Hope is an activist

TRU Department of English Chair, George Johnson (left) has written a picture book about how kids can get involved in activism, the first in a series. The protagonist’s name is Hope. FULL STORY

The ‘Meg and Greg’ books

How two siblings came together to write a series of books for children with reading difficulties & learning disabilities.

November 18th, 2020

Elspeth Rae (left) and Rowena Rae at a Pender Island writing retreat, 2019.

Dyslexia-friendly features include shaded paper to cut down on contrast, a font that mimics printed letters, extra spacing between words and lines, and illustration labels printed mainly in lowercase letters.


Sisters Rowena and Elspeth Rae are the authors of the Meg and Greg series for children ages 6 – 9, starting with A Duck in a Sock (Orca 2020) about two ten-year-olds on their summer holidays doing things like helping an injured duckling, finding a lost pet fish, saving ranch animals from a wildfire and catching a wandering sloth.

They followed up this Autumn with the publication of Frank and the Skunk (Orca $14.95) as best friends Meg and Greg go to a summer camp. The duo have a run-in with a skunk, sing a silly song about a king, go on a canoe trip that has one glitch after another, and make a mess in the lodge with a fresh batch of fudge. Many of the words focus on the phonograms: nk, ng, tch and dge.

Here is BCBookLook’s interview with the authors.

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BCBookLook: How did you get the idea to work together on these books? Why not just write individually?

The idea to write these books together came from Elspeth’s experience as a literacy teacher working one-on-one with children ages 7, 8, 9 and even 10 years old who were struggling to learn how to read. She observed children struggle with age-appropriate texts that were too difficult for them to read, witnessing tears of frustration and humiliation when a child of average or above-average intelligence was given a book written and illustrated for a child three or four years their junior.

For several years, Elspeth tried to teach struggling readers with books advertised as “phonics readers” and ostensibly written by education experts, but these books typically included advanced spellings that were beyond her students’ reading level. Initially, in frustration and then with great excitement, Elspeth decided that writing her own stories was the only viable solution to meeting her students’ needs.

With no experience writing publishable material, Elspeth teamed up with Rowena, who is a freelance writer and editor, albeit of non-fiction, and is a published author. Rowena loved the idea of writing with Elspeth, so she took fiction-writing classes and webinars and read books and articles. Then, together, Elspeth and Rowena spent nearly three years developing the concept for the Meg and Greg books, writing stories, testing them with students, and revising the concept, guiding principles, text and design.

We initially submitted a book proposal to half a dozen Canadian and US publishers. We received rejections across the board, but several of the publishers replied to us with encouraging comments about our book concept. We then decided to self-publish. We teamed up with a wonderful Vancouver-based illustrator, Elisa Gutiérrez, who brought our stories to life on the page. After learning a lot about book production, we launched our first Meg and Greg book A Duck in a Sock in October 2017. We got a phenomenal response from teachers, parents and students.

The most gratifying comments were from parents and other caregivers saying that their child struggled with reading and that our book was the first one their child had successfully read, that their child looked forward to reading for the first time ever, that they didn’t have to fight with their child to practise reading with the Meg and Greg stories.

One eight-year-old boy told us he loved the stories so much that he slept with the book under his pillow, and another girl carted the book all around Europe on a family vacation.

With this type of response, we connected with Liz Kemp, a fiction editor at Orca Book Publishers, and after discussions with Liz and Orca, we signed a contract for Orca to reprint the first book and then to continue the book series with three additional titles.

Elspeth Rae (left) and Rowena Rae (holding a book) holidaying on Pender Island in 1980.

BCBL: Describe the series you have coming out under the label Orca Two Read.

The Meg and Greg book series presents stories written specifically for children who are learning to read at an older than typical age (i.e., 6 – 9 years old) because they have dyslexia or another language-based learning difficulty, or because they are English language learners (ELL). Kids in this age range are intellectually more mature than “typical” beginning readers. However, the available introductory books have content for younger children. These books can be both boring and demoralizing for older readers who have the cognition to understand more complex stories but haven’t yet achieved the skills to read early readers or chapter books for their age group.

We wrote the Meg and Greg stories for shared reading between a child who is learning to read and a more experienced reader. The latter could be a teacher, tutor, reading volunteer, parent, grandparent, buddy reader or even a sibling. Shared reading means the stories have text at different levels of difficulty and this allows the stories to be more complex and more likely to interest an older child, while still giving the child a chance to read part of the story.

In the books, we describe the story text as being either “adult or buddy reader’s text” or “kid’s text.” The kid’s text follows a phonics approach. Phonics is a way of teaching both reading and spelling skills by helping a child become more aware of the sounds and corresponding spelling patterns in the English language. Learning to read using phonics allows a beginning reader to decode a written word by sounding out the letter-sound combinations (called phonograms) that they know.

