tldr: "Readability" for middle school YA

Vertically Aspiring Young Adults (VAYA is my new term for the middle school subgroup of YA).

My first novel. I'm scared.

A month or two ago, I tested a single-page prologue on a couple middle school students. Being wonderfully thirteen, they immediately conspired against me: One boy distracted me while a girl went through my belongings to snatch my first chapter. Decision making at its finest. Then at the end of class, another girl took two chapters as hostage. Terms of release? She demanded to be the first reader of my novel. So, obviously, I agreed to the ransom (but told her she wasn't getting a Late Pass). I decided the new prologue worked, but how would the whole novel play out in terms of readability? Would it work as independent reading for both boys and girls at this age? What does my book offer a girl who turns into a puddle when talking about Fault in Our Stars? What does my book offer a boy who loves The Lost Hero? What about a boy who read Divergent because the girls loved itWhat does readability even mean for 7th and 8th graders? 

My understanding is that only 32% of 8th graders read on grade level (in the USA). 

"Reluctant reader" doesn't seem to be a subset of the market.

Ages 12-14 seems a unique challenge because the reading levels, maturity levels, thematic interests, and other sorts of related matters all range incredibly wide for youth this age. When I think about my purposes for writing, it comes back to the kids - not a dream about literary achievement. I've seen a boy in the South Bronx trying to read Percy Jackson while walking down steps. I've known of girls skipping class to finish a book in the bathroom. I've seen middle schoolers passionately passing around their copies of trending books, excited to talk with friends about characters and their dilemmas. That's magic. That's magic.

Does my novel fit my intended audience as independent reading?

I must be crazy to intend 12-15 year-olds as an audience.This is a glorious age when kids stare into space while having hormonal shivers. They usually can't remember what day it is. They occasionally forget how to get home. Being in the school hallways or recess with friends is their natural state of existence and everything else is in the way. Their brains and bodies are on Epic Overload. Even when they absolutely love a book, there's a 50/50 chance they will lose it before finishing it. Such a glorious age of big firsts and bad smells.

My novel currently weighs in at 90,000 words and 300 pages. After I handed the full manuscript to the girl who had taken chapters hostage, she grunted at me for giving her something way too heavy to carry. I returned with a lighter, double sided manuscript that included a table of contents (and what little was left of my pride).

Readibility must involve more than the syllable counts, word counts, and sentence complexity.

Thematic content matters a great deal for these youth on Epic Overload.

I'm a big believer in coming-of-age themes for this age. I think there's good reason that hero stories and stuff about "power" resonates with them. There's also good reason that Judy Bloom remains popular. The developmental needs and struggles of this age seem to align perfectly with stories that meander through issues of  independence, belonging, normality, and trustworthy friendship. When stories provide characters who juggle unexpected powers and unwanted attention, then it can really resonate with these younger YA readers. Yes? While older YA and adults may not enjoy the cliches of superpowers and heroes of all types, I think that stories of power, agency, and acceptance go a long ways with middle schoolers. My novel includes elements of a science fiction thriller and even some romance, but I've tried to anchor everything around the core emotional journey of a coming-of-age tale. And yes, coming of age is a heroic journey when you're that age.

I've tried to structure my novel in ways that fit the fragmented lives of teen readers. The story plays out through linear scenes, primarily from the main narrator's point of view. Each titled scene tends to be a 1-3 page chunk of drama with its own beats and dynamics. Each chapter involves a full day, usually including 10-15 of these smaller scenes. Finally, I broke the entire novel into three larger story "Episodes." While this type of structure made for a LOT more work on my part, I hope it pays off for the readers. I want my readers to feel like they are experiencing an epic tale. If anything, I'm worried about readers feeling exhausted and overwhelmed.

