Thursday, September 30, 2010

Banned Early Readers

In recognition of Banned Books Week (September 25 to October 2) I went searching to see if any early readers had been kept off the library shelves. Truthfully I didn't expect to find any. I know that plenty of middle-grade and YA novels make up the lists and even certain picture books, but early readers? What was there to ban? Hop on Pop encourages parental abuse?

Well, dear readers, I was wrong. I did find two books, and very likely there are more.

The first one happens to be an old favorite of mine. It's Bony-legs by Joanna Cole with illustrations by Dirk Zimmer. The story is based on a Russian folktale featuring a witch called Baba Yaga, aka Bony-legs. She lives in a hut that stands on chicken feet (a nice, creepy detail) deep in the woods. Her teeth are iron and her favorite things to eat are children. What a gal!

Walking through the woods one day is Sasha, a little girl. Her aunt has sent her on an errand to borrow some needle and thread. When Sasha spots the strange house, she decides to go inside. As she makes her way to the house, she helps a gate (by greasing it with butter), a hungry dog (by giving him her bread) and a cat (by giving her some meat). After Sasha is taken captive by Bony-legs, the cat, dog, and gate help her to escape, repaying her for her kindness.

So why was this book banned? Because it deals with magic and witchcraft. So, of course, does Snow White and countless other fairy and folk tales. But I guess the reasoning is that young children should be kept away from such things. Someone should have told that to Walt Disney. The real reason, I think, is because the illustrations are so deliciously scary. Zimmer's witch is truly a horror with her long warty nose and witchy grin.  And the details in this book are wonderful. In the bathroom where Bony-legs locks Sasha, the bathtub has gnarly feet and the bath tiles show skulls and skeleton bones.

The second book is In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories. It features seven folktales retold by Alvin Schwartz, and again--yeah!--with illustrations by Dirk Zimmer.  Most of the stories are variations of what I think of as "Jack-in-the-box" tales. They start out creepy and build up to a scary, got-ya moment. A classic example is the title story. The narrator takes you through a dark wood to a dark house to a dark room to a dark chest to a dark shelf to a dark box, out of which springs...a ghost! Boo! Having told countless of these tales to children (The Hairy Toe is another good one), I can attest to their power. Most kids will shriek with fear/laughter and beg you to tell it again.

And the reason this book was banned? Someone, somewhere decided it was too morbid for children. And you know what, maybe for some kids it is. That's why those boys and girls who don't like to be scared won't check it out of the library. But for those who do (and my daughter's name is scrawled inside our worn copy) let them read it.

So go out there and celebrate Banned Books Week. Read a banned book or two or three. Check out a bunch from your library and read them to your kids--or to someone else's kids. If they don't like it, they'll let you know.


Monday, September 27, 2010

Ivy + Bean = A Fun Read

Growing up were you ever pressured to be friends with the kid next door? I was. Ester L. and I were the same age so it was assumed by our well-meaning families that we should and would be friends. And while I did play with her, it was only when there was no one better around. (I'm pretty sure she felt the same about me.) Luckily for Ivy and Bean, two next-door neighbors in an early chapter book by the same name, their friendship--after a rocky beginning--has a happier ending. Written by Annie Barrows and illustrated by Sophie Blackall, Ivy + Bean features two spunky seven-year-old girls, each one pressured by her mother to become friends.

Bean, a sassy, puddle-stomping spitfire, takes an instant dislike to Ivy when she moves into the house across the street. Ivy seems boring and nice, not friend material at all. The pair unite when they take on Bean's eleven-year-old sister Nancy. Ivy, although quiet and seemingly demur, has hidden qualities--she can belch on demand and she's a witch, or at least a witch in training. The two girls join forces to create a spell that will have Nancy dancing nonstop. By the end of the day the pair have pulled off the spell with hilarious results and in the process have become fast friends. Since that first book, six more in the series have been published.

