Writing an Early Reader. ‘Peter and Jane’ it ain’t – thankfully

This is a busy week for me. Not only are all three of my Opal Moonbaby books coming out again with new jackets (see New Leaves below), but my first Early Reader is published. Hooray!

Owen & The Onion ER-1

I say my Early Reader, but actually Owen and the Onion is only half mine. The other half belongs to the fantastic illustrator Becka Moor who came up with all the glorious colour illustrations – all sixty pages of them. And it’s not even entirely ours either, because our very clever editor and book designer at Orion Children’s Books both had a big hand in the finished book too.

I published a picture book last year with illustrator, Antonia Woodward, Milly and the Mermaids. You might think that writing an Early Reader is just like writing a longer picture book, requiring exactly the same skills – and it is a similar job, but as I’ve learned, there are some very particular differences.

With a Picture Book we are almost always working with a very limited number of pages, usually twelve double page spreads. So as an author, even one who doesn’t illustrate (and most of us don’t), it’s very wise to have an extremely clear picture in your head of what should appear on each page. The illustrations play a large part in the actual ‘telling’ of the story and in many cases there will be no words at all on entire spreads, even – perhaps especially – when the storytelling is at its most intense. Reading a Picture Book is both a visual and an auditory shared experience.

An Early Reader is different. It’s very often a shared experience too, but the book is in the hands of the child now. The Early Reader is likely to have more words in it than a picture book, and a lot more pages, and it’s likely to be for slightly older children, but that’s not to say that the words you use can instantly be more complicated. In fact it’s the opposite. An Early Reader may be for an older child but it is intended to help that child learn to read, so while there can be interesting and varied vocabulary, it shouldn’t be too complex. As in a Picture Book, there can be repetition, not just because it sounds good and adds to the lyrical quality of the story, but because it can make a section of the book satisfyingly easy to read, giving the new reader a chance to build some momentum and increase their confidence.

As in all good stories, there is likely to be a central character for the reader to identify with, root for, and even occasionally disapprove of!Owen circle intro page

A character who changes in some significant way during the course of the story. But you haven’t got long to make it happen, or much room for back story – it’s not an adult novel we’re writing here so there’s no room for waffle or digression. Children are pretty unforgiving about that sort of thing.

The story must shoot forwards like an arrow but it will also need to have lots of variety – changes of scene, and character, the action moving on swiftly with every short chapter, every page turn. There’s no room for wallowing in a character’s feelings, or indulging in your best exotic flowery language. Things should be happening all the time in the pictures, and in the words. Little visual jokes and speech bubbles are fun and break up the page for the beginning reader, helping to keep them motivated. The skill is to tell an absorbing tale in relatively few words, preferably under 1500 of them.

Then, with a bit of luck, you’ll have a lively and enticing story, something to inspire first your illustrator and then, most importantly your reader – after all you’ve probably only got one shot with them. I don’t mean to be prescriptive, though. There are many ways in to writing, and I’m just giving you a taster of what I’ve learned myself while writing my first Early Reader.

One thing I can say for sure – publishing for this age group has come a long way since I was learning to read with the somewhat drab Peter and Jane. Take a look at this exchange. Yawn. I’m afraid I spent most of my time with those books coveting Jane’s dress and the ribbon in her hair. I’m surprised I ever progressed at all!

peter and jane

However you choose to go about writing for this young audience, it’s a thorough and pretty exhaustive process –  but one I’m looking forward to repeating with my next book for young readers, All the King’s Tights, which will be illustrated by the very wonderful Ali Pye. More on that later.

Now, have I forgotten anything?

Hmm. Oh yes, an Early Reader should always, always have an ogre in it…

Ogre, p31…shouldn’t it?