I looked curiously at the unfamiliar Pennsylvania postmark and the awkward handwriting and then slit open the envelope. As I unfolded the letter, my eye caught the words “adult literacy student.” I sat down to read the note from a new adult reader who had just finished my book Pat King’s Family. She told me that she loved the book, and asked, “How did you know my life?” I felt as if I had won the National Book Award, an Emmy, and an Oscar! The dream I struggled to make real had just come true.
Pat King’s Family was written to accompany a series called The Laubach Way to Reading, Skillbook 1, the first book in a series for adult new readers which brought Frank Laubach’s famous method of teaching phonics to the English Language. It was written on a 1st grade level with a restricted vocabulary of about 100 words – and no long vowels. If the author introduced a new word, it had to be used five times on the page it was first used.
Writing the book was a huge challenge in itself. But getting the book published was a bigger challenge! I directed a Laubach Literacy program through the Good Samaritan Center in Holland, Michigan in the late 1970’s. My biggest frustration was the type of reading material the students were given. It was all based on helping them get along in the world: getting a driver’s license, getting a job, filling out forms, keeping up with the news. That was all very important, but I knew my students were also interested in reading fiction, stories about people like them – or people and places very unlike them. I decided to try to write my own book.
CLOSER TO THE DREAM
When I learned of a workshop about Writing for New Readers to be presented by Frank Laubach’s son, the founder of New Readers Press which was the publishing arm of Laubach Literacy, I was determined to attend. At that time I was not very adventurous and certainly didn’t have any money for the workshop in Madison, Wisconsin, but somehow I worked it out.
The workshop was very motivating to would-be writers, emphasizing the need for more material for adults who read under a 4th grade level. Dr. Laubach helped participants learn to write with short words, short sentences – few phrases or clauses – and to tailor their writing to the four different skillbook levels in the series. However, he kept referring to the need for more materials about survival skills. I asked him why he was not publishing any fiction. He said the students preferred practical reading. I said they needed both.
At the end of the workshop, I went up Dr. Laubach him and told him I was writing a fiction piece on the Skillbook 1 level and asked if he would read it when I was done. After all, if he was teaching us to write for new readers, shouldn’t he take time to see how we were doing? He agreed.
That summer I was alone with two small children because my then husband started a job in a new school system hours away and came home only on weekends. During the week I fought to find time to sit in my “study” and wrote like a mad woman (on my typewriter, of course). I told a story I thought my students could understand – a story about Pat King, a young mother of two children, whose husband decided he no longer wanted the responsibility of a family:
Jack said, “I cannot live with this family! The children are sick. The lunch dishes are in the kitchen. The dinner is burned.
Then Pat got mad. “You are the father,” Pat said. “You can help.”
“I have a job,” Jack yelled. The family is the mother’s job.” And then Jack left.
So Pat, now a young single mother with two children was left for to fend for herself – and her children. She had to learn about getting a job, finding daycare, caring for her children – being responsible for everything. And she succeeded. In the end, Jack comes back home and pleads for her to take him back, but Pat makes a hard decision:
“I cannot let you live with us again. It hurts me to tell you this. But I cannot live with a man I cannot trust . . . . I still love you. But I will not be hurt again.”
I sent the book on to Dr. Laubach and waited . . . and waited . . . and waited. Finally, I wrote him a note and asked if he had read it. He answered that he had read it and given it to the editorial committee to see what they thought. If they liked it, he would publish it. I was ecstatic! My dream of writing fiction for adults that was true to their lives was coming true.
Eventually, I got a response from the editorial committee. They loved the book! It was a ground-breaker! But the men on the committee were hoping I would change the ending. They wanted a more hopeful ending. They wanted Jack to be reunited with his family. I was heartbroken. I explained that the women who would be reading this book needed the encouragement that they could make it in the world on their own. The story shows that Pat and Jack were not happy together, and that she had grown enough to know that the marriage would not work.
I would not change the ending. They did not publish the book. My dream was dead.
A DREAM REALIZED
A few years later, I received a letter from New Readers Press. The men were no longer on the committee. This group would love to publish Pat King’s Family. Was I willing? Was I willing! In 1981, the first book of fiction anywhere for new adult readers was published by New Readers Press. The book was very popular and went through two or three printings. I even made some good money on royalties. Eventually the book went out of print, but New Readers Press went on to publish many more books of fiction for adult new readers.
When I read the letter from a young woman in Pennsylvania, I realized that my dream was not dead; it had only been deferred. It was now reality. Good life lesson!