New for New Readers: How to Publish (What I Think Are) Great Books for New Readers

Sometime in 2017, I got a call from Bernice Myers, a mid-twentieth-century illustrator of nonfiction picture books and author-illustrator of books for new readers such as Not THIS Bear! Bernice, who hadn’t published a new book for many years, had a story for me, and of course I was happy to read it.

One day BIG DOG and LITTLE DOG meet.
“Be my friend,” says BIG DOG.
“What is a friend?” says LITTLE DOG.

I was hooked. Simple. Direct. And a perfect premise for a story for new readers. Bernice’s tale explores ideas about friendship that are relevant to five- and six-year-olds: friends help friends. And friends have fun simply sharing a snack together.

Bernice was ninety-two at the time, and full of enthusiasm. She revised the text again and again — even after I told her it was perfect.

Bernice’s poignant characters and bold use of markers and cut paper contribute to the book’s simplicity, frankness, and accessibility. Frank and accessible — that’s Bernice! Working with her on Dog Meets Dog was just one of many magical opportunities I’ve had acquiring I Like to Read books at Holiday House.

The text of an I Like to Read book needs to be simple enough for kindergarteners and first-term first graders. (Please read Sylvie Shaffer’s excellent article in the March/April 2019 Horn Book, “What [Exactly] Is an Easy Reader?” for information about text and art requirements for books for new readers.) Our books are leveled by out-of-house levelers using the Fountas & Pinnell standards, and span levels A through G. I tend to like a good story, one with conflict, climax, and resolution. But sometimes only a subtle narrative structure is appropriate, especially for the most primary levels.

    

An I Like to Read book may have a simple story with fabulous art, as in Jump by David McPhail or the forthcoming Ferry Boat by Michael Garland. Or it may be simple nonfiction with fabulous art, as in Look! by Ted Lewin. It may have an important idea, as in Lunch Box Bully by Hans Wilhelm. Or it may have a subject or genre children love, as in Score One More by Marilyn Janovitz, which is about soccer, or Where Is Mommy? by Pat Cummings, a mystery.

***

In a 1954 article for Life magazine, John Hersey asked why primers couldn’t be illustrated by “the wonderfully imaginative geniuses among children’s illustrators, Tenniel, Howard Pyle, ‘Dr. Seuss,’ Walt Disney.” ­William Spaulding, director of Houghton ­Mifflin’s education division, read the article and invited Theodor Geisel to write, using a word list, a book for six- and seven-year-olds who had mastered reading basics. The Cat in the Hat was published in 1957.

Meanwhile, Harper editor Ursula ­Nordstrom learned from her librarian friend Virginia Haviland that parents were asking for primers. Then Else ­Holmelund Minarik, a teacher, walked into Ursula’s office with a story that could be read by children by the end of first grade. Little Bear, illustrated by Maurice Sendak, was also published in 1957.

Fast-forward to the twenty-first century. “Easy reader” has become a sales category. But the new child reader is no longer a mid-year first grader, as in the 1950s. Nearly twenty years ago, ­reading — customarily introduced to U.S. students in first grade — began to be introduced in kindergarten. But traditional trade beginner books had been developed for first graders, not for ­kindergarteners — who needed and deserved wonderful learning-to-read books.

First-term first graders need great books, too; I learned that firsthand. When my daughter was in first grade, she was told to read for fifteen minutes every day. But beginner books such as Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad Are Friends were too difficult, so at school my daughter was given books with stories and art that weren’t very interesting. They were a far cry from the rich and rewarding picture books I had been reading to her.

Shortly after I joined Holiday House in 2010, editor in chief Mary Cash asked me to work on a series of easy readers. I was in heaven. Mary and I both had experience publishing books in this genre. Mary had supervised Holiday House easy readers and had edited Patricia Reilly Giff’s amazing Kids of the Polk Street School early-chapter-book series. I had supervised Hello Reader! for Scholastic, and had worked on phonics readers, guided readers, readers with licensed characters, and children’s magazines. I have spent much of my adult life thinking about how to communicate with simple sentences and short words!

I knew from the start that our new series, named I Like to Read by retired Holiday House marketing and publicity director Kate Briggs, should focus on the underserved readers in kindergarten and first grade.

How to do this? The newest readers are able to read a small number of sight words and to decode some but not all letter-sound combinations. Because Mary and I wanted the visuals to do much of the heavy lifting, we decided to liberate ourselves from the 6-inch-by-9-inch format traditionally used for first-grade primers. We decided to publish I Like to Read in picture-book sizes — roomier for illustrators, familiar to kindergarteners, and more appropriate for a picture walk (a teaching strategy that familiarizes a child with a story before he or she tackles the text). We decided upon 8 x 10 and 9 x 9 formats. Yes, it’s a bit unusual to have two sizes in a series, but we wanted illustrators to be free to choose between a square and rectangular page. Fortunately, then-Holiday House publisher John Briggs had absolute confidence in his editorial staff, and he supported us. I don’t think any other publisher would have done that.

I approached people I had worked with in the past, people who had been creating children’s books for many years and many of whom had won major awards — such as Caldecott, Coretta Scott King, Pura Belpré, Geisel, New York Times Best Illustrated. I also approached creators I hadn’t worked with, and I reviewed unsolicited dummies and manuscripts, too.

I talked to Rebecca and Ed Emberley, David McPhail, Tedd Arnold, David Catrow, and Steve Bjorkman. Each time, I asked for the same thing — a visual story with spare text. I didn’t send word lists, which are extremely confining and rarely conducive to creative expression. I think the chance to stretch the boundaries of the easy reader genre appealed to them. They did it brilliantly. Each had a wonderful book for the launch of the list: The Lion and the Mice; Boy, Bird, and Dog; Fix This Mess!; The Fly Flew In; and Dinosaurs Don’t, Dinosaurs Do. Mary talked to Ethan Long and Bob Barner, who contributed Pig Has a Plan and I Have a Garden.

