Two students nodded with sad knowledge of physical abuse. They shared the term “restraining order” with their class. They had just read this passage in James and Barry Study Black History:
Tears fill Mrs. Lewis’s eyes. Her hand touches her cut lip. “Please, call me Kayla,” she says.
“A beautiful name,” Lera says. “I am Lera.” She offers her hand. Kayla takes it. “Can I help you? I work at a shelter for women,” Lera says.
“It’s James’s father. He’s trouble. He’s not supposed to come around. But when he does … Well, he’s trouble.”
“Can the police help?” Lera asks.
Kayla shrugs. “Only if I call them,” she says.
“Perhaps you must call,” Lera says.
The website https://readability-score.com/ grades the excerpt with a Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease of 97/100 and gives it an average reading grade level of 1.8. Obviously, the content is not designed for, nor suited to, first graders. It is adult. Arleen Williams wrote James and Barry … with her South Seattle College ESL students in mind.
Not long ago, Arleen couldn’t find fiction in such easy English written for adults. She uses fiction to teach reading to immigrants and refugees and felt frustrated by the dearth of suitable material. The choices at the lower levels narrow to picture books or commercial ESL reading texts.
Arleen and I became friends through a writing group. My logical solution to her conundrum? Write your way out! I said I would write a short book for her—with adult characters and situations, in easy English—and did. I had a blast. I had so much fun, I wrote a second story featuring the same characters. I wrote a third.
Meanwhile, Arleen decided to tackle another persistent issue for her ESL students. American holidays confuse. Why do we celebrate these particular days? Arleen wrote more short fiction. Embedded in each of her stories is an immigrant’s discovery of what a specific holiday means.
I wrote three more short books about a new set of characters. Arleen wrote more holiday explications. We arrived at a dozen short books in easy English and Arleen piloted them with her students.
Yes, I wrote the short books because Arleen is my friend and I wanted to help her. She now has our dozen short books in easy English for adults—books she couldn’t find before (because they did not exist).
Yes, I wrote them because I understand much about learning to read. I had been teaching for more than thirty years.
Yes, I wrote them because I like writing. It’s all about story.
However, it was hearing from Arleen about her two students nodding at the passage in James and Barry … that made me realize the main reason I wrote these short books. I wrote for the readers, although I may not have known this when I wrote them. Folks like Arleen’s students may now read fiction, written at their English level, with adult characters who, like themselves, face challenges such as paying taxes, surviving widowhood, finding love, or even dealing with a violent partner. Their reading may connect to their experience. Their reading respects all our lives as stories of importance.