August 12, 2010


Fisher-Price Shapes All Around! By Jodi Huelin. Illustrations by Lyn Fletcher. Harper. $6.99.

Fisher-Price Counting Animals. By Jodi Huelin. Illustrations by Betsy Veness. Harper. $6.99.

The Berenstein Bears and the Haunted House. By Jan & Mike Berenstain. HarperFestival. $6.99.

Happy Halloween, Mittens! By Lola M. Schaefer. Pictures by Susan Kathleen Hartung. Harper. $3.99.

Biscuit’s First Beach Day. By Alyssa Satin Capucilli. HarperFestival. $3.99.

The Best Yard Sale. By Mercer Mayer. HarperFestival. $3.99.

Spider-Man: Funhouse Phantom. By Andy Ball. Pictures by MADA Design, Inc. HarperFestival. $6.99.

Spider-Man: Sandman Strikes! By Jeanine Le Ny. Illustrated by Andie Tong. HarperFestival. $3.99.

Transformers: Ratchet to the Rescue. Adapted by Jennifer Frantz. Illustrated by Guido Guidi. Harper. $3.99.

Transformers: Satellite Meltdown. Adapted by Lucy Rosen. Illustrated by Marcelo Matere. HarperFestival. $3.99.

Flat Stanley and the Haunted House. By Lori Haskins Houran. Pictures by Macky Pamintuan. Harper. $3.99.

Pinkalicious: School Rules! By Victoria Kann. Harper. $3.99.

Pinkalicious: Tickled Pink. By Victoria Kann. HarperFestival. $3.99.

Circus Fantastico. Concept by Lynn Gordon. Illustrated by Molly Idle. Accord Publishing/Andrews McMeel. $16.99.

     Short, simple, easy-to-read and usually inexpensive books can help turn even the youngest children into lifelong readers, and follow their interests along as their reading prowess improves and they move up the age ladder. Two new board books sporting the Fisher-Price label – but not in any way offering a hard sell of the company’s products – are for babies as young as six months. Shapes All Around! is a lift-the-flap book that helps teach about circles, squares, diamonds and more with simple text in which cute animals play ball, have a picnic, take a bath, and so on. Parents should lift the flaps carefully the first time to avoid tearing them, but once used, the flaps are easy to manipulate and can be fun even for children too young to understand the very simple story. Similar flaps are the big attraction in Counting Animals, which features smiling animals in groups ranging from one to 10 – the correct number revealed when a flap is lifted. Happy penguins, smiling seahorses and grinning turtles, among others, are all here and all very enjoyable to see.

     Flaps can attract older children, too. The Berenstein Bears and the Haunted House, for ages 2-6, is a lift-the-flap book featuring Brother and Sister Bear searching for their lost kitten in a scary old mansion that turns out – unsurprisingly for books in this series – to be not so scary after all. Each page’s flap reveals a surprise – for instance, the bears open the dumbwaiter and find three squirrels inside, eating a meal. The most amusing scene, in the library, has flaps for “Frankenbear” and “Edgar Allen Bear.” But of course, flaps are not necessary in books for this age group, and most easy-to-read works do not include them. Happy Halloween, Mittens, part of the “I Can Read!” series, is designed for “emergent readers” and is a simple story about a mischievous kitten trying to help a boy decorate for Halloween. It is as seasonal as the Berenstains’ haunted-house book but is a more straightforward story – and Mittens is really cute. For summertime cuteness, Biscuit’s First Beach Day features another mischievous animal – this time a puppy – getting into trouble at the beach, meeting a puppy friend named Puddles, and having a good time both in the ocean and on the sand. The Best Yard Sale, another warm-weather book for roughly the same age group, features Mercer Mayer’s Little Critter searching the attic and his room for things to sell, having a who-makes-the-most-money competition with his sister (she wins), and enjoying Mom’s homemade cookies – the biggest yard-sale moneymaker of all. Kids will enjoy the clutter as well as the cuteness here, and perhaps be persuaded to clean out their own closets sometime. Well, perhaps.

