Writing Excuses 10.24: Hooking Younger Readers
Key Points: What hooks younger readers? A familiar voice that is relevant to them. Both the syntax and the character’s point of view. Popular picks do get checked out again and again. Book trailers do work! Are there differences in boy and girl reading habits? Boys do lean towards adventure/action/sports. Write about what interests you and do it in a voice that interests younger readers. Good characters, a good plot, and passion.
[Mary] Season 10, Episode 24.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Hooking Younger Readers.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star, Kaley Snyder.
[Kiley] Hi everyone. Thanks for having me. Happy to be here.
[Kiley] Kiley Snyder. Yes. That’s okay. It happens.
[Brandon] Sorry. It happens.
[Kiley] It’s not a big deal.
[Brandon] Kiley. You are a school librarian?
[Kiley] Yes, and I love it. I love… Coming into my job every day, working with students, working with books, getting… Working with readers who are avid readers as well as reluctant readers. Great job.
[Howard] You said something about reluctant readers when we were talking prior to rolling digital tape…
[Howard] That I just loved. Could you say that again?
[Kiley] Yes. When I have a reluctant reader come to the library and tell me, “Ms. Snyder, I don’t like to read books. What do you suggest?” I take him to the graphic novel section. I pull out a handful…
[Kiley] I love graphic novels, because sometimes you need a break from a book. Sometimes you need to read through a good comic. That works well. I’ve had some success with that. As far as them reading the graphic novel adaptation, and then reading the actual book. Like with the Percy Jackson series, that’s…
[Howard] I didn’t realize there was a Percy Jackson graphic novel. That’s cool.
[Kiley] There are three of them.
[Mary] I was just wishing that my school library had had a graphic novel section.
[Brandon] So here’s my question for you. Do you carry Watchmen? No.
[Kiley] No. It’s in my car, though.
[Brandon] Little too much full frontal on that one, I suppose.
[Brandon] So my question for you is what hooks younger readers? Like, when you see… When they come in and they fall in love with something. Is there anything you can define about those books that is working that other books maybe just don’t?
[Kiley] I think with young adult literature, grades six through eight, it really has to be relevant to them. It has to be a familiar voice. Using Steelheart as an example, David is the familiar voice and one they can follow. They can follow him in his pursuit. That sense of having that relation with the character, I think is a big deal for them. That’s been successful.
[Mary] So I’m wondering, when you’re talking about the familiar voice… Because there’s two things that go through my head. One is the actual words that are being spoken. Like the syntax, the way things string together. The other is the character’s point of view, the way they… What they are interested and passionate about and their problems and concerns. Is it a mix of those or one of those more than the other or…
[Kiley] I would say that both of those. It depends, but definitely a mix.
[Brandon] I’ve heard this many times before on panels, talked to librarians, that in the young adult genre, that voice is king or queen or whatever of the book. This is why you hear… You see a lot of the first person used in these young adult books. If you can start off with a strong voice… People are like, “Yeah. I would want to hang out with this person.” Or “Yeah, I know, this person sounds like me.” Or “I really like this sense of sarcasm.” I’ve often said it lets you cheat a little bit as a writer. It’s one of the great advantages of the first person is that you can get across information that would normally be boring, that would normally be kind of an info dump, except you put it in this fun first-person narrative and suddenly it’s this character talking snark about something or someone and you’re in love with them, or it’s this character talking about just how awful their life is, and you’re like, “Oh, I feel so sorry for you.” Simply putting it in voice can be that spoonful of sugar that makes the whole story go down.
[Mary] I will say that you can actually do that with third person narrative as well.
[Brandon] You can.
[Mary] But it requires… But a lot of people forget that you can.
[Dan] Yeah. We think that third person narrative has to be flavorless unless you’re doing actual dialogue. It doesn’t. You’re still inside their head, you’re still describing how they see what they see.
[Brandon] In fact, if you look at Harry Potter, even the omniscient in Harry Potter has a very… There’s a tone of wit and fun and a whimsicalness to even her omniscient. When she gets into viewpoint, it’s the same way. I remember reading the first line of chapter 1, which comes… Not the prologue, but the first line of chapter 1 where it talks about Mr. Durstley, is it? Having not enough neck, and Mrs. Durstley having too much neck. That line alone had me. I’m like, “Oh. That voice, in that narrative, is just going to have… This story is going to have fun.”
[Dan] I think what you said about character and about feeling attached to a character… That is far and away the number one fan mail that I’ll get on the Partials series, is I love Kira so much, she’s just like me. That outweighs everything else by a mile.
[Kiley] Another very popular series in our library, and yes.
[Dan] Thank you for pretending. That’s great.
