A phone call from a librarian friend at the Boston Public Library allegedly prompted Ursula Nordstrom in the mid-1950s to launch Harper & Row’s I Can Read! line of beginning readers. After the librarian told the legendary editor that there was a dearth of simple books that new readers were able to tackle on their own, Nordstrom set out to fill that void. The first I Can Read! title, Else Holmelund Minarik’s Little Bear, illustrated by Maurice Sendak, was released in 1957. That same year, Random House debuted Beginner Books with Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat. In subsequent years, many other early reader programs entered the marketplace, including Random House’s Step into Reading, Scholastic Readers, HMH Books’ Green Light Readers, and most recently Square Fish’s My Readers, which launched this spring. This fall, two new leveled reader lines join their ranks: Little, Brown’s Passport to Reading and I Like to Read Books from Holiday House.

Passport to Reading

In the past, Little, Brown elected not to enter the arena of leveled reading programs, says Liza Baker, editor-in-chief of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. “We didn’t feel it was necessary, since so many publishers were involved in that area, and were doing it quite well,” she says. But the acquisition of Grace Lin’s Ling & Ting: Not Necessarily the Same changed that mindset. “We all fell in love with the book, which fell between a picture book and a chapter book, and we realized that it would be perfect for an early reader program. We first published it in hardcover last year, and when it went on to win awards, we began to think seriously about publishing a leveled reader line, carefully and selectively.”

Due out in paperback in September, Ling & Ting is one of Passport to Reading’s launch titles, along with two Transformers Dark of the Moon storybooks; two Marvel Superheroes Squad books; and four tie-ins to forthcoming films: two based on Disney’s The Muppets and two on DreamWorks’ The Adventures of Tintin. “Coincidentally, simultaneously with considering a leveled reader program, we were growing our licensed book and our movie tie-in programs,” Baker says. “We had acquired some exciting properties, and books based on them seemed like a natural for Passport to Reading.”

As a result, the new line will balance trade books with movie tie-ins and books featuring licensed characters. Most of the trade books will be new titles, though some will be expanded editions of previously published picture books. “We’re looking at some of the gems on our list and exploring if there is a possibility to grow certain picture-book characters and stories into early readers,” Baker says. “And we’re inviting some of our top talents to bring their skills to the early-reader format with new books. These are some of the most challenging books to write, since it requires enormous thought, effort, and knowledge of the process kids go through when they are learning to read.”

The editor estimates that Passport to Reading will issue between eight and 12 titles annually, and that the books will be primarily 6” x 9” paperbacks. The books will be designated as one of four levels, which will appear on the front cover. “The back of each book will contain a checklist noting the guided reading level, the word count, and the number of Dolch sight words included,” Baker explains. “We worked very hard with our library promotion department, marketing department, and design team to provide all the information that is important to parents and teachers alike, and to present it very clearly.”

I Like to Read

Aimed at readers from pre-K to third grade, I Like to Read Books from Holiday House is a line of paper over board, 24-page picture books priced at $14.95. Its inaugural titles, due out in September, are Paul Meisel’s See Me Run, Boy, Bird, and Dog by David McPhail, Steve Björkman’s Dinosaurs Don’t, Dinosaurs Do, and The Lion and the Mice by Rebecca Emberley and Ed Emberley. All newly acquired for the program, the books feature short, simple sentences; high-frequency, easily decodable words; repetition aimed at reinforcing learning; and illustrations that closely match the text and support its meaning.

The fact that this line skews to the very earliest readers distinguishes I Like to Read from most leveled reader programs, notes Grace Maccarone, executive editor of Holiday House. “Children are learning to read at younger and younger ages, and they need more books at very basic levels,” she observes. “When kids begin to read in kindergarten, it’s a very different experience than when they start to read in first or second grade. We decided that the picture-book format would be conducive to filling this need, so we’ve put together a leveled line of books offering great stories and art for children whose reading vocabulary is very limited—books that will get kids really excited about reading.”

Maccarone estimates that the house will publish four to eight I Like to Read titles a year. “We don’t designate the levels on the books, though they are listed online and in our catalogue,” she explains. “We feel it’s anti-kid to put the level on the books themselves. The levels are primarily to help educators and parents. We are not looking to fill slots in terms of how many books we publish on each level, but are simply trying to publish wonderful books that will inspire kids to become lifelong readers.”

The I Like to Read spring 2012 list includes Caldecott Medalist Emily Arnold McCully’s Late Nate in the Race, Fish Had a Wish by Michael Garland, and I Will Try by Marilyn Janovitz.