Have (Orange) Notebook Will Travel
I once believed nothing was harder than writing a picture book. Writing picture books is a cakewalk compared to beginning readers. Kids don’t have to read picture books, just enjoy them. Beginning readers are designed for newly-independent readers who have graduated from phonics texts. Levels vary according to publishers, but usually include an early level for pre-readers and/or kindergarteners.
The kindergarten readers have very short texts and are splashed with cheerful illustrations. They look easy to write. Fun, even! I’ve written three Level 1 books for the Step into Reading imprint of Random House. I’d love to brag I dash these fripperies off in a day or so, but my orange notebook would be quick to report the fib.
My orange spiral notebook is used exclusively for writing level 1 readers. It’s battered because I drag it everywhere. Sometimes I throw it across the room. The orange notebook knows I will pick it up with a sigh and go back to the difficult line giving me fits.
My first Level 1 ideas were rejected for being too sophisticated, such as the canine etiquette guide written by fleas. Gradually I understood this audience needs stories about their world.
I finally got it right with Pumpkin Day (2015). The story, about a pumpkin-picking family, employs rhyme and rhythm and has a narrative arc. The 113 words were carefully chosen and discarded, revised and reworked, page after scribbled page, as evidenced in the orange notebook.
Apple Picking Day, out July 26, follows Pumpkin Day. Same family on a different fall adventure. This story was even harder because there was no story. After you’ve picked pumpkins, what surprises await picking apples? Plus I had to use the same rhyme and rhythm scheme as in Pumpkin Day.
No metaphors, my editor warned. And no contractions. While I wasn’t given a word list, I relied on common sense. The stanza “Over mountains/cross a bridge/apple orchard/on the ridge” contained “mountains,” “bridge,” and “ridge.” I loved the image of the family’s little yellow car motoring through the countryside, but the stanza was too hard. The published version reads, “Over hill tops,/big and small./I see apples./Hello, fall!”
Tooth Fairy Night will be out in February 2017 to coincide with Dental Month. Draft pages in the orange notebook are littered with marginal lists of simple end rhymes, like stay, away, day, play. Words that seem ridiculously easy to us fill the youngest readers with pleasure and satisfaction.
I actually love writing these little stories. The orange notebook often sits on the kitchen counter while I fix dinner. I’ll mutter lines or try out rhymes while stirring spaghetti. If I’m riding in the car, my trusty notebook rests on my lap like a puppy.
When I was asked recently to write three more Level 1 “Day” books, I was glad my orange notebook came with me to Hollins. Right now I’m fiddling with “Snow Day.” My orange notebook already has lists of simple rhyming words and a tiny little outline. Outside it’s 92 degrees. In the orange notebook, it’s 30 degrees and snow is piled up high.