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New for New Readers: What (Exactly) IS an Easy Reader?

Why are high-quality books for emerging readers so challenging to find? I ask this question as a parent of an emerging reader, as well as in my professional capacity as an elementary school librarian. I’m also asked this same question by teachers, other parents, and professional colleagues. After ruminating about easy readers for years (and serving on the 2018 Theodor Seuss Geisel committee, an award that “is given annually to the author(s) and illustrator(s) of the most distinguished American book for beginning readers published in English in the United States during the preceding year”), I have started to develop a framework for some answers.

What exactly is an easy reader? (And should we even call them easy readers? See sidebar below.) The texts of these books are inherently restricted by the need to be easily decoded and understood by young people with often limited vocabulary and lack of background knowledge. While a picture book can employ multisyllabic and/or unfamiliar words and scenarios beyond a child’s frame of reference because an adult can assist with decoding, defining, and providing context as needed, easy reader texts — intended for children just starting to read on their own — are constrained in their word choice, sentence length, and chapter length.

When it comes to word choice, writers must take into account children’s limited experience with word sounds and decodability. They must thoughtfully consider the inclusion of sight words, as well as the rate at which new words will be introduced and repeated, along with incorporation of consonant blends (bl, ch, gr) and vowel digraphs (oa, ee, oi). Because of these books’ intentionally limited vocabulary, words and phrases are often repeated several times after being introduced, as in David Milgrim’s Otto and Zip books and Jan Thomas’s Giggle Gang series. One of my Geisel committee’s honor picks, I See a Cat by Paul Meisel, employs only ten distinct words (supported by clear watercolor, acrylic, and pencil illustrations) to tell its engaging and satisfying story.

The already-challenging limitations regarding accessibility are further complicated by the need for the characters and plots to be interesting enough to keep new readers hooked, in order to provide opportunities to practice as their reading proficiency increases. The words themselves must be simple, but the stories can’t be overly so, or readers may lose momentum and interest. This is not easy to do, and harder to do well. As Elephant & Piggie creator Mo Willems explained on an episode of The Yarn podcast, “simple and easy are opposites.” Easy readers aren’t watered down — they’re distilled; each story’s tension and humor in perfect balance and clear on the page in easy-to-consume, bite-sized sentences.

The world-building, larger casts, and multiple plot arcs to which books for stronger (and typically older) readers might devote many pages is, in the easy reader, limited to just a few sentences, or even a few words. For this reason, most easy readers, even those for readers starting to build confidence and stamina around reading, contain a limited numbers of characters and straightforward storylines often parsed into short chapters, such as Grace Lin’s Ling & Ting books, Leslie Kimmelman’s Sam and Charlie (and Sam Too!) series, Jerdine Nolan’s Bradford Street Buddies books, and the Confetti Kids series. This need for simplicity also speaks to the reasons that series books as well as books featuring familiar franchised characters (such as Marc Brown’s Arthur) are so popular with the emerging reader crowd. By using characters and settings that readers already know well, authors can use more of their word count on things other than character development and setting. The challenge, then, becomes keeping storylines fresh and interesting. Some examples of series characters who keep readers coming back tale after tale are Kate DiCamillo’s Mercy Watson and other Deckawoo Drive neighbors, Katie Woo by Fran Manushkin, and old standbys such as James Marshall’s George and Martha and Cynthia Rylant’s Mr. Putter & Tabby.

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Of course, the text must leave room for illustrators to do their part of the work of supporting emerging readers. The Geisel criteria require that award-winning books and honorees must “contain illustrations, which function as keys or clues to the text,” and the best easy readers strike a perfect balance between words and art.

Illustrations function in easy readers in some of the same ways as they do in picture books — filling in gaps in the narrative, creating or resolving tension, serving as a visual punch line, etc. Likewise, illustrations in easy readers also function in some of the ways they do in illustrated storybooks or chapter books. In these cases, they do the work of adding supplementary details that, unlike in a picture book, are not necessarily required in order to understand the story. They add interest, establish mood, and break up text into appealing or less overwhelming chunks, providing room for the words to breathe, creating a reason for white space on the page.

However, illustrations in easy readers also work in ways specific to the format. They often give clues to emerging readers by providing literal visual symmetry that can help a stuck reader decode a nonphonological word such as caught or climb. Or, in cases where the book stars an established character with whom children are already familiar, preliterate children can often anticipate and accurately guess what the character is saying on the page by having background knowledge which is activated through the illustrations. The illustrations in easy readers, like the words, should be easy to “read” and entertaining to look at while providing scaffolding that boosts children’s literacy and interest.