In terms of paragraph and scene crafting, I've stuck to a  few simple commitments to keep readers inside the story. I look to authors like Rowling and Riordan when it comes to helping younger YA readers manage a lot of information with the use of playful, thematic scaffolding of their paragraphs and scenes.
  1. I've tried my best to spot where the text requires an inference. I'm most comfortable when readers are pushed to infer meaning if the situation involves humor or an emotional conflict. This feels tricky for sci-fi/fantasy or mysteries (these young YA readers will skip to the last page in a heartbeat). If they stop to think, I want thinking focused on the inner world of the characters, not about basic comprehension of a detached outer world. 
  2. I try to provide context clues for potential "clunky" vocabulary or lingo. I try to reuse such vocabulary in meaningful contexts without slowing the pace. Similarly, I've cut out a lot of detail when it comes to the background world or its technology. I want readers to stay inside the story, closely aligned to the emotional journey and worldview of the young narrator.
  3. I've tried to anchor exposition around humorous similes, character problems, or other meaningful themes. I've been very cautious in the use of antecedents. I've kept most paragraphs tightly based on a single subject. I believe one of the keys to readability for typical 12-15 is not a matter of syllable counts and sentence length, but of how exhausted their working memories are when it comes to managing all the its, hers, thems, and visualizations within a text. Adolescents are still developing cognitive skills and reading endurance, so I want to keep them emotionally engaged - even if that means giving their brains a break.
I buy into the idea that art is fundamentally about reduction, and I've tried. I've tried.

I've created an urban adventure with coming-of-age themes. I've stumbled into a lot of trendy technology and scifi elements (some might call it dystopian, but I'm not so sure). At the end of the day, I want to offer a readable story that kids won't just read, but will tell a friend to read so they can share the experience. That implies that they must love my characters, not merely the trendy elements. 

But what's my novel's actual reading level?

A few months ago, I had a middle schooler ask me about my novel. His exact words:
"How long is it? Is it like... Harry Potter long?"
Yes, Harry Potter is now a unit of measure. And this was a boy who really loves to read!

Is my novel too long? Does it weigh too much? Is the language accessible and meaningful? Is it full of so much detail and required inferences that kids pass out when trying to read independently? Are the characters hopeful, likable, and appropriately playful?

The vast majority of middle schoolers are still developing as readers. I'm familiar with the various leveling scales for fluency and comprehension (F&P, Lexile, DRA, etc). When thinking about reading levels for middle schoolers, I'm mostly worried on matters of complexity and working memory endurance where many themes come into play. While MS-Word tells me that the book's Flesh-Kindcaid reading ease score is 85 and the grade level is 3.3 (seriously?), I know better than to trust a computer analysis based upon word counts and sentence length. I've tried to keep the novel in bite sized chunks and at a 6th grade-ish level in terms of paragraphs, vocabulary, predictability, concept load, and scene crafting. That type of writing may disappoint those who read YA for literary brilliance and depth involving older teens flaunting wickedly precocious expressive vocabulary within awkward life/death courtship scenarios. Sorry. This story's metaphors come mostly in the form of chewable similes involving stuff like farts and maggots.

But my story did stumble into an age-appropriate romance.

I resisted any hint of romance in the first few drafts, but sometimes stuff happens. So in terms of maturity levels and thematic interest, I ended up with an innocent romance within a coming-of-age science fiction thriller. luls. As such, the romantic elements are fundamentally about friendship, recognition, and a resolving sense of belonging.

I'm testing the manuscript out on a few middle schoolers. We'll see.

They probably lost the manuscripts over spring break.

SHORT/REFLECTION: "Anna's Petition"


The teacher handed Anna the historical fiction story with a disgusting B+ blazing.

Anna read the hateful comments. Her hand rocketed into the air. Anna had spent four nights pouring her soul into the story, and now fascist X's violated her sentences? Only a B+? No, no, no!  When the teacher didn't catch her raised hand, Anna rattled her bracelets and the classroom went silent.

Even from behind, the teacher recognized the huff and clanging. "Yes, Anna?"

"Why did you lower my grade?"

"You refused to follow proper conventions as outlined in the rubric. You knew it was a big part of your grade. I also explained on your rough draft that you need to stop capitalizing everything."

"I can't even capitalize Eternal Love? Seriously? That's not EVERYTHING. That's important."

"You don't capitalize Eternal Love or Divorce in this type of writing assignment."

Anna snapped to her feet, tilting high on her toes. "But I capitalize America... right?"

The other 8th graders giggled in anticipation.

"Correct," said the teacher.

"But ETERNAL LOVE is way older and way bigger than America, right?"

"Sit down, Anna."

"How is Congress capitalized but FREEDOM isn't? How is Army capitalized but LOVE isn't?"

"I agree," said another girl. "It actually doesn't make sense."

"The grade is final," said the teacher.

"Unfair!" Anna stomped. "You make me capitalize my flag but I can't capitalize my FEELINGS?"

The teacher thought about it. "I'm afraid that's technically correct."