Sometimes the artist and I would revisit the text several times to cut nonessential words and replace difficult words with easier ones. Other times, both text and art worked from the get-go, as with Fix This Mess!; nothing at all needed to be fixed!

***

Allow me to share a few stories about some memorable I Like to Read collaborations.

Emily Arnold McCully, a Caldecott medalist (for Mirette on the High Wire), had published picture books, beginning readers, and wordless books. I asked her to create a visual twenty-four-page story with a simple text. Emily liked the idea. She was inspired right away and came up with the premise for Late Nate in a Race on her train ride home from our meeting. Nate likes to go slowly, but when his brother and sister participate in a race, Mom encourages Nate to join them. A spot illustration of Mom pushing Nate by his shoulders charms me every time I see it. Emily approaches I Like to Read books as she would a wordless book, with the storytelling primarily assigned to the pictures.

***

One sunny day in 2010, over lunch, Mary and I pitched I Like to Read to Betsy and Ted Lewin, both Caldecott honorees. Betsy, who had written and illustrated picture books as well as books for beginning readers, said she had a dummy for a picture book that wasn’t quite working out and that maybe the story needed to be simplified. That story, about anthropomorphic crocodiles competing in a swimming race, became You Can Do It!, a perfect title for new readers. The book has energetic lines, expressive facial expressions and body language, speech balloons, vignettes, single pages, spreads, expert technique, and solid storytelling.

The four of us decided that Ted needed a book, too. Ted’s idea was to create stunning paintings to illustrate a nonfiction book about the activities of living things. Look! won a Correll Book Award for Excellence in Early Childhood Informational Text and led to four more I Like to Read books by Ted.

***

I hadn’t worked with Paul Meisel before, but I had wanted to. I had seen his art samples, and I found his characters appealing and his settings inviting. Paul gave me a manuscript and some sketches for a traditional picture book called Coco at the Dog Park. The dogs were joyful and exuberant. I asked Paul for more story and a simpler text. When Paul had the dogs digging up dinosaur bones that came to life, I knew we had a kid-pleaser. The book he eventually gave us, See Me Run, was named a Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Book, which is quite a thrill. Also deeply gratifying is this Amazon customer review from 2012: “My son is struggling. When I ask him to read he cries. This book gives him confidence…It is at my son’s level, the pictures are entertaining, and he thinks it’s funny. We read it again and again.” (Paul received a second Geisel Honor for another dog-inspired book, I See a Cat.)

***

At the office one day, Claire Counihan, Holiday House art director until 2015, showed me an art sample of a cutaway of an apartment building with six rooms, each containing a bunny — reading, writing, knitting, watering plants, looking out a window, and clipping papers. I was fascinated, so I called the illustrator, Steve Henry, to ask if the bunnies in the building had a story. They didn’t, so he started to work on one. After much doodling — not of bunnies — Steve created Happy Cat, about a homeless cat who makes friends and finds shelter in a three-story walkup. Steve’s most recent book, Snow Is Fun, also started with a setting. Steve studied how the masters rendered snow, in paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum; he observed snowflakes outside his eighth-floor apartment, as well. Children will enjoy details such as a branch that’s intact on the front endpapers and broken on the back endpapers, and a sky that changes color as the day progresses.

Steve told me that he was particularly happy to be making easy readers because reading didn’t come easily to him when he was a child. His parents sent him to a tutor who drew pictures with a crow quill pen while she taught him phonics. Steve talks about her with much fondness and gratitude.

***

Joe Cepeda had previously illustrated three picture books for me. Several years ago, I told Joe about I Like to Read and sent him some examples. The timing was good, as Joe had recently decided to turn his attention to writing. He made some sketches, and one he particularly liked was of a boy with a pinwheel. Joe explained to me that he let that sketch lead him into a story and that he tried not to censor himself. Up is about a boy who finds a pinwheel that propels him into the sky. What fun!

A librarian who came to the Holiday House booth at ALA said she needed a beginning reader series with a Latinx character. So I asked Joe for more books. The main character in Up appears in three more I Like to Read books — I Dig, I See, and, coming in fall 2021, I Hop. The simplicity of the text makes Up and its sequels perfect for kindergarten readers. Joe witnessed this firsthand. Though Joe has been visiting fourth- and fifth-grade assemblies for many years, he only recently visited a kindergarten classroom. The children gave him a special treat by proudly and joyfully reading I See aloud. (Up, I Dig, and I See will be published in Spanish editions in summer 2021.)

***

As I write this, I’m starting to see a pattern in how I publish books for beginning readers: I ask talented author-illustrators to do their thing. I try to help them when I can, stay out of their way when I can’t, and I remind them to use short, familiar words and easy sentences. What’s ahead? Diversity, humor, more cats, more dogs, more friendship.

“Let’s have some fun,” says BIG DOG. “On a train?”
“Too noisy,” says LITTLE DOG.
“On a bus?” says BIG DOG.
“Too bumpy,” says LITTLE DOG.
“On a rocket to the moon?” says BIG DOG.
“Too far!” says LITTLE DOG.
“Let’s get ice cream!” they say.

YES!

From the November/December 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

grace-maccarone

Since 2010, Grace Maccarone has been executive editor at Holiday House, where she works on easy readers in the I Like to Read® series and on picture books; previously, she was an editor at Scholastic.

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