Brother No More: Story Share Literacy Project

What an amazing, fantastic, wonderful idea!

This was my first thought when I heard about the Story Share Contest. A product of the collaboration of a group of partners, including Benentech, CAST, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, Orca Book Publishers, Motivate, and Jabico Enterprises, the goal of the contest was to amass a library of short story books for teen and young adult beginning readers. Stories for beginning readers are created in Tar Heel Reader, while those at the intermediate (3rd or 4th grade level) are placed in the Hoku library.

What makes the Story Share concept special is that its focus is on collecting works that contain subject matter of interest to teens and young adults, but which are written for a lower reading skill level. How brilliant is that? It seems so obvious now, but it never would have occurred to me how difficult it must be for an older person who is trying to learn to read to find reading material that actually interests them. I mean, Dr. Seuss is great. The Berenstain Bears are great. But if an eighteen-year-old is stuck reading books like these just because those are the kinds of books that are available for people at his or her reading level, they’re rather rapidly going to lose interest, which is no way to encourage young adults to learn to read.

Anyway, as soon as I heard about the contest, I knew I wanted to write something for it, and the story-book I’ve linked to above was the end result. Brother No More is a dark but ultimately uplifting tale of a young adult drug dealer with loose gang affiliations whose twelve-year-old sister is accidentally killed in a drive-by shooting. The hero, George, copes with Mary’s death not by seeking revenge on those who killed her, but by secretly seeking to undermine the very system that makes it possible such tragedies to occur.

I won’t kid you – it was no mean feat putting this story together. First of all, it ended up being over 7,200 words, which is quite a long short story by any standard. Second, it took a great deal of effort to make it work for a lower-level reader. Fortunately, the Hoku guidelines are pretty informative about how best to ensure that the target audience will be comfortable with your writing. For example, you’re supposed to construct short, simple sentences without multiple clauses, and use words of no more than four syllables. Using short sentences was easy enough once I got the hang of it. It actually came out somewhat flash fiction style, I would say – without a lot of fancy verbiage, and no unnecessary modifiers. The vocabulary was tougher. Unless you’re an elementary school teacher, it’s difficult to know what kinds of words would be recognizable to a student at the third or fourth grade reading level. And besides that, your readers are not going to be eight- and nine-year-olds, but teenagers. They probably have decent speaking vocabularies; they just don’t necessarily know what those words look like on paper. So chances are good you can get by with somewhat more sophisticated language than you would use in an actual children’s book, even though on paper the reader is at the same skill level.

Thematically, too, I felt it was important to speak to the audience on a more adult plane, within limits. For instance, I would not have elected a loose, fragmented style of writing, or chosen a topic that was too subtle, simply because I would worry that if the reader had to struggle to understand it, they might think it was their comprehension that was at fault and not the complexity of the writing or subject matter. Encouraging a reader to stretch their limits is one thing, but pushing them to the point of frustration accomplishes nothing. However, I didn’t think my particular story ran into this problem. A couple of times I decided to change the details of a scene because I couldn’t get my point across without using words I thought might be too advanced. But that, of course, is part of the challenge!

The other challenge for me was in the formatting and the use of images. The formatting is the only aspect of the Hoku book design that I would complain about, because it is not compatible with Word and you can’t simply copy and paste from one to the other without having to reformat. This is a serious problem, because editing within the Hoku format isn’t practical, which means you basically have to write and polish the story in Word and then re-create it, a few paragraphs at a time, in Hoku. I totally understand why they use the format they do – in the end you really have a product that looks like a book rather than a text document – but it was time-consuming. I spent nearly four hours just transferring my file onto the ninety Hoku pages so that it would display properly. Someone needs to call up Bill Gates and see if he’ll create an app for that.

The design tools, however, were quite easy to use and went a long way towards enabling the writer to create a polished, nice-looking digital book. Adding images was especially simple, as the individual pages have blocks set aside for pictures and you just click whether you want to add an image on that page or not, and you can upload straight from there. They naturally encourage the use of images, which are certainly simple enough to acquire nowadays even if you’re not artistic (which I’m not). I did take my own photos, though. I actually would have liked to use more images, but since I was worried about how long my story was going to be – 100 pages was the limit – I didn’t want to risk having to reformat the whole thing all over again if I went over.

Anyway, formatting issues aside, creating my story was an overwhelmingly positive experience. I actually really enjoyed the special challenge of writing it, and I’m looking forward to completing a sequel – and possibly another after that – in the next few months. I do hope, though, that I’ll get some kind of feedback on whether the readers like my story or not. With over 500 entries submitted, I’m not foolish enough to get my hopes up on winning a prize in the contest, but it would be nice to get some opinions on my story-book before I start writing more like it. I can really sort of see this becoming a long-term thing for me – my author pro bono work, if you will. I’ve always thought that if I had a lot of money, I’d like to donate it to a library. Well, here I can actually help to build the library. And in the end, I suspect that will be much more satisfying.

You can find out more about Hoku, Tar Heel Reader, and the Story Share Contest at or on Twitter @StoryShareCntst.

Cover Image for Brother No More

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