Susan Gates' on Writing School Readers

DANGEROUS TRAINERS (and other school readers)
by Susan Gates

      In 1996 I wrote a little story called “Dangerous Trainers”. The story was written for an educational publisher and was part of a graded reading scheme for primary school children. During 35 years as a writer I’ve written many such school readers. What I didn’t expect is how those little school books endure. They’re all still in print. They’re still selling! They’ve lasted longer than most other children’s books I’ve written, even the ones that won prizes.
      I have various copies of “Dangerous Trainers” on my desk now. Over the years it’s been published in US by Dingles and Co as “Dangerous Sneakers”, translated into Afrikaans as “Gevaarlike Tekkies” and, only recently, published in China for children learning English. All the teacher’s notes are in Chinese.
      And it’s not the only one of these school readers to go global. Recently, out of the blue, I was sent 30 letters from children in “Funful English Primary School” Kowloon. Freeman Chiang tells me how much he likes another of my books, “Danny’s Secret Fox” and has drawn me a lovely picture of a fox to prove it.
      So how did I get into educational books? Years ago I was teaching 16 year olds, who’d left school illiterate, to read. There was no money for books (and back then, no appropriate material, simple stories were all far too childish for my streetwise pupils) so I wrote my own stories for them. Thinking nothing would come of it, I sent them to an educational publisher. Amazingly, they ended up being published. On the strength of those early books, I made a career. I’ve written young adult novels, funny books for 9 to 12 years old, picture books for tinies. But educational publishing was my foot in the door. It’s something I’m still doing now. So if you aspire to write for children, don’t forget the educational route. It seems to be a growing market right now!

There are downsides though, which writers may, or may not, find bothersome. Publishing educational books is team work. Most writers will go through the editing process, but educational books are subject to scrutiny by literacy advisers, Pedagogues (yes, they’re really called that!), panels of teachers, educational experts etc etc. Sometimes it seems as though everybody and his dog is fiddling with your text! And school readers in particular must obey the pedagogy of whatever reading scheme is in vogue at the time. Also, if the series is international, cultural differences must be taken into account. So there will be a list, often a long one, of topics that are taboo. It’s not easy to write within these constraints. Sometimes you feel as if your story is being stripped of any literary merit. That its joyfulness and humour, the rhythms and pace of its prose, your carefully chosen vocabulary are always sacrificed to the pedagogy. The danger is that school readers end up boringly bland, squeezed dry of the very things that inspire children to read at all.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. And often it isn’t. In my experience, team work can produce great little books. But you need the right ingredients. You need editors who will negotiate changes and not just slash text willy-nilly. Luckily (mostly!) I’ve had brilliant editors, passionate about maintaining that tricky balance between a good story and the rigorous demands of a school reader. You also need writers who’ll be flexible and not too precious about their text. Language is so rich and varied, there are always other ways of saying things. If you don’t like the changes suggested, stay calm (difficult when you feel protective of your story!) find solutions, offer alternatives. I’ve found that seldom fails to work.
      The other ingredient for success is good illustrations. There are some fabulous children’s illustrators around! I was lucky enough to have Martin Remphry illustrate “Dangerous Trainers”. His illustrations are so full of energy, humour and brilliant detail. They can’t fail to excite children. And here’s one of Laura Sua’s vibrant, lively and colourful illustrations for my latest international school reader, “The Pumpkin Monster”.

      So writers, if you get the chance to write educational books, don’t be daunted. The convoluted process may make you tear your hair. It certainly has me! I swear I will never do it again. But the thing that keeps me returning is that often, and seemingly impossibly, things at last come together and great little books emerge.
      My favourite of all the school readers I’ve written? It’s “The Terrible Power of House Rabbit”, illustrated by the wonderful Martin Remphry and published in UK and US. It is still going strong? I haven’t checked but I wouldn’t be surprised. I bet there’s life in that old rabbit yet!

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