The latest just came out and is titled Ivy + Bean: What's the Big Idea? This time out the girls team up as scientists for the school's science fair. They have a modest project. End global warming. Should be a blast!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Elephant and Piggie

As I was checking out an armload of books in the Elephant & Piggie series by Mo Willems, the librarian commented on how much children seemed to like them. "They're not boring like other early readers," she concluded, handing me my books with a smile. I knew what she meant, even if I didn't completely agree with her. Some early readers are tough going, with sentences upon sentence to plow through before reaching a payoff. The Elephant & Piggie books offer readers something fun on every page.

The format helps with this. The only text is dialogue set in balloon bubbles. The stories read more like a play than a traditional storybook with "he saids" and "she saids" on every other line. This speeds up the pace and keeps those pages turning.

Humorous illustrations are another plus. Big and bold, the two main characters fill the page with not much else in way of background, keeping the reader's attention focused on the main action. As for the stories, they are clever and always fresh. Reading them, I was constantly surprised--and amused--at how the stories were resolved. Using a bare minium of props, Mo Willems manages to pull rabbit after rabbit (and occasionally an elephant) out of his bag of tricks.

Two of the early readers are winners of the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award. There Is a Bird on Your Head is the 2008 winner and Are You Ready to Play Outside? won for 2009.

Elephant has a problem. He has a bird on his head. Then he has two birds, then a nest, then eggs that hatch into three baby chicks. Elephant becomes increasingly upset until Piggie offers a suggestion. Why not politely ask the bird family to leave? It works! Off they fly, nest and all--relocating on Piggie's porcine head.  

Piggie is ready to play outside. His plans include running, skipping, and jumping with Elephant. Nothing can stop them. Then the first drop falls and soon it is pouring. What's a pig to do? Throw a tantrum apparently. Then Elephant points to some worms enjoying the rainy day. Taking their cue from them, Elephant and Piggie splash it up in the rain. They have a great time. Until the rain stops. Piggie is about to go into another funk when his friend Elephant helps out with a shower--from his trunk. 

Monday, September 20, 2010

My Darling Clementine

  Just finished reading Clementine by Sara Pennypacker, and I'm ready for more stories about this red-haired eight-year-old to whom trouble sticks like bubblegum. Written in first person, Clementine is pitch-perfect. This book has made me more sympathetic to kids with limited attention spans (of whom I know several). The excellent point made by Clementine is that she is paying attention. And she is. Except her focus is usually not where everyone else's is aimed. For instance, while working on her art project, Clementine notices:

* the lunchroom lady and janitor making out in his car
* the pelican-shaped egg stain on the teacher's scarf
* that a girl in class has left for the bathroom in distress

Clementine's week progresses from bad to worse as she gets into more and more trouble. Most of her problems stem from hair, specifically the hair on her friend and nemesis Margaret, a bossy nine-year-old. Margaret gets glue in her hair and cuts off a hunk. Trying to even out the mess, Clementine ends up chopping off most of her friend's hair. Then she colors it red. With her artist mother's permanent markers. Later, in sympathy, she cuts off her own hair and colors it green. Remarkably, her parents stay calm as all this havoc is wrought. Due to a repeated comment by Margaret, though, Clementine becomes convinced that they want to get rid of her because she is so difficult. Thankfully this is not the case. Clementine not only survives her bad week, she is even touted as a hero in The Great Pigeon War when she discovers why pigeons are fouling the building where her father is superintendent and solves the problem for him.

I have only one minor qualm about the book, one so tiny that I hesitate to state it. In the beginning of Chapter 8, Clementine mentions that she writes in her journal things she doesn't want to forget. Her examples: When she grows up she plans to stay single (fine) and smoke cigars (not so fine). I feel like a fuddy-duddy here, but kids don't need any encouragement about smoking. Again, this is a small, small point, but cigars don't belong in books for young children. There, that's out of my system. Now go read Clementine. There are three more books in the series: Clementine's Letter, The Talented Clementine, and Clementine, Friend of the Week (just out).

Oh, and the illustration by Marla Frazee are spot on and add to the charm of the stories.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

5 Books to Read to a Dog

A recent post on PW's Shelf Talker emphasized the benefits kids got when they read aloud to dogs. According to a joint study by the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and All Ears Reading program, the third-graders became better and faster readers. As Shelf Talker correctly points out reading to nonjudgmental creatures boosts a reader's self confidence. It also turns reading into a more enjoyable experience. At least for those kids who are comfortable with dogs.

 This got me to thinking. Since dogs are the audience, what books would they enjoy hearing? I composed a list of 5 early reader books to read to a dog. I tried to pick ones that both reader and listener would like. When I wasn't sure, I consulted my pug, Pablo, and he made the call.

1 The number one book was a no-brainer. Three Stories You Can Read to Your Dog by Sara Swan Miller. What dog wouldn't rejoice to hear stories written to suit his taste and interests? There's a story about a "burglar," another about a bone, and a third about a "wild" dog who enjoys chasing cars and squirrels. And if your canine companion still hasn't had his fill, check out Three More Stories You Can Read to Your Dog by the same author.

Now here, in no particular order, are the rest.

2 For kids just starting out Go, Dog, Go by P.D. Eastman will put them on the road to reading. Dogs of all kinds, big ones, little ones, green ones, red ones, and yellow ones, take off on the page as they zoom about in cars, on boats, and even on skis. Pablo gives this book an enthusiastic thumbs up!

3 Dogs don't just like to listen to stories. Sometimes they are in the mood for some meaty nonfiction. Why Do Dogs Bark? by Joan Holub answers the many questions that dogs may wonder about in those odd moments when they aren't nosing about in the trash can or digging up the garden. Kids will enjoy learning about their canine friends as well.

4 I don't have many heros. But Balto, a sled dog that helped get vital medicine to children in Nome, Alaska, back in 1925, is one of them. I first learned about Balto when I was researching a book about the great dogsled race that eventually became the Iditarod. Children reading The Bravest Dog Ever: The True Story of Balto by Natalie Standiford will be inspired to learn how dogs helped save lives, and the dogs hearing the stirring tale can bask in their ancestors' glory.

5 Last, but in no way least, is Martha Speaks by Susan Meddaugh. Martha, a lovable mutt, gobbles up some alphabet soup, then stuns her family when she is able to speak. An, wow, does she have a lot to say. After hearing all these fine picture books and early readers what dog wouldn't want to speak up and thank his young friend for the entertainment. And who knows, may even provide a suggestion or two for the next book.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Dirty Harry (the Dog)

Betty White reading Harry the Dirty Dog! What a treat! First published in 1956, this book, written by Gene Zion and illustrated by his wife at the time, Margaret Bloy Graham, has been delighting young children ever since. Not fond of baths, Harry hides the scrub brush and takes off. During his adventures he becomes dirtier and dirtier until the white dog with black spots turns into a black dog with white spots. Back home his family doesn't recognize him, not even when Harry performs his famous flipping tricks. (Side note: What is wrong with this family?) Harry solves the problem by unearthing the scrub brush and getting the kids to give him a bath. (Side note 2: So these kids are willing to bathe some strange dog?) When a clean and recognizable Harry emerges from the bath water, there is much rejoicing.

More Harry stories followed, including Harry by the Sea and Harry and the Lady Next Door, the one true early reader. My hands-down favorite, though, is No Roses for Harry! I enjoyed reading this book as a child and twenty-odd years later so did my daughter. She especially related to the story because, like Harry, she had a beloved grandmother who sent her clothes she often didn't like to wear. She claimed they itched. I suspected they were way too fancy for her taste (and mine).

Harry's gift is a woolen sweater with roses on it. "Harry didn't like it the moment he saw it. He didn't like the roses." Harry's solution is to lose the sweater, but each time he thinks he has succeeded in ditching it, someone returns it. Then Harry notices a loose stitch in the sweater and begins pulling on it. Soon he has managed to pull out a long string of wool. That's when a bird swoops down and finishes the job, unravelling the sweater before Harry's astonished eyes. When Grandma turns up for a visit, the family searches and searches for the sweater,. Of course they can't find it. That's when Harry leads them to the park and proudly shows a bird in a nest woven with the wool from the sweater. The remarkable bird has even recreated the roses! The story ends with Harry receiving a new sweater for Christmas--a white one with black spots--that he truly likes.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Hooray for Owl at Home!

