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Easy Reader and Early Reader Series:
Targeting the Emergent Reader

by Joan Broerman

(Revised and expanded version of an article orginally published in the March 1998 issue of Children's Writer, a publication of the Institute for Children's Literature)
Do you remember that magic moment when you first realized you could read? It's the beginning of an adventure that lasts a lifetime. Through a variety of early reader books, educators, writers, and editors contribute to that delightful discovery right along with the parents and young or emergent readers themselves.

Early readers, designed for the "emergent reader"--one who is just about to fly solo into the world of print--are also often called easy readers. Ironically, these first books for the young are difficult to write. Educators know what young readers need, writers strive to perfect the craft of writing these challenging stories, and editors are delighted when they find writers who have mastered the form. If you'd like to master that form, here's help.

Advice from the Experts

The Educator:

What is most important to emergent readers? Early reading specialist Maryann Manning, Ed.D., a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and author of many articles on literacy, believes a topic "must grab" the reader. If it isn't about something that interests kids, they won't read it. She also thinks language must be natural, not contrived.

Dr. Manning likes books by Lois Ehlert and Mem Fox. Another author whose work she admires is Joy Cowley, whose book, Mrs. Wishy Washy, has been translated into many languages and is an example of a book with universal child appeal.

When a child is learning to read, parents can help the young reader bridge the gap, Manning says. "Parents should take children to every free appropriate event in town. Talk to them. Give them experiences. Have print around them." This gives children prior knowledge to "hook into" when they read.

If you want to succeed as a writer of early readers, it's clear that reading many of these books is essential. Manning points out that children build on prior knowledge based on what they experience, and writers must do this, too. Observant writers will note what experiences interest kids and write stories that interest them, too.

The Writer:

After twenty years in the classroom, Larry Dane Brimner decided to trade his career in teaching children for a career in writing for them. His first credits were poems in children's magazines, a good place for the writer to gain recognition and confidence. This, said Brimner, gave him acceptance letters to balance against the rejection slips he gathered while working through his apprenticeship in the book market.

He counts Jack and Jill among his early credits, which in the past several years have been followed by a total of seventy published titles (at last count!) spanning picture books, early readers, chapter books, and young adult nonfiction. He has also published young adult fiction in magazines. His publishers include Boyds Mills Press, Orchard, and Children's Press.

As Brimner focused on the comparisons between the book market and the magazine market, he noticed that early readers differed significantly from such categories as the magazine short story or the picture book. He also found that the early reader can merge into the picture book in one direction and the chapter book in the other. The language and format of early readers challenged him. He read them, studied them, and analyzed them.

Brimner read Arnold Lobel's work and fell in love with the images, discovering that the words on the page of an easy reader are not as dependent on the illustrator as they are in many picture books. Following the reader's usual progression from early reader to early chapter book, he noted that Frog and Toad has a trim size similar to a middle grade novel. By contrast, George and Martha by James Marshall is an easy reader written in a chunky picture book style. When Brimner wrote Country Bear for Orchard, reviews called his book an easy reading picture book.

For writers driven by the same fascination for mastering this form, Brimner recommends reading every "I Can Read" ever written; this early reader program from HarperCollins, founded by the legendary editor Ursula Nordstrom, is the second-oldest and probably best known early reader program in the United States. When he writes, he writes a story that pleases himself. He writes to the child that is "me" and thinks his inside child is basically seven or eight.

Central to the concept of the easy reader is that point in reading development when the child will advance to exploring words when there is no adult sitting beside him. The easy reader picture book especially lends itself to reading aloud or studying independently.

The thrill of reading that first book fades once the reader has mastered it. Suddenly, picture books are the wrong size or look "young." The reader wants something that looks "older." Chapters meet that need. At schools Brimner is often asked "When are you going to write more chapter books?" These readers are asking about early reader picture books with chapters such as his book, Max and Felix.

How many pages define the different sub-divisions of this genre? Brimner offers these general guidelines:

Easy reading picture book: 32 pages
Easy reader 48-64 pages
Early chapter book 48-64 pages (depending on the publisher)
Word count range: 800-1200
Brimner notes that the typical early reader chapter book has a thread that runs chapter to chapter. Each chapter is also an independent short story with a beginning, middle, and end. In Max and Felix, a camera is the thread.

Brimner urges the analytical writer to look for the beginning, middle, and end structure in every early reader he or she reads. Look for three complications. They may be only two words long.

Here are Brimner's tips for writing the early reader:

  1. Simplify language. Think of words kindergarteners and first graders know. A complex word can be used. For example: In Cowboy Up (Spring 1999) Brimner uses "skedaddle" as the only tough word.
  2. Read the book out loud. Make it flow without the use of dependant clauses or short clauses to smooth it out.
  3. Know what your publisher is looking for. For example, even though many picture book publishers do not want rhyme, some early readers are almost all in rhyme. Random House, Scholastic, and some Children's Press books are done in rhyme. For the emergent readers, rhyme is helpful as a clue to the next word. Brimner considers a rhyming early reader to be like a game or puzzle; he tries to fit the pieces together in as few words as possible.

The Editor:

What makes an early reader a success? For help in answering this question, we turned to a successful early reader publishing program and interviewed Anne Hoppe, editor, "I Can Read" program, at HarperCollins. Like many Baby Boomers, the "I Can Read" Program recently celebrated its 40th birthday.

