The trouble with Hi-Lo
I recently participated in an awards committee for a niche category of children's books that is often referred to as Hi-Lo or high interest/low vocabulary. The hi/lo category is exactly what it sounds like- they are books written at a lower reading level than the age it would appeal to. This is a great idea for students who struggle with reading or even reluctant readers. It provides them with age-appropriate material at a level that they can handle without forcing them to read books intended for younger children. The majority of these titles are published as serial fiction. Each title (for the most part) stands alone and features different characters and stories in each book. There's no order, and readers can just pick a title that interests them. Series vary from sports-themed stories to performing arts to the heftier issues found in YA.
The trouble with hi-lo is the same thing that makes it great for the readers who need it. The majority of the books are 112 pages or less, and in my view, and the view of my committee members, 112 pages wasn't nearly enough to tackle some of the subjects that were being covered. With 12-16 short chapters and a maximum of 16000 words, these are less than a third of a 60,000 word YA novel, and in many cases, it simply isn't enough to do justice to your topic. Every word counts, plots have to be streamlined, and you still need to have some depth of character. This can definitely be done well, but not every topic can or should be handled in this format. Quite often we came away feeling like there were too many tangents, plot points that needed further explanation, and a lack of a satisfactory resolution.
To give you an example, I'll contrast a book we felt was successful and one that wasn't. The successful book was a lot of fun. It followed a young teen who was pretty miserable in the kitchen (I've been there- I can relate) and was forced to take a cooking module in high school. Her best friend, on the other hand aimed to be a professional chef, and her group's success (which included the first girl) depended on all of them getting it together. There were kitchen mishaps (including a fire, a flood, and some melted utensils), tension between the group members, and lots of laughs. While everything wrapped up fairly quickly (as it does in this format), we felt like it was an enjoyable read that got the point across and it never lost sight of the central storyline.
One of the titles we didn't like had way too much going on. There was teen homelessness, a transitioning transgender character, an LGBT romance, and a teen rock band getting a taste of success. Had the book been of typical YA length, it's quite possible that the author would have flushed out these ideas in more detail and that it would have worked, but in this format it didn't work. Firstly, we wondered why the girl was about to be homeless. She was 17 and her father had evidently suffered from a lengthy illness, but our questions about why she was about to be left homeless and without a guardian or some provision for her future were never addressed. Then there was the romance. We barely knew anything about the character and when her best friend comes out to her as transgender, without even a pause they were suddenly in love and in a romance. This character was also poorly developed and there was no context. Finally the band. The homeless girl gets invited to be part of her best friend's band, and suddenly they are touring and recording and dealing with those challenges. In the end it was a jumble of ideas, none of which were well-executed.
There is no doubt that hi-lo has a place in the market (particularly schools) and that they can and should be thoughtful reads that address current issues pertaining to their target audience. But- if they are going to address these issues, the authors also need to weigh the complexity of the topic against the limitations of the category and work hard to succinctly and effectively execute the topic. A A Wizard of Earthsea and A Wrinkle in Time are brilliant books that are just over 200 pages each- almost unheard of for a fantasy novel. Surely if they can accomplish so much in such a small package then other longer novels, then hi-lo can find a way to accomplish the same.