A few weeks ago, I received a lovely e-mail from a sophomore at a college in Buffalo, New York, telling me how much he enjoyed reading Bull’s-Eye, my biography of Annie Oakley. “I was sitting in the college library the other night at a computer that was located right across from the Education Center's collection of children's literature,” the young man explained. “In a display case for Women's History Month was your book, it immediately caught my eye.” The student, who grew up only a mile or two from Annie’s Ohio hometown, took a break from his statistics homework to check it out. “Although it's a story I've heard thousands of times it felt inspiring and new once again in your book.”
Interestingly enough, just a days before, I had presented Annie’s story to a class of second graders, each of whom received a paperback copy of Bull’s-Eye to take home, courtesy of their school’s PTA. Many of these seven-year-olds immediately opened their copies and started reading.
Besides being great for my ego, these anecdotes are noteworthy because they involve readers who are seven and 19 years old, clearly outside of the publicized audience for the book, stated on the back cover flap as “Ages 10 and up.” So what’s going on here?
I have always known that those labels were arbitrary, provided more for marketing purposes than as a strict guideline. But I am a veteran of the educational publishing industry, including more than a few years in the early 1980s when I regularly had to use readability formulas to “level” my articles for Scholastic’s classroom magazines. Besides being a pain in the neck, it was a practice that I found distasteful and undignified. I love math, but the idea of applying a mathematical formula based on syllable counts and sentence lengths to a piece of writing reduces the art of reporting to a mechanical act.
Good writing, for kids or adults, is based on clarity and rhythm and content, not formulas. If someone is interested in the topic of a book or an article, they’ll read it, no matter what the readability formula says. I doubt that living through those years of “leveling” articles helped me internalize any insights about how to write for kids. Rather, I learned from writing a lot, reading my colleagues’ work, and listening to my editor, the wonderful Carol Drisko, about whom Karen Romano Young wrote a while back in this blog.
Still, those who think writing-by-numbers is the best way to reach kids persist. Four or five years ago, I broke my rule against writing for textbooks by taking an assignment to do an eight-page “leveled biography” for second graders that was to be an ancillary in a California social studies program. The subject was the late Dr. Wilson Riles, a pioneering educator who became the state’s superintendent of public instruction. The job appealed to me for personal reasons. I had worked on a project with Dr. Riles years before, and I liked the idea of learning more about him and presenting his story to young readers. But the guidelines for writing this 500-word “book” were much longer than the anticipated book itself, specifying the average words per sentence, maximum words per sentence, and even some vocabulary words to be used. What’s more, I had to write four versions, reducing the number of words per sentence and the total words significantly each time. It was like being locked in a room whose air was being sucked out. With each iteration, the storytelling grew shorter and more labored until the simplest version was told in short, desperate gasps. Dr. Riles deserved better.
I realize that changing the way textbooks are written is a tall order. And I understand that teachers, librarians, parents, and kids themselves may want to know that a trade book is somewhat age-appropriate before they choose it. But relying too heavily on labels or formulas can rob readers of the chance to connect with a story that will inform and inspire them. Great rewards await those who cast aside "magic numbers" and base their selections on something more intuitive.