is thick, so the eye/brain can’t be confused by print showing through from the other side. They also leave more space between letters, words, sentences and paragraphs than normal typesetting. And they have designed their own font, with serifs, longer ascenders and descenders and subtly different shapes to some of the letters. It looks like this:

From The Fall by Anthony McGowan, Barrington Stoke, 2011.
A scan of Janet's own copy of Anthony's book
Click to enlarge

With the printing now made easier to read, it’s over to the writer and editor to make the stories easier to read. Mairi suggested that authors should write the first draft in their normal style and address the low reading age at the revision stage.

Children who have never been read to have no experience of running a narrative in their heads.

Some of what is required is the same as for any commercial fiction: a strong opening hook, a sympathetic protagonist, plenty of cliff-hangers. Then one must consider the struggling reader’s specific needs – short sentences, short paragraphs and if possible no words with difficult spellings that can trip them up: ‘-ough’ words, for instance. Concrete nouns are easier to understand than abstract nouns.

Children who have never been read to have no experience of running a narrative in their heads. The writer must help these readers by following a simple linear structure. A single point of view is best and description should be kept to a minimum as it distracts from the narrative. Care must be taken not to lose the reader’s interest by referring to things that fall outside their frame of reference.

The word order must be like natural speech, not literary language. 

The writing itself must be clear, with no room for confusion or ambiguity, no unreliable narrators, no word play, no clues which the reader would need to remember in order to understand what happens later on.

The word order must be like natural speech, not literary language. Dialogue should be tagged with the speaker more often than usual, using names rather than pronouns so that the reader doesn’t have to wonder which ‘he’ or ‘she’ is speaking. If the narrative is in the first person, the reader must be made aware of the narrator’s name early on. And double rather than single quotation marks should be used, as they give the reader a bigger signal that they’re dealing with speech.

Finally there should be a clear, satisfying and preferably upbeat conclusion – no open endings where readers could feel they have missed or misunderstood something.

You might think all these constraints would lead to stilted writing. They don’t. See for yourself – read Anthony’s The Fall, or Brock. Or both. It won’t take you long – Barrington Stoke books are short. Mairi gave us this table:

Click to enlarge.


 One writer I know said she knew she’d ‘arrived’ when she was asked to write for Barrington Stoke.

Someone then asked how to go about submitting their work. The answer was ‘you can’t’. Barrington Stoke invite only well-established authors to write for them. They aim to give their readers the same authors and the same quality of writing as non-struggling readers enjoy. One writer I know said she knew she’d ‘arrived’ when she was asked to write for Barrington Stoke.

“Tim said” is preferred to “said Tim”

The news that they’re not open to submissions may have been why a few delegates didn’t return for the afternoon session, in which we were given a bit of practice at high/low writing. We had to write a short passage and pass it to someone else for appropriate editing. Then Mairi and Tony came round to assess our efforts. “Tim said” is preferred to “said Tim”, apparently.

Many thanks are due to Mairi and Tony for this thoroughly interesting insight into a specialist arm of publishing. I was fascinated by the whole process of creating a Barrington Stoke book. As a writer, I felt that a lot of what I’d learned could usefully be applied to my writing of Early Readers and chapter books. And as the mother of a severely dyslexic son, I couldn’t help wishing that Barrington Stoke had been around when he was young.



Janet Foxley was nearly put off books for life by a degree wading through German and French classics. She always preferred writing books to analysing them, and she started writing children’s stories when her own children were small. There was little help available for aspiring authors at that time and it took her 35 years to find a publisher. Then, ‘overnight success’, Muncle Trogg sold to 24 countries and was optioned for an animated film. Janet has since written two more books about Muncle, the third currently published only in Germany. She joined SCBWI in 2007.

4 comments:

  1. This is fascinating, thanks Janet - there were so many good sessions on I was sorry to have missed this one.

    ReplyDelete
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