Guest Post: Beth Bacon & Editor Tracey Keevan on Encouraging Reluctant Readers

by Beth Bacon
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations


Editor Tracey Keevan
This is the second post in a series honoring reluctant readers.

Two out of three fourth graders in the United States failed to read with proficiency, according to a 2015 Kids Count survey.

The fundamental skill of reading is not an easy one to master.

Writers, editors and educators need new ways of addressing this humbling fact.

In the second installment of my series about reluctant readers, I ask: What does it take to create a book that appeals to emerging and reluctant readers?

And who better to ask than the editor of some of the most beloved books—among reluctant readers as well as kids who enjoy books. 

Tracey Keevan is an executive editor at Disney-Hyperion. She has worked with a number of best-selling, award-winning authors and illustrators beloved by many struggling readers, including Mo Willems, Dan Santat, Laurie Keller, Charise Mericle Harper, Tony DiTerlizzi, Bryan Collier, and Nate Powell among others.

Tracey herself is an Emmy-nominated writer whose children’s fiction has been featured on Nickelodeon as well as in books and magazines. Tracy’s perspective offers powerful insights into the art of reaching out and appealing to reluctant readers.

Tracey Keevan: Reading a book has always felt a lot like running a race to me. Nervous anxiety hits my gut at the starting line. So far to go. So alone.

So many people who will finish faster, easier, stronger than me.

The first chapter, the first mile, sets that pace. I’m either in the zone, confident and charged, or I’m way out of the zone—struggling through each page, each tenth of a mile, wondering if I can make it to the end. 

Worse: wondering why I’m trying to make it to the end at all. The dreaded Quit Demon starts bouncing up and down on my shoulder: Quit. Quit. Quit.

As an editor of books for kids and teens, I hunt for those “quit moments.” They need to be stomped all over.

Those are the places that make or break a book for reluctant and emerging readers. It’s where the writer—that invisible voice on the sideline—needs to step up and cheer her head off: Go! Go! Go!


Beth Bacon: When creating books for kids who struggle with reading, one can’t assume your audience is going to be an eager one. Humor is one strategy. Every kid loves to laugh.

What writing techniques do you look for?

Tracey Keevan: There is no magic formula, of course. Humor helps. Word choice helps.

So do an active voice, authentic dialogue, relatable characters, and relevant themes. 

But I think the answer is more complex than story mechanics or book format. I think it’s an artist’s respect for the reader (especially the struggling one) that keeps her going. 
  • It’s choosing clarity over cleverness. 
  • It’s about trusting and inviting the reader to share in the storytelling. 
  • It’s about letting the reader know you’re in it together. 
Beth Bacon: When kids read a book, without struggling too much, and they’ve enjoyed themselves, that’s thrilling to me. I feel I’ve succeeded as a writer when kids want to read another book—any book—after they’ve finished mine. What’s your definition of success?

Tracey Keevan: Success with all readers, to me, is a feeling of inclusion. When a reader is connected to the experience, she’ll power up the hills, sprint to finish, and carry that finisher’s medal with her for the next time.

Beth Bacon: What was your experience with reading as a child?

Tracey Keevan: Reading can be terrifying. I know. I was not a “book kid” in grade school or middle school. 

It was no mystery to me why, either. I was paralyzed with fear of failure while reading aloud in class. I struggled with spelling and sight word recognition—I still do today. 
And while I could usually parse out meaning when I was reading to myself, the embarrassment of sounding out words and being corrected in front of my classmates left me feeling insecure, anxious, and isolated. Books were not my friends. I was afraid of them.

Beth Bacon: Fear is something authors don’t like being associated with books! But the truth is, struggling readers certainly feel fear. I address that fear by talking directly to the reader. 

In my new book, The Book No One Wants To Read, the narrator is the book itself. It bends over backwards (literally) to help the readers enjoy their time. How do you address this fear?

Encourages readers to relax & enjoy reading.

Tracey Keevan: I remind myself of that fear often. What would have helped me? Well, not having to read aloud for one. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option. 

