July 09, 2015


Lazy Bear, Crazy Bear: Loony Long Vowels! By Kevin Bolger. Illustrated by Ben Hodson. Harper. $7.99.

Gran on a Fan: Silly Short Vowels! By Kevin Bolger. Illustrated by Ben Hodson. Harper. $7.99.

     The longstanding belief that it is best to teach grammar, spelling, colors, numbers and the like through humor gets an amusing twist – several of them, actually – in two new phonics books by Kevin Bolger and Ben Hodson (with colorist Jo Rioux making sure everything is as packed with primary colors as possible). Intended for ages 4-8 and written as simply as possible, with highly exaggerated illustrations that neatly fit what is being taught, Lazy Bear, Crazy Bear and Gran on a Fan do a fine job of involving young children – getting their attention is a big part of what goes on here – and helping them understand how to pronounce words and, in the case of long vowels, why to pronounce them a certain way.

     Both books feature a series of silly scenes described in words that primarily include long and short vowels, respectively. In Lazy Bear, Crazy Bear, for example, “long i” is illustrated through a tale of “Five Mice of Crime [who] ride bikes with spikes.” For “long o,” the main protagonist is a ghost – “ghost on the road,” “ghost on the shore,” “ghost in the snow,” and so on. “Long u” is a “dude” story, as in “huge dude,” “rude dude” and more. The pictures are always funny, and interspersed among them are “Gran’s Reading Rules” to help kids understand the “why” of vowel sounds – for example, “A silent e at the end of a word makes the vowel in the middle say its own name,” as in “smile,” “nose” and “shake.” Especially useful is the rule that says “long vowels say their own name,” which is a real helper with pronunciation: “snake,” “likes,” “cube,” etc. There is, however, one rule that runs afoul of the many exceptions-to-the-rule that permeate the English language – and yes, kids who are quick on the uptake will notice this and ask about it. This is the apparently clear comment by Gran that “when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking and says its own name” as in such words as “hair,” “spies” and “blue.” But what is the title of this book? Lazy Bear, Crazy Bear. Using this rule, the word “bear” should be pronounced “BEE-ahr.” True, Bolger and Hodson are dealing here with simple vowels, not diphthongs, phonemes, or other more-complex elements of speech and linguistics; but having the title of this book contain an exception to one of the rules given within it does create, at the very least, a moment of awkwardness. Parents be warned!

     As for Gran and her rules: Gran comes into her own in the short-vowel book, Gran on a Fan (which, yes, is just what one illustration shows).  This book includes none of Gran’s rules: it is more story-oriented, in terms of extended and connected narratives, than the one on long vowels – providing a pleasant contrast for kids reading both books. “Pets in Jets” is a flying adventure that ends badly and includes “wet,” “nets” and “vet.” “Chimp and Kid” is a family-at-home story, while “King Ding-a-Ling” shows an over-enthusiastic monarch who clings, swings and ends up in a sling. There is a long crime story called “Stop That Pop!” for “short o” and an extended “short u” narrative about “Mutt and Pup.” The funniest entry in the book is the “short e” tale of Nell, who falls into a well and is left there by the narrator even though she yells and yells and yells – and who then reappears at the very end of the book to object to how she has been treated. The subtitles of these two books aptly refer to vowels being “silly” (a short-vowel word) and “loony” (not a long-vowel word – another “watch it” moment for parents). Of course, it is not really the vowels themselves, or the words in which they appear, that are funny: it is the presentation, both in the amusing stories and in the highly exaggerated illustrations. For teaching basic phonics or helping new readers get used to vowel and word sounds, these attractive books are a fine choice – provided that parents stay on the alert for the few instances in which the vowels do not quite obey the books’ stated rules.

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