Opening the door to pleasures of reading
Roddy Doyle is among the authors signed up for the eighth Open Door series of novellas for adults with literacy challenges
Someone once said that once he has literature, man is never truly alone. Words are a portal into some truly intriguing worlds and compelling existences. Yet the enjoyment of literature is a privilege that around 17.9pc of the Irish population doesn't get to enjoy.
Mindful of the battles that those with literacy challenges face, author Patricia Scanlan co-founded the Open Door series of novellas designed for the emerging adult reader. Now in its 15th year and eighth series, the Open Door series has previously enlisted the likes of Maeve Binchy, Cecelia Ahern, Roddy Doyle, Joseph O'Connor, Marian Keyes and Peter Sheridan to create accessible novellas. For its latest series, authors Claudia Carroll, Ciara Geraghty, Roddy Doyle, Colette Caddell and Catherine Dunne have stepped up to the plate.
"I was working behind the desk in the library and a man asked for help to find a book," recalls Scanlan. "He was doing a literacy course and clearly mortified at the prospect of reading Tom & Mary Go Back to School. The material available was really poor, and it was one of those moments where I thought, 'well, if I don't write a novel for someone like him, no-one else will'.
"To realise that one in six Irish adults have literacy challenges is shocking," she continues. "With dyslexia, teachers these days can do amazing things if it's caught in time. A young student can be steered on to the right path, but what about the generations of people before that, who had dyslexia at a time when the world didn't even know it existed? People can't read for many reasons… some people missed a lot of school, and once you slip behind, it can be really hard to claw your way back. Literary has nothing to do with intelligence."
Author Claudia Carroll had previously done charitable work with NALA (the National Adult Literacy Agency), so had witnessed first-hand the difficulties that non-readers face.
"I met a middle-aged woman who told me about all the little tricks she had to cover up the fact she couldn't read," explains Carroll. "She'd be in a restaurant and would say, 'I forgot my glasses… could you read this out to me?' It's heartbreaking."
Job done on creating her own novella for emerging readers, Scanlan teamed up with publisher Edwin Higel of New Island, whom she describes as a man with a 'great sense of social justice'. Together, they went on to create a whole series, which endeavoured to offer page-turners in easy-to-devour morsels.
"I have some great friends who were authors… they weren't asked to write one, they were told," laughs Scanlan. "I remember John Connolly saying to me after I nailed him for a novella, 'thank God I can go out to functions and not hide from you'. But the writers took the cause to their heart and along with New Island, it's very much a team effort. A few (authors) wrote back a polite letter saying they didn't want to do it, but for those who did, it was a hugely rewarding experience."
Yet as many soon realised, it's one thing to write a novella, and quite another to create something accessible while staying true to one's own literary voice. "You write as you normally write, but then you need to pare it back as much as one can," explains Scanlan. "Happily, there were no egos involved. One author that we didn't publish in the end had an issue with 'dumbing down', but that was it. Everyone else got it straightaway. It was important that the books didn't feel like homework for the readers."
Adds Carroll: "As a process, it was really interesting. You don't want to patronise people. Basically, I wrote a story that any adult could enjoy, but the way it was edited was different than usual.
"Instead of saying 'I haven't got any money', every single word would have to be visible and it becomes 'I have not got any money'. But in terms of the process, the goal is still very much to entertain."
The Open Door series has expanded into other areas, including non-fiction, biography and poetry. Niall MacMonagle created an anthology, The Open Door Book of Poetry, while Niall Quinn wrote his own retelling of the beautiful game in World Cup Diary.
The scope of the series is expanding in other ways, too: at the behest of Roddy Doyle - a long-time supporter of the series - Nick Hornby wrote Not a Star for Open Door's fifth collection. Scanlan's project has also influenced a similar project in the UK, entitled Quick Reads. Among the writers involved are Jojo Moyes, Lynda La Plante, Barbara Taylor Bradford and Jeffrey Archer. With world domination firmly in her crosshairs, Scanlan admits that she'd love to work on the series full-time. She observes that, owing to their crossover appeal and the talents involved, the Open Door series isn't just there to be enjoyed by those with literacy issues.
"The series is great for people who don't have English as a first language, elderly people who want something that's not too heavy, or even someone wanting to read a quick book on their lunch break or commute," observes Scanlan.
But the beauty of helping those formerly denied the pleasure of reading is rarely far from mind. "I can still remember the excitement I felt reading a whole sentence in my first Brer Rabbit book and thinking, 'I'm actually reading'," recalls Scanlan. "It's great to think that someone who might not have been able to previously can say, 'I've just read a Roddy Doyle book'. And how lovely is that?"
For more information on the open Door series, see www.newisland.ie