Shorter sentences would have helped. Scaffolding and repetition would have helped too.

[Scaffolding is a strategy used by reading instructors to address issues blocking the path to literacy by building scaffolds of support like monitoring comprehension and employing pre-reading and post reading activities.]  

Mostly, though, understanding that reading wasn’t a competition, with winners and losers, but a tool to share, learn, grow and be a part of something bigger than myself—that would have helped the most. 
The writers and illustrators who share the fun win kids like me over. (Thank you, Judy Blume!) It’s simple, but true.

Beth Bacon: Sharing the fun—that’s one way authors can help emerging readers get through their required reading sessions. 


As with anything, reading takes practice. So our books need to keep these kids turning the pages. No one knows that better than Tracey Keevan, who has worked in children’s media for over 20 years as an editor, writer, and producer. She also acquires and edits picture books, early readers, chapter books, graphic novels, middle grade and young adult fiction. 

Thanks, Tracey, for your insights!

Cynsational Notes

Beth Bacon is the author of books for reluctant readers including I Hate Reading (Pixel Titles, 2008, 2017) and The Book No One Wants To Read, illustrated by Jason Grube and Corianton Hale (Pixel Titles, 2017).

She earned an MFA in Writing For Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Beth has won the VCFA Candlewick Award for Picture Book Writing, the Marion Dane Bauer Award for Middle Grade Writing, and is a PSAMA PULSE Award Finalist for marketing. 

Guest Post: Jane Kurtz on Bringing Books Into the World

By Jane Kurtz

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Giving birth to a book is hard. I know. I know. Whine whine whine. Anyway, labor pains are almost over. The new middle grade novel is almost out in the world.

On the verge of my book’s birthday, I returned to the Portland school where my brother and fellow author, Chris Kurtz, was teaching third grade the year I was revising Planet Jupiter (Greenwillow, 2017) —and where I got to read the whole manuscript, chapter by chapter, week after week, to those third graders.

As I struggled to understand my own story and its implications, we talked about Jupiter, my busking, kick-ass protagonist and how she seemed to confident and bold and in charge, but how she was desperately missing her dad (while claiming she wasn’t).

We discussed the stuff that was going to bring her down–her adopted Ethiopian cousin and her new, quirky Portland neighborhood and what it costs us when we flex our muscles and boast that “a rolling stone gathers no moss.” We sang. My brother and his students even made up a song about Portland bridges for my book.

This month, when I returned to the school, I showed the students a picture of me interviewing a girl from Chris Kurtz’s classroom the year before I read to them. She came up to me at a reading appreciation night and made me laugh by the way she talked about being a twin. I asked her if I could interview her for the middle grade novel I was writing—and lo and behold it happened.

“So,” I said. “I was working hard to write my first draft when you all were in second grade. And now you’re in fifth grade!”

I have more than thirty books published. How can it take me so dang long to write-revise-revise-revise a novel?

But it does.

And honestly I also love it that the craft is so demanding. That’s one reason I teach at Vermont
College of Fine Arts MFA in Children’s and YA literature: I want to be a student of the craft of writing for my whole life, constantly filling myself up with new ways to think about writing and reading and what it means to tell a compelling and zingy story.

Suma Subramariam and Jane

A few years ago at a VCFA residency, I mentioned in a lecture that I was thinking about creating some ready-to-read books (something I’ve dabbled in for two U.S. publishers) for Ethiopian kids.

I learned to read in Ethiopia. I’ve helped start an NGO that has been exploring the question of what it means to have a “reading culture” and how readers and writers can support each other around the globe.

Now Ethiopians are starting to write children’s books. But this easy reader category is its own beast. I haven’t seen those in Ethiopia yet.

And they’re vital.

After my lecture, I sat with Suma Subramariam, one of my VCFA students, who emigrated from India and supports a school there, at a picnic table. She encouraged me to be more specific.

