Today, in a city not too far from yours, there is a young student who is learning to read. Now that he is halfway through first grade, he has mastered his basic sight words and has moved up to books that have longer sentences, even paragraphs on a page. Yesterday, his mom went to a book festival and met an author. The mom didn’t recognize the author’s name, but she was very excited when the author told her he had “the perfect” book for her son. The author said it was perfect for a first grader because it has lots of action and moves along fast and they love to read it.
Do not adjust your screen … just keep reading.
When Mom got home, she called for her son and told him about meeting an author at his school. She then handed him the book she’d purchased. Her son looked at it and started to cry … there were so many words on the page and no pictures. How could this be? Her son knows how to read, and the author said it was perfect for a first grader to read … or did he?
Are you squinting yet? It isn’t often that I go off on a rant, but it drives me crazy when books characterized as “easy readers” have teeny-tiny text, pages on end with no images, and .45-inch margins! I purposely wrote this post with tiny font – and no illustrations – to (hopefully) demonstrate how a developing reader feels when it looks like everything runs together on a page.
Okay, I think you get my point. I understand that it costs a lot to print books, particularly books with illustrations, but there is a huge difference between books that new readers will enjoy having read to them and books they can read themselves. Although the content of easy readers spans myriad subjects and might even have chapters, there are definite differences between an easy reader and a book for independent readers, even newly minted ones. The two easiest criteria to remember are big margins and illustrations.
The phenomena of minimal illustrations and nearly non-existent margins are more common among self-published authors. This is not a riff on self-publishing; I have found wonderful self-published books for children. But when it comes to easy readers, there is a breakdown.
- When you cut out the illustrations, you take away the new reader’s ability to use the image to “decode” the text. New readers bounce between text and illustration to figure out context and new vocabulary.
- When you cram in more text, you overwhelm the student visually. Learning to read is a developmental skill, and you need to “build” your brain’s capacity to process bigger and bigger pieces of information.
- Your narrative describes the story in such detail and with so many events that the reader is confused. Odds are you are frustrating your reader, too, because there are too many words on a page he doesn’t know. The book never gets finished.
- Sizing the book larger to get in more text and fewer pages makes it hard for the new reader to hold comfortably.
I say all that to ask you to think about your reading audience. If you see your book being enjoyed by a new reader, please don’t call it an easy reader. It is a book young audiences will enjoy, just as they enjoy listening to picture book stories.
If you see your book being READ BY a developing reader, then please please please go to the library and ask to see some easy readers. Not all easy readers are like The Cat in the Hat. There are chapter books and longer titles, too, but you will quickly see that there is a general pattern to the format that sets an easy reader apart from other books.
If your story can’t fit into that framework, then maybe it isn’t meant to be an easy reader. And that’s Okay. If you aren’t sure about how readable your book is, there are a number of free online tools that let you paste in your text and get a readability level. This can be an invaluable tool as you are trying to gauge your audience.
Please understand, 0ur goals are the same: encourage kids to become lifelong readers. When they know how to read, they can enjoy yours. Help them remember your name and want to read all your books … not as the author who scared them away from reading.