Anna glared and softly asked, "What if I called it the Star Spangled Love instead of Eternal Love?"

The teacher gave Anna one of those please-don't-flip-out looks.

Anna waited a few seconds before exploding. "Maybe if adults capitalized MARRIAGE and FREEDOM and RESPECT and ETERNITY... then you wouldn't all SUCK so much!"

The classroom burst with laughter.

"I know you have a lot going on in you life," said the teacher, "but the grade is final."

"So basically," hissed Anna, "you lowered my grade because I didn't put Love on a flag? Now I can't get into a college that requires straight As? That's capital-F... Fascist."

"This isn't a joke, sit down."

"I'm not joking! I'm starting a petition." Anna stormed out of the room.

(C) Jude L Hollins April 2014

[Those years: Seamless emotional landscapes. We groan through the days. Sing to survive. Big Ideas come reckless at us like playful romance. Stun us silly. And over time maybe it gets too easy to forget that the unadulterated capitalization of Love may not be Right - but is Always so True.]

Lorde - Team

Free Kitten - Never Gonna Sleep

The Last Flash Mob

"Flash Mobs" is Dead (RIP)

The Gothamist recently reported what is widely understood as the last flash mob. Observers initially thought they witnessed expressionist planking, but they misunderstood the historic weight of the moment. Then and there, the art form called The Flash Mob curated its own transcendence

No more flash.
No more mob.
Just  irony, cameras, and ambient orchestration...

The stench of death filled the Met. Now we must mourn the definition of Flash Mob


Will you remember the youthful innocence of the Flash Mob? Will you keep her in your heart?

Anyways, it's really too bad the tuba players didn't get through museum security! Let's all pray that the Met won't press charges for criminal mischief against the last known mobbers.

A post-mod resurrection of the Flash Mob will require a live webcam of Zombie Warhol eating breakfast cereal at the Gracie Mansion dining table for 30 days in a row. Mad wicked artsy!

Until then, may our dear definition rest in peace.They killed it.

Play Mad Dumb

It's not about the quality of the humor.

It's about the o-deee intention to play all the way to the o-zeee.

Ayo, so keep it mad dumb punchy with extra corn sauce. Facts. When you're young, there's no boundary between love, humor, flirtation, and physical pain. Just lift off, grab your gumption, and keep your elbows swinging. In every school hallway... love is a battlefield.


So, so tragic...

My Influenza Thoughts on Witty Petards

Perhaps exceptionally boring people prefer adjectives while the most interesting people gravitate towards verbs?  The rest of us forgettable mortals end up stuck with passive-aggressive adverb addictions. Facts. We're at our worst when we're heavily intoxicated on witty petards, mixed metaphors, and cloudy antecedents. We never learn, do we? We always end up hungover, sprawled on the ground, and holding tightly to our salted slice of earth... eventually wishing we had stuck to just two or three verbs. 

This is my mind on influenza.

And now two nearly random music clips:





Our Species Needs Diverse Stories


diversityinya.tumblr.com

That's a great community and a great blog.

I sincerely believe that our species needs stories. I think we need to confront new paths, voices, settings, emotions, identities, possibilities, and thus new types of stories which can transform and transport our hearts. We need diversity for reflection and growth. Right?

And now for TWO random music videos...


(explicit lyrics below)



"Beta" Readers

I began a total re-write of my novel just over a month ago. I switched from 3rd-person to 1st-person. This involved a comprehensive reworking of the plot, scenes, and characters. Weeeee!

Now I'm in the exciting/scary process of sharing two chapters with selected middle-school students. I've emphasized that it's not school work. It's a draft. They should write any questions or comments  in the margins as they read. I've picked both girls and boys. I've picked reluctant readers and bookish types.

The first thing I discovered is that they needed some type of general "blurb" about the text before they started. I also needed to insist this was entirely voluntary and that I needed complete honesty. There's now serendipity with additional kids asking to read.

I've had very rewarding feedback so far.  This is what it's all about...

My biggest concern remains the first ten pages (too heavy/thick).  I am also concerned about reading levels and complexity for low-endurance readers. Even as somebody who has spent a bit of time in the classroom, I still find myself having to rethink vocabulary and scene-craft to maximize comprehension. After all, for me, the "literary" dimension should be the emotional & thematic thrill-ride, not the requirement of a dictionary.

