Atama-ii Books: Graded Reader Series (Books #1 to #5)

Book Writer & Publisher: 
Atama-ii Books
Donald Patterson, International College of Liberal Arts, Yamanashi Gakuin University

[Various authors. Tokyo: Atama-ii Books, 2014. Individual books: pp. 50. ¥850; #1: Journey to Mars. Paul Raine. ISBN: 9781941140314; #2: Zombies in Tokyo. Andy Boon. ISBN: 9781941140321; #3: The Lost Cup. James Broadbridge. ISBN: 9781941140338; #4: Backstage Pass. Lesley Ito. ISBN: 9781941140345; #5: Hunter in the Darkness. ISBN: 9781941140345.]

As a fan in my youth of the original Choose Your Own Adventure series (Packard et al., 1979-1998), I was keen on trialing Atama-ii’s new series of multiple-path graded readers. As a young reader, the appeal of multiple paths was the sense of being involved in the story. This led to many repeat readings in order to explore every possible choice combination. Now, as a teacher, it is that potential for re-readability and the recycling of language that appeals.

The Atama-ii Graded Reader Series, edited by Marcos Benevides and illustrated by Alice Carroll, is at a 300-headword level and is recommended for ages 11 and up. Each title has approximately 2,500 words with 800-880 words per path. All titles are available in print and digital formats, with YouTube versions available for some.

 The books open with a Before Reading section consisting of three topical questions for consideration, followed by a Keywords section introducing important vocabulary from the text. The story, written from a second-person perspective (e.g., “You are an astronaut”), then begins. The pages alternate between text and illustrations with each page of text running at about 100 to 110 words. At the end of the third page, readers are presented with their first choice to further the story. Depending on their decision, readers are directed to different pages with different outcomes. New choices are subsequently presented every other page with a total of eight possible endings. The story is followed by an After Reading section with extension questions, an Ideas for Teachers page with follow-up activities, and a Book Review page for students to record their impressions. 

While some educators may be wary about using simplified materials, Nation and Ming-Tzu (1999, p. 356) argue in favour of graded readers, noting that “without them learners would not be able to experience reading in a second language at a level of comfort and fluency approaching first language reading.” Among their top ten principles for teaching extensive reading, Day and Bamford (2002) recommend that reading material be easy, learners be able to choose what they want to read, learners read as much as possible, and the reading is pleasurable. It was with these principles in mind that I evaluated the Atama-ii series.

The series was piloted in two first-year university reading skills courses with an extensive reading component. I introduced the graded readers and the concept of multi-path stories in class by way of the publisher’s YouTube version of the first title in the series, Journey to Mars. The online video was screened in class and at each branching point in the story the class voted on which path to take. 

Having piqued their interest, I requested the students read at least one of the five titles outside of class and then continue to read as many as they wished. At the end of the course, I conducted a survey to gather feedback about the series in terms of ease, pleasure, re-readability, and student choices.

This was the first experience with multi-path stories for all 20 of the students and the vast majority (85%) found the Atama-ii readers to be fun and interesting. Three quarters of the students indicated that they usually re-read the stories in order to try different paths and most (65%) expressed interest in reading more titles from the series. Beginner-level students found the language to be at an appropriate level for graded reading, while some upper-intermediate students found them to be too easy. Typical comments included: 

“It is interesting because readers can choose the ending. While reading I felt I was a character of a book. I would like to read other books!”

“Atama-ii books...included a little bit easier vocabulary, so I recommend to students who are studying English in introductory level.”

The students rated all of the graded readers positively with Zombies in Tokyo voted the most popular, the vampire-themed Hunter in the Darkness second, and the detective story The Lost Cup a close third.

Evaluated by the above-mentioned criteria, the Atama-ii Graded Reader Series is a welcome addition to an extensive reading program, particularly for teenagers at a beginner level of English. In its embrace of danger and adventure the series has a dark tone, which may not appeal to some learners. However, for those who do appreciate it, the series may encourage the kind of narrow reading that Krashen (2004, p. 18) calls “potentially very motivating.” My only complaint is that there are not more books in the series for such fans, but with luck and time this should be amended.