The first "I Can Read" was Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik. All five Little Bear books are still around, testifying to kids' affection for character-based stories. Not long after Little Bear came Danny and the Dinosaur by Syd Hoff.

Hoppe says when she mentions popular "I Can Read" titles, adults are surprised. They didn't realize these familiar stories are early readers. "HarperCollins has a classic back list and "I Can Reads" are a subset of this," says Hoppe. She attributes the longevity of these books to the universal appeal of a good, enjoyable story. They also don't stint on quality and substance: "There is hard work and much thought in early readers," says Hoppe.

Starting in the spring of 1996, HarperCollins expanded their early reader program in both directions. They prefaced their existing levels one, two, and three with "My First I Can Read Books," a level for emergent readers who are on the very cusp of reading, and added a more complex, fifth level for more skilled readers. Hoppe and Editorial Director Robert Warren handle all five reading levels.

"My First I Can Read Books" are designed for preschoolers, probably about three to five, although Hoppe says it's hard to generalize about ages since children are individuals in their reading as in everything else:

"The premise of this line is that kids really aren't reading yet. They are beginning to understand the connection between letters and words. The parent reads to the child who recognizes words even though he doesn't read the whole sentence. Letter/word connection and spoken/written connection come gradually."

Early Reader Plusses and Minuses


  • Problem emerges early.
  • Believable characters.
  • Realistic dialogue and active verbs.
  • Spare, appropriate language and sentence structure.
  • Unusual subject, or common subject with unique slant.
  • Character growth.
  • A clever repetition of some sort.
  • Main character solves his own problem.
  • A surprise twist or unusual ending.


  • Slow starts.
  • Subject, main character, vocabulary, sentence structure too sophisticated for young reader.
  • Dialogue forced, contrived, long-winded or pointless.
  • Shifting point of view or no main character.
  • Telling instead of showing.
  • No obstacles for main character to overcome.
  • Didactic: adults teaching a lesson.
  • Unbelievable; abrupt magic; unrealistic; facts wrong
  • Main character does not solve problem.
  • Flat, unpredictable or lame endings.
  • A tacked-on summary of the moral.
  • Story line slight or confusing; no memorable point.
Language play helps the child enjoy these books. Repetition is important, but dull reiteration flattens text, so writers use repetition creatively. This is a reinforcement for the child and helps her jump into reading and be ready for level one.

Children reading levels one through three are already decoding: They can sound out and look for contextual clues in pictures and can read on their own. Level one aims at preschool through grade one; level two is for grades one to three; and level three, for grades two to four. In honor of their fortieth anniversary, HarperCollins brought out the "My First I Can Read Books" in paperback, but "I Can Read" continues in hardcover as well.

Hoppe looks for a good story that moves well and engages children with characters' words. "You have to tell the story through dialogue and action. Description doesn't engage the reader the way action and dialogue do. Leave description to the illustrator."

Hoppe advises writers to read at least 50 "I Can Read Books." She emphasizes how important it is to look at successful beginning readers to see what works and what doesn't by what's there. Study. How is the story created within the confines of the beginning reader? How are dialogue and action used to create effective scenes within the familiar story structure of beginning, middle, and end?

Among Hoppe's favorite easy readers are Sid and Sam by Nola Buck and Go Away, Dog by Joan Nodsett, a classic from the company's backlist. Go Away, Dog was wonderful as a picture book; today the text makes a perfect easy reader. Hoppe also points out that although Little Bear is considerably longer than new titles, it is still a level one book because of its balance of text and art.

A standard "I Can Read" book has 13 lines on a page. Sentences are broken into phrases, and while lines are short, sentences are not. The structure allows a beginning reader to read a line and get a break before tackling the text of the sentence as a whole.

Hoppe says there is no formula to define age level. In general, targeting age has to do with the balance of text and illustrations and the complexity of the story. At HarperCollins, decisions about appropriateness for age is made book by book. "Length is the first thing. We have a line count. Level two has 200 lines; Level three has 300. Even this is flexible."

Writers should not worry about formatting these lines, however. "Creating a good story is hard enough," Hoppe says. "Let the editors format." But Hoppe still expects writers to present their work professionally. Clean, clear, typed double-spaced error-free manuscripts are a must!

"We don't teach children how to read," Hoppe says. "We give them books they can read so they will want to read more and feel validated in their skills." To the aspiring easy reader writer, Hoppe says it's hard to do this right. "Send your best work and get your name out there on top quality work." Although HarperCollins is closed to submissions generally, Hoppe tries to read everything sent to her, which, considering the volume, is most ambitious. Writers who want to catch her attention must send their best work, well-written and professionally presented.

What Next?

A similarly dedicated approach to other publishers of early readers is a necessity. Many houses publish early or easy readers. Each house has its own personality, but the savvy writer will study the catalogues and recently published easy readers before he spends time and postage submitting his work. See newsletters such as Children's Writer, Children's Book Insider, and the SCBWI Bulletin for current marketing information. Booklist runs a quarterly column on "Easy Reading."

Where does your writing fit in? If you want to write early readers and follow the advice of experts Manning, Brimner, and Hoppe, it's clear you have hours of reading ahead. Enjoy!


To catch up on the easy reader market, see "In Search of New Readers," in the May 31, 2004 issue of Publishers Weekly, which notes among other things that publishers of existing easy reader lines are actively refurbishing and extending them, and that new offerings continue to appear on the market.

Copyright 1998 by Joan Broerman. All rights reserved.

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