Cliff-hanger Crazy – Engaging Young Readers: A Guest Post from Barbara Henderson

‘You can never, ever have enough jeopardy!’ So said a well-known author I spoke to at a conference several years ago. Over her glass of bubbly, she repeated: ‘NEVER!’

She turned on her heel and headed off to join a group of London literary types, leaving me to ponder her words amid the blare of music and laughter. As a newly published debut author with a tiny publisher, I remember that night as a bit of a blur of star-struck bewilderment. However, that moment and the speaker’s absolute certainty will remain ingrained in my memory forever.

Six years later and celebrating the release of my eighth book, I often ponder the same questions again: What exactly does it take to engage a young reader? The truth is that the methods will be as varied as the authors attempting to master the task. For what it’s worth, here are the things which tend to work for me.

1. Cliff-hangers. I am generally the sensible type, but even I cannot resist the lure of the cliff-hanger. Oh no! I need to know what happens next! Oh well, what’s the harm in reading another chapter? And another. And another. I have far too many mornings when I wake up bleary-eyed, courtesy of another three o’clock book bonanza. I just can’t stop! My new novel, The Reluctant Rebel, is a historical adventure with lots of jeopardy (of the real-life variety) and the opportunities for cliff-hangers kept coming:

‘Archie!’ Meg elbows me hard. ‘Quick!’

She’s right. A small division of government soldiers has broken off and is heading in our direction, cutting us off from the road.

Meg and I exchange a panicked glance.


And with that, both of us sprint into the wilderness.

2. First person present tense. It is my preferred style choice. I vividly remember a respected literary agent telling me that as soon as she saw a manuscript written in first person present tense, it was thrown onto the rejection pile, such was her dislike. But I find that the immediacy of a fast-paced narrative in the first-person present tense allows a young reader to feel as if they are experiencing events first hand. Many writers of contemporary children’s books have turned away from more traditional storytelling techniques, and a good thing too!

3. Sidekicks. I’m all for having a central protagonist – ideally a child just a little older than your target audience and a little flawed. But by giving them a sidekick of the opposite sex, for example, or a sidekick with totally contrasting personality or views, that gives the story its own dynamic aside from the plot. In The Reluctant Rebel, Archie is disillusioned while his younger cousin Meg is an irrepressible enthusiast. By including likeable sidekicks, you increase the chances that a reader will persevere with your book – two characters to identify with for the price of one.

4. Animals. This is closely related to the sidekicks-argument – an animal sidekick goes a very long way! What’s not to love? I have used dogs, donkeys, hamsters, and horses as sidekicks so far, and my next book will feature a squirrel. It’s a quick shortcut to making your character likeable – make him/her care about an animal!

5. Pace. This, in terms of engaging a young reader, is the non-negotiable. I recently picked up a copy of the children’s classic, The Water Babies. Oh my goodness! It dragged so much that I was practically asleep by the end of the first chapter. You simply cannot get away with that sort of thing now, however inventive and timeless the tale. This is the generation of the quick thumb scroll. It doesn’t mean that they will only be interested in modern stories featuring technology, quite the opposite! But any author with a hope of retaining a young reader’s attention must wholeheartedly embrace pace. Don’t get me wrong, it’s okay to have calm periods in the book, after all, a young reader will need a rest from time to time. But don’t rest up too long, or you may lose them.

So, there you have it – my five top tips for holding a young reader’s attention. Your methods may be quite different and equally effective, but for me this is my toolbox.

Enjoy Sarah Broadley’s review of THE RELUCTANT REBEL here. 

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