Reluctant Readers: Engaging Kids with Humor, Great Graphics, and Spot-On Subject Matter

Reluctant and struggling readers come in every stripe from every kind of background, and publishers are creating books to appeal to all of them. From adorable board books to action-packed adventures to icky bugs and dinosaurs to lifelike teen situations, publishers want every kid or teen to close a book with renewed confidence in their reading ability.


The children’s literacy crisis in the United States, Canada, and around the world isn’t new, but the pandemic has severely worsened it. The good news is that children’s publishers are expanding their offerings for students of all ages who read below grade level and struggle to attain reading fluency.

These publishers are committed to the betterment of children’s literacy. They strive not only to entice children, middle graders, and young adults to open a book, but also to fully engage with what’s offered between the covers—to enjoy the reading experience. Toward this end, publishers have dedicated themselves to understanding and providing what kids really like.

As Derek Zobel, president of Bellwether Media, Inc., says, “the ultimate end customer is the kid.”

Reluctant and struggling readers come in every stripe from every kind of background, and publishers are creating books to appeal to all of them. From adorable board books to action-packed adventures to icky bugs and dinosaurs to lifelike teen situations, publishers want every kid or teen to close a book with renewed confidence in their reading ability but most important to say, “that book was so great,” as Kennedy Cullen, marketing manager at Orca Book Publishers, puts it.

The publishers represented here are passionate about increasing children’s literacy, as evidenced by the smorgasbord of books they offer for every reader. Here are some of the highlights of their new and recently-released titles and series.

Bellwether Media, Inc.

Minnetonka, MN–based Bellwether Media was founded in 2005 by John Bellwether, who was a reluctant reader himself in his youth. The company publishes series nonfiction for the school and library market for pre-K to fourth-grade readers, across three imprints: Torque, Epic, and Black Sheep. Half the list is for beginning readers and half for reluctant ones. But all titles are written, edited, and produced to “get kids excited about reading,” says Zobel.

Beyond exacting editorial and production standards (all books are edited and designed in-house for quality control), Bellwether consults teachers and literacy experts to ensure that every title can be understood—and enjoyed—by its intended readers. All titles are available in eBook format, and many are in paperback.

From Epic is Giganotosaurus by Rebecca Sabelko, illustrated by James Kuether, August 2021, ISBN 9781644875445, a title in one of Bellwether’s best-selling series, “World of Dinosaurs.” Illustrated by a paleo-artist, it explains to pre-K and up readers everything about the dinosaur and its habitat. Illustrations show its size in comparison with things that kids would know, like a school bus; maps show where giganotosaurus might have lived.

Each book in the “World of Dinosaurs” series includes a “dino dossier,” including fascinating facts that help readers understand the vast timeline of the age of dinosaurs. For example, it points out that we live closer in time to T. rex than T. rex did to the stegosaurus!

The “True Survival Stories” series from Bellwether’s Black Sheep imprint uses primary sources such as newspapers, radio transcripts, and diaries to recount amazing real-life escapes, for grade 3 readers with interest levels up to grade 8. In Shark Attack! Bethany Hamilton's Story by Blake Hoena, illustrated by Tate Yotter, August 2021, ISBN 9780736867764, quotes from Bethany enhance the telling of her harrowing experience when she lost an arm in a shark attack–and was back on her surfboard only a few weeks later.

Praying Mantis vs. Black Widow Spider, written by Kieran Downs, January 2022, ISBN 9781644876251, is part of Torque’s “Animal Battles” series for Grade 3 readers, with interest levels from grades 3 to 8. Through four-color photographs, the books in the series explain various animals’ “secret weapons” like sharp talons, poison, and bite force, as well as their habitats and what they eat. The narratives pit vicious predators against each other, encouraging the reader to discover which one will remain standing at the end.

Orca Book Publishers

Based on Vancouver Island, Canada, Orca Book Publishers specializes in books for Hi-Lo readers through three lines: Orca Soundings for young adults 12+, leveled at grades 2–5; Orca Anchor, also for YA readers but leveled at below a grade 2; and Orca Currents for middle graders ages 9–12, leveled at grades 2–5. Each line knows how to appeal to its readers: “All of our books are action-packed, with something new happening on every page,” says Kennedy Cullen, Orca Book Publishers’s marketing manager. “Our characters don’t walk, they run!” she adds.

All Orca Book Publishers books are also produced with low-contrast, cream-colored paper, easy-to-read fonts, and generous line spacing, to help dyslexic and other learning-disabled kids. They aim to make their books gateways to other reading by giving students confidence to proudly declare, “‘I can read a whole book,’” says Cullen.

From Orca Anchor is Grave Message by Mary Jennifer Payne, February 2022, ISBN 9781459828643, a special-education teacher who works with dyslexic students. Protagonist Jaylin, a high school student of 16 or 17, is dyslexic; she must work harder and longer on her homework than her friends. While studying, she receives a message from a friend who died a year ago, asking Jaylin to investigate her death. Is Jaylin hearing from a ghost? Readers will identify with Jaylin’s academic difficulties and be thrilled to be a part of her paranormal quest.

