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

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...

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: 

Sign Language in Classrooms & Communities

The coolest woman in NYC steals the show.
40 states recognize American Sign Language as an official second/"foreign" language for school instruction.  Can we imagine a movement into bilingual ASL-English schools?  There's also a growing movement that uses "baby signs" to teach pre-verbal infants to communicate with basic signs (i.e. giving them a way to communicate before they can actually talk).

Hungry babies aside, might we be witnessing something bigger?

I hope so, which is why I'm thrilled to learn about the Deaf Bilingual Coalition.

There are many human dimensions to this.  While bilingual immersion in schools is an fascinating idea, there are many teachers currently using limited forms of sign language with hearing-students to enhance learning and to manage classrooms.  There's so much to offer, for both community building and instruction.

Allison Bouffard has posted some great videos about using signs in her classroom.  I don't know when this all started, I've seen this implemented in quite a few classrooms over the years.  While this trend seems to be geared at early childhood activities and classroom management, I believe that ASL can be used just as effectively with older hearing kids and teens.  "Muscle memory" can enhance learning.

This 1-minute clip shows some of the management tricks in action with hearing youth.

It's cool.  It builds community.  It's non-verbal.  It engages multiple learning styles at the same time.  And perhaps it can bridge more hearing people with deaf culture?

The Best Outdoor Reading Spots in NYC

Summer time!

What are some of your favorite outdoor #ReadingSpotsNYC?

In NYC, we're lucky enough to have incredible public transportation.  We can sit on our butts and travel around town while reading.  The journey can become the destination quite easily. 

The city is filled with parks and waterfronts.  The parks are filled with benches.  Let's go!

Prospect Park / Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Pavilion at the Japanese Garden
Annual membership to the BBG?  Prospect Park itself has wonderful places to read, but the BBG is a spectacular place.

Plenty of benches at the Overlook. Look down at the Cherry trees & Rose gardens.
Cherry Esplanade.

Coney Island/Brighten Beach, Brooklyn

Hey, guess what?  There's actually an ocean nearby!  If you like dawn adventures, go there early and enjoy a fantastic morning.  Crowds probably won't arrive until 10-11am.

Enjoy the OCEAN breeze on the historic pier (with Russian & Chinese retirees trying to catch fish).
Beach towel or not, there's plenty of ocean seating.    I enjoy the end of the pier.
You'll also find several pavilions along the beach.

Riverbank & Riverside, Manhattan

Riverside Park, Hudson River Park, and Riverbank State Park offer many places to sit and enjoy life with a book.  I personally love the uptown views of the George Washington Bridge and the Palisades.

Great benches and regular kite flying (attempts)!

Gantry Plaza State Park, Queens

Across from the United Nations is this park with spectacular views of Manhattan.  There's also the East River State Park in BK with a similar view.
Claim your seat under the willows!
From here, you gaze across waters at the UN and  Manhattan.

Brooklyn Bridge Park

Ramble down romantic Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights to the promenade with its incredible views of Manhattan, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Statue of Liberty.  One of the greatest views on the planet.

These benches are prime real estate!

Central Park - Upper Half

The upper half of Central Park tends to be much more quiet and relaxed than the lower half.

Harlem Meer 
Off-hours, the benches around the meer make for a peaceful time. 

The Conservancy

There's a reason this garden is one of the top spots in the city for wedding photos (lol).  Nonetheless, you can find plenty of corners to read yourself into bliss.
One of the most romantic places in the city.

The Pool & the North Woods Loch

The Pool always offers a fine reading getaway.  If you're really looking to escape, then explore the North Woods and the calming waterfalls hidden within!

Belvedere Castle, Turtle Pond, Shakespeare Garden

The castle makes for superb tourist watching.  Poke around the western side to find quiet corners and benches in the Shakespeare Garden.  Or go lay out on the great lawn above Turtle Pond!

You can find a quiet spot near the Castle or just sit on the vista.

