Matt Burkhartt | Staff Photographer
Children in Boys’ and Girls’ Club’s Group 2 listen to author Elizabeth Karslake Smith read her book Alien Dude! at the Beeson Youth Center last Friday.
Elizabeth Karslake “E.K.” Smith tried to suppress a smile as raucous laughter erupted from the Boys’ and Girls’ Club crafts classroom. The protagonist of her most recent book, Alien Dude! and the Attack of Wormzilla, had just committed a heinous act, and Smith, for the sake of storytelling, was obliged to utter the “f-word” for the Group 2 boys and girls.
“Alien Dude … farted,” she said with some reluctance.
On Friday, Smith shared her crude dude with Club youngsters. But Smith’s visit to Club served a higher purpose than simply inducing laughter over bodily functions.
A teacher-turned-author, lifetime Chautauquan and devoted mother, Smith knows how to reach children who are struggling to read, specifically in the 6-and-7-year-old age group.
“You have to make the story sort of gross for the boys to like it,” she said to the classroom, as if apologizing to the Group 2 girls in particular.
In her 10 years as an elementary school teacher, Smith tutored many students who were averse to reading and became increasingly frustrated that most easy-reader books did not match the maturity level of her second-graders, especially boys.
“There is a lack of easy-readers for older boys,” Smith said. “Many books that are good for boys in first and second grade are not written by teachers, and often they’re too hard for struggling readers. At the same time, most easy-readers are too cute because they’re written for 4-year-olds.”
As an educator, Smith set out to solve this problem. As a mother, she found motivation in her own children.
Smith recalls that her son, Lake, was a “reluctant reader” growing up. After a few futile trips to libraries and bookstores, she decided to ditch the Biscuit books, which chronicle a quizzical puppy’s compelling adventures through bath time, naptime and more, and write her own stories instead.
“The authors for these books are not writers. Easy-readers are easy, simple little books, but they’re so important,” Smith said. “I thought ‘I can do this. I can write stories with simple words.’ ”
In 2011, Smith came up with her first schoolyard superhero, Shade Farley, who danced and sang, fought a giant worm and vanquished his foes by taking them to the dump.
Matt Burkhartt | Staff Photographer
Author Elizabeth Karslake Smith reads her book Alien Dude! at the Beeson Youth Center last Friday.
When she showed the story to Lake, though, he was not impressed. Shade Farley just did not appeal to Lake’s macho imagination.
As Smith’s personal editor, Lake convinced his mom to change the hero to “Alien Dude,” who can fly and “morph” and has to save his school from “Wormzilla” and his larval minions. After ending up in the dump, Alien Dude’s enemies meet an explosive end. And, instead of dancing and singing, Alien Dude farts and burps.
“I come up with ideas mainly through Lake and other boys in my neighborhood,” Smith said. “We can learn a lot from kids. They help us understand what they want and how they want to learn.”
Developing a plot that appealed to her target audience wasn’t the only issue Smith faced as a new author. From her years in education, Smith recognized that students learning to read need repetitive phrases, corresponding illustrations, plot patterns and a captivating mix of the predictable and unexpected.
“That’s the biggest challenge, not using words that I want to use,” Smith said. “I have to go against every rule of formal writing. At the same time, it gives teachers the opportunity to show their students that this actually isn’t good writing.”
Smith emphasized that authoring isn’t the only challenging aspect, though. Because of the perceived simplicity of writing easy-readers, getting published can pose a serious problem, too. At a publishing workshop, she learned that most publishers hire their own writers for easy-readers and rarely pick up independent authors.
As a result, Smith launched her own company, Zip Line Publishing, with her husband Michael and hired her own illustration-design team. In January, Alien Dude! and the Attack of Wormzilla hit bookstore shelves, and boys (and girls) are now awaiting the release of Alien Dude! Mr. Evil Potato Man and the Food Fight in September.
To reflect the interests of other “reluctant readers” between 6 and 7 years old, Smith takes an innovative approach in her Alien Dude! series.
“I’m breaking the rules of simple books by making them two or three times longer,” Smith said. “My books are still accessible but they have chapters, multiple problems and solutions and require inferences.”
Alien Dude! is now making its way into bookstores and can be purchased online at zipintoreading.com.
Having grown up at Club, Smith now wants to share her teaching approach and educational extraterrestrial with the Chautauquan community.
As she walked between the rows of wide-eyed children in the crafts classroom on Friday, holding up a spread from her latest book, Smith seemed to be in her element.
“I’m not a writer; I’m an educator,” she said. “Even though I’m a publisher now, I just can’t seem to shake the teaching bug.”