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. 

SCBWI Initiative: Lin Oliver on Books For Readers

By Gayleen Rabakukk

for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators recently announced a new initiative: Books for Readers. To learn how this program would get books into the hands of more young readers, I interviewed SCBWI’s Executive Director Lin Oliver.

So, each region will be nominating an organization, and then the SCBWI Board of Advisors and staff will pick one or two organizations that will receive the books, right?

Most of our SCBWI regions have been doing book drives for local organizations for a long time. The idea for SCBWI Books for Readers came from our desire to join our regions’ individual efforts to make a greater national and worldwide impact on the lives of readers in need. 

This initiative will advance our mission, as an organization of children’s book creators and literacy advocates, to place good books in the hands of all children.

Our regions will nominate organizations from their local communities. A selection committee made up of members of our Board of Advisors will select two recipients who will receive a library of books from SCBWI authors and illustrators, along with a big celebration party for the kids who are receiving the books.

We always want kids to associate books with a joyful experience. Presently, our members are in the process of nominating their top causes or organizations that are in need of books. The selection committee will begin their deliberations at the end of this month.

Can you tell us some of the factors the selection committee will be considering?


The SCBWI Books For Readers selection committee will choose two organizations or causes, based on their immediate need for books, and their ability to benefit from receiving a large donation of children’s books.

The collected books will be curated prior to the donation based on the type and number of books desired. Surplus books will be donated to other causes and/organizations who were nominated.

Tell us about the logistical aspects of this – members send their books to SCBWI Headquarters in L.A., then what? Have you rented a warehouse to store them? 


We are asking all interested SCBWI members to send no more than three copies of each of their books to our SCBWI HQ in LA. We will be renting a storage unit to house the books until we deliver them to the selected recipients.

The announcement mentioned, “soon to be out-of-print titles that could be donated instead of being pulped or remaindered.” Have any publishers stepped up to contribute their remainders to this effort, or should individual authors initiate this conversation directly with their editors or marketing staff?

We’ve made a change where this point is concerned. In order to make this a finely curated shipment of books to the recipients, we will not be taking large numbers of books either through remainders or those that will be pulped.

The mission of the Books For Readers initiative includes promoting SCBWI authors, illustrators and their books; can you tell me more about that aspect? What sort of promotion do you envision? 

Participating members’ names will be printed in an official SCBWI Books For Readers program, and all members are encouraged to attend the distribution events!

There will also be extensive publicity and promotional efforts surrounding the book drive, the donors and donations, and the distribution and celebration events on a national and regional level.

These efforts will focus on shining a light on the crucial need to increase book access for readers in need worldwide, to spotlight our donor members and their books, and to highlight SCBWI as a professional organization of book authors, illustrators, and literacy advocates.

Supporting literacy efforts seems like a natural fit for the book creators of SCBWI (our Austin region does a much smaller version of this – collecting books at our holiday party and donating them to a local organization) Has the larger organization been involved in an effort like this before? Is it something you hope to make an annual event?

Yes, yes, and yes!


Yes, it is a natural and organic fit. We create books for readers. There are so many kids who are in need of books, and we’d like to help change that. Yes, it is our first literacy initiative, and Yes, we plan to make this an annual event.

For more information, you can visit SCBWI Books For Readers. Thanks for your interest, for your help in spreading the word, and for all you do for children’s literature and our community!

Cynsations Notes


Nominate an organization from your region before the April 30 deadline.

Lin Oliver is the co-founder of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

For much of her career, she was an executive in the film and television industry, including being the Executive Vice President of MCA Universal Studios for over 12 years. She is the writer and executive producer of over 300 episodes of television and three feature films directed at the family audience.

During her career in film and television, she served as Executive Director of the SCBWI as a volunteer spending nights and weekends and vacations in the service of SCBWI while earning her living in filmed entertainment.

Since 2000, she has not only led the SCBWI as Executive Director but simultaneously has pursued her career as a children’s book author, publishing more than 35 books for children including a best-selling series about a child with learning differences.

She also manages staff and personnel matters, establishes programs with partner organizations (such as First Book or We Need Diverse Books or The American Library Association) and oversees much of the work of the regional advisors.  She has a BA in English from the University of California, Berkley, a Masters in Educational Psychology from UCLA, and has completed course work for an doctorate in Education from UCLA. She is recognized as a leading voice in promoting literacy and children’s literature.

Video: Linda Sue Park on “Can a Children’s Book Change the World?”

From Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

“Can books help make readers better human beings?

“[Children’s author] Linda Sue Park talks about how books provide practice at responding to the unfairness in life, and how empathy for a book’s characters can lead to engagement in ways that have significant impact in the real world.

“Linda Sue Park is the author of many books for young readers, including A Single Shard (Clarion, 2001), winner of the 2002 Newbery Medal, and A Long Walk to Water (Clarion, 2010), on the New York Times bestseller list for more than two years. She has traveled to 46 states and 16 countries to talk to audiences of all ages about books, reading, and writing.”

Book Trailer: Bears Make the Best Reading Buddies by Carmen Oliver, illustrated by Jean Claude

By Carmen Oliver
for Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations

In 2012, I was working on a nonfiction picture book project about white and black spirit bears in Canada and the boy Simon Jackson who was trying to save them from extinction.

At the same time, my daughter was in fifth grade and was given the awesome task of being a reading buddy to an incoming kindergartner.

And I thought to myself wouldn’t it be funny if the teacher assigned reading buddies to a class of students but one student piped up and exclaimed she didn’t need one because she already had one, a real live bear.

That was the inspiration behind the beginning of my forthcoming picture book Bears Make the Best Reading Buddies, illustrated by Jean Claude (Capstone Young Readers, March 1, 2016).

I’m beyond thrilled that my debut picture book speaks to the importance of literacy but I didn’t intend to write a book with a message. I’m just a reader at heart who loves to get lost in stories. Reading transforms.

One of my favorite quotes is by American philosopher Allan Bloom, “If you touch the heart with one book, it can transform a life.”

My intentions are to entertain and I hope that readers find humor and share a few laughs with Mrs. Fitz-Pea, Bear, and Adelaide. But if in the process they find themselves falling in love with reading, then I say, “Welcome to the club – it’s a great place to be.”

I hope you enjoy the book trailer for Bears Make the Best Reading Buddies. If you do—stand on your hind legs and ROOAAARRRR!

Pre-ordering is now available through Amazon.

Cynsational Notes

Carmen Oliver is the author of picture books Bears Make the Best Reading Buddies (Capstone/Curious Fox, March 2016) and The Favio Chavez Story (Eerdmans, TBD). She’s also the founder of the Booking Biz, a boutique style agency that bring award-winning children’s authors and illustrators to schools, libraries, and special events. Born in Canada, she now lives just outside of Austin, Texas.