Struggling and Reluctant Readers: Come for the Pictures, Stay for the Story

Publishers have long been dedicated to creating books that appeal to struggling and reluctant readers. Even before the pandemic, two-thirds of fourth graders were reading below grade level, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress. Now, the need for such books is even more crucial.


Publishers have long been dedicated to creating books that appeal to struggling and reluctant readers. Even before the pandemic, two-thirds of fourth graders were reading below grade level, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress. Now, the need for such books is even more crucial, as pandemic-related learning loss accounts for the average student in grades 3–8 sliding one-third of a grade level in reading achievement, according to the Education Recovery Scorecard. Its new report, published this February, showed that students managed to recover just a quarter of their reading loss in the first year back in the classroom.

All of this has publishers doubling down on their efforts to produce even more creative offerings for struggling and reluctant readers. “Kids learn to read in unique and different ways,” says Derek Zobel, president and publisher of Bellwether Media. “So, providing options and books and content that engages them offers that opportunity for every kid to have a chance at being successful.”

The publishers featured here are aiming to attract struggling and reluctant readers with many more hi-lo titles (high interest stories, low reading level) at increasingly lower reading levels and innovative technology. “Even before kids are able to read, they’re drawn to pictures,” says Mark de Vera, sales and marketing director of Yen Press. “Especially in a time where there’s a lot to distract young people, books with visuals like graphic novels can help nurture that love of reading for kids. They come for the pictures; they stay for the story.”

Here, five publishers share their latest efforts to get more kids reading.

Playaway Products

Since 2005, Ohio-based Playaway Products has created products to make digital content, technology, and literacy accessible to everyone. “We believe in embracing each child's unique learning style by harnessing technology to support their educational journey," says Torin Cone, vice president of sales and marketing. "We offer equitable access to a deep, curated content collection.” Playaway Products are created for the circulation market and are available in schools and public libraries.

Playaway Products is home to Wonderbook, a read-along product pairing a print book with a ready-to-play audiobook permanently bound to the inside cover. “By combining high-quality, award-winning books with the power of audio in one package, Wonderbook is a super-format,” Cone says. "It’s built for reluctant readers by increasing their confidence and fostering a love of reading.” Wonderbook’s wide-ranging catalog includes picture books, chapter books, leveled readers, youth large print, and more. It offers comics and graphic novels as an entry point for kids who haven’t been excited by traditional books.


Wonderbook has the largest read-along collection, with 800+ titles and 20 to 30 more added each month. New and trending titles include the recent Newbery award-winner Mexikid: A Graphic Memoir by Pedro Martín, Penguin Random House, April 2024, ISBN 9798822681989; Pete the Kitty and the Three Bears by James Dean and Kimberly Dean, narrated by James Fouhey, HarperCollins, April 2024, ISBN 9798822681057; and I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erica L. Sanchez, narrated by Kyla Garcia, May 2024, ISBN 9798822682436.

Playaway, the company’s original product, is a pre-loaded audiobook device eliminating the need for personal devices, internet connectivity, or downloads, giving kids a much-needed break from screens and distractions. Plus, users can slow down or speed up narration as needed to facilitate reading along. Playaway audiobooks "continue to evolve and remain relevant in an ever-changing world," says Cone.

The Playaway audiobook catalog includes 30,000 titles with 80 to 100 more high-demand, award-winning titles added every month like Max in the House of Spies by Adam Gidwitz, narrated by Euan Mortan, Penguin Random House, April 2024, ISBN 9798822682559; and The Terror in Jenny’s Armpit by Patrick Carman, narrated by Cassandra Morris, Blackstone Audio, April 2024, ISBN 9798874746803. Playaway Products also released 350 Spanish-language audiobooks in October of 2023—and more are on the way every quarter.

Playaway Products’ third product is Launchpad, the only family of tablets designed for circulation. Launchpad is a durable tablet pre-loaded with apps, games, videos, and ebooks for kids age 3+, teens, and adults. The pre-loaded content is curated into bundles or ‘app packs’ by age group and objectives. More than 1,100 app packs are available and include the “Reading Academy” series, which aligns with Lexile and Fountas & Pinnell reading levels. This five-level guided reading system for pre-emerging to independent readers helps kids master verbal, reading, and writing skills.

