By Linda Skeers
I tend to ramble on when I write so I’m incredibly impressed with books for young readers that pack a punch in few words. I turned to my friend Debbie to get the inside scoop on how she does this so brilliantly!
Debbie Moeller writes leveled readers for children in grades K-2. She’s a former educator and Reading Specialist. She is devoted to writing high-interest books for young readers on engaging topics that spark their passion for reading. Visit her website at www.debbiemoeller.com.
What's your background and how did you get started writing books for kids?
I hold a Master’s degree in Education and taught for many years in various capacities. I was a classroom teacher in grades K, 2, 3, and 6. I also served as a Reading Recovery/Title 1 teacher (K-3), Reading Interventionist (4-5) and as the district English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher.
My writing/publishing journey was not typical. I had dabbled over the years, writing story ideas on meeting agendas, backs of envelopes napkins, etc, and I put them into a file folder for ‘when I had time’. In 2007, when my last child left for college, I decided the time was right to pursue writing for children. I joined SCBWI, and began to attend seminars, conferences and classes to study the craft of writing.
I also made a career change. I left the classroom to train as a Reading Recovery teacher for our district. I LOVED it! From 2007-2019 I was working with first graders struggling to learn to read.
In 2009, Hameray Publishing Group sent out a call for submissions. They were searching for Reading Recovery teachers to write leveled readers for the educational market. I responded, and my first story in the Kaleidoscope series, Snow Fun, was published in 2010. I have contributed to the Kaleidoscope and Zoozoo series and in spring 2022, I had six titles published as part of Hameray’s new Kid Lit series featuring paired fiction/nonfiction texts for Kindergarten. I have 32 books in Hameray Publishing Group’s current catalog, and four new titles will be released in 2023.
What got you interested in writing emergent readers? (I'm not sure what the correct term is, but maybe you can explain it!)
An emergent reader is a term used to describe a child who is in the beginning stages of learning to read. They have some knowledge of books and how they work, they may be able to identify some letters with sounds, and may control a small number of known words in reading and writing. They are not able to read independently and require instruction and assistance to make meaning from print.
Leveled readers are books that support students as emergent readers, generally in Kindergarten and first grade. They are carefully crafted with attention to sentence structure, vocabulary and word choice designed to build confidence while supporting and challenging the child on the journey to becoming an independent reader. Illustrations are also an important part of a leveled reader-illustrations or photos provide clues to help with decoding and comprehension.
In the course of teaching Reading Recovery, often times I was frustrated with the texts I had available to me to use with my students at the lowest levels- Level 1-3/Level A-C. They were just sight words put into sentences without much of a story to comprehend. I wanted to tell a story with simple words that kids could read successfully, understand, learn from, and retell. Butterfly (2013) was my first published Level 1/A. It is the story of metamorphosis told in words and pictures with just 14 words!
How do you come up with topics/subjects for your books?
I think about what classroom teachers could use for instruction with their students. Equally important to me is what may interest or excite a child to pick up my book. I also consider what I would enjoy researching.
So, I try to find a subject that hits all of my target areas. I study the Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (NCSS).
HOW do you take a vast topic like SHARKS and choose what details to include and what to leave out? (this is what we all want to know!)
First, I read, read read! I read what is already out in the marketplace. I research the topic and compile pages of notes- basic information, little known facts, and exciting tidbits. Much of the information I select for a book depends on the level it will written for. Some of the research I can eliminate right away because it’s too advanced, the vocabulary is too difficult, or it doesn’t fit within the parameters of what is appropriate for the grade level. For a topic like SHARKS, I would eliminate information about physical characteristics because I believe that is something most kids already know. I would focus on what new learning they could acquire about Sharks and how they could apply it to other areas of study. For example, I may include their diet- it could support learning the food chain. I may also include hunting techniques- it could support predator/prey. Another idea may be characteristics that would help students classify them-are they a fish? Or a mammal? I would include fun facts that are incredible or peculiar and/or something surprising, scary or funny.
What advice would you give a writer who wants to break into this genre?
If you are part of the educational community as a teacher or librarian, you definitely have an edge. But if you aren’t-don’t despair! You just need to do your due diligence. Educate yourself about the standards, research publishers and study their catalogs, visit classrooms, talk to teachers, and see what is successful in the market. Read hundreds of leveled readers from a variety of publishing houses. Many educational publishers who produce leveled readers have strict guidelines and expectations for word count, vocabulary, sentence structure, etc. Try writing at different levels and get feedback from your critique group and possibly from a reading teacher at the grade level you are targeting.
What is your writing process like from idea to finished manuscript?
Sometimes I choose the topic on my own and sometimes I’m asked to write a particular text based on a need they have-a certain level, or instructional topic. Either way, I’m sure my process is much like anyone else’s.
From there, I may be asked to make minor changes, or in one case, completely rewrite-it was too similar to another book coming out in the series!
What's the most fun or rewarding part of writing for kids?
I would say hands down the best part is when I use my books to teach students. They are excited to be successful readers and are amazed that I’m the author!
Just for fun: if you had a pen name, what would it be?
My favorite character is Scarlett O’Hara. And I’m fascinated with phoenixes. I love mythical creatures.
Any advice, tips or suggestions for aspiring writers?
Writing is a solitary endeavor. So the most valuable thing for me as a writer was finding my people. Other writers as passionate about children’s literature and writing for kids as I was.
We are nonfiction authors who support readers and writers through our writing, author visits, and workshops.
Disclaimer: The Nonfiction Ninjas are a group of writers with diverse ideas . The views expressed in each post are those of the author and may differ from others in the group.