     There are superheroes as well as such pleasant characters as the Berenstain Bears and Little Critter featured in books for beginning and growing readers – and here, too, sometimes in books with flaps and sometimes in straightforward narratives. Spider-Man: Funhouse Phantom sets Spider-Man against “Morbius, the Living Vampire,” and features foldout flaps on right-hand pages that actually advance the story, or at least move it sideways: one shows Spidey opening a sarcophagus after seeing a vampire-like cape, only to discover a mummy within, and another has Spidey in a jungle village where he thinks he sees kidnapped Mary Jane’s red hair – which turns out to be monkey fur. Everything works out just fine, of course, as it does in the non-flap Sandman Strikes! This one features Spidey fighting the villain who can slip through anyone’s fingers by turning to sand – or become as solid as rock when he wants to. Spider-Man comes up with a clever, if overly explosive, way to stop the sandy shapeshifter here.

     Speaking of shapeshifters, the Transformers are also the heroes in some early-reading books. Ratchet to the Rescue is a “Reading with Help” (Level 2) book of the “I Can Read!” series, and is simply the “back story” of Ratchet, who “can fix almost anything or anyone.” Satellite Meltdown is at the same reading level but not within the series, and has a somewhat more complex plot in which bad guys Ratbat and Buzzsaw are busy destroying the city until humans enlist Optimus Prime and the other good guys to stop them. There is plenty of crash-bang-smash action here to interest kids who enjoy the Hunt for the Decepticons series, from which both this story and the one about Ratchet are adapted.

     But central characters need not be violent for young readers to have fun with them. Jeff Brown’s creation, Flat Stanley, appears in another “Reading with Help” (Level 2) book of the “I Can Read!” series, Flat Stanley and the Haunted House. This is not really about a haunted house – the house is a setup at school, and the kids do not find it scary at all. Instead, it is a story about Stanley helping a friend stand up to a bully. It just happens to take place at Halloween, but its lesson is worthwhile anytime. The lessons of two new Pinkalicious books are good in any season, too. School Rules! is at Level 1 (“Beginning Reading”) in the “I Can Read!” series, and is a pleasant story about Pinkalicious bringing her make-believe unicorn, Goldilicious, to school, even though she is told that is against the rules. Thanks to a cooperative teacher, Pinkalicious learns that rules can be bent from time to time but are in pace for a purpose. In Tickled Pink, Pinkalicious is challenged to a joke-telling contest by a girl named Tiffany, and tries hard to come up with something funny on her own – not a joke taken from a book. Everything works out just fine, and everyone is friendly at the end, both here and in School Rules! That is a nice lesson for preschoolers and kindergartners, if not always an accurate one: parents need to explain that not everyone will be friendly all the time, and not all teachers will be comfortable with rule-bending.

     And what sort of fun is in store for kids as they become even more skilled at reading? Generally, there are fewer and fewer “gimmick” books, such as ones with flaps, for more experienced readers – but every once in a while, a cleverly designed one comes along. Circus Fantastico is one of them. It is a circus story with a mystery wrapped up inside – and the inside front cover has a magnifying glass wrapped up and attached to the book with a ribbon, so readers can search for clues and try to figure out what is happening before circus sleuth Ella the Dancing Elephant discovers the solution. The story is simple enough: circus props are disappearing – small ones, such as hair pins and sequins, Who could be taking them, and why? Because the disappearing objects are little, Ella needs a magnifying glass to figure out what is going on, so young readers are in a race of sorts with the elephant to unravel the mystery. The solution, though, comes less than halfway through the book, which then turns into a “who is the real star of the show?” story – a transition that some children may find a bit jarring. Circus Fantastico is really two stories in one, but the book ends happily for everyone, and the magnifying-glass inclusion is a nice touch that adds a little extra enjoyment to the whole proceeding.

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