And here's a completely unrelated music video:


Meeting Authors/Signings, March 2013

Books of Wonder's fantastic MEGA-SUPER-MONSTER YA NO FOOLING FESTIVAL featured something like 45 authors.  Is there any other store in the USA that's this supportive of YA?  <3

I wish I had met them all.  It's exciting to meet authors and to get books personalized.

The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Monument 14 by Emmy Laybourne

If you've read my post re: Neil Gaiman in Feb, then you'll understand the chuckle I had returning to the same place to get this book signed by David Levithan:

Every Day by David Levithan


Music for Writing: Divergent & Convergent Creativity


I typically wake up around 4 AM.  I make coffee and put on headphones at my laptop.  The immediate goal is to fully absorb myself in the world of my characters.  This is a zen-like process, requiring me to let go of my worries and inner chatter.  I use background music.  Depending on my creative mode, I seek ambiance for either divergent or convergent creativity.

Cinematic Soundtracks for Divergent Creativity



Today's movies, TV shows, and video games are crafted with moody, melodic soundscapes that deserve more attention.  Some of it makes great background music for creative work.  The idea is to have stimulating instrumental music that doesn't capture your attention.  It's not there for your enjoyment.  It's for ambiance while you work, right?

Soundtracks range from dramatic scores to minimalist, acoustic sketches to pounding, post-industrial  landscapes.  When I'm in a "divergent" mindset, I'm not going to be bothered if a track's emotion and tempo doesn't align with what I'm working on.

Some example tracks with powerful mood and ambiance:

  • The Social Network by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Another Happy Day by Olafur Arnalds, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Jon Brion, Hero by Itzhak Perlman and Tan Dun, The Village by James Newton Howard, Kelebek by Omar Faruk Tekbilek, Syriana by Alexander Desplat, There Will Be Blood by Jonny Greenwood, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by Alberto Iglesias, Waltz with Bashir by Max Richter, Munich by John Williams, Hanna by Chemical Brothers, Gohatto by Ryuichi Sakamoto, The Fountain by Clint Mansel, Dark Void by Bear McCreary
In my writing playlists, I include a diverse range of music - not just movie soundtracks.  And I tend to cut any extremely dramatic orchestrations.

Ambiance for Focused, Convergent Creativity



Thunderstorms.  Waterfalls.  Ocean waves.  Jungles and rainforests.  For me, these soundscapes have nothing to do with "visualizing" myself within them.  It's entirely about a white-noise that perhaps triggers appropriate brain waves and relaxation.  Whatever is going on, it definitely helps me focus on the world of my characters.

Everybody is a little different.  I mostly rely on natural soundscapes, but other types of audio can work.

Less is more.


Examples to explore:
  • Dr Jeffrey Thomas (nature sounds), Sounds of Nature Relaxation
  • Music by Brian Eno, Harold Budd, Ruichi Sakamoto, Dustin O'Halloran, Phillip Glass, Michael Askill, Riley Lee, Erik Satie, Bill Evans, etc.
I suggest experimenting with routine sounds and longer tracks.  I would recommend avoiding "favorite songs" or anything with lyrics.  Don't try to "set a mood."  The music/audio is not there to be enjoyed, noticed, or visualized.  Aim for ambiance that helps to clear your head.  Calm soundscapes full of empty space that help you focus.  Right?

It's about getting absorbed into the characters and their world.  :)

I'm always eager to get music suggestions!

Books: The Human Connection

At a recent dinner party, I heard a compelling argument in the Ebook vs RealBook debates:  real books can connect humans (on subways).  People actually start conversations with strangers regarding books.  Covers add a layer of human play and interest to the fray of urban life.  And yesterday, this truth showed itself during my hours at Books of Wonder.

Neil Gaiman reading & book signing! 

Illustrator/Author duo of Chu's Day
The lines began.  The most considerate way to have used my waiting time?  Figuring out precisely what to say in 15 seconds about being inspired as teacher/writer, capped with a profound witticism.

Yes, I didn't do that.

Instead, I bought a copy of every day by David Levithan.

I read 35 pages as I shuffled in line.  The novel caused four spontaneous discussions with strangers.  Four.  Not only did this say volumes about this particular book/author, it reminded me (a Nook user) of the power of books to connect people.  And of the gravity of authors within an expanding universe.

