Sunday, August 19, 2007

Why Joe Sherlock Works for Reluctant Readers

Since this blog is about getting reluctant readers to read, I thought I'd reveal the qualities that I believe make my Joe Sherlock series such a hit among the reluctant reader crowd.

Not that kids who enjoy reading for fun and entertainment don't like the series. They do. But it's harder to find books that reluctant readers will actually sit and read for an extended period of time. For some appreciative parents, it's a mystery how a Joe Sherlock mystery hooked their previosuly stubborn and committed "non-reader."

So here's why I think the series works so well for those who normally roll their eyes at the mere mention of reading for fun:

They're snot-blowing funny. Okay, I'm patting myself on the back a bit here, but I work darn hard to make every sentence, every paragraph, every page of a Joe Sherlock mystery as funny as I can. I often tell my editor, Margarget, that I aim to pack each book with maximum LPI (laughs per inch). Humor is the great equalizer for the book-averse crowd. If a book can make a reluctant reader snort, chuckle, cackle, giggle, snicker, crack up or just crack a smile, you just found a chink in his armor. And I shoehorn in all variety of humor: wordplay, slapstick, family dynamics, gross-out and just plain old silly stuff. In short, I'm hurling every weapon in the comedy arsenal at 'em.

They have illustrations on every page. For some kids, an endless jungle of text can be intimidating and just plain dull looking. But with illustrations on every page, the Joe Sherlock books look more inviting, more friendly. Kids—especially boys— are visual, and I've seen lots of boys give the books what I call the "flip test," which is performed by holding the book between your index finger and thumb and quickly fanning through the pages. "Okay," they pronounce after seeing all the illustrations. Hey, for some kids reading the first few chapters of a book is a battle fought from illustration to illustration.

They have short chapters. Adults don't like 60-page chapters, and kids even more so. But for the reluctant reader, to actually make it though a chapter can feel like a major accomplishment. If a reluctant readers can spend five minutes and say he's already dusted off the first chapter, he's achieved a genuine sense of accomplishment (and built a bit of momentum, too).

They're crammed full of cliff hangers. I try to end every single chapter with a cliff hanger. Truthfully, it's my secret weapon. And I've found that kids aren't even consciously aware that I'm using cliff hangers as a literary device. It's like an invisible headlock! This is why so many kids describe the books as mysteriously hard to put down, and why so many moms have gushed to me about their "non-readers" staying up way past bedtime to finish their Joe Sherlock book.

There's always an element of time pressure. I borrowed this technique from good thrillers, since time pressure is usually not a common trait of mysteries, where the key action has already occured and the detective comes on the scene to figure out what happened. It's just another ingredient I toss into the Joe Sherlock stew to kick it up a notch. Whether it's finding the ring before the wedding starts or the mummy head before the big museum gala begins, cranking up the time pressure keeps them hooked.

Everyone wants Joe Sherlock to succeed. Nothing goes right for Joe Sherlock. He stumbles and bumbles his way through his cases. I often say he's more Charlie Brown than Encyclopaedia Brown. It's fun to put him in embarrassing, awkward, and uncomfortable situations. But he never gives up. He just keeps on sluething. And, in the end, you're really want to see him succeed.

Now, I understand that Joe Sherlock is not the answer for every reluctant reader; every child is different. But whether it's a graphic novel or non-fiction about flesh-eating plants, the essential point is to find the right kind of book and get them reading.

And like lighting a campfire, the key is to get a spark. Then it's up to the person in charge to keep carefully adding fuel. Before you know it, you've got a hot, roaring fire that will eventually start feeding itself. Now that's a beautiful thing to behold.

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