[Brandon] So let’s go ahead and stop for the book of the week. The book of the week this week is one I’m doing. It’s actually… I would categorize it as New Adult. Which is this kind of almost imaginary category that we put after young adult but before adult. Everyone I talk to is not quite sure if it even exists. But this feels like one. It’s Uprooted by Naomi Novik. I actually don’t know the reader yet, because we’re doing this far enough ahead and I had an advance copy that I wasn’t able to look up who would be doing the audiobook, but I loved this book. It’s a dark fairytale retelling of a fairytale I’ve never heard before. Naomi may have made it up. I intend to ask her. It’s Polish. The whole thing is themed very Poland. You never feel like… It never says we’re in Poland, but the names, the setting, and everything, you’re like, “Wow. I’m in Eastern Europe.” It’s really cool. It feels very authentic. What they’re eating, what they’re talking about. It’s the story… It starts off with a woman talking about the wizard… Or the Dragon. I’m sorry. Who is actually a wizard. Dragon is his title. She’s like, “Our Dragon doesn’t eat people, but he does require a sacrifice now and then.” Something like that. This young woman ends up being the sacrifice that’s sent to his tower. Apparently the reason for that sacrifice is so he’ll have someone to clean for him. So I’m sure she started with a story about a dragon eating people as a sacrifice and she turned it into Dragon as a title of a wizard. Every wizard has a ranking, this wizard requires the young woman as a sacrifice but instead she goes there and starts doing all this stuff. He has mysterious reasons for wanting her, but it turns out she starts learning magic from him unexpectedly both to him and to her. She has a very different style of magic than his own. The story is fantastic. It is… It doesn’t go where I was expecting it from that opening. I had a blast reading it.
[Mary] Where do they get it?
[Brandon] They get it at audiblepodcast.com/excuse, where they can get a 30-day free trial and they can download Uprooted by Naomi Novik or one of her Temeraire novels, which I have book talked before and chosen as book of the week. His Majesty’s Dragon is also by her and is a fantastic novel.
[Howard] Brandon, something you said about New Adult, I think category maybe. Part of the discussion of categories often centers around a category exists whether we want it to exist or not if books are being shelved that way. My question for you, Kiley, is how much control do you have over the way you shelve things and have you move things around and found that by putting different books together, you see different books moving with your students?
[Kiley] Yeah. Good question. Our library is set up by genre. [Using the Dewey] set up by genre. We have science fiction, we have fantasy, realistic fiction, romance, graphic novels… Yay!… Historical fiction, mystery. So we have a new book section. We advertise what’s new. We have popular picks, what students recommend. We put those on there as well. Sometimes I do book recommendations, do book talks, bring students into introduce them to the new materials, what’s popular…
[Howard] Do you find that, for instance, if something has the popular picks tag on it, that it’s just going to get checked out again and again and again?
[Howard] Until you pull it off that shelf?
[Kiley] Sure. Yeah.
[Howard] How much does it cost for me to put a popular picks tag on…
[Dan] Okay [garbled] wants to buy end caps space in our library.
[Howard] But that’s… Ultimately, that’s the question, when we talk about shelving, when we talk about marketing, when we talk about genre and category, fundamentally that’s what it comes down to. What shelf do we end up on, and how does the librarian or the bookstore owner present our work to their audience? Because really, our readers are your audience. You’re the gatekeepers for them. You’re the one who is telling them how to get to our stuff. How do we become better friends with you and better position…
[Howard] I’m sorry, I turned it right back around into another bribe. But does the question make sense?
[Brandon] Our listeners want to… They want to write books that people want to read. They want to know how those books are getting into people’s hands.
[Kiley] Right. That’s a good question. That’s something I’m learning myself. I’m a first year librarian, and learning these new things and ways to hook readers and get them… One thing, when books come out, it’s hard because sometimes genres cross over. Is it more of a fantasy? Wait, or is it more of a science fiction? Working with those things is something new I’ve been learning.
[Brandon] How do you do your pitches on the books? I assume you can’t read everything that comes through. Do you look at… Do you use like Library Journal or do you use the back of the book or do you just try to read everything you can?
[Kiley] I try and read, but obviously, that’s hard when you’re talking to five middle school classes in one day. But the books you do talk about, they get checked out right away. So it’s like, “Okay, I’ve got to think of new books.” I use online resources sometimes, do a [garbled] reading, like read the first few pages. Using the back of the book is fine too. Sometimes I show book trailers. There are some really cool book trailers out there. That’s another way to incorporate the media, getting them hooked. Because there are some books in the library I was not interested in reading. Once I saw the book trailer, I thought, “This is awesome. I’m going to go see this movie. But I can’t, because it’s not a movie. So I’ve got to read the book.”
[Dan] Book trailers are… I’m glad you brought those up, because a lot of authors do not take them seriously. Especially adult authors. They’re huge in YA.
[Kiley] So awesome.
