Between Picture Books and Middle Grade Novels: Beyond Levels Part I

For years, I believed I was a very good reader. I had read thousands of books. I could discuss books as part of classes and in book clubs. I understood that books had characters, setting or settings, and a plot, possibly several sub plots, and a story arc. I understood that conflict made for a good story. Despite all of my experience reading books, I never really thought about what were essential elements in stories particularly for very young readers.  How do characters stay the same or grow and change? Is there one problem with a solution or resolution at the end or multiple problems that are not always fully resolved?

Over the past several years, I have had opportunities to interact with authors and to discuss the process and craft of writing. I have learned a lot during these conversations. One of the many things I have learned is that I have so much more to learn about writing which of course influences how I read a story or a book.

As I visit classrooms, work with teachers and students, and support the process of teachers becoming better reading and writing teachers, I am more convinced that we need to find ways to support teachers in their own reading and writing. The ah-ha moments happen through conversations and our own time to read or to write.

Two weeks ago, I shared some thoughts about early readers and leveled books. One of my concerns is that teachers will level a classroom library using a book app or a random number from a publisher but not be aware at how random those numbers or letters are. Despite the inconsistent numbers or letters placed on a book to indicate a level. A simple tour of the book can provide a much more accurate way to sort books and match books to readers. Here are some better ways of identifying books than the use of a book app.

Moo Bird by David Milgrim is an example of an early reader for very beginning readers. Books like this often feature dialogue bubbles.  The story is told in a dialogue format where each character speaks to another character in the book. Text is simple and there is often a lot of word repetition. Illustrations provide additional support to understanding the story and there is usually one problem that is resolved by the end of the book.

Other books in this level will feature sentences patterns that repeat from page to page. One or two words may change within the sentence but with the illustrations, beginning readers can often figure out the words. Additionally, there are no more than 2 to 4 simple sentences on a page.  And like MOO BIRD, there is often one problem that must be resolved.

Once children are zipping through very simple stories, the next grouping of books have some distinct characteristics for children to tackle. This category of early readers are often filled with popular characters featured in a series or from picture books or movies. At one end, you have books that feature a main character and the story unfolds over the 32 pages of the book.

Prince Fly Guy by Tedd Arnold is a popular early reader series.

Or the 2016 Geisel Winner - Don't Throw It To Mo! by David A. Adler are examples of a stories that may still feature a main character but the story will often take place in a couple of settings (i.e., home and school or home and a park). The protagonist usually faces a personal challenge, like facing a fear or insecurity and in the end all things end on a positive note.

The text has become more challenging in these books. There are more sentences on a page and less patterns. Readers must make inferences or predictions about what will happen.

Overlapping the stories mentioned above are books for readers that either combine 3 stand alone short stories around a theme or introduce young readers to a story that is carried over 3 or 4 short chapters.

Salina Yoon's newest book, DUCK, DUCK, PORCUPINE! combine three loosely connected stories into one book. The characters communicate through dialogue only and the illustrations support the context of the story.

SNAIL & WORM by Tina Kugler is similar in story structure to DUCK, DUCK, PORCUPINE! but the dialogue that tells the story does so without the dialogue bubbles seen in other books. Humor and friendship is evident in both books.

However, at the other end of these early readers with beginning chapters are old favorites that provide young readers with more sentences and more pages to develop their identity as a reader.

Readers get to revisit favorite characters in multiple books and the style of these books are very much the same.  There is a predictability that children find enjoyable and comforting.

But now young readers must think about what is going to happen in the next chapter or hold onto details or identify clues that will help them solve the problem alongside the characters.  And though characters may display emotional reactions to what is happening, there is little growth and change in the character.

Though I can talk more and more about these books and others, I am hoping that you will pick up a few early readers and beginning to look at them in new ways. Do you agree with the number on the front or the letter that an app assigned to it? Or do you feel that you have some new information to consider as you sort books or match books to kids.

Check back in for my next post that will look at the story characteristics of early chapter books and how they differ from early readers in more ways than just number of words or pages.