“Bridging the digital divide starts here,” says Cone. “We provide libraries and classrooms with the tools they need to support reluctant readers. Reading helps develop empathy, imagination, and emotional intelligence. It also provides an outlet for self-expression and reflection, which is crucial for mental and emotional well-being.”

Bellwether Media

Bellwether Media has published nonfiction books for beginning and struggling readers since 2006. Based in Minneapolis, MN, the company now puts out 240 titles per year for children in grades K-7. Most titles are created in-house and strive for consistency, reliability in leveling—and high appeal. “In one study, kids who started the school year as a struggling reader and simply read six minutes more a day…ended the year at level,” says Derek Zobel, president and publisher. “So, it’s about putting a book in front of a kid that gets them excited about reading and makes them practice.”

“Animal Battles” is one of Bellwether’s most popular hi-lo series, with 40 titles at a third-grade reading level. The 24-page books feature more sophisticated design to appeal to third through seventh graders. In each book, readers learn about two top predators’ physical profiles and advantages, geographic range, weapons, senses, and fighting moves, all of which culminate in a narrative battle scene. One title, Black Mamba vs. Caracal by Nathan Sommer, January 2024, ISBN 9798886878240, pits the two African predators against each other. “The cool thing about this series is that it takes what could be a typical animal book…and turns it into a very high-interest approach to a two-animal battle,” Zobel says.

Another third-grade level hi-lo series, “Sports Superstars,” includes 24 titles, each covering an individual athlete’s childhood and professional career. Special features include maps, infographics, timelines, and trophy “shelves” displaying awards and records. “The high-interest subjects combined with all the special features really immerse the reader,” Zobel says. In Bryce Harper by Thomas K. Adamson, January 2024, ISBN 9798886878288, readers learn that Bryce Harper’s MLB teammates call him “The Showman,” because he makes big hits when the team needs them the most.

A third hi-low series, “Cool Cars,” is at a second grade reading level with slightly bigger text and fewer words per page. Each title features information on engine specifications, maps, charts, and sidebars with fun facts. In Aston Martin Valkyrie by Kaitlyn Duling, January 2024, ISBN 9798886878448, readers learn that the Valkyrie’s engine can be so loud that drivers must wear special noise-canceling headphones. “It’s all these visuals and fun things to look at that keep readers engaged to finish the book,” explains Zobel.

Bearport Publishing

For two decades, Minneapolis-based Bearport Publishing has been specializing in high-interest, visually appealing books for grades K through 8. “Trade-like design, using a combination of both photographs and illustrations, and playful titling are what distinguish us in the K-8 educational market,” says Publisher Jennifer Jenson. “Our books feel less like supplemental texts and more like books children really want to read.” The publisher releases 200 to 220 titles a year across eight imprints.

One of Bearport’s hi-lo imprints, SilverTip Books, publishes titles at a second-grade reading level with content from upper elementary and middle school curricula. Aiming to foster student test-taking success, especially for struggling readers, the back matter includes visual infographics and practice test-taking. “What makes these books stand out from some of our competitors is that we use a dyslexic-friendly font and design,” Jenson says.

SilverTip’s new six-book series, “World History: Need to Know,” explores history topics covered in grades 5 through 7. For example, World War II by Daniel R. Faust, January 2024, ISBN 9798889165477, covers how and why the war started, who the key players were, maps of where key battles took place, how the war ended, and how it changed history. Also included is an infographic that compiles the book’s content visually. 

Another new six-book SilverTip series, “Climate Change: Need to Know,” digs into the science behind the serious effects of climate change being experienced around the world. One title in the series, Animal and Plant Extinction by Jane Parks Gardner, January 2024, ISBN 9798889165231, looks at how climate change is leading to extinction of different plant and animal groups.

“We heard at a conference right after COVID that there’s a need for even third graders to have high-lo material,” Jenson says. In response, Bearport designed its second hi-lo imprint, Roar! Books, to be offered in three reading levels: grades 1 to 2, grades 2 to 3, and grades 3 to 4, with interest levels up to grade 8.