Central Park - Lower Half

If you love the background energy and buzz of international tourists, then grab a bench on the Mall.
Explore the quiet brambles or just grab a bench somewhere.  Anywhere. :)

NY Botanical Gardens, Bronx 

Take the Metro-North Harlem line or cross over from Manhattan on the BX19 bus.  See their website for additional travel options.  It's a very large place with many spots to read.  A nearby zoo, too!

This place is massive with lots of spots to hide away.

Park on that bench under the bridge or wander over to the waterfall.
This may be the best argument for annual membership!

Morningside Park, Manhattan

Waterfall, ducks, and a looming Cathedral.

Inwood Hill Park - Where Eagles Roam

Did you know that bald eagles nest at the northern tip of Manhattan?  This park is a gem.  The northeastern section is great for plopping on a bench.  You may also want to adventure around (or over) the hill to the Hudson.
This quiet tip of Manhattan makes for a great escape.  Also investigate the local cafe.
The Hudson side of the park offers great views of the GWB and beyond.

Queens Botanical Gardens & Flushing Meadows

Grab the 7 train for a great adventure.  Hop off at Flushing Meadows or continue to the end, then walk down Main Street to the Botanical Gardens. Nearby zoo and museum.

The grounds of Flushing Meadows offer lots of benches and views.
The QBG offers quite a few enjoyable spots to sit.
I'm linking this image from
* Photos taken on an iPhone, sometimes using the Pro HDR and Pano apps.

Tragedy or Comedy? (reflection)

My scattered brain often flies back to a moment of enlightenment from several years ago.  I vividly remember several of my 6th graders staying after-school to work on their writing portfolios.

One girl proudly handed me a draft of a new story.  I asked what genre.  She said it was a comedy.

I read it.

The story was about a teen girl who goes on date after date.  In each case, a different boy died in a terrible accident on the way to their first date.  Hit by cars.  Hit by falling pianos.  You get the idea.

No character change.  No happy ending.   No resolution.  Awww.  :(

I began explaining to my student that this might... you know... be a different genre than COMEDY.   She vehemently disagreed.  I explained that - while there may be humorous elements - the overall story wasn't a comedy.  This was a TRAGEDY.  In fact, it was quite depressing and required catharsis!  Resolution!  The girl held her ground and insisted it was a COMEDY.

From a different corner of the room, another girl jumped in to her defense.  "You see, Mr. Hollins... what you need to understand is that from the point of view of a 6th grader, tragedy IS comedy."

We all laughed and shared our own catharsis-of-sorts.

Their point wasn't so much about schadenfreude.  From their point of view, they had put their finger on the paradoxical essence of classical "tragedy" and the pleasure of catharsis.  The intellectual path of catharsis seemed to be secondary to the raw vetting and acknowledgement of feelings.

Can I really blame a 12 year-old for wanting more pianos to fall during serious drama?

Why a blog? (reflection)

My students are my deepest inspiration for writing.

When I shifted from school system bureaucracy into the K-12 classroom, I created some personal narratives to model the writing process with my 6th graders.  The hook sank right into my bones.

For over three years now, the writing bug has woken me up early in the morning.

In this process, I've come to see myself as a writer-for-life.  As a professional challenge, it makes sense to share inspirations, reflections, and perhaps some reviews-of-sorts.  It's an exciting moment.

I'm currently revising a YA novel that's set in a near-future NYC.  My goal is to craft a book that youth will not be able to put down.  I want them to fight over copies.  I want them to pull out the book to read when they could (or should) be doing other things.  That's the dream.  This blog cannot be separated from this writing process - the joys, the hope, the strains, the moments of complete bafflement.

So, I just picked up Story Engineering by Larry Brooks as well as the Gotham Writers' Workshop text on fiction.  As impossible as it seems, I also hope to take a week to step back and reflect.  I'll probably dump quite a lot of posts and media during this time.  :)