[Dan] Because you are pitching these books to an audience that spends so much time online and on YouTube. They’re something that’s very easy to send to your friend and say, “Hey, check this out.” They’re a big, big deal. Authors… Us stodgy adults who didn’t grow up with them kind of don’t…
[Brandon] I was so happy to hear you say that because I know both of my teen series, the publishers spent a lot of effort making good book trailers for them. I’m like, “Is anyone ever going to watch these?”
[Kiley] We do.
[Brandon] So that’s why.
[Mary] That’s really good to know.
[Howard] That is one of the answers to the question I posed, which is one of the ways to become your friend is to create a book trailer that’s easy for you to consume so that you know whether you should be recommending the book to the students who come into your library.
[Mary] So one of the things that we used to… I was a professional puppeteer before I did the whole writing thing. One of the things that we used to do to make the shows more palatable to schools is that we came with study guides to go with them. Would that… Does that same trick work?
[Brandon] Do you guys use those for books? The study guides in the back of the book on occasion? I know Rithmatist has one and things like that.
[Kiley] That would be something that teachers would maybe use.
[Brandon] Yeah. You’re not… That’s not you guys.
[Kiley] It’s not my thing. I’m just trying to get them to read.
[Brandon] Your job is to get them excited.
[Brandon] Get them… I’ve noticed, specifically for teens, that that sort of peer reading is really important. It’s the book… You’ll find, it’s really interesting, you’ll find certain schools, everyone’s read your book. In other schools, it sits there and collects dust. That’s all based on one or two kids picking it up and its suddenly burning through the school like wildfire. As a writer of young adult literature, that’s the sort of thing you want to get happening. You’ve got to get a few of these kids hooked or excited about the book and then let them share it.
[Dan] Okay. So I’ve got a question, and I hate this question, but it’s really common, so I have to ask it and get your opinion. Do you see a difference in the reading habits between boys and girls? And what might those differences be?
[Kiley] I see boys leaning more toward the adventure/action/sport books. Needs to be a lot going on. Girls, I found that girls will read anything. That’s an interesting quest… That’s something to consider because… How do… I mean, it’s hard… It’s kind of difficult…
[Dan] Yeah. The standard assumption that everyone makes is that boys don’t read as much. That’s never been true in my experience, but I think they tend to read other things, different things than girls. Obviously, that’s not a blanket statement. Everyone reads certain books…
[Brandon] But there is something about our society. I remember reading a study that said… This is kind of a little off-topic, but very interesting. That when teens are segregated by gender in schools, the interests even out. Meaning in only boys schools, you have an equal number of boys doing arts and sciences and reading and things like this. When you put them in a school with girls, the boys gravitate toward what our society has said are boy things. The same thing happens to girls. In a girls only school, you have a high number of girls in math and sciences and things like this. When you co-educate, sometimes… A lot of times in our society specifically, the girls end up doing a certain thing and the boys end up doing a certain thing. That happens, I think, with books as well.
[Mary] One of the things, since we’re on this tangent… One of the things that also happens not just with women, but with minorities, is that… As a woman, I get so used to reading books with a male protagonist and having those be the only books that are available. Although that’s thankfully changing. But that… It doesn’t occur to me that I could see books with just female protagonists. But I think that when you are constantly being represented as… When you are constantly represented, that reading things where you are not represented is suddenly uncomfortable.
[Brandon] Right. Right. When the default is guy, so it’s normal quote unquote to read the guy… If you’re just going to assume what the character is, it’s a guy and you just read that. When woman is the marked status, then it turns things very differently… That’s what’s happened in our society a lot, particularly in previous decades.
[Mary] That gets reinforced, because people go, “Well, boys will only read things about boys. Girls will read anything. Therefore, we should have more boy books.”
[Brandon] Yes. Which is not necessarily the case. We just need to teach the boys to read everything, which is what they should be doing.
[Brandon] We are running out of time. I actually want to give Kiley kind of a last word. Any other advice to our authors listening about writing books that are going to get those kids excited?
[Kiley] Write about what interests you and do it in a voice that will interest them. Kids really grip a good character, a good plot. If the writer’s passionate about it, they’ll be passionate about it.
[Brandon] Great. We actually had you come up with some homework to give to our students.
[Kiley] Okay, folks. Your homework. Go to the library or your bookstore and tell them three books you love. Then ask the librarian for something outside your genre.
[Brandon] Yup. We want you to be…
[Howard] And then read it.
[Kiley] Yeah. Read it.
[Brandon] We want to be forcing you to read something different. So we’re going to make you go to an expert who knows their stuff. You’re going to tell them what you love, and then they’re going to pick something different that they love. Thank you so much, Kylie, for being on the podcast.
[Kiley] Thank you.
[Howard] Thank you, Kiley. You were awesome.
[Kiley] You guys are awesome.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.
[Mary] And read.
[Howard] Something new.