A new Roar! series, “Circus of Fears,” introduces readers to the psychology of phobias. The books explain what phobias are, how they develop, how to overcome them, and fun facts about the weirdest ones. Awful Animal Phobias by John Wood and Noah Leatherland, January 2024, ISBN 9798889166122, delves into everything from fear of snakes to fear of fur. “It’s learning about those silly science things that grabs kids’ interest,” Jenson says.

Yen Press

New York–based Yen Press is best known as a publisher of Japanese manga. But encouraged by the success of its 2015 graphic novel for kids, Awkward by Svetlana Chmakova, the publisher launched middle grade imprint JY in 2017. “You have this middle area right between picture books and prose,” says Sales and Marketing Director Mark de Vera. “I think one of the things that can help nurture that love of reading is bridging this love of picture books into learning the joys of sitting down with a book. That’s what we bring with the kind of books that we publish under JY.”

Canine Detective Chris by Tomoko Tabe, illustrations by KeG, December 2023, ISBN 9781975378646, is part of a new JY initiative, publishing chapter books in partnership with Yen’s Japanese parent company, Kadokawa. “These books are largely prose, but they’re also filled with a ton of fun illustrations in the vein of what you might see in manga and anime,” de Vera says. In this story, shy fifth grader Hinata gets his first pet, Chris, a retired police dog. One day on a walk, they cross paths with police responding to a robbery at a local jewelry store, and Chris comes across a crucial clue.

Amy’s Big Brother by Bonhyung Jeong, December 2023, ISBN 9781975351090, begins with sibling rivalry, but at its heart is a love story. The main character falls for a girl at school. They’re both experiencing their first crush and don’t know how to handle them. “What I find very impressive about middle grade graphic novels in general is these are purportedly experiences and challenges for young readers,” de Vera says. “But these life lessons are just as applicable later on.”

Charlesbridge Publishing

Massachusetts-based Charlesbridge Publishing is celebrating its 35th year as a children’s trade publisher. Originally focused on picture books, Charlesbridge now publishes for readers from ages zero to young adult. Its new middle grade fiction imprint, Charlesbridge Moves, is launching its first titles this spring.

“We’re looking at doing a lot that will appeal to reluctant readers—combining prose with graphic novels for hybrid books, books with a lot of white space, books in verse, mystery, and adventure,” says Eileen Robinson, editorial director of Charlesbridge Moves. Each of the imprint’s books will include a poster inside the jacket and a QR code that takes readers to a dedicated landing page with games, questions, videos, and a book trailer.

One of the imprint’s first titles is The Kid by Jeff Schill, May 2024, ISBN 9781623543648. In this fast-paced Western adventure story, Henry and his brothers have lost their parents. To keep his siblings together, Henry starts writing stories about an outlaw called The Kid and sending them to Gunslinger magazine. The editor loves the stories, but things get more complicated when Snake Eye Sam wants to track down The Kid. “The chapters are short, and they move between the characters’ perspectives,” says Director of Marketing Donna Spurlock. “So, it has this movement that I think is going to capture the readers who may not love reading.”

The first line in Wings to Soar by Tina Athaide, July 2024, ISBN 9781623544317, is “I have a name, and it’s not refugee.” Young Viva’s Indian family are refugees from Uganda living in a resettlement camp in 1970s London. They’re waiting for visas to Canada, but Viva’s father is missing. Told in verse, this book is not just a coming-of-age story; it is also about Viva’s experiences as a refugee, dealing with racism, displacement, and her missing father.

In Hum by William David Thomas, July 2024, ISBN 9781732213722, 11-year-old Allen has a persistent habit of humming that annoys other people. But when he moves to upstate New York with his grandmother, he meets a llama that he can communicate with in a way he can’t with humans. When the llama’s life is threatened, Allen and the llama embark on a journey through the snowy wilderness to survive. “If readers are hungering for a different kind of adventure, this would be it,” Robinson says. “There's this fantastical element to it.”



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