On October 17, BookFest @ Bank Street 2020, normally hosted by the Center for Children’s Literature at Bank Street College of Education in Manhattan, had its virtual debut due to pandemic restrictions. The annual conference, featuring authors, illustrators, librarians, and other children’s book professionals, offered a heartening itinerary of prerecorded panels on pivotal children’s literature subjects, as well as a closing keynote address by Newbery Medalist Linda Sue Park (Prairie Lotus, Clarion).

After opening remarks from Cynthia Weill, director of the Center for Children’s Literature, the first conversation of the day began. “Re-imagining Beginning Readers” featured Lulu Delacre (Rafi and Rosi series, Lee & Low), Kevin Henkes (the Penny series, Greenwillow), Jerdine Nolen (Bradford Street Buddies series, HMH), and James Yang (Stop! Bot!, Viking).

Quoting author Mac Barnett, who said the stakes are high for early readers to foster a love of reading, youth literature consultant and moderator Caroline Ward asked, “How did you undertake the challenge of creating a book for beginning readers that will also get them excited about reading in the future?”

“I’ve been around children a long time,” Coretta Scott King Honoree Nolen answered, “and I can’t say I know how they think, but they’re very curious and they’re very inquisitive. I sometimes struggle with what we think of as a beginning reader.” She shared a memory of her daughter at four years old; after reading and rereading Amos & Boris by William Steig with her, her daughter correctly used the words “luminous” and “phosphorescent” on the beach that night. Nolen concluded that if the story is high interest and well-told with pictures, it’s an exciting experience for children, who are “like sponges.”

Pura Belpré Honoree Delacre said that Rafi and Rosi originated as a picture book with three stories before her editor told her it should be an early reader instead. “For me, it started by creating the characters; it was character driven, about these two siblings,” Delacre recalled.

Children’s Literature Legacy Award winner Henkes had written picture books and middle grade novels for years before venturing into the realm of early readers. “I always thought there was a bias against books for beginning readers. I thought that people thought picture books were more grand and novels were more important, but I always had a deep love for books like Little Bear and Uncle Elephant. It wasn’t until my editor, Virginia Duncan, said, ‘Why don’t you try doing a book for beginning readers?’ that [I started] thinking about it.” Watching his own son “fall in love with learning how to read” convinced Henkes to write a beginning reader. “It’s a completely different art form than a picture book or novel, and it’s one that I love.”

Ward directed her next question toward 2020 Theodor Seuss Geisel Award winner Yang. As “the criteria for the award states that picture books are to be considered if they work effectively as beginning readers,” she asked Yang if he set out to write a book for beginning readers.

Yang replied that, as an illustrator, he “knew that [he] was writing a visual book.” Referencing childhood favorites, including Leo Lionni’s Frederick and Barbara and Ed Emberley’s Drummer Hoff, he said those narratives inspired his books, as “something builds from one thing to another.” He gave his editor and art director kudos as well.

Ward then asked Henkes if he was surprised when Waiting was named a 2016 Geisel Honor Book. “I never thought of it as a beginning reader, so I was pleasantly surprised,” Henkes replied. “When I’m working on a Penny book, I don’t work with a vocabulary list or any rigid rules, but I’m thinking about repetition, rhythm, clarity—the same things I think about when I’m doing a picture book.” He shared passages from Waiting that allowed him to see it as a beginning reader, as well as passages that he would have done differently had he considered it as such.

Ward noted the rise in early graphic novels or books with speech balloons for young readers, asking the panelists how beginning readers can effectively employ comic book elements.

Yang stated that those books can definitely be “a nice gateway into reading, learning how to look at images and interpret. It does help kids [build] their visual vocabularies.” He remembered how visuals that struck him as a child have stayed with him today. “[Through reading these books,] kids [can develop] a very sophisticated sense of visuals and how that can be told with a story.”

Henkes took a moment to recommend Three Yellow Dogs by Caron Lee Cohen, illustrated by Peter Sís, which he called “one of the most brilliant beginning readers,” a mid-’90s picture book that uses only five words.

