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Opening the door

Minister-turned-author writes suspense, horror stories for struggling young adult readers

Bridget Manley

— It just takes one.

“It’s just a matter of finding the right book (and) they’re going to want more,” said Sharon Skwarek-Thompson, Craig Middle School Language Arts teacher, on finding books that reluctant readers will enjoy.

But, it isn’t always an easy feat.

Finding the right book can sometimes be “like finding a needle in a haystack,” she said.

Enter Steve Burt, a Congregational United Church of Christ pastor in Connecticut, who has published books on topics from church ministry to canoeing.

Dubbed “The Sinister Minister,” Burt recently turned his attentions from magazine and pastoral writing to young adult fiction – particularly of the suspenseful and supernatural kind.

His four collections of short stories were created to elicit more than shivers up the spine. They also were written to nudge along young adults who shy away from novel-length books, Burt said.

On Monday, CMS students got a taste of Burt’s style when he read his tales aloud at Skwarek-Thompson’s invitation. In the darkened auditorium, seventh- and eighth-grade students sat at attention as he read from one of his short story collections.

“It’s about literacy,” he said. “I want kids to enjoy seeing a story (unfold) without turning on the video player.”

Like some of his short stories, Burt’s career took unpredictable turns.

He didn’t expect his third short story collection, entitled “Oddest Yet,” to tie for the 2004 Bram Stoker Award for young adult fiction. The annual award recognizes superior achievement in the horror genre, according to the Horror Writers Association Web site.

The self-published author who initially wrote for an adult audience also didn’t expect young adults to become his most avid readership.

During his career, he’s received calls from parents and teachers, asking him when his next book will be published.

Burt said he prefers the “old-fashioned” thriller writing that is short on violence and long on suspense.

Readers “are going to find a lot worse stuff in the Bible than in my stuff,” he said.

Burt said he wants young adults to enjoy the written word as much as he does.

“I’m passionate about reading and writing,” he said, adding that he occasionally leads writing workshops for middle school students.

Not all young adults share his enthusiasm.

For students who are daunted by long novels, reading can seem more like drudgery than enjoyment, Skwarek-Thompson said.

Burt has an answer for that problem.

The stories in his collections range in length from five to 20 pages, with longer stories placed near the end of the book. Students can read a short story, move on to a longer piece, and put the book aside.

“It’s not like they have to slog through a whole novel,” Skwarek-Thompson said.

Using simplified vocabulary and adolescent protagonists that students can relate to also help make the stories more palatable for struggling readers, Burt said.

All these elements combined make a better book for reluctant readers, Skwarek-Thompson said, adding that one book can make all the difference.

“I really think if you find that right book, you open the door,” Skwarek-Thompson said.

Bridget Manley can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 207 or bmanley@craigdailypress.com


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