Sunday, April 20, 2014

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.