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.


Between Picture Books and Middle Grade Novels: Early Readers and Leveled Books

Last week, I began a blog series about Early Readers and Early Chapter Books. Much of my reflection on early readers and early chapter books come from working with young children in kindergarten to second grade and the teachers that teach them on a daily basis. In an effort to better support teachers in the instruction of reading and create children who love to read, I want to assist teachers to feel more confident in selecting the right book for a student without feeling the need to mark every book with a number or letter. 

What do the following books have in common? 

According to Scholastic's Book Wizard App, each of the above books fall within the Guided Reading Text Levels of K to M. I was a bit surprised by this. I was especially surprised that Shannon Hale's The Princess in Black and Erin Soderberg's Puppy Pirates both were considered guided reading levels M. Aside from very different topic/interest levels, the format of these books are very different making them a better match for very different readers at different levels. If I hadn't read each of these books and just marked them with a letter based on an app, I might face some challenges when selecting books for students. 

Now what do these books not have in common?

Both are Level 1 Early Readers published by the same publisher. However, the TRUCKS book clocks in at a Guided Reading Level J and CATERPILLAR TO BUTTERFLY is a Guided Reading Level R. Again, they may be marked the same level by the publisher but they are really different books for different kinds of readers.

Now let me state a few disclaimers. First, all of the books listed above are good books and I have no issues with any of them. Second, I have selected to use Fountas & Pinnell Text Levels since I am familiar with and have administered the Fountas & Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System.  Next, I have chosen to use the Scholastic Book Wizard to check on the guided reading level of books listed in this post since this is an app that is frequently used by teachers. Finally, I am not addressing Accelerated Reading Levels or Lexile Levels (that is for another day, another post). 

What implications does this have on matching children with books and the desire to level a classroom library? The best thing I can say is proceed with caution when looking at levels provided by a publisher or an app.  Understanding how text size, number of pages, type of illustrations, format, vocabulary, and topic determines what child to match with what book is a better place to start. 

Stop by next week as we dive in and explore more about the characteristics of readers and books at various levels. 

Between Picture Books and Middle Grade Novels: Books for New Readers

Picture books have many followers. Whether you read picture books to young children, or appreciate them for their incredible artwork, or admire the format for any numerous reasons, picture books have a significant role in the world of children's literature. Middle Grade novels (typically for children ages 8 or 9 and up) can be just as powerful or lyrical as any adult novel. However, what about books written in a very specific manner for young children who are learning to read? Do they deserve incredible writing and powerful stories? And if so, how do you manage it with controlled vocabulary, limited sentence structure and 32 pages (or 48, or 72 pages)? 

Over the past several months, I have been diving into early readers and early chapter books. I have been thinking about what makes an early reader different from an early chapter book different from an early middle grade novel? How do teachers and parents avoid the trap of depending on a level or a number placed on a book to match a child with a book? 

This is just the first of multiple posts where I will explore and highlight early readers, early chapter book, and early middle grade novels with the hope of spotlighting some must reads for Kindergarten to Third graders. Today's post looks at a few trends.

What makes a book like Frog and Toad stand out from all of the others and maintain a level of popularity for so many years? And how can writers learn from these stories as they craft new ones?

Cynthia Rylant has written dozens of early readers/chapter books that have also stood the test of time.


Another trend I have noticed has been the spin-offs from popular series.

First you have an early middle grade series such as Judy Moody

Next comes a spin-off, Stink, geared for a slightly younger audience.

And now there is an early chapter book series featuring Judy Moody and Friends

Another trend is to take the same characters and setting, but reduce the number of pages and complexity.  Betty Birney's The World According to Humphrey has approximately 140 pages and is typically popular with second grade readers. 

Birney's Humphrey Tiny Tales have the same characters and setting as the original series but clocks in at approximately 112 pages with slightly larger font and simpler text. 

Of course there are times when series go in the opposite direction. Angie Sage's Araminta Spookie series in paperback started out as 130 pages in length. 

However, the newest book, Skeleton Island, in hardcover appears larger and has an increase in pages and gives readers the sense of reading a bigger and longer book.

What questions do you have about early readers and chapter books? What series have you found that students love? Any trends that you have noticed? Check back in on Thursdays for spotlights on early readers and chapter books.