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Writing for Children: My First Easy Reader

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Writing for Children: My First Easy Reader

As a writer and a mom, writing for children felt like a natural step in my career.  Like most moms, I’d read to my children and think, “These stories seem pretty simple; maybe I should try writing a children’s book.” So I did.

I am particularly fond of “Smokey” by Bill Peet. I love getting lost in the rhyme and rhythm, and my son favors all things train related—a win-win for us both. So I sat down at my keyboard and typed away, trying to emulate the poetic sing-song flow of “Smokey.” The result was the birth of “Railroads Aren’t for Rhinos,” version one.

“Not too bad,” I thought. But I knew I needed an expert opinion. So I signed up for a UCLA Writers’ Extension “Easy Readers” course where I uploaded “Railroads Aren’t for Rhinos” for critiquing.

Confession: I didn’t even know what an easy reader was until I took this class. I soon learned that I didn’t know much about writing for children—at least not the kind intended for the class in which I’d enrolled. I had a lot to learn.

Easy readers, also known as early readers, beginning readers, or Train to Read books, are tailored to facilitate a child’s ability to read. They are the first books a child reads independently. Therefore, writers must keep sentences super short, and choose the majority of their words from the Dolch list (sight words) and phonetic list.

At more than 800 words and challenging lines such as “The train sped sideways off the track and crashed into a big locomotive” my book needed some work.

That first critique was like a slap in the face. I was told to cut the copy in half and simplify the words (in other words, I needed to learn how to write children’s books). After a few more critiquing sessions, I added another character, shortened the storyline, added a touch of humor and a surprise ending. All of this is thanks to the valuable feedback from my teacher and fellow writers.

In case you’re curious, here’s my very first go at “Railroad’s Aren’t for Rhinos” in its lengthy, wordy entirety.

Railroads Aren’t for Rhinos

(original version prior to publication)

On Rhino Ricky’s sixth birthday, he closed his eyes extra tight,

blew out his candles extra hard and hollered extra, extra loud,

“Rhino on the tracks and I’m not looking back!”

The other rhinos gasped.

“Railroads aren’t for rhinos,” they said.

“You belong in the zoo with us.”

 

In the zoo Rhino Ricky could hear all the train whistles blow in Griffith Park.

He heard the train whistles blow on the Southern Railroad as it rode through an old western town.

He heard the train whistle blow at Travel Town where children also get to climb on really big trains.

And he heard the steam scale model train’s whistle at the L.A. Live Steamers as it went through a tunnel and over a bridge.

Then there was the zoo train just around the bend.

Every time he heard its train whistle blow he lifted his horn and yelled, “Choo, Choo!”

 

“Rhino Ricky wants to go clickety-clack on the tracks!”

“That’s rhino rubbish,” said the other rhinos.

This upset Rhino Ricky, but he did not give up.

“Rhino on the tracks and I’m not looking back,” he said.

 

While the other rhinos napped, Rhino Ricky used his horn to unlatch the gate

and headed for the nearest train in Griffith Park—the zoo train.

 

He climbed aboard and yelled “Choo, choo!”

The zoo train did not budge.

“Choo, choo!” he yelled again.

It still didn’t budge.

Rhino Ricky used his weight—the whole ton of it—to rock the train back and forth until…

 

Uh, oh! It derailed off the track, sped down the hill,

zoomed out the zoo gate and fell onto its side.

 

Rhino Ricky remembered what the other rhinos had said.

“Railroads aren’t for rhinos.”

He felt discouraged.

But he did not give up.

“Rhino on the tracks and I’m not looking back.”

 

As he walked onto Zoo Drive, he heard his favorite sound—a train whistle.

He came upon the L.A. Live Steamers model train.

It looked just like a real steam engine, only much smaller.

“What fun!” he said as he climbed aboard.

Just as he sat down, the train began to shrink.

It got smaller and smaller until…

SMASH! Rhino Ricky had squished the train flat.

 

Along came a strong wind that lifted the train off the ground.

It flew high up into the air and right over the Hollywood sign.

 

Rhino Ricky felt frustrated.

But he did not give up.

“Rhino on the tracks and I’m not looking back.”

 

He arrived at Travel Town to find the biggest trains he had ever seen.

Rows and rows were lined with steamers, diesels, passenger cars and cabooses.

There was also a miniature train with an empty seat right up front.

Rhino Ricky climbed aboard.

This time the train did start!

As it began chugging quickly along the track, Rhino Ricky steered straight ahead.

“Rhino Ricky goes clickety-clack,” he shouted.

 

But rhinos cannot see very well and he missed a sharp turn.

The train sped sideways off the track and crashed into a big locomotive.

The locomotive tipped over and crashed into a passenger car.

Then the passenger car tipped over and crashed into a caboose.

As the trains continued to fall, Rhino Ricky ran out of Travel Town as fast as a rhino could—40 miles per hour to be exact.

 

Rhino Ricky felt awful.

But he did not give up.

“Rhino on the tracks and I’m not looking back.”

 

Rhino Ricky’s last chance to ride a train was on the Freedom Train at the Southern Railroad.

This time, he sat in the last car hoping to finish the ride.

The train began to move very slowly past the ponies’ riding ring.

Rhino Ricky was just about to let out a “Choo, choo” when the train hit a bump.

The jolt launched him straight into the air, over the fence and into the Griffith Park Pool.

As if things weren’t bad enough, rhinos cannot swim.

At least he landed in the shallow end.

 

Rhino Ricky remembered what the other rhinos said.

“Maybe railroads aren’t for rhinos,” he said and he headed back to the zoo.

As he walked up the hill he saw a sign that read, “Rhino Wanted.”

It pointed to an area of the zoo where he had never been.

Rhino Ricky felt excited.

There before him was not a train, but a carousel strong enough to hold a rhino.

And there was a special space just for him.

“Yippie,” he shouted.

“Rhino goes ‘round and ‘round, and it is the best fun I’ve found!”

 

 

 

 

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