In 2009, my agent approached me with an unusual offer. Bob Tyrell, founder and president of Orca Publishers in Vancouver, had come up with a new publishing model: he wanted to contract with established authors of mainstream fiction to write books for people who, for one reason or another, had never been able to read very well… or, in some cases, at all. These books were called hi-lo books, for “high interest, low ability.” They were to be short, straightforward, and simply written. Was I interested? My answer was an immediate yes, for two reasons: I believe very strongly that literacy needs to be promoted as much as possible, and I felt it would make me a better writer. There would be no complicated subplots, no ten-dollar words, no showing off. There could only be a story, told as plainly as possible.
Rapid Reads may seem like a strange concept to those who haven’t dealt much with the non-reading public. Some may be unaware that a significant portion of the adult population of North America has serious trouble reading. If you encounter a low-ability reader, likely you won’t notice. People who can’t read have often developed elaborate coping mechanisms, because they’re embarrassed. They find ways to hide it. They invent methods of recognizing words that are astonishing in their ingenuity, and are often more complicated than reading itself. Sometimes they come up with excuses. “I forgot my glasses… can you read this for me?” is a common one. Hiding illiteracy is a lot of work, and it comes with the constant fear of being discovered.
As for why these folks never learned to read in the first place, there are a few common reasons. Here in Nova Scotia, many people in their 40s and older dropped out of school early to become fishermen, in the days before that industry collapsed. And I don’t mean high school, either. In the course of my work as an adult educator, I’ve met lots of people who left school in grade 6 or 7. Others have learning challenges that went undiagnosed, and they slipped through the proverbial cracks in the system. Still others had difficult home lives filled with abuse. It’s hard to concentrate on your schoolwork when home isn’t safe place.
The most common reason of all, though, seems to be that reading was simply unappreciated in their world. They had no role models who read. Reading wasn’t valued. There were other priorities, like survival. Nobody ever made any money from reading a book, after all. So their line of reasoning goes.
It’s true that the simple act of reading a book won’t keep the wolf from the door. But it’s been shown that higher reading ability correlates to a higher quality of life overall. Again, for those who grew up in homes where reading was valued, this won’t come as news. But not everyone has the same advantages.
In To Read Or Not To Read, a study done by the National Endowment for the Arts, it was shown that people who read well tend to have higher levels of education, which sounds like a no-brainer, of course. But there are all kinds of indirect effects as well. Good readers live in better neighborhoods and hold higher-paying jobs. They are less likely to become addicted to drugs or go to prison. They are less likely to end up in abusive relationships. They tend to be more engaged in their communities, and are more likely to vote and volunteer. In every measurable way, their quality of life is higher, and so are their contributions to society.
Everyone who loves to read knows of the other, less tangible benefits reading brings. Reading improves mental abilities of all kinds. It increases our ability to feel empathy. It makes us curious about the world. It makes us better people. We read because we love it. We forget that we are lucky to know how.
The fact that I write two kinds of books means I get two kinds of fan mail. One kind is from those who read my literary work and want to tell me how much they liked it. Naturally, I love hearing from these people. Their messages are mostly sent via email these days, and they’re well-written and erudite.
The other kind of fan mail tends to be hand-written, in clumsy block letters over which the writer obviously labored for a long time. Their return addresses are sometimes adult high schools or community colleges, sometimes federal penitentiaries. Their messages are simple: I read your book. I liked it. It made me want to read more. I wish I’d started sooner.
These letters give me a different feeling altogether, and that is why I will continue to write hi-lo books for a long time to come.