Accessibility: Helping Your Reader with New Concepts

Sometimes concepts are hard to grasp because they are beyond our experience.  We need to be willing to reach out and hang on while the author builds the framework that we need to access these new ideas.  But this can be made more difficult if the reading level is too high. New concepts paired with vocabulary with have to look up may bring readers to simply close the book.

I’ve been noodling this over for several days because of a conversation I had with an adult friend. Everyone in our Presbytery (think Presbyterian state if Presbyterian USA was a country) has been asked to read Waking up White by Debby Irving.  The book is about her awakening to be able to see the racial disparities that exist in this country – only white history being taught in schools, who has access to good housing, jobs and education, etc.

Most of the concepts were familiar to me but that’s no surprise since I write about racial justice and race.  While Irving has a college education and likes to flex her vocabulary, I didn’t think anything of it because it wasn’t beyond a lot of what I read.

But a friend told me that she was giving up on the book.  Irving’s experience was just too different from hers and she had no clue what the point of the book was anyway.  Granted, Irving’s countryclub childhood is radically different from my friend’s Nascar upbringing, but seriously?  Our “vacation” home has an out house and I’ve used a washboard.

Racial understanding and inclusivity are so important and I told my friend that I was sorry she wouldn’t be finishing the book given her work with the public.  That was when she admitted to me that she had to read the book with a dictionary beside her.

This is the sort of thing we discuss all the time in writing for children.  Build up the concepts bit by bit so that your reader can follow.  Don’t dumb the writing down, but make sure it is accessible.  Learning new words is good but being buried under them is not.

Maybe just maybe this is something adult publishers should consider if they want a book to be accessible to the general public.  I’ve read that the general public reads at a 7th grade level.

Will have to noodle this over.

–SueBE