Special thanks to Laurie Calkhoven for this guest post.
Laurie Calkhoven is the author of more than 50 books for young readers including award-winning nonfiction early readers. She and Wiley Blevins are co-faculty for our Writing First Chapter Books and Early Readers workshop, June 17-20, 2019 at the Highlights Foundation Retreat Center in Pennsylvania. Their special guests are authors Debbi Michiko Florence and Tracey West along with editor Katie Carella. Learn more about the workshop here.
You’ve created a fabulous character and written a story to capture young readers. But where does your story fit in the marketplace? When it’s time for revision and marketing to agents and publishers, you need to be able to answer that question. Where will your book be shelved at Barnes and Noble? What about in your local library?
In our Writing First Chapter Books and Early Readers workshop, Wiley Blevins and I encountered some confusion among our attendees about what those different categories actually mean. That’s not surprising–there’s a lot of overlap between picture books, early readers, and first chapter books. Some picture books have simple language and can be read by a first grader, some early readers have chapters. Like everything else in publishing, as soon as I give you a rule or a clear guideline, I feel the need to add except for sometimes.
To make the distinctions clearer, I took a close look at three books about one popular character who’s managed to conquer the picture book, early reader, AND chapter book markets all at the same time–Fancy Nancy.
Title: FANCY NANCY, Written by Jane O’Connor, Illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser
# Pages: 32
# Words: approximately 420
Picture books are designed to be read to a child not by a child. Children can and do sometimes read these on their own or page through the spreads to pore over the pictures, but there aren’t strict guidelines about word choice and sentence length that you’ll find in an early reader.
In the first Fancy Nancy picture book, Nancy tries to teach her sadly non-fancy family how to be fancy. The full-color illustrations support the text, but they also go beyond it. Children could spend a lot of time going through the spreads looking for all of the fancy additions to Nancy’s bedroom and her wardrobe. That’s a big part of the fun of these books.
The story is simple and entertaining, and the characters are limited to Nancy and her family. The text is also simple, but the typeface isn’t one of the standard typefaces–it’s a bit fancy too.
Early Reader (I Can Read Level 1):
Title: FANCY NANCY APPLES GALORE! By Jane O’Connor, pictures based on the art of Robin Preiss Glasser
# pages: 32
# Words: approximately 567 (plus a one-page glossary of fancy words)
Early readers are designed to be read by a child. Sentences are short. Simple words are chosen to meet the readers’ grade level. You might come across a compound sentence or two, but those are rare. The type face is big and easy-to-read with lots of white space on the page. Sentences are completed on one page–i.e. they don’t run from one page to the next.
In Apples Galore, Nancy goes apple picking with her class. The full-color illustrations on every page are in the same fancy style as those in the picture books, but they don’t fill the page (remember white space). The pictures support the text without going beyond it–they provide clues as to what’s going in the text.
Nancy’s class is in the background in the illustrations, but the only characters named in this story are her trip buddy (Lionel) and her teacher (Ms. Glass) until she brings apples home to her father on the last page. Readers at this level are working very hard to decode words, they aren’t able to keep track of more than a few characters at a time or to follow complex stories. Deciphering a whole sentence is a huge accomplishment at this stage. Keeping multiple story elements in mind at the same time is simply too hard.
The simple story includes Nancy’s trademark fancy words (as in the picture book, the fancy words are defined in the text). There’s a glossary of the fancy words and their definitions on the last page.
Title: NANCY CLANCY SUPER SLEUTH
Written by Jane O’Connor, Illustrations by Robin Preiss Glasser
# pages: 124
#words: approximately 8,700
The first difference readers will notice between Jane O’Connor’s chapter books and the Fancy Nancy books for younger readers has to do with the illustrations. They are black and white. There is a full-page illustration facing each chapter opener and spot art throughout. There are a number of spreads without any art at all.
The story is more complex than that in the early reader–Nancy solves not one but two mysteries using clues the reader is also following. The reader has to keep a number of different characters straight–Nancy’s family, her best friend Bree, the twins who live nearby, and Nancy’s classmates (a number of whom are named and reappear in subsequent chapters).
The type face is smaller than in the early reader, there’s a lot less white space on the page, and the reader encounters more complex sentences mixed in with the simple ones. Vocabulary is more varied. Words can be hyphenated at the end of lines and sentences can run from one page to the next.
In other words, this is a book written for readers who are well beyond sounding out words and trying to string them together in a sentence. This is a book for readers who can immerse themselves in a story.
That’s a big leap from early readers to chapter books, from 600 words to 8,700. Just in the past few years, publishers have been working harder to fill the void with new imprints like Scholastic’s Acorn and Branches lines and Aladdin’s Quix Books. Often called first chapter books or transitional chapter books, these are stories for readers who have graduated from leveled reading programs like Harper’s I Can Read and Simon & Schuster’s Ready to Read but aren’t ready for stories of 7,500 words or more.
Check out other characters with books across different reading levels like Pinkalicous (picture books and early readers), Amelia Bedelia (early readers and chapter books), and Bad Kitty (picture books and chapter books. Check out books written at various levels in publishers’ early reader programs and some of the titles in the new first chapter book imprints mentioned above.
Don’t dampen your creativity by worrying about all this too soon. Brainstorm with abandon, create the best character to tell your story, choose the right words to capture their world. But when it’s time for revision and marketing, it’s also time to take a hard look at where your story fits. Is it an early reader? A chapter book? Does it fall somewhere in between? If it doesn’t fall into a clear publishing category, what changes would you have to make in revision to sell it to a publisher?
Join us for Writing First Chapter Books and Early Readers, June 17-20, 2019.
Posted on: April 23, 2019