Ward turned the conversation toward leveling, or the differing guidelines that publishers and/or librarians attempt to sort early readers by. She asked whether the authors had a hand in designating the levels of their books.

“For me, I never thought of levels; I wrote what the story needed to be,” Delacre answered, saying that the publishing house told her to edit her diction to fit the levels they wanted. Since Delacre writes a Spanish version of each early reader, she “had to be extremely careful,” as some of the Spanish vocabulary required to convey the same meaning is “at a higher reading level.” She added that Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad series inspired her own.

The Bradford Street Buddies project came to Nolen directly from Houghton Mifflin, and “they basically said, ‘This is what we want,’ ” she stated. “I wasn’t confused about having such a tight readability; sometimes I think that having such a tight structure can cause you to be more creative. But it did bother me sometimes.” She said that ultimately, what “sold [her] on the project was the fact that they wanted a multicultural neighborhood.”

Henkes, meanwhile, knows “absolutely nothing about” the leveling of the Penny books.

Delacre exalted “the beauty of series” for early readers, as those sequential books present character and plot expectations for readers, which makes them want to read more; “each book builds a bit more confidence in that beginning reader.” Ultimately, she believes authors need to provide more of the same series for those readers.

“They have their own personalities,” Nolen agreed. “Like putting on a comfortable shirt—you know what’s going to happen, maybe, but there’s always the idea of an impossible possibility or a possible impossibility, and you want to have that so the child can come to that on their own and get more and more excited.”

Henkes said the Penny books have progressed, gradually becoming more complex, with longer time spans covered and additional settings in Penny’s world. “I was thinking about the kid who might read them in order, and I wondered if I could make each one a little more than the one before it.” His own children seemed to love “characters or books that grew along with them.”

Ward cited Grace Lin, who called her Ling & Ting early readers one of her most difficult writing experiences. Ward asked Henkes whether he felt that writing beginning readers was more difficult than writing picture books.

“I knew it was a different art form, and there were certain constrictions I gave myself,” Henkes said. “I knew I wanted to use simple words, I wanted to have the lines broken in a particular way to make it easy to read, and I knew there needed to be pictures that would provide visual clues, so everything had to work together. It did feel like working a crossword puzzle, but it was not unenjoyable by any means.” Calling the process “challenging” but that he “loves the art form,” Henkes concluded, “There is something to be said for, when you do make something simpler, everything matters more in a particular way.”

Ward asked Delacre about her decision to use Spanish in the English version and to include a glossary. “I don’t consider the Spanish version a translation,” Delacre clarified. “They are both original versions. Spanish is my native language; I write first in English because I have to. It is not a literal translation, but there are glossaries in both because the stories are set in Puerto Rico, and there is a lot of culture embedded in the stories.” She further explained that some Spanish words are unique to Puerto Rico, which is why the Spanish version also required a glossary, while the Spanish included in the English version provides context clues to help English speakers learn some of the language.

Finally, Ward drew attention to the relative lack of diversity in early readers—there are more animals than characters of color—and asked Nolen and Delacre for their thoughts on the matter.

Nolen began by relaying her journey into publishing; in 1990, she had to tell her editor to inform her illustrator for Harvey Potter’s Balloon Farm that “I was African American. I never write anything about me, but everything I write is me,” Nolen said. “I was absolutely surprised that I had to have that conversation.” As for today’s landscape, Nolen mused, “Our consciousness is being raised. I think it’s a matter of us being smarter than we used to be. We’re all here for the same thing: to enjoy life, read books, and have our children grow.”

Delacre said her research showed that there are 10 Latinx authors, including herself, who have early reader series published. “There is some representation, but the point is that we need to broadcast this—otherwise people don’t know.”

Yang added that his early work featured mostly white characters because that was what he saw in the artwork around him. Nowadays, however, he draws diverse casts because they reflect the community that surrounds him in New York City. “Seeing diverse crowds and getting diverse books,” Yang concluded, allows children to accept diversity as a normal facet of the world.