Many librarians, teachers, parents—and even students—are aware of the grim, oft-cited statistic: only one-third of eighth-grade students in the U.S. read at or above the proficient level (source: the Nation's Report Card/National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2009). While solutions to the problem are always being debated, those who work with struggling and reluctant readers every day want tools they can use right now. Hi-lo books frequently fit the bill.

A hi-lo book, broadly defined, is a title that offers highly interesting subject matter at a low reading level. A number of publishers have focused on producing these books, though they often take slightly different approaches to creating the products that best fit a particular market. The abiding goal, says Arianne McHugh, president and co-owner of Saddleback Educational Publishing, "is to offer age-appropriate content—something that will grab [readers'] interest—at a readability level that is accessible." As examples, McHugh notes that for a struggling reader in middle school or high school, although The Hunger Games would generate enormous interest, it would be a discouraging undertaking. On the other hand, "You can't give them Clifford; we don't want to embarrass them," she says. Somewhere in the middle is the book that's just right, she says.

For Carrie Gleason, YA and children's book editor at Toronto's James Lorimer & Company (distributed in the U.S. by Orca), "The high-interest part of hi-lo is confusing because it's an individual's preference." But Michael Dahl, Capstone editorial director, fiction, is confident about the characterization he uses: "High-interest describes any content that children would read on their own, would want to know more about, without any outside intervention or prompting from adults." Andrew Wooldridge, publisher at Orca Book Publishers, doesn't quibble over any specific definition. "We don't use the term hi-lo because it has a bad connotation," he says. "We call the books fiction for reluctant readers or struggling readers." The unfortunate reputation or bias against books designated as hi-lo is that they are "dumbed-down books, or books for stupid kids," says Wooldridge. Of course, no one wants to be a purveyor of those.

No matter how they're labeled, in at least one key way, "A good hi-lo book is no different from any other good book," in the assessment of Amy Cox, Capstone's library marketing manager. "It has a compelling story or fascinating facts that grab the reader's attention." Jim Arena, president at Academic Therapy Publications/High Noon Books, agrees. "We try to create books that are going to have kids captivated." A majority of publishers cited sports, mystery, adventure, animals, and natural disasters among the hot topics for middle schoolers.

In the teen arena, struggling readers are often seeking out books that depict characters in gritty, realistic circumstances and situations. Bullying, suicide, gangs, drug use, sexuality, and teen pregnancy are just some of the issues addressed in a growing number of hi-lo series for a YA audience. "We do extremely well with urban fiction," says McHugh. "We have a lot of diversity in our demographic and in our titles," she explains, mentioning her company's Gravel Road, Juicy Central, Cutting Edge, and Urban Underground series, which are aimed at readers in grades 9–12 and have a reading level of roughly 3.0–4.0 (third-to-fourth grade). She is also excited about Saddleback's new urban teen flip-book series, Lockwood Lions, which features high school stories from two distinct points of view: one from a member of the football team, and on the flip side, another from a member of the cheerleading squad. "We don't want all-white cheerleader books. It's important to have a variety. Teens want to read about themselves and relate. If you don't have that content, you lose them."

Homing in on the most appealing subject matter is only the first piece of the puzzle when it comes to crafting a good hi-lo title. Shaping the topic into a format that kids who are struggling will want and be able to read involves many more steps. Determining a reading level that is appropriate for the content and its intended audience is paramount. Steve Keay, president and CEO of Perfection Learning, says, "Typically our books are written two grade levels below where a child might be in class, though it could be lower." For example, he cites novels in the long-running Cover-to-Cover series with an interest level of 4–9 and reading level of 2–3. At Lorimer, Gleason says, "We do not have as much of a gap between age and level. Some of our books are for 13-year-olds reading at a fifth-grade level. We're at the top of the range in terms of hi-lo." Lorimer's Sidestreet series is for students 13-up with a reading level ranging from grade 3-5, and the Sports Stories series targets 10-13-year-olds reading at a second-to-fourth-grade level.

What's the formula for determining the reading level of hi-lo books? Every publisher does it a little differently. "Everyone claims to have the best readability measure, but one size doesn't fit all," says Sue Thies, editorial director at Perfection Learning. Several well-known readability formulas are commonly used today. Publishers can run text through such software programs as the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Readability Test and the Fry Graph Readability formula, which analyze such things as sentence length and number of syllables per word, to come up with a basic readability level. But most publishers contacted for this article employ multiple methods for arriving at a level. "We use both objective and subjective measures," says Thies. "The majority of our editors are former reading teachers and we are able to incorporate their expertise, as well." In addition to reading levels, most companies also assign Lexile levels (a text is analyzed by MetaMetrics software), and some companies also work with Renaissance Learning for the assignment of its Accelerated Reader (AR) program levels, used in many schools.

The readability of hi-lo books isn't all in the numbers. Editorial sensibility and design come into play, too. "We use controlled vocabulary and short, not-as-complex sentences," says Keay. "We use short chapters and focus on short episodes in the plot." Thies points out that at Perfection Learning the books employ "a lot of dialogue" as well as shorter sentences. Wooldridge at Orca takes a slightly different tack. "We're not overly rigorous with reading level," he says, "but we try to have stories that are in the first person, and plots that are very linear—not a lot of flashbacks or difficult structure. We try to keep the readability consistent without losing the story."

