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“Books Where Stuff Happens”: An Exploration of Hi/Lo Books

“Books where stuff happens…but easy to read. Not a book for kids.” This is a common readers’ advisory question for reluctant or struggling teen readers (and their adults). Such readers often feel keenly the gap between the books they are able to read, and the topics they *want* to read. Must they read from the children’s section, with its juvenile topics and the same titles they would have picked in grade school? Not at all. This is a gap that hi/lo books aim to fill.

The term “hi/lo,” or “high/low,” refers to books that have a high interest level and a low vocabulary or readability level. These books won’t intimidate those reading below their grade level, but will not bore them to death, either. Michael Sullivan’s 2012 School Library Journal article is a great primer for this topic, touching on both the subjective (what makes a book really interesting?) and the scientific (what are the readability formulas used by hi/lo publishers?).

So what does make a book really interesting? Hi/lo books are characterized by exciting (often edgy) topics, short or linear time frames, and action-driven plot. In standard teen fiction, there are many titles with these features. For example:

  • Alex Rider is forced to work as a spy for M16 in Stormbreaker (Alex Rider, #1), by Anthony Horowitz.
  • Kyra runs away to avoid becoming her uncle’s seventh wife in The Chosen One, by Carol Lynch Williams.
  • Mickey’s girlfriend disappears, and her trail reveals that she’s not who she seems, in Harlan Coben’s Shelter (Mickey Bolitar, #1).
  • Jamal is pressured to become the leader of a gang when he is only 12 in Scorpions, by Walter Dean Myers.
  • Micah reveals that her boyfriend is dead, and also that she is a compulsive liar, in Liar, by Justine Larbalestier.

Additionally, some publishers write specifically for the hi/lo audience. Along with featuring the high-interest characteristics listed above, they use readability formulas to level the text, and offer physical appeal factors such as friendly font size, white space, and controlled page count. A few highlights:

  • Saddleback Educational Publishing offers series in both fiction and nonfiction, including “Graphic Biographies” and “Gravel Road” (realistic fiction titles).
  • Orca Book Publishers has several imprints, such as Orca Currents (targeted at middle-school reluctant readers), and Orca Soundings (for teen readers).
  • Epic Press provides simultaneous series releases for binge readers who hate waiting for the sequel.
  • Lerner Publishing includes the Darby Creek imprint, which publishes series fiction for emerging, striving, and reluctant readers in grades 2-12.
  • Townsend Press publishes high-interest fiction classics as well as the ever-popular Bluford series.

Do you need personal knowledge of hi/lo titles and publishers to help match a reluctant reader to a book? Of course not! Check out these additional resources:

  •  High/Low Handbook, Fourth Edition, by Ellen V. Libretto and Catherine Barr, has both a High/Low section and a “Young Adult Materials for the Reluctant Reader” section of lists.
  • Booklists on the Hub.
  • YALSA’s Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers.
  • Although hi/lo fiction is often requested, nonfiction, magazines, and graphic novels can all grab a reader’s interest with the same features.
  • Talk to teens! Their definition of a book where “something happens” may range from the Harry Potter series to Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why. They may reveal a certain author whose books they devour, from Ellen Hopkins to David Levithan. Use this information to find readalikes.

What are your go-to titles or sources for the hi/lo question? Share your thoughts in the comments!

— Rebecca O’Neil, currently listening to Echo, by Pam Muñoz Ryan