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Author Showcase

Fall 2008 Featured Author Vicki Ebeling

RT: Your new book The Winner’s Group is about six students. This is a group of middle-school kids who don’t have any real friends, but who, because of a teacher’s disappearance, become friends. When you decided to write a book, where did this story start for you (e.g., with the event, with an individual kid, or the group)?

Vicki: I wanted to write a book that a young person with a learning difference — especially reading challenges — could enjoy. Having worked with struggling readers for many years, I know how they react to stories. Sometimes they lose interest; sometimes they get confused by the content. Writing a contemporary adventure would be the ideal category, and I set out to create characters with whom they could connect. Each of the six kids is a compelling, one-of-a-kind person whom the reader can get to know and care about. Each character is physically distinct, with a unique personality, and their own particular charm. They all have an individual challenge that they deal with, such as a learning disability, a physical impairment, or being academically superior to most other kids. The kids’ relationship with their parents also varies. Each of the characters suffered a loss in their life, so they come together in a loss counseling group. Their individuality drives the story, in part because they have a special gift they contribute to the adventure.

RT: Do you have more adventures planned for the kids in the winner’s group? If so, what types of challenges will they face?

Vicki: Yes, we have more adventures planned. In this story, the kids have learned that adults they should trust are there when they need them. Next time, our six characters will learn to appreciate these relationships. Having discovered how their personal challenges can be channeled into helping someone else, the group will be coming to the aid of others who have a challenge different from their own.

RT: In addition to being an author, you are a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. You offer educational therapy which includes autism, ADD, learning disabilities and related issues. Given the frequency with which we hear about autism and ADD, do you see a need for children’s books on these subjects?

Vicki: There are hundreds of books, both fiction and nonfiction, on how to deal with or understand these issues. I see a need for books where the story wraps a character’s uniqueness into the progress of the story, instead of focusing on their differences. These are characters that are recognized as having certain characteristics, and those traits contribute to or affect the outcome of the plot. As a therapist, one of my main goals is to normalize the life of a child who has a unique way of living in this world. It would be wonderful for these kids to see themselves as characters in a popular book. In The Winners Group one character is a smart, clever boy who happens to have a reading disability. He has developed another way of “reading” that strongly affects the progress of the plot.

RT: Are there existing titles you would recommend?

Vicki: I wrote an extensive resource book for all audiences called Educating America in the 21st Century. It is mainly for parents and teachers, but it will be of interest to anyone who is trying to understand the US educational system. I talk about many learning issues and provide data on specific groups or agencies that offer resources for different categories of learning differences or disabilities.

When you study the broad categories of learning differences, you learn that the range is so great that finding the right tools for a particular child can be daunting. For example, when I became a therapist there was a simple diagnosis called Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Now it includes several different forms of attention disorders. Autism is referred to as a “spectrum disorder” because it reaches from the most severely disabled to high functioning individuals who are successful members of our society. Learning disabilities are numerous but usually distinct and may only affect one area of an otherwise excellent student.

The focus of my first book was that each individual, particularly parents, have the great responsibility of informing themselves about what is right for education in general and especially for their own child. Many people don’t realize that education is mostly controlled by your own local government, even to the level of your own school district. So recommending specific books for a general group is very difficult. The burden of responsibility falls on the parents or any professionals they might work with to search for the right book for each child. Organizations like The Reading Tub® are the best resources for this kind of information. Groups built by real people will be the future of education reform and the source of information for the parent who faces the challenges of a child who doesn’t fit into the box that the education system has constructed. I applaud and admire the job you have accepted to help parents find what they need.

RT: With regard to learning differences and assessing reading ability, is there such a thing as identifying a problem “too early”?

Vicki: Reading difficulties can be detected from the earliest ages a child begins to learn. Some difficulties may be due to simple immaturity or disinterest. Still, reading difficulties should be monitored as soon as reasonably evident. This does not mean you need to rush out to find a tutor when the child is in first grade. But by second grade, children who struggle to read age-appropriate books might be tested for decoding, comprehension, and memory challenges.

