I’ve had the opportunity to work with many non-readers over the years. The mug shot is pretty much the same: Male, 9-12 years, no interest in recreational reading. There is another characteristic that interests me even more in that every one of these kids is a visual learner.
They take everything in at once, think mainly in pictures, and can drive a teacher or parent to tears. Time is of no concern and neither is the growing pile of various treasures in their bedrooms. Mom, where’s my (fill in the blank)? They hate schedules and seem to be living in another world.
So now we expect them to read a carefully crafted story with the story line sequentially laid out. With each plot point connected to the next, they are forced to go in order before getting to the climax. It’s just not a good fit so they choose not to read. They want the big picture first and that doesn’t come until page 146.
My main character has some of these characteristics (He reads only the first and last page of books), and in my first drafts I told the story from his perspective and broke every rule in the traditional plot diagram. I poured it all out in the first chapter and let him connect the pieces in his own unique way for the remainder of the pages.
For a year I listened to critiques, other authors, and friends tell me I had a loveable protagonist with a bold ‘boy’ voice, but there was too much going on in that first chapter. One reader even said they were “overwhelmed.” I finally broke down and told the story in a more traditional way. This allowed readers to understand the inner workings of this quirky kid, but it also chased away the readers I was writing about.
Asking non-readers the types of books they prefer, the answer is always twofold. Make it short and full of pictures. Graphic novels are the key but even then they don’t ‘read’ in the traditional sense. They flip through the pages randomly looking for images that catch their eye, absorbing the whole book before going back and reading the parts.
Some day I may have to self-publish a novel for non-readers. It would start something like this:
Eleven-year-old, Jack, detests homework and must now face a year of 5th grade in Mr. Belcher’s class, the homework king. Jack makes a bet with his best friend that he can survive an entire year and be passed into middle school without doing any homework (p. 2). Things are off to a great start when Jack devises an excuse so perfect it puts “the dog ate my homework” to shame (p. 9). A trip to his bedroom closet for three days works perfectly as he hides out while supposedly attending Uncle Herb’s funeral in Topeka (p. 17). Upon returning, a mysterious malady sends him to the psychiatrist office for a week as Jack can no longer pronounce his s’s unless they are sung in a Broadway show tune (p.31). Trouble ensues when he fakes losing the feeling in his fingers and the class starts raising money to send him to the Mayo Clinic (p. 46) … But when Mr. Belcher assigns him homework he actually wants to do (p. 65), he’ll have to decide whether to lose the bet or lose his best friend (p. 87).
No publisher would go for the plot being laid out in the first page. I’ll write it some day and boy will I have a bunch of non-readers reading.