November 06, 2014


Pete the Cat and the Bad Banana. By James Dean. Harper. $3.99.

Riff Raff Sails the High Cheese. By Susan Schade. Pictures by Anne Kennedy. Harper. $3.99.

Dixie and the Best Day Ever. By Grace Gilman. Pictures by Jacqueline Rogers. Harper. $16.99.

Splat the Cat: Splat and Seymour, Best Friends Forevermore. Based on the creation of Rob Scotton. By Alissa Heyman. Cover art by Rick Farley. Interior illustrations by Robert Eberz. Harper. $3.99.

Splat the Cat and the Snowy Day Surprise. Based on the creation of Rob Scotton. HarperFestival. $6.99.

Mia: The Snow Day Ballet. By Robin Farley. Pictures by Olga and Aleksey Ivanov. HarperFestival. $4.99.

Batman: Battle in the Batcave. By Donald Lemke. Illustrated by Andie Tong. HarperFestival. $3.99.

Goodnight Moon/Buenas Noches, Luna. By Margaret Wise Brown. Pictures by Clement Hurd. Rayo/HarperCollins. $8.99.

     The “I Can Read!” series from HarperCollins continues to produce a whole pile of easy-to-follow books at five different easy-reading levels, many of them using well-known characters to help kids learn how to read on their own. The easiest of these books are in the “My First” sequence (“ideal for sharing with emergent readers”) and do not require children to know how to read at all – but they are involving enough to make kids enthusiastic about figuring out how to enjoy books without being read to all the time. A good example is Pete the Cat and the Bad Banana, a funny story that also makes a good point about food. Pete loves bananas until, one time, he happens to get a bad one that is “gross” and “mushy” and “yucky.” His tummy hurts after he eats it, so he refuses to eat bananas ever again, trying to substitute lemons, pickles and watermelon – with predictably messy and unsatisfactory results. He finally decides to take a chance on a banana after all, and it is delicious, and so all ends well – and Pete learns (as young children will) that one bad apple (or, in this case, one bad banana) need not spoil them all.

     Stories are more complicated in the Level 2 books (“high-interest stories for developing readers”), but still short and to the point. Riff Raff Sails the High Cheese features the pirate mouse and his crew searching for their missing cheese, venturing through their usual haunts in the sewers and encountering maybe-helpful denizens such as Ali the Gator and some sewer rats. Unfortunately, the search keeps turning up empty, and the mouse pirates realize they have no choice but to head for the place they fear most: Cat Island, which turns out to be exactly where the cheese has ended up, stolen by three mean cats. A big battle is won by the mice, with some help from the rats, and all the victors get cheese at the end in a fast-paced, amusingly rhymed story that young readers are sure to enjoy.

     The middle of the first three levels of the “I Can Read!” series, Level 1, is designated as having “simple sentences for eager new readers,” and it features several recurring characters. Dixie the dog and Emma, her girl owner, have some seasonal fun in their eighth outing together, Dixie and the Best Day Ever. It begins with Emma puzzling over how to write a poem for school about her best day ever, continues with a snowstorm that closes school the next day and gives Emma an extra day to do the assignment, and proceeds with a whole series of enjoyable activities in the snow – made complicated when Dixie ends up alone on Emma’s sled, rushing downhill, and Emma has to board some friends’ sled to give chase. Everyone ends up in the snow, unhurt and amused, and eventually Emma and Dixie return home – where Emma has no trouble writing her poem, realizing that she has just had her best day ever.

     Another new Level 1 book, Splat the Cat: Splat and Seymour, Best Friends Forevermore, features the pop-eyed cat and his mouse friend in a story about misunderstanding. Splat wants to give Seymour a surprise party to show what a great friend Seymour is, but creating a surprise means getting away from Seymour, and the two usually do everything together. So Splat has to come up with a series of excuses to get to the store (where he fills his cart to more than overflowing with ice cream and other goodies), bake cheese cakes and cheese swirl cookies and chocolate cheese pudding, and ride his bike around the neighborhood to invite lots of guests to the party. Unfortunately, all this leaving-Seymour-out planning makes Seymour feel, well, left out, and he gets more and more unhappy, thinking that Splat doesn’t love him anymore. He finally insists on coming home from an unwanted playdate – and when he walks in, the whole crowd yells “surprise!” and Seymour realizes what has been going on.

     Splat and Seymour have an outdoor wintertime adventure of their own in Splat the Cat and the Snowy Day Surprise, although here the surprise is not a party. This is not a book in the “I Can Read!” series but a lift-the-flap book written simply enough for new and developing readers. The flaps are large, taking up most of every page, and some are especially cleverly designed, such as one showing Seymour pulling Splat on a sled to the top of a hill – then, when the flap is opened, showing a double-sized picture of the two of them zipping down and crashing into a huge mound of snow, which they decide is the perfect place to build “the best snowcat ever.” But another cat, Spike, gets in the way, saying he is going to build the best snowcat. A snowball fight ensues that leads to the accidental creation of an ever-growing snowball rolling down the hill, right into Spike, who then becomes the best snowcat ever after a huge “SPLAT!” The book is easy to read, entertaining and genuinely funny (although, like other Splat the Cat books of its type and in the “I Can Read!” series, it is not actually done by Splat’s creator, Rob Scotton).

     Milder winter activities are to be found in Mia: The Snow Day Ballet, which, again, is not an “I Can Read!” book but is intended for the same age group (roughly 4-8). This is a sticker book featuring the ballet-loving kitten, Mia, who is tremendously excited about her family’s plan to go see a real ballet in the city the next day. Unfortunately, there is a big overnight snowstorm, and as her father says, “It wouldn’t be safe to drive out there,” so the trip is cancelled, much to Mia’s disappointment. Her parents try to make it up to her with snow-day activities, which Mia does her best to enjoy even though she really misses the chance to see the ballet. Then Mia realizes that she can stage a ballet right at home, with all her friends – who are amusingly shown wearing tutus over their snowsuits. Mia makes a “snow-rina,” and everyone dances in the snow, using the steps they have learned in ballet class. So all ends happily – and the final page gives young readers a chance to place the 19 included stickers on a mostly white page and “stage” a snow ballet of their own.

     Another book at this level, featuring neither flaps nor stickers but lots of action with familiar comic-book characters, is Batman: Battle in the Batcave, one of a series of lightly plotted illustrated stories filled with super-craggy-looking heroes and villains and a large pile of plot holes. In this one, Robin looks especially odd, all snarls and gritted teeth and shown as almost painfully thin. And the villain, Bane, whose sole (unexplained) motivation is to destroy Batman, mysteriously locates the super-secret Batcave and then, after being defeated, mysteriously loses his memory of where it is – a wholly illogical sequence of events. But this will not bother young fans of Batman at all, since what they will get here is a heaping helping of fistfights, forced perspective designed to make things seem hyper-dramatic, and of course the triumph of good over evil. Books like this are so visual in orientation that some young readers will barely pay attention to the words – the pictures tell the story quite well without them. But for kids who do bother to read the text, even a book of this kind can help develop reading skills.

     And for children who may be interested in simple reading that can help them learn the basics of a second language, there is a new board-book version of Margaret Wise Brown’s venerable Goodnight Moon that retains the lovely Clement Hurd pictures while giving the text in both English and Spanish. The Spanish translation is literal rather than literary, which means it is quite accurate but loses the cadence and warmth of the English original. There are some attempts to retain the internal rhymes of certain lines: “And three little bears sitting on chairs,” for example, becomes “y otro más con tres ositos sentaditos en sus sillas.” But elsewhere, the rhyming simply evaporates: “And a little toyhouse/ And a young mouse” becomes “Y una casa de muñecas/ y un ratón que corretea.” Still, as a very early introduction to Spanish for English speakers – or a chance for young native Spanish speakers to enjoy one of the real classics of modern children’s literature – Goodnight Moon/Buenas Noches, Luna is fine, and may help lead pre-readers to an interest in other dual-language kids’ books, which have become increasingly available in recent years.

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