RT: The Winners Group is written for everyone, but you also wanted it to be attractive to reluctant readers. What are the keys to writing for this audience?

Vicki: Reluctant readers need to be compelled by the reading experience. We are competing with instant gratification in television, video games, computer games, and motion pictures. Our books need to have fascinating characters, authentic dialogue, a quick pull into the story, and a lot of action. The writing style requires easy reading for an older child. Here are things that can help. Avoid flash forwards and flashbacks that confuse readers with comprehension issues and prefer real-time plots. Look for sentences, paragraphs, and dialogue that are to the point and brief. The impact of the story on the characters should be constant. Last, but not least, the story should be a page turner.

RT: You have worked with reluctant and struggling readers for many years. What have you found to be the most successful strategy in helping kids become more confident readers?

Vicki: When a child reads a book from beginning to end and feels that satisfaction of discovering how it all turns out, the book gives the reader a reward similar to a TV show or a video game. Initially it is less attractive to the child because reading requires more patience, less instant gratification, and doesn’t provide visual or auditory stimulation. Reading a book requires that one stay in their own mind and find those imaginings in there. The modern world doesn’t encourage a person to create their own stimulating experiences. It tends to provide it to them without any effort. But it is so important that we teach our children to experience these feelings inside of themselves instead of relying on some external source to provide it for them. Hopefully, as a result, they learn to think for themselves and become successful problem-solvers.

RT: Did you find yourself changing your process in trying to make the story accessible to reluctant readers? How do you determine your reading level?

Vicki: : I use simple decoding to make it easy to read the words. Imagine if you are a reading disabled student seeing the letters PH. It may be difficult to learn the sound these two letters make when combined, or, once learned, it may be difficult to remember the sound. So I avoid these kinds of phonetic challenges. As a result, the reading level is of a lower level, but readable for the reading disabled child. Although the decoding level is lower, the content can still be modern and exciting and authentic. That is the goal. My son, who was in middle school when we wrote the book, helped to make the dialogue realistic and contemporary. So an easier decoding level can be achieved in combination with making the plot age-appropriate and compelling.

RT: You mentioned that your son Drew helped with editing your book. In a blurb on your website, Drew characterizes himself as a reader. What kinds of things does he like to read?

Vicki: Drew is now a high school freshman. He has a very eclectic taste in books. He enjoys adventures. He chose one adventure book that turned out to be a time-jumping story where the reader doesn’t know if things are happening in the present, past, or future until it is explained in the conclusion. I was quite impressed that he stuck with it and found the resolution satisfying. But he also enjoys books that are character-driven. I was pleasantly surprised by how much he enjoyed a required reading book that follows a boy’s efforts to reconnect with a father who left him when the boy was very young. He also enjoys non-fiction like Derek Jeter’s autobiography. I am very blessed that my son is an excellent reader and can get involved in a good book.

RT: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Vicki: The characters in The Winners Group are very realistic American middle or junior high school kids whom young readers can connect with. They make decisions based on circumstances and how they perceive them or how they honestly interpret the instructions of adults. They may not make the wisest choices (i.e., decisions based on emotion not logic), but they are pre-adolescents. They learn and grow from their experience and develop a higher respect for the adults in their lives. They expect consequences and hope they will not be too harmful. Readers can decide for themselves if the penalty is too harsh, because we learn what happens at the end of the story. In the real world, kids of middle and junior high school age are fascinating and baffling. They have one foot in childhood and one in adulthood. It is a critical and amazing time of development. They need more attention than they want. We have to be very proactively involved in a very important time in their lives that can determine who they will become as adults. It is so necessary to address reading issues. A student in middle school or junior high who has never enjoyed reading a book will find The Winners Group a comfortable and satisfying path to becoming a reader.

One last comment, if I may, Terry. I came up with the loss counseling group as a way to connect six very different children. In the story they deal with their loss and grow in the process. The week after we began printing The Winners Group, my husband — Drew's father — was diagnosed with a terminal illness. The book was put on hold until some time after we lost him. He was so proud of what Drew and I accomplished with our book. The Winners Group is dedicated to him.


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