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Unless you have been reading to kids over the last 20 years, you probably won't know about the level system in early reader books: “My First” is for emergent readers; Level 1 has simple sentences for eager new readers; Level 2 is for developing readers; Level 3 has more complex plots; and Level 4 is intended as a bridge to chapter books. There's a skill writing to a specific age group, explained both a writer and an artist recently.
The writer is Meg Masters, writing under her pen-name for children Meg Braithwaite, and the artist is Nick Craine. Together they did the 5-Minute Hockey Stories book for HarperCollins, which came out in the fall of 2017. Then in early 2019, five of the stories from the bigger book were simplified and republished as Level 2 books: The Masked Man, The Best First Game, The Golden Goal, Hockey at Home, and What's in a Number.
The “5-Minute”series of books are designed to be read-aloud. Masters addressed what that kind of book means in a phone conversation: “Generally speaking with a read-aloud, you can write longer sentences, you can write sentences where there is more sentence variety, where the syntax is a little bit more complicated,” she said. “Because if you're writing something that you assume an adult reader or older reader is going to be reading to a younger listener, that their intonation, and their comprehension—I mean, children can understand orally much more complicated sentences than they can when they're learning to read, because when you're learning to read, so much of what you're doing is based on your predictive powers. You'll start a sentence and an older reader can predict where that sentence might be going; a younger reader is not necessarily able to do that in the same way. Same thing with words in context, you can throw in more difficult vocabulary when it's a read-aloud, because once the sentence is out, the child can understand, can often decode the word in context, whereas when they stumble upon an unknown word when they're learning to read, it can stop them in their tracks kind of thing. Most sophisticated readers are able to, reading on their own, to decode words and context better than new readers.”
Simplifying it, however, to a “Level 2” is “quite technical. You have to adjust the lengths and vocab and so on. It was quite a lot of work.” Masters actually didn't do the change-over, as she was engrossed in ghostwriting the just-released memoir from Samra Zafar, A Good Wife: Escaping the Life I Never Chose.
As with the words, Craine explained that the images need to be changed based on the target readers. With a Level 2, “I do subtract a lot of the extraneous detail, because a child that's six years old or whatever, they need to understand the narrative in two seconds; you can't lose them in the weeds of detail on the brickwork of the building or whatever—all that stuff's useless. It's go to read within a split-second. So, yeah, you do strip away. It's more challenging.”
Craine used the example as a writer, where constructing a haiku can be more difficult than a short story. “The funnest part is taking these manuscripts and then trying to give them a third dimension, because you've got their narrative intentions, then you've got this duration, and then you have an arc,” he said. “Then my job is to come and try and add an extra layer of depth or humour or whatever.”
While Masters didn't get to work directly with Craine, she was thrilled with what he delivered for 5-Five Hockey Stories and for the I Can Read! Books. “I think he did a fantastic job. What I loved about his illustrations ... is they weren't just complimentary or reflective of the text, they actually added to the text, so he was able to add all kinds of humour and visual information for the kids that was terrific,” she said. That humour can be as simple as Russ Courtnall appearing upside down so his uniform number, 6, looks like a 9, the number he wanted in Montreal, but which was retired. “Illustration is half the book with young readers,” she added.
For Craine, the biggest challenge is actually the tight deadlines, meaning that he doesn't have as much time as he might like to have the faces better reflect the subject. “HarperCollins decides on a project and I get the manuscript in pieces, and I'm researching it in pieces, so I would like more time,” he added.
That was not the only issue, he said. “Challenge number two is deconstructing the plays so that when we're talking about actual moments in the history, even though it's super-simplified children's style work, it still has to be accurate. So I'm having to reimagine real plays from the Olympic Games, and then looking at them from different angles, in my head, and then rearrange them in my head, because there's not a camera view for it—and then trying to build drama around that, which, of course, there's already amazing drama in hockey. But putting it into a static image, it's kind of a challenge, really. Hockey's so dynamic, full of motion, but drawings are, well, they can be fluid motion, but they're a static medium.”
