Easy Readers: A Long Way from Dick and Jane

The Cat in the HatDr. Seuss (formally known as Theodor Seuss Geisel) was always turning something on its ear, whether it was making eggs and ham green or adding new species to the animal kingdom (see “Zizzer-Zazzer-Zuzz”). But did you know that he also pioneered the easy reader?

Geisel wrote the easy reader in  response to a call for action from novelist John Hersey, who in 1954 complained in Life magazine that children weren’t learning to read at school because the books were bland, featuring “abnormally courteous and unnaturally clean boys and girls.”* Geisel was already a prominent author, but it was Hersey’s complaint that compelled him to acquire a limited vocabulary list from the Houghton Mifflin publishing company. Using just 237 easy-to-read words, Geisel spent more than a year developing a story that became the now-classic The Cat in the Hat.

Many of the books that stir up nostalgia for adults and delight children—whether it’s The Cat in the Hat, Frog and Toad Are Friends, or Little Bear—are easy readers. While that fact may be irrelevant to a child when he or she is selecting a book, it is something for parents (and librarians) to think about when a child’s reading choices are being considered. Most picture books are written at a reading level far above that of a child in the first grade; they’re mainly intended to be read aloud by adults, to children. When a child is beginning to read, then it’s probably time to reach for an easy reader.

Roger Sutton, editor in chief of The Horn Book, says that easy readers help children “to independently enter the world of a whole story with a beginning, middle, and end,” with “just enough pictures to help you along without making you feel like a baby.” Based on my experience, children who have misgivings about reading often are concerned about a book’s thickness—they don’t think that they can finish a book if it looks too long. An easy reader, with its manageable length, gives children “the happiness of not just reading, but of finishing.”**

So what exactly makes an easy reader? Structure-wise, an easy reader uses short, declarative sentences made up of short sight words (usually no longer than five letters) that children learn in the first or second grade. Words are often repeated on the same page; sometimes they rhyme, but usually they do not. In Green Eggs and Ham, Dr. Seuss writes:

I do not like them
in a house.
I do not like them
With a mouse.
I do not like them
here or there.
I do not like them
Anywhere.
 The Night Before Christmas

Longer words are sometimes used: Compound words made up of two sight words, like “snowball,” are still fairly easy for children to decipher. Also, longer words are usually accompanied by context clues in the illustrations. For example, in Henry and Mudge: The First Book by Cynthia Rylant and Suçie Stevenson, Henry is walking backward, and the illustration supports that—so even if a child doesn’t know what backward means, he or she can guess at the meaning by looking at the picture. Illustrations support new concepts, too: When Mudge, Henry’s huge canine friend, grows out of seven collars “in a row,” there is an illustration showing a series of collars that gradually get bigger.

Easy readers are also mindful of children in their design:

The typeface is usually 18 points for beginning readers.

Each line of text is usually 8 to 10 words in length. (Longer lines, like this one, are more difficult for beginners to read.)

New sentences do not begin at the end of a line (again, because they’re harder for children to read).

There is plenty of white space between lines of text.

This makes it easier for a child to keep her place.

There should not be more than 15 lines of text on each page.

And of course, there are the illustrations, which complement the text without taking over the page. Easy readers have a lot of white space, so children can rest their eyes.

Most easy readers have plots that involve just two to three main characters. The stories are usually broken up into four to six chapters. Each chapter reads like a short story—whatever storyline opens at the beginning of that chapter resolves itself by the end of that chapter.
 
Anyone who has looked at easy readers knows that they are broken up into levels, which generally correspond to grade levels 1-3 (you’ll also see readers labeled pre-K and kindergarten). Beyond that, you’re moving into transitional books (a subject for another blog entry!)

There is a lot more that could be said about easy readers, but those are some of the basics. For librarians, having this knowledge is a big help when parents come in with questions about what their children should read when they are becoming more independent readers. For parents, it’s good to know that there is a wealth of easy readers with a diversity of characters and variety of stories for children to enjoy.

Although easy readers are for beginners, they shouldn’t be dismissed as simplistic. Peggy Parish's Amelia Bedelia is silly in her tendency to take everything literally—her employers tell her to put out the lights, so she unscrews them and hangs them outside like laundry. But children will be happy to feel smarter than such a clueless person (not to mention, they’ll learn more about word usage). In the first Henry and Mudge book, Rylant shows an independent Henry who single-handedly goes in search of Mudge when the dog wanders off. Easy readers inspire confidence and independence, both through their words and their characters.

Children shouldn’t be rushed through easy readers to move on to harder books. Sutton makes a great point when he writes that “not every book should be more difficult than the one that’s read before…is that the way you read?”

There is a wealth of easy readers available at your local library, from traditional to more contemporary titles. Thank you Dr. Seuss!

Some easy reader titles available right now at DC Library: