Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Five Characteristics of Great Easy Readers

The finalists for the 2011 Cybils were announced on Sunday, and among them were the five chapter books and four easy readers chosen by the first-round panelists in the Easy Reader/Early Chapter Book Category, of which I was one. Since I have now officially come to the end of my Cybils duties for this year, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on what I've taken away from the experience, and what I have learned about easy readers and chapter books. Today, I'll discuss what makes a great easy reader, and tomorrow, I'll do the same for chapter books.

The first key aspect of a successful easy reader is well-written text. The writing must be both easy enough for its audience to read, and artistic enough to make the book interesting. This means that not only is an author limited in the vocabulary he or she can use, but he or she is also presented with the additional challenge of stringing few words together in a way that is not cliched, boring, or awkward.

An example of perfect easy reader text comes from the first page of Aggie Gets Lost by Lori Ries, wherein Ben walks his dog and the action is described as follows:

Left foot, right foot, two feet, four feet.
We walk to the park.
Aggie pulls hard.
She wants to play fetch.

Making an emotional connection to the reader is a second sign of easy reader excellence. Whether the mood of a story is silly, as in the Elephant & Piggie books or the Fly Guy series, sad, as in Aggie Gets Lost when Aggie is missing, or even scary, as in parts of Gus Gets Scared, the reader should feel that emotion along with the characters. Children can more easily relate to new characters and settings if they can recognize feelings and concepts they have experienced themselves.

Easy readers should also be told from a child's point of view. This means that the characters speak to the reader at his level, rather than at him in an adult tone. Even adult characters, like Mr. Putter, and adult-like animals like Dodsworth from Dodsworth in Rome, should embody child-like characteristics to which kids can relate. Revealing adult characters' anxieties and imperfections makes them interesting to read about, and giving them dilemmas similar to those found in childhood creates stories that really speak to their audience and keep the reader invested in their outcomes. Embodying a child's point of view also eliminates the urge to preach at kids, and makes the story, rather than the message, the central focus. Most kids aren't interested in morals, but they become quickly invested in the fate of a favorite character.


It's also important for easy readers to focus on familiar themes. New readers like to read stories that reflect their real lives, and by keeping things close to home, authors can help kids find comfortable ways of learning new vocabulary and story structure. By beginning with those simple themes of family, friendship, school, and home, kids begin to build a strong foundation that will later help them tackle new genres and settings.

Finally, a truly great easy reader includes illustrations that are not only beautiful to look at, but also complement the text and assist the reader with understanding new vocabulary and new concepts. Illustrations in children's picture books and easy readers are an integral part of the story, not just the icing on the cake. Not only should the illustrations clearly depict what's happening in the text to provide context, they should, like those in Flip Flop and Dodsworth in Rome, also include other visual content that expands the story beyond the words and gives the reader a greater understanding of the setting, plot, and characters.

To learn more about the nominees and finalists in the Cybils Easy Reader category, visit Cybils.com.


  1. Great post! As a kindergarten teacher and mother of a young reader I find easy readers both exciting and frustrating, especially those called levelled readers. There are a number of decodable readers I have in my class so the kids can experience success, but they are so boring or make no sense at all. Just because a book has few words doesn't make it easily readable - too often a text is full of 'tricky words' or those many words in the english language that break all the rules.
    I also agree that pictures are paramount to a great book at this level. They help create and deepen understanding for the reader.

  2. Thanks for this post and for the one on chapter books today. As a writer, I'm most inclined to write picture books, but I have been contemplating attempting an early chapter book. I've found your post and the great list of Cybils finalists very helpful in my research...and as I get to know these genres better :)

  3. Thanks for the post! I am always looking for great easy readers for my kids. (There are a lot of boring ones.) I love the Elephant and Piggie series, they are our favorites so far. :)


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