Matt Anniss is the author of British Music and Fantastic Films from Badger Learning's reluctant readers series, Famous Faces.To date, he has written over 50 non-fiction books for young readers, covering such disparate topics as espionage, health, natural phenomena, sports, the Internet, computer programming, groundbreaking scientists and music.
Sheffield-born but based in Bristol, Matt combines writing books for reluctant readers with a long and distinguished career as a music journalist. His specialism is electronic music and club culture.
In his spare time, he is a successful DJ, record label owner and event promoter. He's rarely happier, though, than when he's writing.
Q&A with Matt Anniss
What inspired you to write for reluctant readers?
Initially, I fell into it by accident. After I left IDJ Magazine, which I had been editing, a children's publisher offered me the chance to write an introduction to DJing for reluctant readers. As I was passionate about the subject, and was excited by the idea of writing for a younger audience, I had no hesitation in saying yes. I wanted to enthuse a new generation of would-be DJs. That title was well received, and publishers began asking me whether I'd be interested in writing titles on a much wider range of subjects. I really couldn't say no. I love the challenge of explaining quite tough subjects and concepts in language that reluctant readers will understand.
What challenges do struggling readers face when they open a book?
Every reluctant reader is different. For some, their language skills are perhaps lagging a little behind their classmates, while others simply do not find particular kinds of books, such as novels, that inspiring. I specialize in non-fiction books, and my challenge is always to present facts, concepts and information in an exciting, informative and inspiring way. Sometimes, this means encouraging people to take up a hobby or get involved in an activity; at other times, it's simply a case of making a particular subject exciting, be it the pharmaceutical industry, tornadoes, or the charity work of a particular sports star (and, yes, I've written books on all of those subjects over the last few years). I've learned over the years that there are many ways to do this, and that the way a book looks and how it's illustrated can make a huge difference. When writing books for younger readers I spend a lot of time thinking about the whole package, rather than just the words I write.
What is your favourite type of character to create?
As I predominantly write non-fiction titles, I don't need to create characters: there are plenty of real life heroes and figures of interest whose real life stories are often fascinating and inspiring. Through writing books I've discovered a lot about people whose work was groundbreaking and inspiring, but whom I probably wouldn't have researched otherwise.
What features and methods do you use to ensure that your books have that High Interest appeal that really engages young readers?
I like to think that it's a combination of quite active, entertaining language, engaging supplementary features – elements dotted throughout the titles such as fact boxes, activity suggestions and practical advice – and images or illustrations that draw readers in. Reluctant readers often look at the pictures first, and then move onto the text, so it's important to pick images, and write captions, that engage them immediately.
What difference do books like these make to children who are in need of literacy support?
Hopefully, they provide the sort of engaging, entertaining reading experience that they've not had before – the sort that more confident and enthusiastic readers tend to take for granted. In the case of the non-fiction books I tend to write, I'd hope that they broaden readers' knowledge of a subject, enthuse them to find out more themselves, or encourage them to go out there and try new things. Not everyone is interested in fiction, and sometimes titles about specific subjects, hobbies or careers can be of more interest to reluctant readers.
Can you give us any teasers of what to expect in either of your upcoming Famous Faces titles?
Both are punchy and fast-paced, packed with facts and biographical information, and hopefully will be hugely enjoyable to read. British Music focuses on some of our leading singers, bands and performers, while Fantastic Films discusses the relationship between books and movies. Hopefully the latter will inspire a few reluctant readers to read the brilliant books that inspired some of their favourite films.
What are the major themes of your work?
Given that I've written about such a wide range of subjects, it's hard to know. I've written a lot about technology, music and sports, and a number of titles that offer introductions to particular practical pursuits or hobbies. All of the books contain lots of useful information, interesting facts, and real-life stories that should appeal to reluctant readers.
What controls do you place on the vocabulary you use and how important is this?
When I sit down to write titles for reluctant readers, I try to get a balance between using language they will easily understand, and words that can be added to their vocabulary. It's all about finding the right tone, and selecting the right words to express ideas and concepts in an entertaining, informative manner. I try to use words, sentences and paragraphs that feel "active" and "fast paced". I want the words to almost leap from the page, and draw reluctant readers in. Hopefully my titles achieve that.
What is your favourite children's book?
That's a really difficult question! I used to read a lot as a child and teenager. I absolutely adored Stig of The Dump as a child, as well as Roald Dahl's various novels, which use brilliantly creative language. I used to read loads of Choose Your Own Adventure books as well – for some reason, I usually took the option that resulted in my character dying, or the story ending! As a young teenager Mildrid D Taylor's novels, in particular Let The Circle Be Unbroken, had a profound effect on me. I was a keen cartoonist as a teenager as well, so I lapped up the various Tintin books. I still dust those down from time to time and read them again. Billions of blistering blue barnacles!
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers/authors?
Just go for it! Don't worry about whether you'll be published or not – just write for fun, and if anything comes for it, that's a bonus. I've been writing for a living now for nearly 20 years, both as a journalist and an author. If I wasn't doing it professionally, I'd still be writing in my free time. Maybe I'd be running a blog about music, publishing a fanzine, or simply filling up my computer hard drive with short stories, sprawling critiques of my favourite albums, or badly conceived scripts for sitcoms that will never be made. In the age of self-publishing and the blogosphere, it's easy to get your work out there. If you're not worried about getting paid for it – and that's the hard part – there are so many ways for prospective writers to showcase their work. Be creative and go for it: life's too short for regrets.
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