I told her I knew I didn’t want to commit to production and distribution. I only wanted to see if I could create colorful, appealing, culturally appropriate, local language books that would maybe inspire some Ethiopian artists and writers to try their hand at this particular type of book—one that seems simple but isn’t, one that is a first bridge to reading. Otherwise, I was pretty vague.

My idea took a big step forward a year ago when I traveled in Ethiopia with two professional American painters, two professional Ethiopian painters, two photographers, and another writer.

We went off the grid to the remote part of Ethiopia where I have my best childhood memories.

Jane and her siblings in Maji

When we returned to Addis Ababa, we experimented with a bookmaking day.

The Ethiopian artists read aloud a couple of stories that volunteers had helped translate into Amharic, one of Ethiopia’s languages. Ethiopian and American kids sat at a table and drew and painted.

One of the American artists took the work done that day, scanned it, and showed me what a book could look like:

 Pretty cool!

When we got home, my sister and I tried more simple stories, most of them inspired by Ethiopian terets or wise sayings like, “When spiders unite, they can stop a lion.”

An illustrator friend did thumbnails to show how illustrators start their work.

Then I organized another bookmaking day in Portland, Oregon, where I live and where Cecile—who was about to start middle school—studied those thumbnails and created most of the art for a second book.

Figuring out every step for our first ten Ready Set Go Books has also been haaaaard.

I’m a volunteer, after all, and so is almost everyone else who’s participated. I’ve had to learn about illustration and page turns and layout and digital design.

And then there’s the question of who will handle production and distribution. Last month, several NGOs paid a small Portland printer to print up 900 copies in three different languages and carried them to rural Ethiopia.

Liz McGovern, Executive Director of WEEMA International said, “I can’t tell you how much the kids absolutely LOVED the books! I have never in my life seen kids so engrossed and so determined to read. It was such a beautiful thing!”

Ethiopian students reading Ready Set Go Books

Author Edith Wharton said that to be a writer is to dream an eagle and give birth to a hummingbird. Who knew that something as tiny as a hummingbird would cause such despair and exasperation and make me feel—at times—like such a failure? And yet…

There’s power in creating something that captivates another human.

When I read Charlotte’s Web (by E.B. White, illustrated by Garth Williams, Harper & Brothers, 1952) to my brother, he cried, and the tween that I was got it.

Words make us feel things. Words make us imagine ourselves into the skin of other people and even spiders.

Portland students and Jane excited about Planet Jupiter

Now, it moved me to hear that even two years later, those students remembered how much Jupiter wants her dad back, how hard it is for her to quit travelin’ on, to be vulnerable, to even sit still long enough for a little moss to grow.

What else is there?


Cynsational Notes

Planet Jupiter releases tomorrow from Greenwillow Books, a division of HarperCollins. Publishers Weekly said Planet Jupiter had “a playful yet introspective narrative” and called it an “engaging, empathic story” with “a host of quirky and appealing supporting characters.”


Kirkus Reviews described it as “a solid middle-grade family story” with vivid characters and fascinating urban village….holding readers’ interest throughout.”

Jane in Maji, photo by Jeri Candor

Jane Kurtz was born in Portland, Oregon, but when she was two years old, her parents moved to Ethiopia. Jane grew up in Maji, a small town in the southwest corner of the country.

Since there were no televisions, radios, or movies, her memories are of climbing mountains, wading in rivers by the waterfalls, listening to stories, and making up her own stories, which she and her sisters acted out for days at a time. When she was in fourth grade, she went to boarding school in Addis Ababa.

By the time Jane came back to the United States for college, she felt there was no way to talk about her childhood home to people here. It took nearly 20 years to finally find a way – through her children’s books. Now she often speaks in schools and at conferences, sharing memories from her own childhood and bringing in things for the children to touch and taste and see and smell and hear from Ethiopia.

She is also a co-founder and member of the board of Ethiopia Reads that works to bring books and literacy to the children in Ethiopia. She is a faculty member at Vermont College of Fine Arts in the Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program, and the author of more than 30 books for young readers.