Celebrated author Gail Anderson-Dargatz believes in the power of the written word – for everyone.
The author recently wrapped up Literacy Month with a visit to the literacy class at Okanagan College, where she read from her latest literacy learner book.
“I just loved it, it was so much fun. I enjoy doing these events so much more,” she says, noting that for many members of the literacy class, this is the first book they have read. “You can see new readers getting excited about reading and it got me excited about reading again.”
Anderson-Dargatz is equally excited about writing books that engage new readers.
She has had five literacy learner books published, the first three with the ABC Life Literacy Program and the latest two with Orca Book Publishers.
She began writing them about five years ago.
“ABC found funds to have well-known writers write books at the Grade 2 to 6 level but with themes geared to adults,” she says. “The goal is to have reading material for ESL (English as a second language) students or others struggling to improve their reading skills and the aim was to make them very engaging but with a simple plot.”
Anderson-Dargatz says the concept may seem simple, but the process is actually very difficult.
Each book must have very few characters and simple plot lines because they are written for people who aren’t used to subtext or underlying themes. Flashbacks can’t be used because they would confuse the reader, as would metaphors or symbols.
“These books are way harder to write than a literary novel because you have to keep in mind the reader won’t know any of the conventions (social norms or customs),” she says, noting great care must be taken when writing about cultural references. “In the editing process, you get into conversations over just about every word; you have to make sure they’re ones people can understand within the sentence itself and the story.”
But it is a process Anderson-Dargatz loves because it is a way for her to give back to community and she saw the empowering effect it had on the lives of people her mother once tutored.
“Suddenly they can tell their own story and there is nothing more powerful and empowering than being able to tell your own stories.”
As well as being able to “take a holiday” from writing literary novels by doing something completely different, Anderson-Dargatz looked at commercial books to see how authors grab the reader.
“It actually opened the door for me; I have a distinctly more commercial project that I started after the process of writing literacy,” she says, noting there is a new book category, one step up from young adult and directed at people in their late teens and early 20s. “I never imagined doing this kind of writing.”
Her latest literacy novella, Playing With Fire, is the second in a Claire Abbott mystery series and is written at about a Grade 3 level.
Okanagan College adult literacy co-ordinator Tracy Riley is delighted to have access to Anderson-Dargatz’s books and her willingness to visit her classroom.
“In the past, finding engaging adult reading materials with a Grade 4 to 7 reading level was very difficult, but now more publishers are creating novels with adult themes and characters with targeted reading levels,” says Riley, calling literacy learner books powerful tools to draw sometimes reluctant adult readers into the magical world of printed stories.
“For the past few years, Gail has also joined the adult literacy learners and their tutors at Okanagan College for discussion about the art of the writing process and the joy of reading, and this is a highlight for all each year.”