Readers for Early Readers
Shannon Maughan -- 5/22/00
The proliferation of beginning-reader series meets a tremendous demand
Few things are more amazing than watching a child decode the mystery of letters, words and sentences and begin to read. It is a cultural given that literacy is the key to success in school and in society at large. Although educational approaches may differ from school to school and state to state, parents, educators, volunteers, philanthropists and even the President all share the common goal of literacy. It's no wonder, then, that there is currently an astounding number of book series dedicated to emergent, beginning and early readers. But is there really room in the market for all the books in this genre? PW recently spoke to several editors and booksellers in an effort to find out.
As is the case in many children's book trends, the proliferation of early/beginning reader series is largely influenced by demographics. "I think the demographics have shifted a little," said Bernette Ford, publisher of Scholastic's Cartwheel Books division, which is home to the Hello Reader series. "The recent preschool boom has moved up to the next level." Indeed, the babies and toddlers who fueled the picture book heyday of the late '80s are preteens now. Their younger siblings comprise the 19.9 million children between the ages of five and nine in the U.S. today (according to U.S. Census estimates), the typical age at which children learn to read.
This over-arching concern about improving children's education, in the presence of a strong economy, has contributed further to the growth of beginning/early reader series. "There is a great deal of attention being paid to the fact that many kids are not learning to read in the classroom, which has led to a re-emphasis on basic skills," Ford said. In this environment, Ford suggested, parents seek out books that will supplement their child's schoolwork and improve their child's chances for reading success. Michael Stearns,
senior editor at Harcourt Children's Books, which publishes the Green Light Readers series, observed, "We're now seeing a group of kids that has been raised by parents who are, in general, more education-focused and more affluent. These children have moved from picture books to early readers and are growing up in the publishing industry. If this continues to hold true, we'll see an impact on middle-grade books next."
The birth of the early/beginning reader genre can be traced back to the advent of the HarperCollins I Can Read line, which launched in 1957 under editor Ursula Nordstrom. The first I Can Read title was Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik, illustrated by Maurice Sendak. That book is still in print today and has been joined over the years by more than 200 other titles in the line, including volumes starring beloved characters Frog and Toad and Amelia Bedelia. According to HarperCollins Children's Books editorial director Robert Warren, the line is "doing better than ever. We see an increase in revenue each year; it's a $10 million brand for us."
Also in 1957, Random House kicked off its Beginner Books series with the Dr. Seuss classic The Cat in the Hat. According to Random House v-p and editor-at-large Janet Schulman, the Beginner Books and I Can Read lines, which were both published only in hardcover, ran unopposed in the genre for a number of years. "It wasn't until the late '60s that Dial Easy-to-Read and Macmillan's Ready to Read programs launched," she recalled. "And both of those were available only in hardcover, too."
When Schulman became editor-in-chief of Random's children's division in 1980, one of her goals was to create a paperback line of beginning readers. "Beginning reader books are very valuable," she explained, "but only for a short time in a child's life. Kids at that stage should be able to devour these books like popcorn, so I wanted to make them very inexpensive."
In 1984, Schulman's goal was realized with Step into Reading, the first original paperback line in the genre and also the first series to carry grade/reading level distinctions on its covers. "They were enormously successful right
from the start," she said. The format and philosophy stuck, inspiring a number of paperback leveled-reader programs from other publishers, including All Aboard Reading from Grosset & Dunlap and Hello Reader from Scholastic, both of which debuted in 1992. Today there are enough of these series to warrant their own patch of real estate in most bookstores.
Finding a Niche
Though beginning/early reader books may all look the same to the uninitiated, each publishing house has taken a slightly different approach to the genre, hoping to carve out a successful niche. Among the newer projects is Scholastic's JumpStart publishing line, a co-venture with Knowledge Adventure, producers of the popular JumpStart line of grade-based educational software. Acquisitions editor
Liza Baker commented, "I used to work at HarperCollins and saw firsthand how they had really tapped into something with I Can Read. But I still felt it was a niche that hadn't been fully explored. There is still a demand for books that fill the gap between picture books and middle-grade fiction, titles that help kids gear up to read on their own." In terms of the JumpStart license, Baker explained, "We are always keeping an eye out for hot new properties and JumpStart is the number-one educational software brand." The new line consists of beginning readers as well as workbooks. "The books are color-coded and each grade level has a particular character to star in all the books for that level. Parents want something that is simple and clear that tells them 'this is the one and only product you'll need for your child.' "
At Candlewick, editor-at-large Amy Ehrlich is aiming for a slightly younger audience with the just-released Brand New Readers series. "I was always interested in early readers," she said, "but Walker [Candlewick's British parent company] had no such thing." A few years ago, when Ehrlich and Walker editor Wendy Boase began conceptualizing a series, "What seemed to be needed were books at the very beginning level," Ehrlich recalled. "Those titles that represent the transition between not reading and reading seemed to be the most popular and the most scarce. That magical moment of transition came to fascinate us and we focused on that." The project came into even better focus when Walker art director Amelia Edwards and Candlewick author David Martin, who is also an educator, joined in the ongoing development. Modeling texts after the reading-recovery teaching method, the team created illustrated, eight-page paperbacks in sets of four, with each set featuring a different character and housed in a slipcase. Brand New Readers began to ship to bookstores in early May.
Golden's Road to Reading series, which first revved up in fall 1998, has slightly stretched the boundaries of leveled-reader series. "It's an exciting category and we wanted to be a part of it," said Lori Haskins, editorial director for the series. "The advantage to being the last kids on the block," she continued, "is having hindsight. We noticed there was a gap between traditional easy-reader series and chapter books. We added our Mile 4 category to bridge that gap." In fall 1999, Golden launched a companion Road to Writing series. "It's the only easy-to-write series and we created it from scratch," Haskins said. "Every book has picture prompts, story starters and a loose, open look that d sn't feel like homework."
According to Haskins, Road to Reading currently consists of 47 titles in five levels; by the
end of 2001 she expects the series will reach approximately 100 titles. The first five Road to Reading titles have sold over 100,000 copies each and the first five Road to Writing titles sold through their first printings of 50,000 copies each in six months. "We're thrilled and surprised that they've gone out with a bang," she added.
Dorling Kindersley Readers, which debuted as Eyewitness Readers in spring 1998, have been lauded by booksellers and educators for their innovative look. DK publisher Neal Porter said it was an easy decision to enter the beginning-reader fray. "We were certainly aware of the success of programs like I Can Read and Step into Reading," he said, "but thought we could bring something uniquely DK to the table”an emphasis on nonfiction, liberal use of sidebars and information boxes long associated with DK style, as well as high-quality photography and production values."
When it comes to developing a beginning/early reader series, the majority of publishing houses rely on a combination of editorial vision and educational expertise. Focus groups of teachers and children, consultants and educational writers are a few of the resources routinely employed. As an example, Stearns of Harcourt said that Green Light Readers benefit from the experience of the company's school publishing division and an outside consultant who was hired to determine the books' reading levels.
Robert Warren of HarperCollins stated that the editors of I Can Read books determine reading levels in-house and do not adhere to specific educational methods. "With I Can Read, leveling actually occurred long after the series had begun. Assigning the levels is somewhat arbitrary, but we self-police, concentrating on creating a natural progression between levels based on the length and complexity of the stories. As with any book, the strength ultimately lies in whether it's a good book or not. We create the series on a book-by-book basis and we believe ours is the finest series out there. Our focus is to promote the pleasures and rewards of reading; we're not here to teach reading."
Schulman at Random House addressed similar issues with Step into Reading. "We created different specific criteria for each level," she said, "but we also included a note for parents saying that the range we provide is just a suggestion." That type of parental introductory note is also now fairly standard throughout the genre. Golden's Road to Reading books provide a series of questions ("D s your child know the alphabet? Is she eager to start reading?") for parents to help determine which mile marker is appropriate for their child. "We feel this approach has a real respect for the child," said Haskins.
Though Ehrlich at Candlewick consulted teachers and educational research in developing Brand New Readers, she falls into the camp that opposes placing age/grade levels on the books. "One of the first decisions we made was not to level them," she said of the new titles. "It requires a lot of judgment, and the other publishers' levels are all over the map. We didn't want that confusion." Porter said that the DK Readers series originally listed levels on its covers but has stopped doing so. "Interestingly, at the request of many teachers and librarians, we've taken the age levels off the covers of the books," he said. "The nonfiction topics and sophisticated look of the books make them suitable for older kids, or even adults with reading difficulties."
The age/grade-level quandary exists at the retail level, too. "Now more than ever, parents are taking an active interest in their child's reading habits," Porter said. "However, choosing an appropriate book can be daunting, particularly in a pressured retail environment where assistance may not be forthcoming. Leveled readers can make the task easier since they can be easily matched to a child's ability." J Monti, children's book buyer for Barnes & Noble, agrees. "I think [leveled books] are perfect for customers," he said. "Books that say 'reading level 1' or 'grade level 1' are exactly what many people are looking for." Schulman's recollections support Monti's comments. "The chain stores just ate them up when they came out," she said of the Step into Reading books, " because they didn't need to handsell them."
