Early Readers: A Short Phase

In a young reader’s development, early readers come immediately after start-to-read primers, but before early chapter books. Dr. Seuss’s books, such as The Cat in the Hat, are easy to read because of their emphasis on phonics and simple words, but they’re not early readers. I consider them more of a start-to-read book. Or, if anything, they are unique books in that parents read them to children as picture books, children memorize them, and then children read them at the beginning of their reading lives.

For decades early readers were orphans in the world of children’s books, seldom receiving consideration for either the Caldecott (which usually went to picture books for illustration) or the Newbery (which usually went to Middle Grades books for story). Then, in 2006 the American Library Association, which awards both the Caldecott and the Newbery, instituted the Geisel Award, named after Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss), who pioneered beginning readers during the 1950s.

Early readers most often have chapters. Or, they sometimes consist of two, three, or four separate stories. A chapter or story runs 300-600 words long. The length of the book is usually 48 pages, but can be as short as 32 pages or as long as 64 pages. Early readers contain illustrations: usually “spot” illustrations which are smaller than picture-book-sized illustrations.

UnknownThe size of early readers is different from the size of picture books — they have a slightly smaller trim size, making them feel less like “baby” books and more like “real” books to the child selecting them. The trim size of Alien & Possum, for example, is 6.25”x9.25”.

Not all children’s book publishers are interested in publishing early readers, perhaps because early readers appeal to a child for only a short time in that child’s life: 6 months, maybe a year. Reading abilities and reading comprehension grow in leaps and bounds, and a child who’s reading an early reader at the beginning of second grade might be ready for an early chapter book of 80-100 pages by the end of second grade.

Picture books, on the other hand, are suitable for children aged 2-8 years, and early chapter books are read by ages 8-10, or even older. Parents are more willing to buy picture books and early chapter books than they are to buy early readers, which their children might outgrow very quickly.

Children, on the other hand, often develop a fierce loyalty to early readers, and this loyalty can last into adulthood. I’ve heard many adults speak passionately about early readers such as Frog and Toad, or Henry and Mudge.

003124As far as I know, early readers of the Frog and Toad variety didn’t exist when I was a child. In fact, I read the Frog and Toad stories as an adult and fell in love with them. Written and illustrated b y Arnold Lobel, the first book in the series, Frog and Toad Are Friends, was published in 1972.

People who write early readers are aware that they must use somewhat simple sentence structure and a somewhat restricted vocabulary. But I think that writers of early readers make up for these restrictions by finding a beautiful rhythm of sentences. Here are the first five sentences of “Down the Hill,” the first story in Frog and Toad All Year:

Frog knocked at Toad’s door.
“Toad, wake up,” he cried.
“Come out and see
how wonderful the winter is!”
“I will not,” said Toad.
“I am in my warm bed.”

One of the very popular early readers series is the Henry and Mudge series by Cynthia Rylant, first published in 1987. Henry is an only child and Mudge is his dog, who grows from a puppy into a 180-pound canine. Rylant won the very first Geisel Award in 2006 for Henry and Mudge and the Great Grandpas.

Another early reader series is the Fox series, written and illustrated by James Marshall (of George and Martha fame). Like Arnold Lobel, Marshall wrote with a beautiful rhythm, economy of words, and great humor. The first Fox title, Fox All Week, was published in 1984.

Because I love reading early readers, it should come as no surprise that I sometimes write early readers. The first of these, Waltur Buys a Pig in a Poke and Other Stories, was 64 pages long. It contained three stories and came to 64 pages mainly because the publisher divided each of the three small stories into four small chapters. Publishers Weekly gave the book a starred review. Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal, and the Cooperative Children’s Book Center all liked it, the latter making it a Choice 2007 book.

Unknown-1For the sequel, Waltur Paints Himself into a Corner and Other Stories, the publisher left each of the three stories intact (instead of breaking them into chapters). The book then came out to 48 pages, a much more economical arrangement, considering the cost of color printing. Booklist thought the stories contained “deliciously sticky, comical situations.”

If you have never read an early reader, or did but have forgotten the wonderful way in which it tells a story, look at one of the books I’ve mentioned the next time you’re in a bookstore. Try any of Arnold Lobel’s Toad and Frog books, or James Marshall’s Fox books, or Cynthia Rylant’s Henry and Mudge books, or her Poppleton books. You just might get hooked on the rhythm of the story.

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When she isn’t writing early readers, Barbara Gregorich writes books such as Jack and Larry: Jack Graney and Larry, the Cleveland Baseball Dog.

“I Say: She’s Writing About Dialogue!”

Writing teachers often tell the story of an 8-year-old who walked into the library and asked the librarian for “more books with those funny marks inside.” Upon questioning the child, the librarian determined that he was talking about quotation marks, and that he wanted books with lots of dialogue.

Indeed, dialogue (defined as conversation between two or more people in a book or a play) interests most readers. Some very strongly prefer books heavy with dialogue. But even those readers who might prefer narrative summary or description still don’t crave books without dialogue. In short, although they might be crazy about narrative, they will also, subconsciously, want relief from unending narrative.

Dialogue is fascinating to readers because, if done well, it reveals character, it reveals conflict, it shows the reader what is happening — and it seems more “real life” and faster than narrative.

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Readers aren’t the only people who love dialogue. Some writers so enjoy writing dialogue (usually witty) that they initially write pages and pages of the stuff. But the main purpose of scene (almost all scenes contain dialogue) is to reveal conflict, reveal character, and move the plot forward. Its primary purpose is not to feature dialogue. Instead of a scene being an excuse to write dialogue, it should be dialogue which serves the purpose of the scene.

Although dialogue may seem “real life,” it is not so. As Sol Stein points out in Stein on Writing, realistic dialogue is contained in court transcriptions. And nobody craves reading court transcriptions. Here’s how Stein put it:

“Dialogue, contrary to popular view, is not a recording of actual speech; it is a semblance of speech, an invented language of exchanges that build in tempo or content toward climaxes.”

Good dialogue gives the impression of natural speech, but is not a verbatim rendition of natural speech. Usually the uh’s the you know’s, the see’s and other such verbal crutches are left out: or are put in, but are only representative. It would be painful to read dialogue that actually reproduces speech. So dialogue gives the impression of naturalness, but the writer usually works very hard to make the dialogue seem natural when, in fact, it is more pertinent, more efficient, and more meaningful than most natural dialogue.

When writing dialogue, writers must consider how the lines will look on a page. A full page of nothing but one-liners is difficult for readers to assimilate: they loose track of who’s speaking. But a full page in which one character’s dialogue occupies the entire page, or even half of the page, is also difficult for readers to relate to.  Long paragraphs of dialogue cease feeling like dialogue to the reader: they start to feel like narrative.

Of course, just as uninterrupted dialogue is difficult to read, so is uninterrupted narrative: the reader wants something to happen live — on the page, in real time. With people! People speaking words!

When well-written, those words surrounded by “funny marks” carry a lot of weight in creating character, revealing plot, and moving the action forward.

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Barbara Gregorich has more to say about dialogue in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

Mixing It Up: Four Sentence Types

SOUNDPROOF-CoverThe sentence is the basic unit of communication. Not the word. Not the paragraph. Not the chapter. It’s the sentence that expresses meaning. Some meanings are simple, others complex. If you want to express different relationships and different levels of meaning, you need to use more than one type of sentence.

If you want to write well — to have readers enjoy the content, cadence, and meaning of what you’re saying — you will most likely end up using each of the sentence types, as circumstances require.

Here are the four types of sentences in English, with an example of each. The first example is from my mystery novel, Sound Proof, which is written in the first-person point of view. After the first example I have fun with the original sentence in order to create other types.

Simple Sentence — Single subject and single predicate. The two sentences below are each simple sentences. Richard is a 600-pound pet pig who plays a role in the mystery. The speaker is my detective hero, Frank Dragovic. He’s speaking to music-festival owner Mary Ployd, who also happens to own Richard.

“I’ve seen Richard. He could destroy an entire building.”

Compound Sentence — Two or more independent clauses (usually joined by and, but, or, nor). The first sentence below contains three independent clauses. The second sentence contains two independent clauses.

I saw Richard, I heard his grunts, and I smelled his sty. Mary asked me to repair the missing boards, but entering the sty and doing so would make me indistinguishable from Richard, smell-wise.

