Never mind the great literary novel. Let’s hear it for the great literacy novellas
Patricia Scanlan, editor of the Voices series, on writing fiction to help readers improve literacy skills
Patricia Scanlan: Could I write a book suitable for people improving their literacy skills? I did write that book, and it was called Second Chance. I felt it was the most important book of my career, a true test of an author. Photograph: Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland
Voices is a collection from some of Ireland’s foremost writers. They have given their creative skills, time and energy to write a short story or piece of nonfiction to enhance the reading experience of emerging readers. Voices has been published to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the National Adult Literacy Agency (Nala).
Nala is a charity and membership-based organisation. It works to support adults with unmet literacy and numeracy needs so they can take part fully in society, and have access to learning opportunities that meet those needs.
Before I became a full-time writer, I worked in Dublin Public Libraries. I often met people who had problems reading and writing. They desperately wanted to improve their skills in both. I met literacy tutors who were frustrated at the lack of suitable material for the emerging reader.
My first novels were published in the early nineties. At that time, a literacy tutor jokingly said to me that I should write a novel for my local literacy group. It gave me food for thought. Could I write a book suitable for people who were improving their literacy skills? Could I write a story that would make the emerging reader want to turn the page?
I did write that book, and it was called Second Chance. I spent a long time writing it. In some ways I felt it was the most important book of my career, a true test of an author. At first it was difficult. I was mindful of keeping the sentences short and the language accessible. I wanted the reader to be engaged, eager to turn the page. I was nervous giving the manuscript to the literacy tutor and Nala.
Second Chance was published in 1994. Feedback from literacy groups was extremely positive. I was invited to speak to emerging readers, countrywide. I presented literacy certificates to students. Their courage and determination humbled me. It was inspiring to see people reach their goal and become empowered.
I approached New Island in 1998. My aim was to publish a series of literacy novellas written by well-known Irish writers. Edwin Higel, the publisher, and Ciara Considine, the commissioning editor, were enthusiastic about the idea. Open Door was born. We were determined that the books would have the highest production values. We had an immensely gratifying response from the authors we approached to take part in the project. Many of these novellas are original works and are enjoyed by readers of all ages
At the moment, we are discussing our ninth series. We have now published 54 books. These include novellas, a poetry book and eight Irish language translations. The rights have been sold abroad. The concept is very simple and effective and has far surpassed its original requirement. Open Door is not only for emerging readers with literacy difficulties. It has now become an educational aid to those interested in improving their English language and reading skills.
Many immigrant groups here in Ireland are now using the books to help students improve their English. They are also used for the same purpose in the UK. Many teachers are using them in secondary schools to encourage teenage readers to get into the habit of reading. The goal is to promote the joy of reading so that the students will go on to read full-length novels.
The pieces in Voices are fascinating, thought provoking and evocative. They are written by highly acclaimed, bestselling authors, who sell millions of books worldwide.
It is a privilege and honour, as the editor of this inspiring anthology, to introduce these fine writers to a new audience. Even though they are all busy with projects of their own, they have been so generous. They have gladly shared their creativity and time to contribute, and craft their writing, to suit our guidelines. There aren’t enough words to thank them. They are all very special people who have touched the lives of many. Open Door, and this book, would not exist without them.
A big thanks also to my inspiring colleagues Edwin Higel, Mariel Deegan, Stephen Reid, Caoimhe Fox and all the team at New Island for their stellar work on Voices. Their on-going commitment to Open Door is a gift. Huge thanks also to Helen Ryan, policy officer of Nala, for her expert advice and edits.
Big thanks also to the Department of Rural and Community Development, and Libraries Ireland, for providing funding to buy these books for library services throughout Ireland.
Thanks also to The Reading Agency UK for their on-going support and encouragement through the years, since Open Door began in 1998.
We are extremely grateful to An Post for their support.
Finally, and most importantly, dear reader, our collective wish for you, is that Voices empowers you as you continue on your journey with reading. We hope Voices enhances your reading experience in every way. May it bring as much joy and delight to you, as it has to all of us who have been involved in creating it.
Patricia Scanlan is series editor of the Voices series. The latest volume, published by New Island, features Blindboy Boatclub, Dermot Bolger, Marita Conlon-McKenna, Sinéad Crowley, Martina Devlin, Roddy Doyle, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Rachael English, Patrick Freyne, Yan Ge, Carlo Gébler, Ciara Geraghty, Ruth Gilligan, Emily Hourican, Úna-Minh Kavanagh, Louise Kennedy Sinéad Moriarty, Graham Norton, Nuala O Connor, Roisín O’Donnell, Sheila O’Flanagan, Colm O’Regan, Paul Perry, Deirdre Purcell, Donal Ryan, Patricia Scanlan and Melatu Uche Okorie