SAT: three letters guaranteed to elicit shudders and groans from high-school students who hope to snag a spot at a selective college or university—and likely from their anxiety-ridden parents as well. Though some colleges no longer require applicants to submit standardized test scores, it stands to reason that, given the record-setting numbers of students applying to college, competition for the freshman slots has intensified and many admissions officers rely on the SAT—or its alternative, the ACT—to evaluate an applicant. Not surprisingly, test preparation tomes and tutoring have become big and burgeoning businesses, and now two publishers are offering a novel twist on the theme.
SparkNotes, a division of Barnes & Noble Publishing, in January launched Smart Books, a line of paperback novels that debuted with four titles: Busted by Emma Harrison, Head Over Heels by Ryan Nerz, Sun-Kissed by Belinda Ray and Vampire Dreams by Tyche, each of which is subtitled An SAT Vocabulary Novel. And due in May from Harcourt’s Harvest paperback imprint is Charles Harrington Elster’s
Test of Time: A Novel Approach to the SAT and ACT.
These novels all incorporate (and print in boldface) vocabulary words commonly found on the SAT, and provide definitions either on the bottom of each page (the Smart Books) or in a concluding glossary (Test of Time).
San Diego resident Elster tested these waters a decade ago, when he and coauthor Joseph Elliot published Tooth and Nail: A Novel Approach to the SAT with Harcourt. This paperback original, which has sold 215,000 copies, was born out of a conversation between Elster and Elliot, who met as students at Yale in the late 1970s. Elster had become a writer and Elliot had worked for several years for Princeton Review, a company that publishes test-preparation materials and provides tutoring services.
“Joe got to know the SAT test intimately, with all its tricks and twists,” Elster recalled. “And we began talking about what boring and torturous materials were out there to help young people learn vocabulary for the SAT. We agreed that what was needed was a novel approach. As soon as that came out we said, ‘That’s it! A novel approach,’ where words are learned in context in a work of fiction. So we decided to write Tooth and Nail together.”
Elster’s decision to pen a second vocabulary-studded novel was prompted by the success of Harvest’s 2000 repackaged edition of Tooth and Nail. The decision coincided with editor Jen Charat’s arrival at Harcourt and, over lunch with her, Elster mentioned his interest in writing another “Novel Approach” book. The idea scored points with Charat, who describes the finished novel—a time-travel tale in which Mark Twain, while putting the finishing touches on his book about a rebellious lad name Huck, discovers that his manuscript has disappeared and in its place appears a modern-day college student’s laptop—as “a product of Charlie’s wonderful imagination, of his interest in American literary history and of his expert logophile charm.”
Elster began writing Test of Time with a master vocabulary list of 3,800 words, of which he eventually included 2,000 in his final manuscript. “Writing this kind of fiction, you can’t think the way a regular novelist thinks,” he observed. “I had to think about teaching words and giving contextual clues, which entails putting synonyms and even antonyms together in a way that is not redundant but helpful. Above all else, I wanted this book to read smoothly and entertain while it instructed.”
Having set a first printing of 100,000 copies for Elster’s new novel, Harcourt obviously has high hopes that it will accomplish both of these goals. While Test for Time will be released by the company’s adult division, which publishes all of the house’s test-preparation tomes, the novel will also be promoted in Harcourt’s children’s catalogue. The author will make publicity appearances in the San Diego area, and Harcourt plans a promotional postcard mailing to teachers and booksellers.
A “Smart” Approach
At SparkNotes, publisher and managing director Dan Weiss explained the genesis of Smart Books, his company’s first foray into fiction. Initially an Internet startup specializing in study notes and guides, SparkNotes now (in addition to offering more than 1,000 study guides free on its Web site) is the publisher of 172 printed guides, study charts and flashcard lines that are sold in the trade solely through Barnes & Noble outlets. With the Smart Books line, Weiss said, “We are making the study-aid category appealing to kids as opposed to having them view it as performing a chore.”
Weiss, whose background is in mass market teenage fiction—“I was a book packager for 20 years and was the producer of the Sweet Valley High series”—said that with the four Smart Novels, “we targeted categories that we know are popular with teens. One is a detective story, one a romance, one a surfing story and one a vampire tale. We wanted these novels to have a zippier, commercial look, feel and sound, with vocabulary words highlighted, rather than have them look more ‘teachery,’ for want of a better word.”
The editorial springboard for Smart Books was a list of the 1,000 most common vocabulary words appearing on past SAT tests, Weiss noted. To write the novels, he selected authors who had experience writing fiction for the teen audience. The publisher has no immediate plans to add to the line, remarking, “four seems like a good number for us right now, but we will wait and see. We’ll watch the sales of each novel and if one or several work better than others it may give us an insight into what subjects we might extend further into. So far all the books are moving pretty nicely for such a wacky, different category.” Though Smart Books are available online through Barnes & Noble.com (accessed through a link with www.sparknotes.com), Weiss reported that the bulk of the line’s sales has been through B&N stores, where they are shelved in the study-aid section. “We have our own bay in each store, a kind of SparkNotes boutique, where these novels are prominently displayed,” he explained.
College-bound teens stressed out by the prospect of preparing for and taking the SAT or ACT may find solace in the fact that they are in good company as they face this ordeal: poor Harry Potter dreaded another acronym (O.W.L.) when boning up for his Ordinary Wizarding Level exams—at a younger age no less. And Harry and his fellow aspiring wizards probably didn’t have the opportunity to study for that test by curling up with a novel.