Readers might have seen Craine's work in other places. The Toronto-born artist, who currently lives in Guelph, Ontario, has had his illustrations in The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic and, in 2008, he was chosen as one of six Canadians included in the TASCHEN international anthology, Illustration Now, a sampling of 150 of the world's best illustrators. As well, he's worked on graphic novels, most notably, adaptations of Bruce McDonald's films, Dance Me Outside and Hard Core Logo. He's also a musician and has directly music videos, including Feist's “It's Cool to Love Your Family.” (See www.nickcraine.com for more.)
Hockey book readers will be familiar with Masters' work too, though you won't see her name on the cover. She was the Acquisitions Executive Editor at Penguin Books for 11 years. “For some reason, it's just the way it fell out, I ended up doing the lion's share of hockey books. Now, we tended to do hockey books that were quite writerly, and based on hockey history,” she said. Among the books she worked on were Roch Carrier's Our Life With The Rocket The Maurice Richard and Stephen Cole's Last Hurrah: A Celebration of the End of Hockey.
“One of the things that I used to say about the hockey books is that if you've written a hockey book that I find gripping, that I can't put down, then I know you've written a great book because I don't come to it because I am so fascinated with hockey, what I'm fascinated about is good stories,” she said. “And there are so many in hockey. I think one of the things at Penguin at the time, that we were really interested in doing, was replicating the kinds of quality writing about hockey that exists for baseball for years. There's just so many great baseball books, so we wanted that. We did do some picture books for hockey, but we were more focused on the narrative.”
A more complicated narrative than the I Can Read! books, certainly, but equally compelling.
DON'T FORGET HAYLEY
Another Level 2 reader that came out at the same time as the books from Braithwaite is Hayley's Journey from Sarah Howden. There's a couple of tie-ins to Braithwaite's books too—Nick Craine is the illustrator for this one as well, and it was Howden, through her day job, who edited down the 5-Minute Hockey Stories to be appropriate for readers of that age group.
The tale of Hayley Wickenheiser's rise in women's—and then men's hockey—was first told by Howden in 5-Minute Stories for Fearless Girls.
“She is a real trailblazer and inspiration,” noted Howden in an email. “And she took her lumps along the way, for sure. I hope little girls can read her story and know they belong in hockey too (not just ringette) and that all kids can feel inspired by her achievements against the odds, her can-do attitude, and her impressive skills.”
EN FRANÇAIS, “RACONTE-MOI”
There are young readers in other languages, too. Jean-Patrice Martel just had his fourth book in the “Raconte-moi” (“tell me about”) French-language series published. Raconte-moi Maurice Richard follows books he wrote on the Montreal Canadiens, the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, and the CFL's Montreal Alouettes.
Martel addressed writing to younger fans. “The toughest part is that the books are relatively short, so you have to make hard decisions about what to leave out, though the publisher helps you with that,” he wrote in an email. “Otherwise, no, it's not particularly hard. I don't overly simplify my language. I was given for the first book simple guidelines as to the longest sentences and the longest paragraphs that should be used, and if you follow those you're okay. I don't hesitate to use words that I suspect most children will need to look up, but I obviously don't put too many of those either.”
The hockey historian in him issues a challenge to older fans. “I must say I'm particularly proud of the research that went into the book,” he said. “I think that even experts will learn things that they didn't know about Maurice Richard.”
Rocket Richard still resonates as a name in Quebec, even though he's been gone for almost 20 years now. There are mainstream things, like the Maurice-Richard arena on the Olympic Park grounds, the provincial Maurice-Richard electoral district, and the yearly recollection of the Richard riot on St. Patrick's Day in 1955.
In terms of his on-ice accomplishments, “his name comes up all the time in conversations or articles about hockey because hardly anyone came close to his achievements both in strict terms of hockey but of course and most importanly in terms of being the hero of a nation. He was the French Canadian who stood up to the English domination (sometimes unknowingly, but he did call [Clarence] Campbell a 'dictator' during his playing career) so he has that aura that none of the other great ones (in particular [Jean] Béliveau or [Guy] Lafleur) will ever have. Those two have had about five or six books written about them each, while Richard has had over thirty.”
In 2014, Martel teamed with Carl Gidén and Patrick Houda for the publication of the groundbreaking book, On the Origin of Hockey. Martel was coy about a future project, but did say he's working with Gidén again. “I will reveal that it's not about 21st century NHL expansion...” was all he'd reveal.
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