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<em>Spilled Milk</em>: Let's Build an App for Struggling Readers

Do you have a child who hates to read? I have two. As a heedless, promiscuous lover of words, I find it hard not to see my children's resistance to reading as anything but the ultimate karmic bitch-slap.
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Do you have a child who hates to read? I have two. As a heedless, promiscuous lover of words, I find it hard not to see my children's resistance to reading as anything but the ultimate karmic bitch-slap.

Children resist reading for different reasons -- dyslexia, limited attention span, inability to focus or visualize the story in their heads. All I know is that on any given day either of mine would rather cuddle a porcupine than crack a book.

Reading for pleasure, my son would tell you, is the ultimate oxymoron. Of course, he could only tell you this if he knew the word oxymoron. Which of course he doesn't because... well, you see the problem.

2016-05-25-1464208714-5967216-SpilledMilkRelucantReadersMaria.jpgAuthor Maria T. Lennon refers to kids like ours as "reluctant readers."

But while I just complain about it, Maria has come up with a remarkable fix. A unique reading app that I hope you'll find as exciting as I do.

Unless, of course, you've abandoned reading this piece and are instead clicking your way through 10 Celebrities You Never Knew Had Webbed Feet. In which case I suggest you redirect your attention because it sounds like you desperately need this app.

Diagnosed dyslexic herself in the third grade, Maria understands the struggle of reluctant readers from the inside out. One of her four children is also dyslexic. It was in reliving her own early struggles through her son that Maria began to see a way toward opening the world of reading to kids like hers and mine, and transforming the act of reading from burden to multi-sensory adventure.

But she can tell the story better than I. Click below to learn more about her app and its Kickstarter campaign, and I'll be back after to ask Maria a few questions.

When did the idea of creating an app for reluctant readers first occur to you?

While out promoting my last two books for middle grade readers, Confessions of a So-Called Middle Child and Watch Out Hollywood, More Confessions of a So Called Middle Child, I visited a lot of schools and read to kids. Let's face it-- book reads can be boring. Kids lose interest pretty fast. Their eyes wander. They start talking. Teachers run up and down doing all kinds of weird things to signal that they better be quiet or else.

But I totally understood their lack of attention. So I decided to print up my reading segment and put it on my computer. I then plugged it into the school smart board, turned off the lights and read from my computer. As I read I scrolled down the page. Their eyes were glued, gripped! I could see them reading along with me. There's something about the words moving down a page -- like the ticker on the bottom of CNN or the lines of a foreign film, that just grabs your attention. So I did it everywhere I went, and the kids loved it.

Was there a lot of trial and error turning this discovery into an app?

I had a strong idea of what I wanted because of my experience with kids on book tours. I wanted the words to scroll down and illuminate as the narrator read so that they popped. I wanted cool images that created mystery, and music to set the tone of the book.

I found a great producer, Jonny Zwick, who fell in love with the story and the project. We found the right narrator, we shot the film and had musician friends give us a score. So many people pitched in for the mock version of the app. It was amazing. It takes a lot of work to create the images and get the color and mood just right. It's like a visual shot of the plot lies under the text on each page. Think about it -- three levels of storytelling layered one on top of the other.


Tell me about the book shown in your video.

It's the first book, the one I wrote for my son, The Poet Thief. If we get funded on Kickstarter, our goal is to make many more books available for kids in elementary, middle and high school. Guidelines for future books would be the same as the ones I've tried to employ in The Book Thief: short chapters, lots of space on the page, a fast-moving plot with little extraneous detail, and thought-provoking, adventure-filled subject matter.

I love the term "reluctant readers." I have two of my own. Did you coin the term?

No, I didn't, but I like it because reluctance implies conflict. I've never met a kid who doesn't love a story -- it's built into our DNA. But the struggle of reading makes some kids reluctant because the experience of reading is difficult. So I thought, let's make the experience fun. Remove the reluctant part.

How did you become aware of/interested in reluctant readers?

Well, for starters, I come from a long line of dyslexics, so I have always been keenly aware. I struggled, ripped up papers, hit my head against desks for so long. I was diagnosed in the third grade, as so many are, and I started going to special schools for dyslexia where I learned how to cope better.

I went on to attend great schools and I wrote books and didn't really think too much about it until my son was held back in kindergarten. He struggled even more than I did. In third grade he was diagnosed with both ADHD and dyslexia, which is kind of a double whammy. He's so smart and so impatient -- "a Ferrari brain with bicycle brakes" -- isn't that they way you described kids with ADHD, Bill?

That's a wonderful description I learned from Dr. Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist who specializes in treating kids with ADHD. My son loves it.

Well, that's my boy too. He loved stories, and he craved smart ones. Of course, he found most books too slow, or too confusing, or too long. I set out to write a story he could not resist.

What's The Poet Thief about?

It's about a group of neighborhood kids who discover a tent in the canyon below them. Inside the tent they find stakeout photographs of a Beverly Hills jewelry store. They realize that whoever is sleeping in the tent is planning on robbing a jewelry store. So they follow him. They meet him. They talk to him. He tells them his plan and tries to convince them that what he's doing is good.

I read him the first chapter and from that point on, it was all he wanted. I was sure that others like him would like this story as well.

But I wanted to try a new delivery mechanism that would engage him fully, something different than a book, or an ebook. So I came up with the idea of creating an app -- it's easy and it's cheap and it's so accessible. They've got a multi-sensory book in their back pocket or on their tablets at school.

How did your background feed into the idea for the creation of the app?

Well, I write children's books. As I mentioned, I am dyslexic and have a son whose dyslexic and has ADHD. The way I see it, it's both my destiny and my duty to help kids get past their reluctance. I see their brilliance, and being dyslexic, I see a way around the obstacle. The goal isn't to get kids to just read the words, it's to feel their meaning and provoke thought. Auditory and visual books are the only way for them to do this.

I love the malleability of the app, the ability to add or subtract music, sound effects, etc. What works best for your son?

Ah, that's my son's favorite part too. It's liberating for a child who has always seen a book as constraining. Imagine for a moment what it's like for a struggling reader -- that's 1 in 5 kids -- to look at 250 pages of tight small words on a black and white page. It's overwhelming and for some it's claustrophobic.

And then you give them this. It's still a two-hundred-page novel, but it feels alive. Boundless. Images change; there is motion. They can control their experience. They can listen and read and watch all at once -- or they can take the images away and just have the text and the music.

Is there a version of the app readers of this article could try with their kids?

At the moment there is only the mock-up sample that one can see on the Kickstarter page. But in the first video, you can see how the experience is layered. Images and video shot for each book are the backdrop, with text on top of that and then sound and music. This creates almost a filmic experience. The reader is enveloped because both auditory and visual senses are being stimulated and supported. There will be hyperlinks under certain words. The user can tap those words and get a definition or maybe another image will pop up, like a map or a picture to reinforce the story.

If your Kickstarter campaign is successful, how soon do you think the app would be ready?

November. The story is done. We will hire actors for the roles of the neighborhood boys and the homeless man who is also an enlightened man who is also a robber.... Then the scenes are filmed, the narrator reads and records the text, the music and the sounds are carefully selected to enhance but never to overwhelm. Once these pieces are completed it goes to lift off, a tech company founded by Jon Kraft, co-founder of Pandora, and they turn it into the finished app.

I can't wait.

To learn more about the Kickstarter campaign click here.

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