Here they are! The results from my completely unscientific study based on my middle-grade novel, Avondale. A group of 26 fifth-graders from Long Beach, CA, were read the first three chapters of the book by their teacher (my sister), and asked to answer the 11 questions below. A little background for those who haven’t read it: Fraternal twins, LeeLu and JoJohn Addoms are told by their curmudgeonly, yet wise grandfather, Grumpy, to go on an adventure for their upcoming 11th birthday. LeeLu is shy and reserved and JoJohn is a self-absorbed bully, making it even harder for these two to get along. Yet, every year, their mother forces them to spend their birthday together...but this year will be different...
Here are the questions asked of the students followed by the results and then my comments:
1) What did you think of LeeLu? (nice, mean, etc..) Why? - 97% of the kids said that LeeLu was nice because she wasn’t loud and didn’t push or boss people around. Other responses: weird, mean, and nervous. I think the child who answered nervous was the most astute actually. LeeLu has a lot of subtle, unspoken traits that maker her a nervous character (in the beginning of the book).
What I learned: When you give people examples for answering a question, most of them will use the obvious example instead of coming up with their own answer. That’s why I was so impressed with the boy who answered nervous.
2) What did you think of JoJohn (nice, mean, etc..) Why? - 100% of kids thought he was mean. They also said that he was disrespectful, strange, different, lazy and loud. One kid said that he must be fat because he was mean (unless I read it wrong, this surprised me). Another child said that they didn’t want him to scream. And most kids thought he was mean because he was disrespectful to his sister.
What I learned: Kids don’t like bullies – no surprise here.
3) Which character did you like the most? Why? - Majority says – they liked LeeLu the best because she was nice, didn’t lie, was not pushy, was smart, helpful, mature and listened to people. Three kids liked JoJohn the best because he was mean and said his sister was dead (hmmm); three kids liked Grandpa because he tells LeeLu to go on an adventure, he’s funny and weird; and one child liked Mrs. Steinberg, the bus driver, the best because she was nice and calming to LeeLu.
What I learned: Same as with question two, kids like nice people and not the mean ones (well, most anyway).
4) What was your favorite thing that a character said or did? - Now the answer to this question was a little more varied, and did surprise me actually. A little more than half of the kids liked that LeeLu let people go before her on the bus, helped in class, and was trying to find clues for the adventure, but, almost as many kids liked when JoJohn said to his friend that his sister was dead. One girl wrote that she liked that JoJohn was mean because it reminded her of her own brother who was mean but she knows that he’s just playing around. Another astute child wrote that she liked that JoJohn was mean because she thinks that in the end he will turn out to be nice (humph...pretty smart).
What I learned: Kids remember a scene more when it gets their hearts racing, and even if there is a mean person involved, they like when their emotions are ignited.
5) What do you think the “adventure” will be? (I liked these answers). Most kids thought that the adventure would consist of LeeLu teaching JoJohn a lesson, or them going to the woods or a forest because, “that is where anything can happen”. Other kids said it would be something with Grandpa, it would take place in the future or on an island, or that LeeLu would be helping people, and my personal favorite – that they would go to Disneyland.
What I learned: Kids have big imaginations, and, kids, and people in general, find forests to be mystical. I believe that this stems either from reading other books and watching other media sources where a preternatural scene occurs in the woods, or, the fact that when kids play outside they look to nature to really use their imaginations, or if you’re a city kid, a park. When I was a child, my sisters and I constantly went up into the hills behind our house to play and think of games and adventures. Now, as an adult I’m too chicken to go hiking alone, but when I was a kid it didn’t seem to bother me.
6) What would you change in the first three chapters? What part and why? - Most kids said that they wouldn't change a thing, but a few others would like me to make JoJohn nicer (these were kids who were consistent with not liking JoJohn in any of their answers, by the way).
What I learned: Maybe I’m reading into it too much, but if I'm not mistaken, most kids won’t answer negatively because they are taught to be polite (which, for the most part is good), and because my relationship with their teacher (my sister) was revealed, it’s possible that this caused them to be less inclined to open up. If I did something like this again I would ask the teacher not to reveal our relationship to her students. Or, maybe the kids really didn’t think I should change anything and I’m just being a skeptic.
7) What would you do differently? – This goes slightly against the answers and my thoughts above. Here the students were more open with their answers. Some said they would do nothing differently, and others wanted to see more action. One child wanted me to rename LeeLu and JoJohn, to Jane and John (he has this in common with my father).
What I learned: I’m going to cut one of the chapters and replace it with chapter four (which the kids didn’t read), which will bring in the adventure part sooner (keep in mind the chapters are very short). What can I say, we live in a society of escapist readers, I can’t blame them for wanting more adventure either, but, sometimes it makes me sad to think that we need so much stimulation in order to keep us entertained (or maybe my writing’s just not that good!).
8) Would you like to read more of this book? If not, what did you not like about it? - Good news, 96% of kids would like to read more of this book, the other 4% were not interested because they read different kinds of books and don’t like sci-fi/fantasy, and one kid straight up just didn’t like it.
What I learned: You can’t please everyone!
9) What chapter book/s are you currently reading? - Now here’s where things get a bit skewed. A vast majority of these students were ESL (English as a Second Language), meaning their reading level is behind a grade or two (as it would be with anyone learning a new language) so what they’re reading outside of class is a bit behind as well. I won’t list all of the books, but most kids are reading what they’re read to in class, being, at the time of this survey: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Lion the Witch and The Wardrobe, and then a small number of girls were reading the Twilight Saga.
10) What are your favorite chapter books that you have read? - The answers for this question were along the same line as number nine.
11) What is your favorite kind of book to read? - Most children answered either sci-fi/fantasy and adventure, or comedy.
What I learned: Kids like to be scared when reading a novel (one boy wrote that he likes when someone is in a house all alone and somebody scares you). Also, that there needs to be more books written for kids that are funny. This is also something I knew already and have heard from various literary agents and publishers.
Well, there you have it. What did you think about my unscientific study? If you are a children’s writer did it help you too?
As for me, I really appreciate when people are honest with me (not mean, honest) and give me their opinions, so this was helpful. And, as I said to an editor recently, I’m proud of this book, but, as I keep writing more and more I believe (which should be obvious without sounding like a snob) that my writing is only getting better. But nonetheless, with that said, my next step is to take Avondale to a critiquing group to receive further feedback, because I know there are always things that I can be doing better.