August 05, 2010


Katy and the Big Snow. By Virginia Lee Burton. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.

Star Wars ABC. Lucas Books/Scholastic. $12.99.

Bob Books: Sight Words, Kindergarten; Sight Words, First Grade. By Lynn Maslen Kertell. Pictures by Sue Hendra. Scholastic. $16.99 each.

     Put interesting content and fine packaging together – in two very different formats – and you have some very successful books for the youngest readers. Actually, Katy and the Big Snow, even though it is now in board-book form, is not quite for the readers usually targeted by board books. This is a fairly complex story by modern standards (it was originally published in 1943), and there are lots of things to see and point out and figure out as the tale of an unexpectedly big snowfall in the city of Geoppolis proceeds. Summertime may be an especially enjoyable time to read this winter-oriented book with a child, and the book’s size – somewhere between small board book and lap-size board book – invites closeness and cuddling. Virginia Lee Burton is best known for Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, and parents will find a similar theme here: a heroic, anthropomorphized piece of machinery (without a named driver this time; in fact, apparently without an operator at all) that bravely saves the day for lots of other machines and, not incidentally, people. Katy, “a beautiful red crawler tractor” who (not “that”) can function as either bulldozer or snowplow, rarely gets called into service in Geoppolis, whose winters are normally mild; but when she is needed after a huge snowstorm, she does everything that everyone asks of her after every single snow plow in town breaks down. The story is simple, but there is a lot to see and learn from in the book: a map of Geoppolis locating 30 separate landmarks, a compass that includes eight directions (NW, NE, SW and SE as well as the usual four), lots of road signs and building labels to read, and more. Watching the city re-emerge from a two-page spread of solid white is a real joy, and seeing Katy’s circuitous paths as she plows out different parts of town is another.

     The joys – and illustrations – are quite different in Star Wars ABC, which extends the popular franchise into the alphabet realm with a handsome oversized board book featuring characters from all six Star Wars films. This is one alphabet book in which it is obvious (to fans) what the letter X will stand for: the X-Wing fighter, of course. The letter Q is more of a puzzlement – it turns out to be Queen Amidala – but many other letters go with exactly the characters that Star Wars fans will expect: D for Darth Vader, Y for Yoda, J for Jedi, O for Obi-Wan Kenobi, and so on. There is almost no text in the book – just excellent full-page pictures for each letter, with the briefest bit of description: “R2-D2 is a clever robot” is just one comment that is rather underwhelming. But the uncredited writing is not the point here: the book is a very effective use of the Star Wars universe as a teaching tool for the alphabet, and parents of young Star Wars fans will find it both attractive and useful.

     The Bob Books are useful and attractive in a very different way. These highly focused little volumes, packaged in boxes with flash cards and instructions for parents or other teachers, take reading and understanding one tiny step a time, while giving young children the experience of reading whole books entirely on their own. Super-simple stories with super-simple illustrations are the key here: “Sam saw Mat. Sam ran to Mat,” appears in Kindergarten Book 1, while the same set’s Book 7 – with slightly more advanced vocabulary – includes, “Dot saw Mat. Can she tag Mat?” There is a tremendous amount of incentive for progress built into the Bob Books. Each box of 10 little stories has books in three different colors, so kids move ahead visually as well as with vocabulary. The word building itself is so gradual that many children will manage it on their own: new words tend to be very similar to ones already learned – “ran” in one book and “can” in the next, or “he” in one story and “she” in the next one. There are three “sight words” per story, and flash-card reinforcement is designed less for the expected nouns (“home”) than for recurring words whose critical importance is often overlooked in other books for very young children (“went,” “they,” “not,” “in,” and so on). The two new Sight Words volumes are valuable additions to the Bob Books line, which already includes instructional little volumes from alphabet basics through long vowels. Any parent who wants to help a child get a bit ahead before school starts again – or wants to reinforce the lessons of kindergarten and first grade – will find the new Bob Books boxes to be fine learning tools that are also a lot of fun for kids to use.

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