What’s the difference between picture books and early readers?

The fascinating thing about children’s literature is that there are so many different ways to tell a story. The challenging thing about children’s literature is that each way you tell the story appeals to a different market. So let’s assume you want to write for children under 10. How do you know if you should write a picture book or an early reader (also described as beginner reader, beginning reader, and early chapter book)?

“And I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house in! said the Big Bad Wolf.

What’s the difference between picture books and early readers?

The key difference between picture books and early readers is the reading level. Will the book be read to a child by an adult, or will it be read to an adult by a child? Picture books are typically read by adults and early readers are read by, you guessed it, children who are early in the learning to read process.

You’ll find the stories are similar in both categories except for a single twist. In a picture book, there should be a level of the text that appeals to the adult reader in addition to the text and images that appeal to the child. In an early reader, it’s all about creating a story that appeals so strongly to child readers that they’re willing to struggle through deciphering the text to get to the story.

What’s the Difference in Writing Style Between Picture Books and Early Readers?

The best picture books often give authors — and listeners — an opportunity to explore beautiful language. Some might even call the best picture books poetic, even if they’re not written in verse. That’s the result of using literary devices to create an appealing rhythm. Some of my favorite include:

  • Assonance: two or more words positioned close to each other that repeat the same vowel sound. For example, the tagline for my travel blog, guide2travel.ca, is travel adventures with a twist of history. So, twist and history repeat the same vowel sound, “is.”
  • Consonance: Similar to assonance but repeating the sounds of consonants. Example: Pitter patter, let’s get at ‘er, with the “tts” of pitter and patter repeating.
  • Repetition: Repeats whole words rather than just sounds. There are lots of well known phrases that show this including: time after time; rain, rain go away; and all for one and one for all.
  • Onomatopoeia: the use of words that replicate sounds such as he squealed his tires or the clock went tick tock. 

Picture books are the distillation of an idea, and you have to use just the right words.

~ Denise Fleming

Picture books also rely on some of the old standards of poetic writing such as:

  • Alliteration: a series of words start with the same letter as in the red rose, golden grains of sand, fragrant fir trees, etc.
  • Simile: a comparison that uses like or as such as her eyes were as dark as storm clouds or his truck roared like a jet engine.
  • Metaphor: a direct reference of one unrelated thing to another thing. For example, rather than saying her eyes were as dark as storm clouds, you’d say you stared into her storm cloud eyes.

When it comes to reading grade level in picture books, they may range from second or third grade, right up to high school. The average, however, falls somewhere in between.

And easy readers? Well, they use a controlled vocabulary with words written to a specific reading level. If you’re familiar with reading programs, you’re likely already familiar with leveled reading. Many publishers develop leveled reading book series with titles that get progressively harder, so children can progress through them building their reading skills.

So, when it comes to grade level for reading, picture books may be anywhere from a second or third grade reading level to a high school level, with the average falling somewhere in between. Easy readers start at a preschool reading level up to about fourth grade.

What’s the Difference in Illustrations Between Picture Books and Easy Readers?

“The circus is coming! The circus is coming!”

Picture books and easy readers are both forms of illustrated books. So it might be logical to assume the pictures will be similar. However, that’s far from the reality. So what’s the difference between the illustrations in a picture book and an easy reader?

The illustrations in a picture book add a level of details and information to the story, while the illustrations in an easy reader show exactly what the text on the page describes in order to help the beginning reader figure out the words. In other words, the illustrations in picture books and easy readers fulfill two entirely different purposes.

Starting with wordless picture books and working right up to books winning awards such as the Caldecott medal for their artwork, the most popular picture books are illustrated by artists. The style can range from dreamy, such as Lindstrom’s 2021 Caldecott winner, We Are Water Protectors, to the realistic portrayal of African-Americans in The Undefeated (Caldecott Medal Book), winner of the 2020 Caldecott medal. However, in all great picture books, children can “read” the pictures to get many more details about the story.

Easy readers, on the other hand, generally have simpler illustrations. Indeed, they’re often black and white line drawings or very simple colored drawings, such as those you find in the Pete the Cat or Peppa the Pig stories. They may also have fewer illustrations, depending on the intended grade level. So, the easiest readers have more pictures to help young readers figure out the words, while harder ones have fewer illustrations.

How Do I Decide Whether My Story Should Be a Picture Book or Early Reader?

Should your story be a picture book or early reader? The most important element to consider is the potential for illustrations. Are there lots of active scenes that an illustrator can bring to life for young listeners turning pages while a grown-up reads them the story? Are there opportunities for the illustrations to enrich the text and add details?

If the story is simpler — think more like Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books — and has less action, then your story is best as an early reader.

However, it’s not always easy to decide whether your story should be a picture book or early reader / beginner reader book. I certainly struggled with which way to go with my Magic Forest Adventures ebook series. The series is retellings of fairy tales and fables set in the old west, and would work well with either category.

Little Red Riding Hood – a Magic Forest Adventures beginner reader / early reader by Linda Aksomitis

In the end, I decided on an early reader series for a number of reasons. First of all, the story had lots of plot elements and tension to keep beginner readers turning the pages. That’s important! Second, I was illustrating the books myself using software to create original works out of stock illustrations. And third, I enjoy creating stories for this age of reader and have no problem writing to the Grade 2.5 reading level I selected.

My final reasons though, were more a result of marketing decisions.

  • PublisherRocket (note that I’m an affiliate so will earn a small percentage if you purchase the service) indicates there are around 60,000 competitors for the keyword, picture books, but roughly half of that for early reader and beginner reader books. Less competition makes it easier to break into a market (I hadn’t published for this age previously) and get discovered.
  • I was a children’s librarian for a decade and know the importance of early readers and easy chapter books in school libraries.
  • With my training as a teacher-librarian, I can readily prepare marketing materials for teachers and home-schoolers to use in their classrooms in reading programs with early reader and beginner reader books.

How Do I Get Help Self Publishing My Early Reader Books?

You can get help self publishing your early reader books through a number of courses on the Web. I have many authors writing in this category in my course, Publish and Sell Your Ebooks, which is offered through community colleges and libraries around the world.

Read More About Writing and Publishing!

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