Overall book length is an important consideration as well. "A low page count will increase a reader's confidence," says McHugh. "If they can finish a book and like it, odds are they will pick up another one." Gleason at Lorimer concurs: "It's important to be able to read a book at an easy level. There's nothing wrong with that. These books show students that reading doesn't have to be a chore—it can be something entertaining and quick."

Larger white-space borders around the text on the pages, looser leading between lines, a slightly larger type size, clear visual images, and paper that's a creamier, not brighter, white are some of the design elements that can help struggling readers focus. And just like every other kind of book, hi-lo books are judged by their covers. Publishers are keenly aware that the titles can't have the appearance of "baby books." For teens, especially, paperbacks in a mass-market trim size with edgy photographic images on the front have great appeal. "We want the books to look good, so kids will want to carry them around," Keay stresses. And Thies raises another point: "One of our goals is to make the books look more difficult than they are, for the student's sake. We want it to look similar to their peers' books."

School: Where Books and Struggling Students Meet

Schools, by far, remain the biggest market for hi-lo books, largely because it is the setting where intervention for struggling readers is most likely to occur. In addition to searching for compelling general fiction and nonfiction, publishers are always on the lookout for ways they can create appealing curriculum-related titles. A number of companies offer such ancillary materials as workbooks and teacher guides to support their hi-lo series, as well.

Hi-lo books are common in classroom libraries and are often featured in the school library, but teachers and librarians are also discovering new ways to use the titles. The books have become selections for student book clubs. Carrie at Lorimer knows of one librarian who uses the books for a buddy reading program for boys that pairs high school volunteers with middle-school reluctant readers. "Everybody's happy," she says. "The older kids get credit and are not bored, and the younger kids do better in class."

Don Panec, president and publisher at Treasure Bay, notes that the We Both Read series from his company also works well in tutor or buddy reading situations, or when parents and children read together. In the books, the pages on the left contain text at a higher reading level and the pages on the right are at a lower level. "Children get to participate in reading a ‘hard' book, even though they are not reading the hard part," he says.

Though public libraries purchase hi-lo books, public librarians are typically not as familiar with the books as their school counterparts and they may not even define the genre the same way. As an example, the ALSC and YALSA suggested lists for reluctant readers contain some hi-lo books, but the majority are trade titles that don't necessarily focus on a readability/interest distinction. Some hi-lo publishers would argue that there is a difference between "reluctant" and "struggling" readers.

Education publishers have traditionally relied on their Web sites, catalogues, and sales rep visits to get their products noticed, in addition to conference appearances and selective advertising. Orca has organized webinars featuring panels of teachers and librarians talking about the books, and a number of other companies offer helpful literature that explains and promotes the genre.

Publishers who sell to the school market but don't necessarily specialize in hi-lo can still benefit by filling their customers' needs for such books. Laura Scheinkopf, director of publicity for Bright Sky Press in Houston, says that although her company's Texas Heroes for Young Readers series is not specifically branded as hi-lo, it often gets used that way. "Our books fit the Texas curriculum, and we publish books on the same topic for two different reading levels."

The Future of Hi-Lo

Adults dealing with literacy issues or learning English are a burgeoning audience for hi-lo titles. Wooldridge points to Orca's new Rapid Reads series of books for adults. "They are roughly 15,000–18,000 words and are designed for people just out of school or who are involved with ESL," he says. "We've worked really hard at making the books work for the specific readers who need them."

Hi-lo publishers are striving to keep up with technology in order to be able to offer more reading style choices to their readers. Saddleback currently offers all its books in print and e-book formats, and most of them are in audiobook format, too. The publisher also has a popular electronic white board product called Hi-Lo SMART Board Lessons. "We are always thinking of what students need to get ahead in school," McHugh says. Orca's titles are all available in print and e-book formats as well. By this summer, Keay says, Perfection Learning will have its 500 hi-lo titles available as e-books from "four or five distributors, including Follett and OverDrive." Perfection Learning's Thies is happy about this development. "One of the great advantages of e-books is that no one knows what you're reading on a device. The kids really like that level of privacy."

Most encouraging about the hi-lo market is that librarians, educators, and publishers are seeing the books fill an important need. Becky Williams, a literacy consultant in Iowa who works with teachers, notes, "It's not a silver bullet, but it's something. They are a wonderful resource for kids that never ‘got it.' Having these books has truly made a difference for these kids."

Jessica Fenster-Sparber, a library coordinator in New York City who works with incarcerated teens, believes the right book can make an impressive, lasting difference. "Hi-lo books, when well-matched with readers, completely change the way I can interact with students. The books give students positive reading identities and offer hope for a literate life. Once a student is turned on to reading, the possibilities for education are limitless."

At Orca, Wooldridge speaks fondly of a librarian who is a fanatical supporter of his company's books. She wears a T-shirt that says, "Orca Saves Lives." Life-changing may not be overstating the power that hi-lo books can have. As Keay says, "The stakes are really high for our kids, and we think these books do a lot of good. We've gotten lots of letters over the years from kids that say, ‘This is the first book I've ever finished,' and that's pretty cool. There are so many problems with education. Hi-lo is not the complete answer, but can certainly be one piece of it."