February 15, 2018
(++++) EASY READERS AND BEYOND
When Spring Comes. By Kevin Henkes. Illustrated by Laura Dronzek. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $7.99.
Biscuit’s Pet & Play Farm Animals. By Alyssa Satin Capucilli. Illustrations by Rose Mary Berlin. HarperFestival. $7.99.
Biscuit’s Neighborhood. By Alyssa Satin Capucilli. Pictures by Pat Schories. Harper. $16.99.
Paddington Collector’s Quintet. By Michael Bond. Illustrated by R.W. Alley. Harper. $16.99.
Paddington on Top. By Michael Bond. Illustrated by Peggy Fortnum. Harper. $9.99.
Specialized-format books are the rule for the youngest children, both those to whom adults must read and those just beginning to read on their own. Sturdy board books are always a worthwhile choice for first exposing kids to the delights of books and reading: board books are generally intended for anyone up to age four. But that does not mean all these books are super-simplified versions of ones for older children – sometimes they are the ones written for older kids, but reformatted. When Spring Comes, for example, is a charmer from 2016 that is now available in board-book form, and Kevin Henkes’ writing is just as pleasant in this version as in the original. Laura Dronzek’s illustrations fit the text perfectly: Henkes writes that “Spring will make the leftover mounds of snow smaller and smaller and smaller until suddenly – they’re gone,” and Dronzek first shows the remnants of a snowman with a bird perched on top and then has the snow shrink more and more and more, until finally the bird is pecking at the remains that have melted completely into the ground. In another bird sequence, Henkes writes that “Spring comes with sun and it comes with rain. And more rain and more rain.” And Dronzek’s four pictures show a bird building a nest, sitting on eggs in it, sitting still more as buds become flowers, and finally standing above three chicks as the rain comes down on the whole family. There are kids in this springtime tale, too, with rain boots and umbrellas and bubble-blowing and flower-sniffing, and the whole sweet story is about the way children and other youngsters wait for and then celebrate springtime – and can then, when spring is in full flower, start to wait for summer.
Some board books are less story-focused than experience-focused: they contain elements designed to involve the littlest children directly. An example is Biscuit’s Pet & Play Farm Animals, which is designated “a Touch & Feel Book” because some of the animals seen by the curious puppy of the title can also be felt by the curious fingers of little humans enjoying the story. Really, though, there is no story here: Alyssa Satin Capucilli, creator of Biscuit, simply has him and the girl who owns him spending a day on a farm and seeing the animals there. The illustrations are not by Pat Schories, Capucilli’s regular collaborator on the Biscuit books, but by Rose Mary Berlin “in the style of Pat Schories,” from which they deviate enough to be clear to adults but probably not to kids. Children will simply enjoy feeling the silky mane of a foal, the wool of a lamb, the softness of a calf’s hide, and so on. Biscuit is adorable in interacting with all the animals, and children will enjoy their own chance to experience some of what the puppy finds so engaging.
Biscuit stories actually make excellent transitions between being read to and reading on one’s own, as is clear in Biscuit’s Neighborhood, a five-book boxed set in which all the books are in the “I Can Read!” series at its initial level, “My First” (“ideal for sharing with emergent readers”). These pleasant little books do have Schories’ illustrations, which complement Capucilli’s words very well indeed. Biscuit introduces the puppy and shows all the little things he wants before bed: a snack, a drink, several hugs, and more. Biscuit Plays Ball shows the happy puppy insisting on participating in a kids’ ballgame. Biscuit Goes Camping is a night-in-the-back-yard adventure with wind, a frog, a firefly and an unexpected thunderstorm to stir things up. Biscuit Feeds the Pets has the puppy trying to be helpful but just being too easily distracted by some new, even smaller puppies – the result being a major mess that, however, proves to be no big deal. And Biscuit Loves the Library is about “Read to a Pet Day,” with bunny, bear and dinosaur books, distracting puppets, and the eventual discovery of “a book that’s just right,” which happens to be the book Biscuit. These are warm and pleasant stories written at just the right level for adults to read while starting to show very young children which words are which, how they are strung together, and what fascinating tales result.
A slight move ahead among easy books in the “I Can Read!” series takes kids to Level 1 (“simple sentences for eager new readers”) and gives them a chance to meet a furry character even more famous than Biscuit: Paddington Bear. Michael Bond’s delightfully befuddled bear “from Darkest Peru” appears in five amusing adventures that are boxed as a set, collectively labeled Paddington Collector’s Quintet, and illustrated stylishly by R.W. Alley. Paddington Sets Sail has the bear swept out to sea – not too far out to sea, though – on his first beach trip. He soon floats back to shore in a bucket and is swarmed by people who think he must have traveled across the ocean. Paddington and the Magic Trick is set on his “first birthday since moving in with the Browns,” and features some misplaced marmalade and magical mixups. Paddington Plays On takes place at a fair in France, where the family has gone for a visit, and has Paddington temporarily trapped beneath the big drum he has been playing. Paddington’s Day Off has the bear and amiable shopkeeper Mr. Gruber visiting friends and going to a concert in the park, where Paddington gets to guest-conduct. And Paddington’s Prize Picture also features Mr. Gruber, who shows Paddington how one painting can sometimes be seen underneath another, leading Paddington to try his paw at painting, make a major mess of everything, and nevertheless create a picture that wins a prize for Mr. Brown. Paddington’s gentle misadventures always have upbeat endings, and very young readers will have a wonderful time working their way through these books to find out what will go wrong next and why whatever-it-is will turn out just fine in the end.
All these books then help prepare kids for reading full-fledged “chapter books,” including the original ones about Paddington with their delightful Peggy Fortnum illustrations. The most recently reissued of those is the tenth collection, Paddington on Top, which originally appeared in 1974. The seven stories here are Paddington Goes to School, Paddington Cleans Up, Paddington Goes to Court, A Birthday Treat, Keeping Fit, Paddington in Touch, and Comings and Goings at Number Thirty-two. The tales involve, among other things, a grumpy teacher with a distaste for marmalade sandwiches; confusion relating to a phony vacuum-cleaner salesman and a frequently angry next-door neighbor; misunderstandings about water skiing; the consequences of responding to a misleading advertisement; and the appearance in London of none other than Paddington’s Aunt Lucy from Peru. Everything is written in Bond’s deadpan style, which makes the many manifest absurdities pleasant rather than ridiculous (although a certain amount of ridiculousness does creep in, and the stories are all the better for it). And Fortnum’s illustrations capture the spirit of Bond’s writing beautifully, enhancing the narrative without drawing too much attention to themselves and away from the words. Young children who make their way from board books to read-together ones to first readers and eventually to the original Paddington books will have a very pleasant journey indeed, filled with captivating characters, much mischief and all manner of delightful doings.