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The Geisel criteria also indicate that eligible books should be intended for “pre-K through Grade 2” — or, said a different way, for readers as young as three years old or as old as eight. This is a huge range, developmentally speaking, both in terms of physical and emotional growth and in terms of the real-world experiences that generate background knowledge necessary for readers to understand the text beyond decoding it. The daily lives of preschoolers and of second graders are radically different, making what’s relatable, funny, or interesting to them radically different, too. And what about the age outliers? Or those for whom learning differences account for reading proficiency happening on a different timeline? Conventional wisdom about reading instruction offers the idea that, until the end of third grade, kids are “learning to read”; then a magical switch somehow flips, and from third grade on, kids are “reading to learn.” Setting aside the problematic and depressingly limited idea that the main goal of reading is learning (what about reading for joy? for empathy? to satisfy curiosity? to become inspired?), what if, because of learning differences ranging from ADHD to visual convergence insufficiency, or phonological or comprehension deficits, that magical switch flips later, or only partway? What is the experience of an emerging reader who can decode perfectly but can’t retain or make sense of what they’re reading due to a lack of experiences to make connections to situations described in texts? Conversely, how does a third grader feel reading a text geared toward a kindergartner? Insulted? Embarrassed? Bored?

In cases where older children are still building their skill set as independent readers, books that look like traditional chapter books but are written with somewhat controlled vocabulary (sometimes called hi/lo, short for high interest/low reading level) might be the best fit; think the Jake Maddox series of sports-related chapter books. Playing with format (see the TOON Readers and hybrid graphic novel/chapter books, such as the Frankie Pickle series by Eric Wight and the Hilo series by Judd Winick) can be engaging to a variety of readers. Heavily illustrated early chapter book series, such as The Princess in Black (by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale), Dory Fantasmagory (by Abby Hanlon), and Freddie Ramos (by Jacqueline Jules) might also appeal to slightly older readers as they gain confidence and reading fluency.

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No matter their age, as they make their way from the simplest of texts with just a few easily decodable words per page (I Hug by David McPhail), to more traditionally formatted easy readers (David A. Adler’s Mo books, It’s Shoe Time! by Bryan Collier), to still more sophisticated easy readers (Geisel gold–winning Charlie & Mouse by Laurel Snyder, the Yasmin series by Saadia Faruqi), before tackling transitional chapter books (the Jasmine Toguchi series by Debbi Michiko Florence), kids are not just growing their ability to make sense of texts; they are also cultivating their identities as readers.

Many children identify the same titles or series as their “aha” books — the ones they proudly recall as the first books they read to themselves, often countless times, expanding their personal arsenals of sight words. Whereas in the past this would likely have referred to Arnold Lobel’s timeless Frog and Toad books or the Little Bear series by Else Holmelund Minarik and Maurice Sendak, today’s ubiquitous easy reader series also include Elephant & Piggie, Fly Guy (by Tedd Arnold), and Pig in a Wig (by Emma J. Virján). And how wonderful to be an emerging reader in this moment when books for beginning readers are starting to reflect the diverse world in which all children live — where Kayla, an African American girl sleuth (King & Kayla series by Dori Hillestad Butler) has a spot on the same shelf as Nate the Great.

The shared experience of being an emerging reader connects these books’ audience members despite other identifying traits (race, family structure, socioeconomic status, geography, religion), which they may or may not have in common, providing opportunity to make connections “across differences.” Perhaps one benefit to the relatively small pool of high-quality books for those just starting to read independently is that, regardless of the beholders’ differences, they are likely, in their earliest stages of developing proficient reading skills, to be exposed to at least some of the same few dozen popular easy reader series. And these series are as prominently displayed in under-resourced libraries as they are in the poshest of independent bookstores catering to wealthy families. In this way, these books become cultural touchstones that transcend the things that divide us, offering a fond and relatable shared memory: becoming empowered to entertain and educate ourselves independently through reading.

“Easy Readers” versus “Early Readers”

In addition to the challenge of finding  high-quality books for emerging readers, especially ones who are at the top of the age range, I wonder, too, as others have: what should we call these books? “Easy readers” seems to be industry standard, but I’ve also seen “early readers” used to describe books with the familiar nine-by-seven-inch approximate trim size and vertical orientation that denote these books’ intended audience (a format that has loosened considerably).

Each of these labels has potential drawbacks, though. How does calling a book that might take tremendous effort for an emerging reader to decode “easy” make a child feel, when it isn’t easy for them? Likewise, calling them “early readers” could put off kids in higher grades who are still in the beginning stages of reading acquisition.

At my own elementary school library, I’ve settled on changing the signage and catalog to update the “E Fic” spine labels so that it stands for “Everybody Fiction” rather than “Easy Fiction” (an idea that had resonated with me in a “Best Practices to Make Students Feel Welcome” discussion at a conference).

From the March/April 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Sylvie Shaffer About Sylvie Shaffer

Sylvie Shaffer is the preK–8 librarian at the Capitol Hill Day School in Washington, DC. She is active in ALSC and Capitol Choices, and currently serves on the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee. She lives in Takoma Park, Maryland, with her wife and their five-year-old emerging reader.

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Comments

  1. Wow!! This is a fantastic read. Thank you for offering your insight on the easy reader. I know it can seem simple to those that don’t write (Or who are looking to write) Easy reads, but they’re some of the more challenge kinds of books due to the limited word choice. Thanks for sharing!

  2. What you are describing here is exactly what I am striving to do with my own writing! My goal is to write books for beginning readers that they will enjoy and want to read. Keeping the language simple, but fun is a constant challenge. I try to tap into children’s natural desire to play and many teachers use my books as a starting point for play and story workshop. Check it out at foxyandfriendsbooks.ca

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