If pressed to choose my favorite early reader, the winner would have to be Owl at Home by the wonderful and oh-so-talented Arnold Lobel. Published in 1975, the book came out way after I first learned to read. Yet there is something perennially fresh about Owl's child-like outlook on life that it never fails to bring a smile to my lips.

First, hats off to Mr. Lobel for the feat of creating so successful a book with one lone (but not lonely) character! Unlike Frog and Toad, Owl has no friend to bounce ideas off or to come into conflict. Instead, Lobel uses inanimate objects as characters--the wind in "The Guest," Owl's feet in "Strange Bumps," and the moon in "Owl and the Moon."

"Strange Bumps" trumps all the stories, in my humble opinion. Owl in bed for the night notices two strange bumps at the end of the bed. Unaware that they are his feet, Owl becomes increasingly upset as the bumps move about, yet disappear when he throws off the covers. Eventually he takes himself off to sleep downstairs in his chair. This is a pretty accurate portrayal of the irrational yet very real fears that plague us at nighttime.

"Owl and the Moon" is another favorite. Perhaps because an early memory I have is riding in the back seat of my parents' car at night after a day spent at the beach. Pleasantly tired, eyes drooping, I'd watch the moon out the back window as it followed us home. I thought of the moon as an especially caring friend, the same as Owl.

Early readers are often peopled with characters who make silly errors in judgment. Think Amelia Bedelia. I'm sure one of the reasons for this is that beginning readers make so many mistakes as they struggle to master the words on the page. It must give them a feeling of superiority to know that they would never be so silly as to mistake their feet for strange bumps or to dash up and down the stairs in order to be in two places at once, as Owl does in "Upstairs and Downstairs." Lobel, however, never pokes fun at Owl. He respects him as a kind and well-meaning, if not especially bright, owl. And so do I.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Dodsworth in London

To date, there are three Dodsworth early readers (not counting the picture book The Pink Refrigerator, in which Dodsworth makes his first appearance). In books one and two Dodsworth visits New York and Paris. So far, the London one is my favorite, perhaps because London is tops on my list of places to visit. A fourth reader, Dodsworth in Rome, is due out in 2011.

Written and illustrated by Tim Egan, the books feature Dodsworth, a mouse, who lives in a Richard Scarry-type universe peopled (or should that be animaled?) by critters of all kinds. Dodsworth's companion, and thorn in his side, is a duck (with lowercase d). How Dodsworth acquires and becomes responsible for his feathered friend is detailed in Dodsworth in New York. By the time they reach London, the two are an established pair.

In the book's four chapters, Dodsworth loses the duck, mistakes another duck for the duck, and is finally reunited with the right duck. They also land an invite to stay at Buckingham Palace by the Queen, (a majestic cow). As Dodsworth conducts his madcap search for duck, readers are introduced to such sights as Picadilly Circus, Tower Bridge, London Bridge, the Clock Tower and Big Ben, River Thames, Parliament, Kensington Gardens, and the Royal Academy. Whew!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa: Spring Babies

Spring Babies, the latest in Erica Silverman's ongoing series about Cowgirl Kate and her talking horse Cocoa, presents readers with an assortment of newborns on a ranch, some more traditional than others. In the first chapter it is the middle of the night when Kate wakes up a grumpy and sleep-deprived Cocoa. Together the pair patrols the ranch, Cocoa reluctantly. They hear a cow in distress and find Sweetie Pie, who is about to calve. After she delivers, Cocoa's attitudes towards night patrol changes and he suggests that they stay till morning watching over the newborn. Cocoa's fondness for the calf continues in Chapter Two. Here Cocoa mimics his "springy and zingy" friend and tests Kate's patience. A puppy arrives in Chapter Three, a present from Kate's friend, Jenny. Cocoa is out of sorts (he was expecting peppermint candy not a puppy) and the tiniest bit jealous of the attention the puppy receives. That changes when the puppy's friendliness towards the horse wins him over. Cocoa christens his new pal Peppermint. The final chapter, like the first, is set at nighttime. Cocoa charges from the barn, thinking he's seen a ghost. Kate investigates and discovers the ghost is really a barn owl and her babies. 

This book is the sixth in the series, the others being: Kate and Cocoa, Partners, School Days, Rain or Shine, and Horse in the House. In all the stories, Kate comes across as capable and responsible and is a likable role model. Cocoa has a more irrepressible nature. Like children everywhere, he wants what he wants and he wants it now, whether it's cowboy boots, playing hide-and-seek, or racing the wind. It's up to Kate to rein in (sorry!) his impulses and make sure he behaves.

Betsy Lewin is the illustrator for the series, and her loose, sketch-like work is a good match for the text. Her humorous drawings provide ample clues for the beginning reader to use to figure out what's happening on the page. Look once at the expression on Cocoa's face and you'll know if he's feeling happy, angry, disgruntled, or afraid.   

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Ling & Ting

Grace Lin, author of numerous picture books as well as three middle-grade novels, writes and illustrates her first early reader about a pair of identical twins who are most definitely not exactly alike.

One of my childhood friends wished she could have been born a twin.  I could never understand her strange desire. Why would I want there to be two of me, someone else who exactly like me? This concern doesn't matter one whit to Lin's characters, Ling and Ting, who are confident about their individuality. 

In the first story, Ling sits patiently as her hair is trimmed. Ting is fidgety. She twists and turns in her seat. Then an inopportune sneeze guarantees that she'll look different than her sister and she ends up with a giant gap in her bangs. (In a nice detail the art shows a bandage on Ting's knee, indicating that she's accident-prone.)

There are six stories in all, and each one showcases Ling and Ting's individuality and unique ways of reacting to events. The girls dabble in magic tricks, make dumplings (Ling's are smooth ones, Ting's fat), eat them (Ting with chopsticks, Ling with a fork), and visit the library. In the final chapter Ting tells Ling a story in which she cleverly incorporates--and mixes up--all the book's previous events. 

An early reader doesn't need to be a twin to enjoy this book. She just needs to be one-of-a-kind, like Ling and Ting.

Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning

The day after Labor Day was a happy, happy time for my father. He rose with a spring in his step, plugged in the percolator, and as the aroma of coffee filled our living space, he'd step to the bottom of the staircase. Upstairs my sisters and I slept. But not for long. At the top of his lungs he'd boom in an uneven baritone the chorus to Irving Berlin's song, "Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning."

It was the first day of school, you see, and the end to our beloved summer vacation. As we grumbled and moaned, he'd chuckle, clearly delighted with our misery. I know this is strange, but I remember this yearly event with fondness. Why he was so happy to see us return to school, I don't know, since it was our mother who was stuck with us all summer. Maybe it was because most every morning, year in and year out, he was required to put on a suit and tie and commute to a job that he didn't much like. Maybe. Or maybe he just enjoyed teasing his children.

What stays with me, though, is the joy in his voice as he sang those words. And so, to all the kids out there waking up on the morning of their first day back to school, in honor of my father, I sing these words to you:

Oh! how I hate to get up in the morning,

Oh! how I'd love to remain in bed;

For the hardest blow of all, is to hear the bugler call;

You've got to get up, you've got to get up

You've got to get up this morning!

Some day I'm going to murder the bugler,

Some day they're going to find him dead;

I'll amputate his reveille, and step upon it heavily,

And spend the rest of my life in bed.

Monday, September 6, 2010

What's in a Name?

Books for children learning to read go by many different names: easy-to-reads, beginning readers, and early readers are among the more common ones. Since there's no consensus, for the purposes of this blog I'll be calling them early readers. Easy-to-reads or easy readers strike me as being particularly wrong. These books are anything but easy for the children picking them up for the first time, as anyone who has sat with a young reader fumbling his or her way through a thicket of unfamiliar words can confirm.