Writing Books for the Newest Readers

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. 

I Like Shoes by Candice RansomWhen 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.

Sleepy Dog by Harriet ZiefertAt 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.

Pumpkin Day by Candice Ransom and illustrated by Erika MezaI 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.

Copyright Evan Sharboneau (via dollarphotoclub.com)

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8 years ago

Yay for you and the orange note­book! These begin­ning sto­ries are so impor­tant to kids’ read­ing lives, and the tru­ly good ones are pre­cious. Please keep writ­ing them!

David LaRochelle
8 years ago

Thank you for this insight into writ­ing these decep­tive­ly sim­ple books! Sim­ple IS often best…and often hardest!