I once believed nothing was harder than writing a picture book. Writing picture books is a cakewalk compared to beginning readers. Kids don’t have to read picture books, just enjoy them. Beginning, or leveled readers, are designed for newly-independent readers who have graduated from phonics texts. Levels vary according to publishers, but usually include an early level for pre-readers and/or kindergarteners.
When I wrote I Like Shoes (2005) for Scholastic’s Rookie Reader series, I wasn’t even sure the 44-word rhyming text was a book. It didn’t have much of a story.
The preschool to kindergarten readers have very short texts and are splashed with cheerful illustrations. They look easy to write. Fun, even! I’ve written three Level 1 (Ready-to-Read) books for the Step into Reading imprint of Random House. I’d love to brag I dash these fripperies off in a day or so, but my orange notebook would be quick to report the fib.
My battered orange spiral notebook is used exclusively for writing level 1 readers. It’s battered because I drag it everywhere. Sometimes I throw it across the room in a fit of frustration. The orange notebook knows I will pick it up with a sigh and go back to the difficult lines I was struggling with.
At the front of this notebook is a typed version of, at least in my opinion, the Moby Dick of leveled readers. Harriet Ziefert’s Sleepy Dog was first published in 1984 and is still a strong seller. The short charming text about a dog-child going to bed is deceptively simple.
My first Level 1 ideas were rejected for being too sophisticated, such as the canine etiquette guide written by fleas. Gradually I understood this audience needs stories about their world.
I finally got it right with Pumpkin Day (2015). The story, about a pumpkin-picking family, employs rhyme and rhythm. Unlike I Like Shoes, Pumpkin Day has a narrative arc. The 113 words were carefully chosen and discarded, revised and reworked, page after scribbled page, as evidenced in the orange notebook.
Level 1 books teem with action. Illustrations match the narrative. If the reader has trouble decoding the text, the art provides necessary cues. Apple Picking Day (2016) will follow Pumpkin Day. Same family on a different fall adventure. This story was even harder because there was no story. After you’ve picked pumpkins, what surprises await picking apples? Plus I had to use the same rhyme and rhythm scheme as in Pumpkin Day.
No metaphors, my editor warned. And no contractions. While I wasn’t given a word list, I had to rely on common sense. The stanza “Over mountains/cross a bridge/apple orchard/on the ridge” contained “mountains,” “bridge,” and “ridge.” I loved the image of the family’s little yellow car motoring through the countryside, but the stanza had to be changed. The published version (after many scratch-outs in the orange notebook) reads, “Over hill tops,/big and small./I see apples./Hello, fall!”
Simple wins every time.
For Tooth Fairy Night (2017), I applied a guide of sight words for kindergartners. Draft pages in the orange notebook are littered with tiny marginal lists of one-syllable end rhymes, like stay, away, day, play. Words that seem ridiculously easy to us give the youngest readers pleasure and satisfaction.
I actually love writing these little stories. The orange notebook often sits on the kitchen counter while I fix dinner or wash dishes. I’ll mutter lines or try out rhymes while soaping the same plate over and over. If I’m riding in the car, my trusty notebook rests on my lap like a puppy.
Sometimes I long to be asked to write a Level 2. Bigger word list! More syllables! Yet I picture a brand-new reader picking up one of my Level 1 books and happily sounding out those hundred or so words to the very end. The orange notebook and I toast (ink for the notebook, iced tea for me) another reader’s success.