UnknownComplex Sentence — One independent clause and one or more dependent clauses. Each sentence below contains one independent clause and one dependent clause. In the first sentence the dependent clause starts with the word “after,” and with the word “which” in the second sentence.

After I caught a whiff of Richard’s sty, I realized how unpleasant my carpentry job was becoming. Carpentry work was keeping me from investigating the instrument thefts, which could be deliberate on Mary’s part.

Compound-Complex Sentence — Compound sentence with one or more dependent clauses. The sentence below contains two independent clauses (the “compound” part of the compound-complex) and it contains two dependent clauses, the first starting with “which,” the second starting with “unless.”

Carpentry work was keeping me from investigating the instrument thefts, which could be deliberate on Mary’s part, but I thought she wanted the thefts solved and the thief barred from the festival . . . unless she herself had stolen the guitar and the mountain dulcimer.

If you want to write clear prose that is also interesting prose, know your sentence types and use the type that the situation requires.

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Barbara Gregorich explores both pigs and sentence types in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

Sentences and Train Wrecks

It’s true that we can communicate through grunts, gestures, and a mere word here and there — but it’s the sentence that’s the basic unit of communication. Not the word. Not the paragraph. Not the chapter. Occasionally readers will marvel over a writer’s word choices. Rarely will readers think, “What a magnificent paragraph!” They will, however, be struck by the power, grace, beauty, or wit of individual sentences.

If you want to write well — to have readers enjoy the content and cadence of what you’re saying — you must write good sentences. And to write good sentences, you must be in charge of where the sentence is going.

In How to Write a Sentence Stanley Fish cautions writers to “make sure that every component of your sentences is related to the other components in a way that is clear and unambiguous (unless ambiguity is what you are aiming at).”

porter-cty-train-ax-2The sentence is a train, with clauses, phrases, adjectives, and adverbs all coupled in a logical order. But if the order is wrong — if any of the parts are hooked on incorrectly, swing wide, or come undone — that wrong order can and will pull the train off the track. You will have not a sentence, but a grammatical wreck.

In order to teach yourself to control all the components of a long sentence, Fish asks you to write three-word sentences — lots of them. (Articles don’t count as words at this point.)

Then, after you’ve written 20 or so such sentences, he asks you to expand each into a 15-word sentence: articles count as words at this point. Be sure that you remember the doer and action from the 3-word sentence, be sure that they remain the doer and action, and be sure you can tell how your additional words relate to the doer and action.

After you’re sure that your 15-word sentences are clear and unambiguous . . . expand them to 30 words.

Finally, expand them to 100 words.

This is a wonderful exercise! Here’s what I did with it:

3-word sentence
Xenia steered the boat.

17-word sentence
As a furious rain assailed the heart of Chicago, Xenia, gripping the wheel firmly, steered the boat.

30-word sentence
As a furious rain, more furious than any in living memory, assailed the heart of Chicago, pelting pedestrians and vehicles, Xenia, gripping the wheel firmly, steered the wildly bucking boat.

Neptune_1100-word sentence
As a furious rain, more furious than any in living memory, assailed the heart of Chicago, pelting not only pedestrians scrambling for shelter and vehicles laboring through river-like streets, but assaulting the great skyscrapers themselves, cascading off them in colossal waterfalls, Xenia, more or less dry inside her yellow slicker and hat, gripping the wheel firmly, refusing to relinquish it to any mortal (maybe not even to Neptune himself should he appear from the deep), steered the wildly bucking yet totally seaworthy boat northward, toward the line where the dark and furious storm clouds met the brilliant blue sky.

The purpose of this exercise is not to prove that longer sentences are better than shorter ones, but to make certain the writer can control sentence structure at all times. At no time in any of my sample sentences did the subject or verb or object change. Rather, I added many modifiers (some words, some phrases) to give a more detailed picture. I did not let any of these modifiers hijack my sentence and run off with its meaning.

Which is not to say that the 100-word sentence is anything I would ever write — that long sentence is easy to enjoy, but a bit difficult to take seriously.

Still, I kind of like the brilliant blue sky at the end.

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Barbara Gregorich’s mystery Sound Proof contains approximately 10,000 sentences . . . none of them a train wreck.