Middle-grade readers will be in thrall to Project Bollywood from Orca Currents, written by Mahtab Narsimhan, April 2022, ISBN 9781459832114. The story centers on a young filmmaker who strives to recreate a favorite Bollywood movie for a school project and recruits some classmates to help him. But he obsesses about everything, including all the things he loves. He fails to work with his team, who get angry and walk out on the project. Fast-paced and a bit goofy, this fun book explores themes of friendship and working together.

Xist Publishing

In 2011, Calee Lee, founder of Xist Publishing, could not find any content for her four-year-old daughter on her early model Kindle. So, she decided to make her own version of an e-reader. Now the Houston based publisher has over 1,000 titles to offer beginner and reluctant readers across all formats, from preschool to third grade—with the goal to “inspire discovery and delight,” says Lee. “We like to make kids laugh.”

This spring’s big launch is a new series, the “We Can Readers,” featuring a diverse group of four neighborhood friends: Nat, Cat, Raj, and Sue. Aimed at beginning and reluctant readers in grades K–2, the books are written and designed to engage kids and allow them to feel a sense of mastery in reading. All 32 books in the series are written and illustrated by Brenda Ponnay and were published in March 2022.

In A Bath for Bandit, ISBN 9781532430343, a short and snappy book, Bandit the cat can’t get himself clean. Sue puts him in the tub, and then dries him: “Sue will dry Bandit. Bandit doesn’t like being dried,” reads the simple, humorous text that builds vocabulary.

Raj Cleans Up, ISBN 9781532430428, is a relatable story to every kid whose mother ever asked him/her to clean up. While Raj is being told that “toys go in the box” and “clothes go in the closet,” his facial expressions and shenanigans will have readers rolling with laughter!

Nat Visits the Museum features text with quotation marks, introducing young readers to conversation in text in non-threatening and accessible way. “Look at the statues, Mom,” says Nat. The book also sneaks in cultural development while keeping it funny.

Another new series launched at the end of 2021, “Would You Rather” is aimed at readers in grades K–4 and aids critical thinking and generates conversation. But—and most importantly—it is silly and fun, says Lee. She reports that middle school teachers have also found it a great resource to lure reluctant readers.

The first series title is the eponymous Would You Rather: Funny Questions, Conversation Starters and Situations by Stephanie Rodriguez, illustrated by Adam Price, December 2021, ISBN 9781532432071. This collection of silly ‘would you rather’ set-ups, like “would you rather have a pig snout or a pig tail?” or “would you rather be able to fly or breathe underwater?” will have kids reading, laughing, and thinking. Illustrations provide visual cues to the more difficult words.


Ray Montgomery, who created the “Choose Your Own Adventure” concept, was an educator before becoming a writer and publisher. He called his innovative series a “stealth reading program.” But CYOA sales were anything but stealthy. The original series has 270 million books in print and is published in more than 40 languages. When the trademark reverted to him, Montgomery founded Chooseco in 2003 and relaunched the series with both new and old titles geared for middle graders. 

To middle-grade readers, a CYOA book reads like an exciting escapade they control. At various points in each story, the reader chooses which narrative to follow next, with each choice leading to a different ending. Anecdotal evidence and a graduate study showed that CYOA was a faster conduit to reading fluency, comprehension, and increasing vocabulary than other comparable middle-grade books.

A proven resource for reluctant readers, Chooseco decided to launch a new CYOA series in 2007, Dragonlark, for younger readers ages 5–9, many of whom are the children of parents who grew up with CYOA. While the classic titles have 15–25 possible endings, Dragonlark titles have approximately 12.

A Dragonlark title, The Ghost on the Mountain by Kyandreia Jones, illustrated by Manuel Mal, June 2022, ISBN 9781954232068, features a Haitian-American girl who is vacationing with her family in Haiti, learning about their heritage. The girl wants to explore the mountains, where she encounters a ghost named Yvette and a little girl name TiYoyo. Each path chosen leads readers on a journey through the beautiful island in a magical way.

In Fairy House, another Dragonlark book, by James Preller, illustrated by Norm Grock, June 2022, ISBN 9781954232051, a boy who is ignored by his workaholic parents ventures outside to build a fairy house, but doesn’t expect much of anything to happen. Suddenly, there is Bert the Below Average, a real fairy with whom lots of adventures begin.

A classic CYOA book, The Flight of the Unicorn by Deborah Lerme Goodman, June 2022, ISBN 9781954232044, is the sequel to one of Chooseco’s best-selling titles, The Rescue of the Unicorn. The reader goes on a fantastic quest through medieval Scotland to find a missing pegacorn (a winged unicorn) mentor, Dame Scotia, who may have been kidnapped. With a newly trained pegacorn to ride, the reader sets out to find her.



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