But Chauni Haslet, owner of the All for Kids bookstore in Seattle, dislikes most of the labeling on early reader series. "My wish is that parents would ignore the labels and pick books that have a success level for their kids. I don't want to see kids feeling left behind because they are not reading at the level they 'should' be. If I had my druthers, I'd have publishers take the labels off. If a child is reading successfully and enjoying it, that's what counts, not the level."
Room for Everyone
Regardless of the debate over age levels, books for new readers are here to stay, with the numerous series all seeming to find substantial success at retail. "It's a good thing that there are a lot of choices for kids and parents," said Will Peters, manager/buyer at Annie Bloom's Books in Portland, Ore. "We generally stock what our customers are interested in, and this area d s really well for us. Having a variety to choose from gives us the chance to carry lots of different things." Peters noted that his store d s "really well" with the Bob Books, which are multi-volume, boxed sets of small paperbacks that feature short words and consistent phrases. The Bob Books series was recently re-launched by Scholastic. Peters also singled out Millbrook's Real Kids Readers as a popular series for Annie Bloom's customers. "The Millbrook books are illustrated with photos and that really appeals to reluctant readers," he said.
Haslet of All for Kids said, "We carry the majority of these series and we sell the majority of them. It always amazes me that no matter how many are out there, people want different types. Now that it's the end of the school year, we're virtually wiped out. There is never a season that we don't sell a lot of these books." As for the popularity of individual series, Haslet noted, "We sell more Random House [Step into Reading] and HarperCollins [I Can Read] because we order more of them than the others, and our customers are most familiar with them. Teachers really like the DK Readers and often buy them for classroom use. And we have a standing order for the Bob Books; they have been tremendously popular."
The variety of series available also holds appeal for Josalyn Moran, director of children's books at Barnes & Noble. "Children have different learning styles and different interests," she said. "The fact that publishers focus on different things, be it fine illustrations, photographic nonfiction or something else, gives kids the chance to find something they'll like." Monti of B&N noted that "DK Readers lead the pack of the newer series; they sell the best. And Step into Reading and I Can Read are neck-and-neck as most popular." In Monti's experience, nonfiction definitely outsells fiction in the genre”except for when it comes to the classics from I Can Read. He added, "The re-release of the Bob Books is doing well for us, and I see that whole category [multi-title sets of Bob-type books] growing."
At children's media chain Zany Brainy, book specialist trainer Tina Selheimer said, "As a department, beginning and early readers do exceedingly well for us. We cherry-pick within the various series”we can't take every title, but
our customers appreciate that we can offer them a great variety of these books." As for steady sellers, Selheimer observed, "The Harper I Can Read series continues to reach out to families. We often hear parents say things like 'Oh, I remember Danny and the Dinosaur!' We're also very excited about the Road to Writing program, which concentrates on helping children become truly literate."
This news from the sales front is certainly encouraging to publishers. "These books are expensive to produce and you really need to have a large print run to do well," says Ford at Scholastic. Scholastic has a distinct advantage in being able to reach beyond retail and sell many early readers through its book clubs and fairs. "The clubs and fairs take our books and those from other publishers. The kids seem to have an insatiable appetite for them," Ford observed. Haskins of Golden has witnessed a similar mood in the market. "The easy-to-read genre has really come into its own," she said. "As more people become aware of the category, the demand is created."
One Step Beyond
In all this talk of reading levels, stages and steps, both booksellers and editors noted that the early chapter book and chapter book genres are just as hot as the beginning/early readers these days. The Magic Tree House (Random House), Junie B. Jones (Random), Captain Underpants (Scholastic) and Arthur Chapter Books (Little, Brown) were frequently mentioned
as big sellers. Ellen Krieger, v-p and associate publisher for Aladdin Paperbacks, hopes her company's recently unveiled Ready-for-Chapter series will also find a ready fan base. "We decided to start a program that is a logical step up from Aladdin's Ready to Read and other series," she said. The series includes both new titles and some repackaged backlist material published as paperback originals. Books by Daniel Pinkwater (The Werewolf Club #1: The Magic Pretzel)and Cynthia Rylant (In Aunt Lucy's Kitchen; A Little Shopping) helped kick off the program, and Krieger said the list will expand to include mystery and fantasy titles, and works by such authors as Andrew Clements, Todd Strasser and Margaret Peterson Haddix.
The distinctions between and benefits of the numerous series for new and emergent readers are certainly debatable. But at the end of the day, parents, publishers and booksellers should all take heart, because no matter where or when children embark on the journey to literacy, there is a bounty of sound, entertaining beginning-reader books to lead them along.
A listing of the many early/beginning readers series
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