Sunday, March 13, 2011

Brenda Chapman: Orca's Rapid Reads

Why Rapid Reads?

During the first half of my working career, I was a special education teacher at a private school run by two psychologists. My specialty was teaching reading to kids with moderate to severe learning problems. On occasion, I was assigned an adult who had difficulty reading at even the most basic level. Comprehension was rarely the issue; rather, it was the ability to make sense of letters on the page.

One startling example of this learning discrepancy was embodied in an engineer I worked with over a few year period. He travelled the world designing bridges and had penned a highly technical textbook on the subject that he could not read. He had accomplished this by dictating the text to an assistant, who then typed his words into a manuscript. Equally as impressive, he had earned a doctorate in engineering by auditory memory.

There are days that I miss working with these students. The challenge and the satisfaction are difficult to replicate. I was therefore delighted to be approached by Orca Publishing last year to submit a manuscript for their highly successful Rapid Reads series.

The idea behind these novels is to produce low vocabulary/ high comprehension stories that will be suitable for adults with literacy problems as well as adults looking for a light read – for example, someone on a business trip who wants to complete a novel during a flight. The novels are to have a straight forward plotline with little flashback and no subplots. They must be interesting, fast paced, and in my case, a mystery. The demand for such material is large and likely on the rise since literacy rates are generally projected to decline in the next decade.

As luck would have it, I had a mystery short story kicking around that had won a contest a few years back. It had never been published or even read aloud in its entirety at any events. I wanted to share it but bided my time as I pondered where to best place it.

While writing this short story, I had grown incredibly fond of the main character, a desk cop named Gwen Lake – a middle-aged woman in a rut with a career that is going nowhere, a sharp intelligence she does not use, and a depressing personal life. She is essentially an 'every man' stuck in the nine to five bureaucratic quagmire who longs for something more but worries that time is running out. She’s like so many middle-aged people who’ve let go of all their dreams and settled.

The eventual stand that my character takes against the status quo and her safe but unfulfilled life makes her actions in a sense heroic. In many ways, Gwen Lake in The Second Wife is not unlike those adult students I taught years ago who decided to tackle a lifetime of learning failure to be able to read their children a simple bedtime story. This unexpected courage and willingness to step outside one's comfort zone is inspiring, whether in an adult who goes back to school to learn to read or in a fictional character who decides to risk their own safety to solve a murder. 

Brenda Chapman is author of the Jennifer Bannon mystery series for young adults and In Winter's Grip, an adult murder mystery. She has two upcoming releases in 2011: The Second Wife (Orca Rapid Reads) in April, and YA novel Second Chances (Dundurn) in the fall. Brenda is a former teacher and currently works as a senior communications advisor in Ottawa.  


  1. Beautifully stated, Brenda. You have me intrigued from the start. We need more older heroines. Don't know if you've read the two Inger Ash Wolfe books, but give them a try.

  2. Wow, shocked to hear that literary rates are projected to decline. What is that? One would think that they would be gradually improving ....

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. My deleted post was Peggy's question - I quoted it from the CWC Facebook page.

    My guess is that part of the problem is all the other media available for entertainment. We want our information fast and easy. At the same time, literacy and numeracy have never been so important. Without those basics, computer skills are hard to acquire, and most jobs now require basic computer skills.

  5. The literacy rates are somewhat startling:

  6. Terrific post, Brenda. Congrats on the upcoming releases! I've been wondering about literacy levels these days. More and more readers seem to have trouble with flashbacks. Reader reviews at GoodReads often report difficulty in "keeping it all straight" when it comes to a narrative that isn't strictly linear. I find it hard to tell a story without some sort of backstory. Has this affected your writing or do you think it will in the future?


  7. Beautifully put, Brenda. I think this is such a worthy effort and I am glad that talented writers like you are taking part in it.