It isn’t the choice of subject matter or how cool you’re trying to be – although if you’re going for a contemporary voice, you’d better be darned sure your vocabulary is authentic.
The key to reaching reluctant teen readers – according to South Surrey authors and neighbours Lois Peterson and Cristy Watson – is including lots of dialogue.
They should know.
The much-published Peterson (The Ballad of Knuckles McGraw, Meeting Miss 405 and Silver Rain) has worked in libraries for some 35 years, including seven years in children’s services for Surrey Public Library, as well as teaching creative writing to adults, teens and and children.
And Watson, a poet and comparative newcomer to writing fiction, has worked for years with academically and literacy-challenged teens, as a teacher in Langley School District.
“I’d thought the secret was writing about spaceships or something,” said Peterson.
Added Watson: “I’ve always worked with kids who are reluctant readers and I’ve asked them what kind of book would you pick up, and they’ve told me ones with lots of talking, because there are less words on a page.”
There’s plenty of dialogue, accessibility and reader identification in their two newly released short novels in Orca’s Currents series of “middle school fiction for reluctant readers.”
Peterson’s Beyond Repair tells the story of Cam, a teenager forced to become the man of the family when his father dies – and then protect them from an unexpected menace; being stalked by the man responsible for the fatal road accident.
Watson’s Benched – her first novel – is about Cody, an ordinary boy with aspirations to become a writer for his school paper, who finds himself coerced into vandalism and theft by a youth gang grooming new members.
Both writers will be on hand to read from their works (along with fellow local authors Rebecca Kool, Gina McMurchy-Barber, Diane Tullson, Craig Spence and Paola Oppal) at the upcoming Read Local For Kids event presented by Friends of the White Rock Library (2-4 p.m. Sunday, April 17, at the library).
It’s an event designed to encourage the next generation of local young readers – and Peterson and Watson’s compelling and highly readable books, while universal in themes, have a very local appeal, complete with Surrey and White Rock references.
Watson’s Benched, in particular, has a highly localized setting and a very local genesis – the actual unsolved disappearance of a bench from Southmere Park, near where she and Peterson live, she said, sparked the “what if?” questions in which most successful fiction is rooted.
The concept of restorative justice also suggested a direction for the story to take, she said.
Peterson said she, too, was inspired by a real news item about a man stalking the family of a man he killed – she no longer remembers when and where she read it – that was enough to prompt her hair-trigger imagination and file the idea away for future use.
It’s an interesting coincidence that both books should be about young men forced by circumstances to “step up” and shoulder their responsibilities – and a testament to Peterson’s and Watson’s writing skills that each has created a convincing voice for their first-person male protagonists, and brought in credible insecurities and confused motives and believable supporting characters to flesh out the narratives.
Peterson and Watson’s friendship and mutual inspiration also followed a path of happy semi-accident, they said.
“Cristy came to a course I was teaching,” Peterson said. “She gave me a ride home and it turned out we lived at exactly the same complex.”
“That’s when I got asked to be in the writers’ group.”
The informal group known as the Lonsdale Clubhouse, was brought together by the late Surrey teacher and writer Barb Lonsdale, who passed away last year. Both cite her as an inspiration, and while the group itself hasn’t survived Lonsdale’s passing, both Watson and Peterson have kept in close touch.
It was ironic, Watson said, that Peterson’s original class was on writing dialogue, because it’s something the latter – who wrote stories and articles for adults for 20 years before starting to write for younger readers – admits was never her favourite part of writing.
“I didn’t let my characters talk to each other,” Peterson admitted.
But there’s always potential for change, and the British-born Peterson admits that a new penchant for historical writing is a surprise, considering the fact she detested history as a child.
“I was the daughter of a history teacher, and in England, history is just a long list of kings and queens,” she said, adding that it was only when she discovered a book that described how ordinary people lived in the Middle Ages that she began to appreciate historical writing herself.
The Calgary-born Watson, who has principally published as a poet – she is an organizer and participant in Semiahmoo Arts’ Readings By The Salish Sea series – has only latterly come to the novel form.
“But I’ve really been writing since I was eight,” she said, adding her poetic sense informs her story writing.
For more information about the books, visit www.orcabook.com