August 09, 2012


Ballet Shoes. By Joan Holub. Illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas. Random House. $3.99.

Pretty Penny Comes Up Short. By Devon Kinch. Random House. $3.99.

Traction Man and the Beach Odyssey. By Mini Grey. Knopf. $16.99.

      Starting kids on the path to reading is always a wonderful experience – usually beginning by watching them interact with board books, start to recognize colors and pictures, and become involved in the physical activity of turning pages, pulling tabs and otherwise participating in a process they are too young to understand fully.  As children get a little older, there are various ways to get them interested in doing reading on their own.  One popular approach is the “stepped” series, such as “Step into Reading” from Random House.  Series like this one start with super-simple stories and gradually become more involved.  Ballet Shoes, for example, is a “Step 1” book for preschoolers and kindergartners, designated a “ready to read” work.  The very simple rhymed story, in large type, is about a ballet class and performance: “We do stretches./ We do bends./ We warm up/ with ballet friends.”  None of the kids is named, but they are determinedly multicultural, as is the case in many books today – Caucasian, African-American, Asian – and there is a boy in the mostly female ballet class.  Everyone smiles all the time; there is cooperation without conflict; and the last page simply says, “We are ballet stars tonight!”  Very easy to read and understand, the book also includes two pages of stickers – piano, tutu, ballet shoes, flowers – so the earliest readers can have fun that extends beyond the book itself.

      Pretty Penny Comes Up Short is significantly more involved.  This is a “Step 3” book for first through third graders, designated “reading on your own.”   The central character is Devon Kinch’s Pretty Penny, a little girl with a huge head, even bigger hair, and no visible neck – a caricature, but a charming one.  Kinch’s books are designed to teach young children about making and handling money, and that is the theme here, too; but the conflict (by this stage of reading, books have conflicts) is really an ethical rather than financial one.  Penny wants to make a donation to an animal farm, but she doesn’t have any money to donate, so she comes up with a plan to show a movie to neighborhood residents in return for donations that she will collect and pass along to the farm.  Penny gets help from several friends and, as always, from her pet pig, Iggy, who runs the popcorn stand.  But when some money falls on the floor, Iggy puts it in his hat instead of the register, and decides to keep it to buy himself some treats – after all, the money is for animals, and he is an animal.  The rest of the book is about Penny finding out what Iggy did, explaining that it is wrong, and arranging a suitable way for Iggy to earn back the money he kept – by helping out at the animal farm.  The whole book is a trifle heavy-handed, but amusing enough to keep the interest of word-oriented readers ages 5-8.

      Readers of the same age with more of a picture orientation will do better with Traction Man and the Beach Odyssey, Mini Grey’s third foray into Traction Man territory – after Traction Man Is Here! and Traction Man Meets Turbo Dog.  These are ”secret lives of toys” books, but nothing like the Pixar Toy Story movies: Traction Man and the other toys he encounters retain their blank-eyed, hard-plastic look throughout, and their adventures are decidedly mundane.  What happens in Traction Man and the Beach Odyssey is that Traction Man and his pet, Scrubbing Brush, are swept away from their family by a wave and picked up in a Beach-Time Brenda bucket by a different family; Traction Man and Scrubbing Brush spend some time in a sand castle with two dollies; and then they are rescued, somewhat messily, by playful Truffles the puppy, from Traction Man’s family.  Grey plays some amusing games here for readers, especially on the inside front and back covers.  At the front is an “ad” for “fully accessorized” Brenda “with lots and lots of stuff,” who wears “teeny tottery microshoes (doll cannot stand alone as shown)” and is available in “light pink, mid pink or sick pink.”  At the back is a Brenda adventure called “It Came from the Sea,” in which Traction Man is swept ashore and says, “I seem to have been washed up in the wrong comic strip,” after which he and Brenda encounter “something enormous” that “seems quite partial to cocktail sausages.”  These little features are funnier than the man book, but the drawings are amusing throughout, and young readers who do not need to be “stepped” into books – and who enjoy somewhat silly summertime stories – will have plenty of fun here.

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