Helena Aalto and Laurel Boone—Good Reads: Fiction for adult literacy and ESL learners (EAC conference 2013)

Good Reads is a project spearheaded by ABC Life Literacy Canada and funded by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) to address a shortage of pleasure reading books for adult literacy and ESL learners. Over the past three years, Good Reads has worked with Edmonton-based Grass Roots Press to publish nineteen short, easy-reading books by well-known Canadian authors; the aim of this series was to increase reading engagement and reading confidence, turning learners into lifelong readers. With the project just wrapping up, project manager Helena Aalto and editor Laurel Boone spoke at the EAC conference about their work.

Good Reads was inspired by a similar initiative in the UK, known as Quick Reads, which launched in 2006. Aalto told us that Good Reads sought out established Canadian authors with an adaptable writing style who were interested in the challenge of writing compelling stories using accessible language. Among those who accepted the challenge were Tish Cohen, Gail Anderson-Dargatz, Joy Fielding, Rabindranath Maharaj, Frances Itani, and Robert Hough—names that librarians and literacy educators would know well and would be enthusiastic in promoting to readers. Robert Hough documented his experiences as a Good Reads author in a Quill & Quire article, “Not as Easy as It Looks.” Although the books were short, they often went through many revisions to meet the guidelines for adult literacy learners.

These books, around 12,000 words each, had to be adult-interest stories—these were not kids’ books—with plots that would encourage readers to continue reading, using devices such as cliff-hanger chapter endings. As Boone told us, they had to have adult frames of reference and adult complexities. Authors were encouraged to minimize changes in perspective and time; to introduce only a few characters, each with a distinct name; and to identify speakers in dialogue. Boone, who described Good Reads as “the best project of my life,” edited the books with the understanding that “readers deserve our very best. These readers are adults, and they know a lot.” Her secret intention was for no one to notice the text’s low reading level. Boone’s description of her editorial process was fascinating.

Structural editing

Boone started by assessing the structure of the whole book. Each book had to be suitable for individuals, individuals with tutors, classes, and ESL learners. As such, the chapters had to be approximately equal in length, and they had to stand alone but also work together as a whole. Paragraphs had to be short but varied.

The plot had to be absolutely tight, with no loose ends. Continuity had to be perfect, because, as Boone explained, non-readers’ memories are better than the memories of most readers. Authors had to make any changes in time or place perfectly clear, using devices such as line spaces, changes in verb tense, or changes in person as clues for the reader.

Characters had to have distinct, easy-to-read names. More importantly, they had to be true to life, and through the stories, their motives and personal growth had to be clear. Boone encouraged the authors to make most of the main characters fairly agreeable, because beginning readers are more likely to identify with likeable characters.

Finally, the setting and context had to be familiar.

Stylistic editing

Boone edited toward the goal of a certain reading level (Microsoft Word allows you to check a document’s readability statistics). Literacy learners read word by word or in very small gulps, and the meaning of each of these gulps must be clear. No word could be out of place. Boone gave an example of dangling modifiers: as seasoned readers, we’d laugh, but we’d understand the intent of the sentence; beginning readers, however, would not. While performing a stylistic edit, Boone focused on the following areas:

Information

Boone developed strategies to offer readers complete information without explicitly explaining. “I don’t wish to be told that there’s something I don’t know when I’m in the middle of a story,” she said, and phrases like “that is” or “meaning,” followed by an explanation, can come off as patronizing. She encouraged authors to bury descriptions in the context (e.g., “Victor would know where he could sell his million-dollar Picasso painting to pay off his debts”), and keep terminology consistent.

Fact checking, explained Boone, was essential, because adult readers are very knowledgeable, and errors breed mistrust. For example, she learned the difference between a pipe wrench and a monkey wrench and was careful to make sure the right term was used. Otherwise, readers could too easily dismiss the story as stupid and stop reading altogether.

Boone also looked out for situations where there was too much non-essential information. For example, an author had written out a series of American cities as train destinations, but the names of the cities themselves weren’t important to the story. Names can be hard to read and confusing, so she recommended simplifying the sentence simply to refer to “cities across the United States.”

Sentences

Sentences in Good Reads books had to be short—typically fewer than fifteen words long, and certainly no more than twenty words long. They had to be simply constructed but still varied, with superior transitions. The end of one sentence must lead on to the next one. Parallelism was paramount, and she tried to eliminate passive voice, weak uses of “to be,” and adverbs ending in “-ly.” “Everything ought to be in the context and characters,” Boone explained.

Dialogue

It’s easy to lose track of the speakers in dialogue, Boone told us, but saying “he said, she said, he said, etc.” can get tedious. She encouraged authors to use frequent attributions but to vary the style.

Vocabulary

Boone encouraged authors to use common words of one or two syllables (not counting -ed or -ing) in general, but there are some longer words (e.g., university) that are familiar and some short words that may not be. Any substitutions of terminology, then, had to be precise and sensitive to adult experiences, and technical words had to be correct. Swearing and sex are part of adult experiences, of course, so Boone found ways of including these themes while making sure they were not so explicit that they would make readers or their tutors uncomfortable.

Copy editing

The copy editing was handled by an editor working for Grass Roots Press, but Boone did offer some guidelines, including a style sheet for each project. In particular, she encouraged using commas for absolute clarity (e.g., around “too” and even short clauses), explaining that commas give the eye and the mind a break. Speakers’ individual voices were respected in dialogue, but standard grammar, punctuation, and spelling were enforced in the narrative.

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Supporting the text, Aalto told us, were clear page layouts with a readable typeface and a lot of white space . The books were given eye-catching covers. Beyond the books, the Good Reads website features further resources for readers and instructors, including videos of interviews with the authors, text of the first chapter of each book, and audio of the authors reading from their books. Teachers could also download a free guide for each title. The series has done quite well, Aalto was proud to say, although she added that there’s no way HRSDC would fund such a series today; all literacy efforts are going into workplace training, leaving little room for pleasure reading. However, Orca Books has started a similar series called Rapid Reads, and Grass Roots has committed to distributing those titles.

As for Boone, she found the project extremely rewarding, explaining that the usual pleasure and intimacy of working with authors was increased by working together toward an altruistic objective. She said that the ordinary principles of effective writing are easily forgotten by fluent, university-level readers, writers, and editors but that simpler is always better, even for complex ideas. Practising simple expression can help sharpen thought.

2 Responses to Helena Aalto and Laurel Boone—Good Reads: Fiction for adult literacy and ESL learners (EAC conference 2013)

  1. What a great description of a fascinating project. Now I just want to sit the team down and ask a million additional, detailed questions. This is such a good anecdote to learn/teach from. Thanks for writing it up!

    • Thanks, Adrienne! My write-up didn’t do the session justice. It was packed with eye-opening wisdom. If you ever do sit them down, please report back!

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