Kids' Reading Books

Tony Bradman joins us to talk about his role as lead author in the popular OUP reading scheme, Project X

Tony BradmanAuthor Tony Bradman

Since my daughter was in Year One she has been reading the Project X Code books at school and she really enjoys them. Project X  was developed to motivate boys but the exciting stories and lively graphics appeal to both genders.

I was keen to find out what's involved in writing kids' reading books for a reading scheme which is where the very clever children's author Tony Bradman comes in....

Kids' Reading Books: How did you come to be involved with Project X?

Kids' Reading Books - Project X

OUP were looking for someone to be Lead Author for the series and an old friend - the excellent writer Christ Powling - suggested me. I was interested in it as soon as I found out about it - I had to pitch for the job, but I got it!

Kids' Reading Books: What did your role as lead author entail?

Initially they asked me to develop the four central characters - they had names but they were a bit sketchy - and then think about a story arc for the whole series. I then worked with OUP to find good writers, helped develop the briefs, saw initial drafts and offered editing/advice etc. I also wrote quite a lot of the books too.

Kids' reading books: Had you written anything on this scale before?

Kids' Reading Books - Dilly the Dinosaur

No - although I had worked on a reading scheme for Cambridge University Press and done quite a few series of my own. I’d written 15 collections of stories (four in each book) about Dilly the Dinosaur and his family, so I knew how to come up with new stories for the same characters.

Its like writing for TV - a sitcom or a series - you have to think of stories that can be self-contained (ie have a beginning, middle and a satisfying end), but still form part of a much bigger narrative arc.

Within the Project X scheme you have the series for struggling readers, Project X: Code. How many Code books are there? 

I think there are 70, and there are quite a few other resources too. You can look it all up on the excellent OUP Project X website.

Kids' reading books: Were you given an overall structure to work with or did you come up with it yourself? 

OUP had done masses of research and developed a lot of the series before I got involved - but then I helped to shape the series ‘Bible’ and the subsequent additions. It was a real collaboration, and a fascinating experience.

How did you approach writing for the reading scheme? For example for the Code series, did you plan the story arc first? 

Reading schemes are very constrained by ages, reading levels, etc, so usually there was a tight word limit - which means you have to come up with a story idea that’s right for a (limited) word length. Scheme almost always have ‘themes’ too - a cluster of books will focus on something particular. That might sound as if it makes life difficult for the writer, but I like the challenge - and I think it’s often easier to come up with something for a specific theme - that can stimulate creative solutions. If I’m asked to come up with a story that can be about anything then I’m often stumped - any suggestion is better than none!

Each Code book focuses on certain sounds – with a Sound Checker page – such as Si (Decision, Vision and Treasures.) Was it challenging to write interesting stories while incorporating specific words? 

Kids' Reading Books - Project X Code Books

That can be difficult, but it’s stimulating too (see my previous answer!) - it’s a bit like writing a poem in a difficult form, like a sonnet. Hard to begin with, but once you get into out the constraints actually help!

A number of the Code books are in the purple reading band. What factors did you consider when deciding the level of a book – what parameters do you work to to make sure its appropriate for a reading band? 

I didn’t decide which stories went into individual bands - OUP did all that. It’s a difficult task that needs specialist educational experience - I’m just the writer!

It must be rewarding to hear how children have responded to the Project X books. What do you think makes the books so popular? 

Kids' Reading Books - Project X Code Books

I think it’s the freshness of the characters and the stories - they’re more like the kind of stories kids experience on TV and in video-games. The artwork by Jon Stuart is incredible and looks like contemporary animation, so that helps.

And OUP have a really rigorous approach to making sure the books are all of a very high standard and quality. People would be surprised to know just how much hard work goes into each of those small books from the whole team - writers, illustrator, editors, designers, educational consultants…

Kids' reading books: What skills does a writer need to work on a project of this nature?

An ability to work in small spaces - to come up with good plots that move quickly and feature plenty of action and dialogue in very few words! It also helps not to be precious about what you do - this kind of work always involves being edited extensively and is very collaborative. It’s being a writer for hire - and it’s about getting the best book the team can produce for the readers.

For anyone hoping to write for a reading scheme what advice would you give? 

That’s a tricky one. Educational publishers usually see out good writers who have published ‘trade’ books (ie for the general market) and they don’t tend to advertise themselves. If you’ve got an agent then you can ask her or him to get you in to talk to educational publishers - and the publishers do get in touch with agents when they’re working on a new series or want more stories for an existing series. If you haven’t got an agent, well then, it’s all about networking - joining groups of writers and people interested in children’s books and trying to make contacts that might be useful.

What are you currently working on? 

I’ve just finished a new historical novel for Bloomsbury Educational and I’m about to start work on a short book of re-tellings… for an educational publisher!

A huge thanks to Tony Bradman for taking the time to join us. You can learn more about Tony on his website and by following him on Twitter @tbradman

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