How I write school readers that help children fall in love with books: Cameron Macintosh

Cameron is the author of Reading for Comprehension texts: Look at Us, Oscar and Milly, A Day with Reb and Bub, A Toy for Reb and Bub, Oscar’s New Bed, In the Rainforest, Slow-bot and No-bot, Playtime for Lucy, A Job for Jump-bot, Birthday Messages, Kakadu, Basketball is the Best!, Ready, Set, Click!, Our Robot Show, Six Seasons, From Sand to Sea, Safe on Two Wheels, Saturday Morning Athletics, Our Walkathon, Skills and Thrills.

He told us about his experience writing school readers, and where he finds his inspiration.

Where do you get your story ideas? Are there any you are particularly proud of?

That’s a good question – sometimes the ideas just aren’t there when you need them! I do try to keep a bit of a story bank in my notebooks for future commissions, jotting down observations and experiences that might have potential. I’m always looking for simple, central ideas that can be teased out into plot and action. These could be things as simple as an interesting art technique, or an animal with an unusual ability.

I’m quite proud of the ‘Reb and Bub’ stories in the Oxford Reading for Comprehension series. They were a unique challenge because I was working with a pre-existing character sketch, by the brilliant Volker Beisler. This cute floating alien was in need of a story and I eventually found it a place by making two characters out of it and sending them to a very confusing planet called Earth.

I’ve also recently had the first four books of a kids’ sci-fi series published. (Max Booth Future Sleuth – Big Sky Publishing) That’s been my first foray into trade publishing. It’s a very different beast to educational publishing, and quite a hard nut to crack, so I’m quite rapt that it’s all worked out.

Are you involved with the illustrations?

When an illustrator is working on one of my books I try to stay out of their way as much as possible. Their vision is every bit as important as mine – often more so. That said, I usually add illustration suggestions to my manuscripts, and often have the chance to comment on artwork as it’s being developed. Generally I’ll just look for any issues that could compromise the meaning or efficacy of the text (and let the editor deliver the bad news!). I always find it a huge privilege to have an artist interpret my imaginings and bring them to life in their own way. It’s something I’ll never take for granted.

What are some considerations when writing readers? How do they differ from regular picture books?

With readers, you’re usually given a very specific brief, with levelling information, and – at lower levels – lists of words you can and can’t use. Meeting these requests is always the main consideration. Your text exists to serve a specific role in a reading program, so your ego needs to be put on the shelf! That doesn’t mean there isn’t scope for fun and creativity – I often find the strict parameters help me distil an idea into a workable form more easily than if I was given completely free reign.

I’ve never written a regular picture book (well, one that actually got published!) but I think the same basic principles apply – a story with an interesting problem at its core, and artwork that supports the text. Regular picture books obviously have more scope for wider vocab usage, and illustrations that add their own layers of meaning or even visual subplots – things that might be regarded as distractions in a reader.

Are there particular characters or animals that children love?

I think kids are naturally drawn to any kind of character that reflects their own experience of the world, or that they perceive as some kind of extension of themselves. Having said that, my go-to characters are usually dogs and robots!

How did you learn to write school readers (what is your background)?

I pretty much did my apprenticeship as an author of these kinds of texts by editing hundreds of them, over the best part of a decade. I got my break into educational writing via an offer to write some Australian history reference books for upper primary. That series opened the door for other types of educational writing, including levelled readers like Oxford Literacy, and Oxford Reading for Comprehension.

Why is it so important to create engaging stories for young readers?

It’s probably never been more important to get kids reading. We’re at risk of living in a world where young people only experience stories through visual media rather than text. I love visual storytelling as much as anyone, but I do fear the consequences for future generations’ own writing and love for words and poetic expression if their love for books isn’t continually nurtured.

Do you remember the readers from your schooling? Are they fond memories?

I remember them quite vividly, particularly the ones about frogs! And the memories are definitely fond – particularly the thrill of leaping up to the next colour level.

How important are school readers in students’ literacy education?

They’re an absolutely vital resource for teachers. Carefully levelled readers like the Oxford Reading for Comprehension books can be chosen to match each student’s ability, and offer a clear pathway to progress in building confidence and vocabulary. They also give teachers very clear points of reference to track each student’s progress.

What is your advice to parents/teachers who are struggling to encourage their children/students to read?

It’s a really challenging time to answer this question – there are so many demands on kids’ attention these days. I’d say, take a close look at the kinds of TV shows, movies and digital games that are capturing their attention and try to hunt down books with similar themes and settings. Read these books with them.

What is your favourite picture book? And your favourite book overall?

My favourite picture book would have to be anything at all by Shaun Tan. But I’ll say The Lost Thing, as it’s the one I keep going back to. Tan’s artwork always packs an emotional punch, which is all the more extraordinary given the metaphorical approach he often takes to storytelling.

As for my favourite book overall, it’s currently Joseph Anton, by Salman Rushdie – Rushdie’s own account of his extremely complicated life during the fatwa era, and the turmoil it caused in his own relationships. Having been a high school student when this saga began, I now feel that Rushdie’s ordeal represented a certain loss of innocence for many of us – the idea that people could be killed for writing or publishing fiction. Reading Joseph Anton many years later was both a horse’s-mouth insight into Rushdie’s life in hiding, and a reminder that the world occasionally has the ability to tilt itself back towards reason.

Oxford Reading for Comprehension was shortlisted in the Primary Student Resource – English (Literacy/Literature/Language) category of the Educational Publishing Awards Australia 2019

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