The Meg and Greg books begin at the stage where a child recognizes the individual letters of the alphabet and knows their most common sounds (all the basic consonant sounds, including consonant blends, and the short vowel sounds). Each Meg and Greg story (four stories per book) introduces one phonogram (like th and ck) in a particular sequence derived from Orton Gillingham, or OG, which is a research-based approach to teaching reading and spelling to children with dyslexia or other language-learning differences. Each subsequent story in the Meg and Greg books includes the previously introduced phonograms, so children can accumulate skills and reading practice as they advance through the stories and books. The kid’s text has carefully controlled vocabulary and spelling and doesn’t use any words that have more advanced spelling than the phonogram being introduced.

We researched and included several “dyslexia-friendly” design elements in the Meg and Greg books to help learning readers focus on the words they’re learning to read. Dyslexia-friendly features include shaded paper to cut down on contrast, a font that mimics printed letters, extra spacing between words and lines, and illustration labels printed mainly in lowercase letters.

Importantly, the books also have design features that appeal to the 6–9-year-old audience. For example, all stories are in chapters, spine thickness and trim size are similar to the types of books their peers will be reading, the stories have graphic novel/comic book elements since this kind of book is so popular right now, the cover has a “cool” look and feel (i.e., not a picture book, not a skinny “I can read”–type levelled reader).

BCBL: Tell me a little about your upbringing and how it has led you to become authors.

Rowena Rae, 1981.

We grew up in a house that was full of books, reading and writing. Rowena and our mother are strong readers and they always read a lot. Going on holiday for two weeks usually meant bringing along a separate suitcase dedicated to books!

Elspeth and our father loved books and stories, but found reading more challenging. Elspeth enjoyed being read to and used to lug cassette-taped books around before the days of Audible.com.

Elspeth was diagnosed with dyslexia at age 8. Our father was never diagnosed, probably because testing wasn’t prevalent in the 1930s when he was a child, but we remember him telling us that his mother read his medical textbooks out loud to him in university. Our father always had reading material in his back pocket (usually a news magazine). Both of our parents wrote extensively in their healthcare careers and our father continued to write articles and stories throughout his retirement and virtually until the day he died.

BCBL: What do you individually bring to these book projects?

Elspeth Rae, 1981

Elspeth brings the educator’s lens of what children struggle with in terms of reading and spelling the English language, as well as how they need to learn the foundation of reading and spelling. Rowena brings a knowledge of how to write and publish a book. As we’ve worked together on the Meg and Greg books, we’ve each been learning the other’s skills, and so the more books we write, the more we are offering similar skills to the project.

Even though she has been working as a freelance writer and editor for more than 15 years, Rowena now knows much more about phonics and the sounds of our language than she used to, and Elspeth now knows much more about the world of writing and publishing than she used to.

BCBL: What do you have planned for the future?

We have two Meg and Greg books published and available at bookstores at the moment. Book three is in production with our illustrator, Elisa Gutiérrez hard at work on the illustrations. It will be available in Fall 2021. We’re currently writing the stories for book four.

We have ideas about future books both in the Meg and Greg series and possibly for a “prequel” series for readers who are at the stage of learning the basic sounds of the individual letters of the alphabet.

BCBL: Anything else you want to add?

We both live in B.C., but Elspeth is in Vancouver and Rowena in Victoria, so we’re separated by an expanse of water, making it tricky to get together in person to write on a regular basis. Instead, we write together for several hours each week using our phones and Google docs. These technologies allow us to work simultaneously on a single document (even a single sentence) in real time, and be speaking with each other as we write. We literally correct each other’s typos and finish each other’s sentences as we go, which occasionally leads to some hilarious results.

Two or three times a year, we meet for a writing retreat, usually on one of the Gulf Islands, where we do nothing but write, eat and go for walks to come up with new ideas and adventures for our characters.

Apart from the gratification of creating books that are making a real difference for many kids and their families, the best thing about the two of us working together is how much closer it’s brought us. We’ve always been close as friends and sisters but now we’re business partners and co-authors as well, and this has been truly phenomenal.
978-1459824935 Frank and the Skunk
978-1459824904 A Duck in a Sock

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Rowena Rae

Rowena Rae worked as a biologist in Canada and New Zealand before becoming a freelance writer and editor and a children’s author. She is the author of Chemical World (Orca Footprints, 2020) and co-author of Meg and Greg: Duck in a Sock. Rowena writes both fiction and nonfiction from her home in Victoria.

Elspeth Rae

Elspeth Rae has a B.Ed. from Simon Fraser University and is a certified Orton-Gillingham teacher for children with dyslexia and other language-learning difficulties. Elspeth was diagnosed with dyslexia at age eight and received Orton-Gillingham instruction during her school years. As a certified teacher, she works as a literacy specialist in the public school system, where she teaches reading, spelling and writing to children ages five to thirteen. She lives in Vancouver with her family.

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