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Teen fiction for reluctant readers--quality is possible.

Orca Book Publishers began life as a publisher of regional history and travel guides nearly 20 years ago. A brief foray into children's publishing has since become our focus and we now publish 40 titles a year, covering the children's publishing gamut from picture books through teen fiction. Hardcover, high-quality picture books, early chapter books in the Orca Young Readers series, juvenile fiction and novels for teens make up the bulk of our list. While not always commercially successful, teen fiction has long been a crucial part of our publishing program and we have been publishing stand-alone novels for young adults for a number of years. Books such as The Tuesday Cafe by Don Trembath, Before Wings by Beth Goobie, Dancing Naked by Shelley Hrdlitschka, and Alone at Ninety Foot by Katherine Holubitsky were commercially successful and allowed us to invest more in the development of other genres. As a smaller publisher, we are able to publish solid authors in reasonably sized print runs. We are big enough to attract skilled writers and yet small enough to publish on a gamble: a first-time author with a compelling project, an author writing out of genre. Of paramount importance to us is good writing.

We see ourselves primarily as a trade publisher with a strong library presence and have recently been spending more time promoting our titles to school and public librarians. At countless conferences and discussions we were hearing the same things while trying to interest attendees in the latest releases. Do you have anything for reluctant readers? How about teens reading at a grade 2-4 level? media specialists would immediately ask upon entering our booth. We realized that there was a whole cadre of possible readers out there who might never see or read one of our books. What if we tried to lure them in? Give them something simpler than a standard novel, get them hooked and hopefully they will move on to longer novels and other work by the same authors. We started to look at the high-interest low-vocabulary market and saw potential for a publisher such as Orca to leverage our reputation for quality and to increase our reach.

We kicked the idea around for a while and came up with Orca Soundings, a series of short, high-interest novels written below grade level. Orca author Beth Goobie was a catalyst for the project. Her lyrical, beautifully written novels like Before Wings and The Lottery are well reviewed and sell well. But she had also written a number of shorter novels that had been out of print for several years. When she offered these to Orca it seemed like the perfect match. Publish strong high/ low novels and lure in a whole new group of readers and the teachers and librarians looking for something to get their reluctant readers to read.

And so Orca Soundings was born: short (13,000 to 15,000 words) high-interest stories written for teens reading at a grade 2-4.5 level. With 14 titles now available and more in the pipeline, we have been encouraged by the response we have seen to this series. It has also been gratifying that the review journals are looking at them as stand-alone novels and giving them a level of respect not usually accorded to teen fiction's poor cousin--series fiction. CM Magazine said of Sticks and Stones by Beth Goobie "... demonstrates that hi-lo books do not automatically have to be of lesser literary quality." And VOYA said, "... a must-buy for librarians looking for high-quality fiction to appeal to reluctant readers in grades seven through twelve."

While first envisaged as a complement to our other titles and something that we thought we could publish and release, to survive and thrive on their own, we have discovered a whole new world of possibility and promise out there. We have invested considerable effort in spreading the word about this series and letting educators and librarians know of their existence. We are also developing teachers' guides for the whole series with Susan Geye at Crowley Ninth Grade Campus in Crowley, Texas. Her experience in the school library and with writing teachers' guides for larger publishers has been invaluable in coming up with a format that will work well in the classroom. The teachers' guides will be free downloads available from our Web site and should allow the whole series entry into schools where before they might have had a harder time getting in the door.

While developing the look and range of the series we researched the competition, had a look at what else was available and who was publishing what. We were surprised at the dearth of strong, well-written novels written in this format. There are a number of series aimed at reluctant readers but many of them are formulaic and of questionable literary quality. Teachers and librarians have been happy to see well-written books that appeal to teens with appropriate format, strong covers and interesting stories. With this readership, strong covers are of great importance and we have tried to give the series a uniform look while making each cover image as compelling and enticing as possible.