A compelling YA novel (that stirs conversations with strangers)
Meanwhile, Neil Gaiman has very passionate fans.  The store was packed.  One older gent dressed up as Destiny from Sandman.  A toddler was dressed up as Chu (from Chu's Day).  Most fans had their picture taken with Neil (with several fan in tears of joy).  I suspect the lines continued late into the evening.  Neil himself seems a particularly down-to-earth guy, which made the spectacle rather warming for such a cold, rainy day in NYC.

Me?  My back & legs cramped, but I was enjoying my new book.  

The woman in front of me handed Neil and Adam Rex bottles of fine juice, which lifted spirits.  Then as I approached, the owner of Books of Wonder, Peter Glassman, initiated a conversation about the non-Neil book I was carrying: "That's a great book!"   So, I'm 10% blaming him for having nothing of import to offer Neil Gaiman when I stepped up.  I had no fine juice.  No personalized witticisms.

Only heavy admiration...

Sometimes words just suck.

As I watched him scribble "believe" in my book, I chuckled.  Someday I will buy him a fine beer, I promised myself.  Yes.  Authors matter.  Dead-tree-book-devices matter.

Whether they sleep inside dead trees, digital data, or our frayed neurons - stories, like the gods, need our warm blood & breath to live.  I think what matters most is whether they guide us to improve ourselves.  To be more human.

(this is not a YA text)
My rambling reflection is passive, cliche, & indulgent - yet embodied.  Sometimes words just suck...  :-)

The Smile Section

A bin filled with whatever might make me smile.  Maybe you, too. :)

MORE COMING SOONish...  SRSLY.


Inspiring Authors







Wicked Randomness.


"With a Piece of Chalk"


This... is determination:


Spherical hover-drone


The Lost Thing (buy the video on iTunes)



Respiration  (*mature lyrics*)



Count the Splits (I dare you)


 Talented Teen plays Tool (*mature lyrics*)


Curiosity's 7 Minutes of Terror


"Samuel Eros Cupido" - Drone Film Festival 2012




(Re)Imagining Drones


(small drones such as these are available in many stores)

Awww... they are so adorable!  Right?

If somebody says "drone," our brains often leap to imagery of death-dealing monsters.  What else can we envision?  What do you imagine when you see a video like this:



A) FLYING DEATH-STARS OF TERROR & DYSTOPIAN SURVEILLANCE

or,

B) HOVERING BUDDIES THAT DO USEFUL THINGS & ENTERTAIN US

I suspect that this is a matter of mood & imagination...

Companies like Apple or Google aren't going to design a flying sphere just because it's cool, but I bet they have people trying to figure out ways a personal drone could improve our lives.  One guy already figured out how to use Siri voice control.  How long until it can order and then pickup my dinner?



This film festival is a significant attempt to intentionally push the public imagination, with drones being used as both a central subject and as a medium for story telling.  It shouldn't surprise us to see humanizing themes.  Enjoy.


"Samuel Eros Cupido" (Netherlands)



"The Flight of the Ninja" (Japan)



"What a Difference a Drone Makes" (England)


"Berlina" (Germany)



A Spectacular Tribe (SCBWI)

"If we can't solve it cognitively, we solve it emotionally." - Shaun Tan

What a conference!  Lin Oliver offered a sense of belonging and momentum.  Meg Rosoff demanded we hold dear what makes voice and storytelling so vital.  Julie Scheina gave me hope. Shaun Tan planted a fierce something-strange that I can't explain.  Margaret Peterson Haddix sang about young humans needing stories and friends.  Need.  Julie Andrews reminded me to sing my own blessings.

Mo Willems.  The poop (and the pooper).  It could change the world.

Now for another totally random music/dance video:


Goals & Hopes: #NY13SCBWI


I'm excited.  The upcoming conference is triggering the most embarrassing side of my inner-geek.  I'm tweaking my business cards (with QR tags)... and I'm twittering!

1. Preparations

Put aside teacher stress.  Put aside novel revisions.  Sleep.  Eat well.  Count my blessings.  Make time to review The Book.  Focus on the joy-and-wonder of it all.   My goal is to gain as much insight as I can about this story-craft field.

Overly complex QR tag.

2. Eye on Networking & Community

Experts emphasize the importance of personal relationships in the business.  My goal is to simply introduce myself to authors & industry people, with a humble eye on searching for a place in this art production community.  

3. Take-Aways

My hope is to come back to my revision process with sharper focus.  Another hope is to better understand this field in terms of the real people, so that I can better appreciate the business protocols and next steps.

Anyways, you will not regret watching this random dance/music video: