December 10, 2015


Bob Books: First Stories, Stage 1—Starting to Read. By Lynn Maslen Kertell. Pictures by Dana Sullivan. Scholastic. $16.99.

Flat Stanley on Ice. By Lori Haskins Houran. Pictures by Macky Pamintuan. Harper. $16.99.

Fly Guy Presents: Bats. By Tedd Arnold. Scholastic. $3.99.

I’m Cool! By Kate McMullan. Illustrations by Jim McMullan. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $17.99.

     There are so many different ways to involve early readers in books that families can try all sorts of alternatives until they find one that works for each child – and can switch early-reading alternatives not only for different children but also for a single child whose tastes change over time. One good starting point is the longstanding Bob Books series: boxes filled with very small, easy-to-handle, easy-to-understand books that start with super-simple three-letter words and build from there. The First Stories series mixes phonics with graded reading levels, beginning with Stage 1: Starting to Read. What is especially attractive about these books is the way they create satisfying little stories using the shortest possible words and sentences. The first of the 12 books in the box, Sam and Mat, introduces triangle-headed Sam and round-headed Mat and takes them through easy-to-understand scenes: “Sam can hop. Can Mat hop?” By the fourth book, Pets, early readers get a genuinely amusing story, in which a little girl gets to “rub the cat,” “hug the dog,” and so on with a hen and pig, until at the end there are animals all over the page and the girl is surrounded: “Help!” The progress continues at a carefully measured pace. The ninth book, for instance, is The Ant, and includes “The ant went in the can” and “The ant ran and hid” – slightly longer sentences that still use the simplest possible vocabulary. The 12th and final book in this box is called Sun and includes the longest sentences in this series: “Sam is glad to see the sun,” for example. All the books are pleasantly illustrated with smiling, simply drawn figures, and the careful progress from book to book makes these Bob Books, like others in the series, an excellent way to get kids started as readers.

     Once they have the basics down, young readers can move on to, for example, the “I Can Read!” series, whose five levels provide increasingly complicated stories that frequently feature familiar characters – although the tales are not usually written by those characters’ creators. Flat Stanley on Ice, for instance, is a Level 2 book (“high-interest stories for developing readers”) and is written by Lori Haskins Houran, not by Flat Stanley’s creator, Jeff Brown. It is a simple wintertime story in which the focus is as much on Stanley’s brother, Arthur, as on Stanley himself. Stanley’s flatness makes it very easy for him to ice skate, using just his feet – no skates needed. But Stanley does not realize that the ice on the pond has gotten thinner as the day has warmed up, and soon finds it cracking beneath him. Arthur comes to his rescue, having Stanley lie down and then working with other kids to make a rope of scarves that can be used to rescue Stanley – whose flatness results in him flying off the ice, through the air and into a snowbank. Easy to read, featuring some mild drama but nothing too threatening, Flat Stanley on Ice is typical of the kind of guided-reading book that can help kids in the 4-8 age range develop their skills.

     Nonfiction books can help as well. The Fly Guy Presents series by Tedd Arnold is not as amusing as the fictional works featuring the fly and his boy, Buzz, but it is far more informational, and the inclusion of the cartoon fly and boy helps make the factual material in these short books easy to follow and understand. Fly Guy Presents: Bats, for example, takes boy and fly to the nocturnal house at the zoo (with Arnold helpfully offering the pronouncer “nahk-TUR-nuhl”). By studying zoo information, Buzz and Fly Guy learn about – and show readers photographs of – multiple types of bats, individually, in small groups and in large colonies. The real-life pictures are mixed with cartoons, such as one in which boy and fly hang upside-down from a bar, imitating the way bats sleep. There are plenty of facts here, presented very straightforwardly: “There are more than 1,200” kinds of bats, “bats live on every continent” except Antarctica, “the most common bat in North America is the little brown bat,” and so on. The book explains how bats fly, using gravity to help them take off from their upside-down resting position and then flapping their wings. Bats are the only flying mammals, the book explains, and are mostly small, weighing less than two ounces – with the smallest, the bumblebee bat, being only about an inch long, which (an illustration shows) is barely larger than Fly Guy. Buzz finds out that many bats eat insects, and that worries Fly Guy: “Eatzz insectzz?” But of course he is in no danger at the zoo. And photos also show other things that bats eat, including fruit and flowers – and, in the case of vampire bats, blood. The book mentions special bat senses, too, such as excellent hearing and special nasal sensors, as well as echolocation. There is even a mention of chiropterologists (pronouncer: “ki-RAHP-tur-AHL-uh-jists”), scientists who study bats. Fly Guy Presents: Bats is a fine early-reading book for kids interested in animals and wanting to learn about creatures a little more offbeat than the ones typically discussed in books for young readers.

     Picture books can make excellent early-reading material, too. Some, in fact, can be written more simply than a book such as Fly Guy Presents: Bats. One very-easy-to-read book for kids with an interest in hockey or figure skating is all about the Zamboni ice resurfacing machine – personified by Kate and Jim McMullan as a big-talking, super-competent hard worker not interested in taking any guff from a ringside announcer who questions whether anyone or anything is capable of doing a complete ice resurfacing in just 18 minutes. I’m Cool! combines factual material with fiction: obviously Zambonis do not mouth off and talk back to people, or discuss how they do their work, but the McMullans do a good job of showing just what a Zamboni really does do during a resurfacing. This involves first checking out ruts in the ice to determine how deeply to shave it. Then: “How do I do it? Crank up your X-ray vision and I’ll SHOW you how!” And that is just what the big-eyed, smiling Zamboni does. A level auger to spin snow, a tall auger to whirl it up, a paddle to shoot it into the middle of the Zamboni, water to wash the ice, a vacuum to suck up the water; then warm water to fill ice dents and ruts, a towel to spread the water out so it freezes into smooth, fresh ice, and a designated pattern around and around the rink to be sure all areas are properly covered – the book takes kids through all the stages of an ice resurfacing, making it almost as interesting in printed form as it is when kids really get to watch it during a hockey game or while figure skating. Relaxed and off the ice at the end of the book, the Zamboni looks out at readers and says, “Coolest job in the world, right here, baby.” Kids who read I’m Cool! are likely to agree – and will find they have enjoyed a story about a fascinating character…err…machine, while learning some very interesting facts at the same time. This is the sort of writing that encourages early readers to keep going with books so they can find out even more intriguing information about everyday matters that they never looked at so closely before, and can now see in a whole new way and with much better understanding.

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