While the covers are critical, of primary consideration to us were the story and the quality of writing. Anyone can write a 14,000-word novel (and many try). It takes a special skill to write an interesting, believable, compelling novel of that length that has enough characterization and development but still has a reading level low enough to be accessible to those teens reading at a grade 2-4 level. Eschewing the easy route of hiring hack writers to pump out short boilerplate novels, we have approached established authors to write in a different format. And they have not disappointed. James Heneghan, Beth Goobie, Eric Waiters, William Bell, Kristin Butcher and others have produced some remarkable stories. These titles have been well reviewed by the trade journals, but more importantly, are being read and enjoyed by the intended audience and even by others who have more developed reading ability. We have heard that competent readers are picking them up for a quick read and that English as a Second Language and adult literacy students are also finding--and reading--them.

There is a belief (prevalent in the publishing community) that books for those reading below grade level must be dumbed-down stories, with little or no plot and character development. There are a number of series that are essentially written by a committee, given a pretty cover and then marketed as high/low. This idea of lowest common denominator is insulting to the readership and probably contributes to low reading levels. Many so-called reluctant readers are conversant with film, TV, graphic novels and other forms of storytelling and are often much more sophisticated than they are given credit for. Although plots must be linear and uncomplicated, vocabulary more limited and story lines reasonably straightforward, there is no excuse for sacrificing literary quality or excising difficult or challenging story lines

It is widely accepted that reluctant readers are mainly boys, but there are many girls also reading below grade level. With the Soundings series we have tried to offer books for both sexes and cover as much ground as possible. Evenly balanced between the genders are a number of teen angst stories with subjects like abuse and family dysfunction but also adventure, mystery and more. We are also actively looking for science fiction, fantasy and humor to add to the list.

Sticks and Stones, the first entry in the series, was an American Library Association Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, made the Amelia Bloomer list and was nominated for ALA Best Books. Others, including Death Wind, Kicked Out and Bull Rider, have been nominated for Quick Picks and have been reviewed positively by a number of journals.

A side benefit of this kind of niche publishing is that we are filling a need. It can be disheartening with a new stand-alone book to have to start from scratch every time, building an audience for a book. With Soundings--judging from reaction and from recent literacy studies--there is a ready-made audience. Teachers and librarians are desperate for quality material that their struggling readers will start--and finish. In some ways it has re-energized our publishing program: we are working with authors who are excited about a new direction in their writing. Their books are selling, teachers are happy to see the books and comments from readers in YA-Galley and other teen reading groups have been positive. It has also given us a whole new market for our other books: as readers work their way through the Soundings titles, finding authors they like and developing confidence in their reading abilities, we hope that they will turn to more challenging teen fiction--from Orca and also from the deep pool of quality teen fiction that is now being published.

Some comments from teachers and librarians about the Orca Soundings series:

"I cannot say enough good things about this line of books. It is everything I have been looking for, for my struggling, reluctant readers. I love these books because our middle school students can relate to them." Tori Jensen, John Glenn Middle School, Maplewood, MN

"Librarians will be overjoyed to discover this high-quality new series for reluctant and struggling readers. Highly recommended for middle school and up." Northern MA Regional Library Services

In future seasons we will publish Grind, by Eric Waiters, a story of extreme skateboarders; No More Pranks, by Monique Polak, about a boy who finally agrees to give up practical jokes--until he can bring a culprit to justice with a prank; Zee's Way, by Kristin Butcher, which tells of a graffiti artist's journey to artistic acceptance; and a number of other convincing, compelling, yet easy-to-read novels.

Books in the Soundings series:

Sticks and Stones--Beth Goobie

Death Wind--William Bell

The Hemingway Tradition--Kristin Butcher

One More Step--Sheree Fitch

Kicked Out--Beth Goobie

Refuge Cove--Lesley Choyce

The Trouble With Liberty--Kristin Butcher

No Problem--Dayle Gaetz

Bull Rider--Marilyn Halvorson

Who Owns Kelly Paddik?--Beth Goobie

Fastback Beach--Shirlee Matheson

Truth--Tanya Lloyd (signed)

Hit Squad--James Heneghan

Tough Trails--Irene Morck
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Author:Wooldridge, Andrew
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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