Louise Park and Susannah McFarlane (aka author Mac Park) are best friends, and the two authors behind the D-Bot Squad books series. Here they share their secrets on how to keep your kids reading (including the ‘five finger’ reading test!) and how their exciting storylines are specifically designed to enthrall your children and keep them on the edge of their seat!
How do you turn a kid into a passionate reader for life?
By giving them books they want to read and that they can read. When kids are starting out with reading, there is often a gap between those two things and if they struggle with reading that gap grows. Just because a kid is still developing his reading skills doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a sophisticated understanding of stories and if books can’t satisfy and feed that, they become a chore, part of school, not part of life. So we need to feed their interests and passions in the books we give them. Encourage everything – the Guinness Book of Records, filled with the stats, facts and gross things kids love, has launched many a reluctant reader into books!
What advice would you give parents of reluctant readers?
Try not to make it a battle – easier said than done when trying to get the school reading done while cooking dinner – and much better to do little bits every day that build confidence and momentum than have a major campaign on the weekend. That can be really hard to slot into a busy week but try to see it as time with your child that you can both enjoy, not something you have to get through so you can both get on with something else. Read aloud books you know they will love, acting out the characters and voices. Another fabulous tool for reluctant readers is the audio book. Encourage your child to read along as they listen to the audio book. When they come to a word they don’t know, they’ll hear it read aloud on the audio and learn it! And, let them see you reading and enjoying it – this is especially important for boys and their dads.
Are there books that erode reading confidence? Why?
Books that are too hard! No one likes doing things they find difficult and we need to work up the muscle to do harder things. Kids might want to read a certain book, particularly if ‘everyone else’ is reading it, but if they are not able to read it, they quickly become discouraged and give up and, worse, can become hostile to reading.
How can you tell if a book is too hard?
A good way for parents and kids to see when a book is too hard to use the five-finger test.
- Ask your child to start reading aloud a page of the book they think they want to read
- For each word they stumble over or find tricky, hold a finger up
- If by the end of a page five fingers are up, the child has spent more time concentrating on difficult words than on reading the story and will have lost the storyline. The book is too hard, at least for now.
Using the five-finger test is quick, easy and can be done without drawing attention – important if your child is embarrassed about their reading. If they really liked the sound of the book, note the title so you can come back to it once their reading has developed a little more, or share it together by reading chunks aloud and having them read sections you think they can manage.
What are the Mac Park books about?
Mac Park books are all about heroes and adventure – and speed! We want to sweep the reader up in a story that gets them reading and keeps reading. D-Bot Squad is the world so many kids wish they could be part of. Just imagine if the day of the school book parade also turned out to be the day your talents were recognised and you became part of an elite squad that built robotic dinosaurs and then used them to rescue real dinosaurs?
How are they written and designed to encourage reading?
We have used our combined fifty years’ of experience as publishers, writers, teacher and mums to deploy every strategy and trick to get kids reading and enjoying their reading. We understand the importance of respecting both their literacy and their interest levels. So we create worlds they will love, heroes they will identify with and write stories with high-frequency words we know they know. We only use short sentences, short paragraphs and, short chapters so they can achieve reading milestones quickly and build their confidence. We control the reading level of every page very tightly. We make sure the page layouts have plenty of space so as not overwhelm, but also have illustrations which don’t underwhelm by looking ‘babyish’. We do everything we can to make sure they will want and be able to get through the book.It is all about creating reading momentum.
Which is also why, with D-Bot squad, we have made each of the 8 stories a complete, action-packed adventure in itself but also finished each one with a cliff-hanger ending that pulls the reader over to the next book. By the time they have read their series, their reading skill will be transformed – and all without their knowing it!
Who have been your favourite characters to write? Why?
Susannah: I think your favourite character is always the one you have just finished living with in your head so probably Mister Hunter from D-Bot Squad. That said, Emma Jacks from EJ Girl Hero has been in my head for eight years and 21 books and was based on my daughter so she has my heart as well as my head!
