Monday, May 15, 2006

Reading's a hot topic among young readers, who have tons of choice in Canada

VANCOUVER (CP) - The Grade 8 students have faraway looks in their eyes. Some are resting their heads on desks that are joined in a circle as a teacher reads from a book about a young boy's harrowing tale of survival.

Makara Auhm's imagination seems to be in full gear as he listens to the story of 12-year-old Santiago, who must flee his Guatemalan village after his family has been executed.

"I was feeling sad," Makara said later. "I wanted to cry."

Makara's classmate, Tarandeep Bhatti, was also engrossed in the story told in Ben Mikaelson's book Red Midnight, which is based on real events during Guatemala's military dictatorship in 1981.

Tarandeep said she enjoys reading and especially being read to because "you can imagine it better."

Teacher Pam Hansen is a lifelong book lover and gets a real kick out of hearing her students talk about their favourite novels.

Standing beside a box full of books, Hansen said she's always telling teens what a pleasure it is to read and how reading improves writing and takes people to worlds they couldn't otherwise experience.

Brenda Halliday, a librarian at the Canadian Children's Book Centre, said books for young people are hotter than ever these days.

"The Canadian children's book scene has blossomed," Halliday said from the Toronto-based not-for-profit organization that has been promoting reading for 30 years.

"When the book centre started, there were fewer than 50 books being published in Canada for children and teens every year, and now we get 500 books submitted," she said.

"There were only about 10 authors that were writing for children in the 1970s and now ... there are well over 100, and that's people with a whole, big body of work."

They include award-winning scribes like Ann-Marie MacDonald, who this year participated in the Walrus Bookshelf.

The national program runs until May 18 and is funded by the Walrus Foundation, publishers of The Walrus Magazine.

It's a tour by 21 Canadian authors from Victoria to St. John's and includes a night of readings for teachers who each get a gift of 20 books, to be given away to graduating students.

As for Canadian writers, they're among the best in the world, Halliday said.

"There are internationally renowned authors here in Canada. The quality is so well regarded."

There's also a lot of crossover between books for adults and young readers, for whom book covers are being repackaged, Halliday said.

For example, author Miriam Toews's book A Complicated Kindness won the 2004 Governor General's Literary Award and also fetched the young adult Canadian book award last year.

Currently, fantasy and graphic novels - a longer form of comic book involving a team of artists - are making a big splash among young adults.

"The art work is phenomenal," Halliday said. "It's a huge trend in teen fiction right now."

Then there are the so-called teen high-low books for those with a lower vocabulary level.

"They are carefully plotted, they've got good characters but they are written at a vocabulary level that is better designed for the reluctant reader," Halliday said.

"We know that there are teens who are not reading at their grade level but they want to read books that are not as long but are well written and address their concerns.

"To read a book that is less difficult you don't necessarily want to read a book that talks down to you or is childish."

The slim books with attractive covers have a similar look and provide a sense that they're part of a series, Halliday said.

"They've got some of Canada's best writers writing for them. People who've written longer books for teens are also writing for the market of the teen high-low." Another recent change that's made a big difference for high school readers is the growing field of librarians specializing in young adult books, split off from those handling children's books, Halliday said.

And most provinces now have book awards voted on by teens.

This year, the book centre's annual book week will be held between Nov. 18 and 25 and will feature 29 authors and illustrators who will tour the country to read to young adults.

"It's just like bringing in a rock star," recalled Halliday from her days as a school librarian.

"The kids are just talking about their books and the authors for weeks afterwards. It really does encourage reading, if you have the real-life author."


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