Louise: I’m still living in D-Bot land so I too love Hunter Marks and his growth throughout the series. I’m also still working on my Harriet Clare series and am loving seeing her learn to manage her anxiety and come into her own as she travels through the everyday situations of life as an eight-year-old.
Who inspired the character Hunter Marks?
He’s a little bit of quite a few boys we know. Hunter is that boy that loves, bordering on obsession, facts and stats, and has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of his passion subjects. That obsession can tip over sometimes and his passion can be misunderstood, particularly by other kids who may not share it. So we wanted to lift Hunter up, make him our hero, the one who would save the day – but also maybe teach him a little about teamwork and friendship along the way.
What memorable responses have you had from kids and parents? Do any stand out?
Oh yes, they are what make our job so rewarding! There is nothing like getting an email or letter from a parent almost ridiculously grateful because one of our books has switched their child on to reading. It can be such a battle to get a reluctant reader reading and we feel the parents’ relief. These are two of our favourites:
‘I never thought I would ever have to go into to Caleb’s room and say ‘Caleb, put the book down, it is 9pm and you have to go to sleep! I would like to thank you very much for being the inspiration behind my son’s new found enthusiasm for reading!’ – Natalie
‘Your books have launched Ben into an independent reader. Thank you for creating a series which has inspired his love of reading!’ – Kirsten
There is nothing like the feeling of watching a child beam as they tell you they have just finished their first ‘real book’. Really, what a privilege to be able to do that!
Do you have children of your own? What’s their reaction to the stories?
All our children are young adults now so more supportive to their mums than fans of their work – although they have all been known to shake their heads as they walk past us Skyping….!
When did you first plan on being a writer? Was this always your dream?
Louise: I’m the youngest of six children and I have four older brothers. My sister was the eldest and moved overseas when I was about 8. So, I sort of grew up with four boys. When we were naughty (a frequent occurrence) we were put in our rooms. They were all together down the hall and I was in a room on my own. I still have my paper plane messages and stories that I used to shoot down the hall to them. I’d send them story instalments via these folded paper planes. Oh, how I loved it! So, yes, it’s always been there for me, but I didn’t make it happen until much later. Teaching, teaching literacy to teachers, and working in publishing were all the foundation blocks for my writing career.
Susannah: I always loved reading and writing (often letters to my mum explaining why I was being unfairly treated) but I spent most of my childhood determined to be a vet. Then when science and I became less friendly I wanted to work with books but became a book publisher rather than a writer. It wasn’t until I was nearly 50 that I decided to give it a go myself when I wanted to write a story for my daughter Emma. That story turned into the EJ Girl Hero series, now 21 books long!
How did you decide to work together? What’s it like working with a friend?
Susannah was the publisher of Zac Power and needed help from a literacy guru to help created a sub-series for kids who needed even simpler reading books. Louise was the obvious woman for the job and the work relationship and friendship went from there. And It’s brilliant working with friends, a great blessing! It doesn’t really feel like work when you are Skyping for hours plotting how our heroes will rescue an escaped Triceratops with a dinosaur or recover from a massive Stegosaurus fart attack! And over the ten years we have been working together we have supported each other through illness, losing parents and loved ones, handling kids. It takes about half an hour before we get down the actual writing!
What were your own favourite books growing up?
- The Famous Five
- The Nancy Drew Mysteries
- Trixie Beldon
- The Faraway Tree
- Anything boarding school
- Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales—this was the first book I ever owned and it had coloured plates! I used to use greaseproof paper as tracing paper to trace those illustrations.
- The Faraway Tree (is there anyone who doesn’t have this on their list?!)
- The Little House on the Prairie
- the James Herriot vet series
- When I was younger Ferdinand the Bull (about a pacifist bull who didn’t want to fight)
- Pretty much everything Dr Seuss
- Particularly… I Wish that I Had Duck Feet!