March 10, 2011


Nosh, Schlep, Schluff: BabYiddish. By Laurel Snyder. Illustrated by Tiphanie Beeke. Random House. $5.99.

Biscuit and the Lost Teddy Bear. By Alyssa Satin Capucilli. Pictures by Pat Schories. Harper. $16.99.

Spider-Man: Spider-Man and the Movie Mystery. By Heather Alexander. Illustrated by Sanford Greene. HarperFestival. $3.99.

This Is the Game. By Diane Z. Shore & Jessica Alexander. Illustrated by Owen Smith. Harper. $16.99.

Just a Little Luck. By Mercer Mayer. HarperFestival. $3.99.

Sid the Science Kid: Earth Day Fun. By Jennifer Frantz. Harper. $3.99.

Rio: Learning to Fly; Blu and Friends. Adapted by Catherine Hapka from a screenplay by Todd R. Jones and Earl Richey Jones. Harper. $3.99 each.

Rio: Birds of a Feather. Adapted by Susan Korman from a screenplay by Todd R. Jones and Earl Richey Jones. HarperFestival. $3.99.

Rio: Greetings from Rio! Adapted by Benjamin Harper from a screenplay by Todd R. Jones and Earl Richey Jones. HarperFestival. $3.99.

Rio: The Movie Storybook. Adapted by Jodi Huelin from a screenplay by Todd R. Jones and Earl Richey Jones. HarperFestival. $8.99.

Rio: The Junior Novel. Adapted by Lexa Hillyer from a screenplay by Todd R. Jones and Earl Richey Jones. HarperFestival. $5.99.

Miss Dorothy and Her Bookmobile. By Gloria Houston. Illustrated by Susan Condie Lamb. Harper. $16.99.

     Do not envy those at publishing houses who must decide on the appropriate age range for a huge variety of books. Children learn to read at so many different ages, and become facile with words at such different times and in such different ways, that the task of deciding on the “right” age range for a particular book can never be more than educated guesswork. Here, starting with the youngest ages and moving up the chronological ladder, are some recent guesses.

     Ages 0-4: Board books are the norm for this age group, sometimes as distillations of longer works for older kids and sometimes as creations specifically for the very youngest children. Nosh, Schlep, Schluff falls into the latter category and – despite the idea that it is for everyone, not just Jewish families, because some Yiddish has made its way into everyday English – the reality is that Jewish parents and children are most likely to enjoy it. There is no “translation” between Yiddish and English – the careful writing of Laurel Snyder and amusing illustrations by Tiphanie Beeke are supposed to be enough to make the words’ meaning clear. They do this well enough, although not perfectly, since some Yiddish words really have penetrated English (klutz, nosh), while others remain more ethnic (bissel, schluff). The book is undeniably cute and undeniably offbeat, as board books go. It may not appeal to all families, but will be lots of fun for those who do take an interest in the subject.

     Ages 3-5. The “I Can Read!” series begins with books labeled “My First,” such as Biscuit and the Lost Teddy Bear. Biscuit, the dog hero of 14 previous books, here finds a lost teddy bear, and he and “his” little girl search for the toy’s home, eventually returning the teddy to a little boy who is crying in his stroller because of his loss. Very simple language, large type and repeated words (including many instances of “woof”) make the book charming, direct and easy to follow.

     Ages 3-7. Superheroes can be useful for getting kids involved in reading: if they already enjoy the characters’ adventures, they are likely to want more of them. Spider-Man and the Movie Mystery is a super-simple story of a special-effects designer who becomes a villain because his work is not appreciated. He kidnaps M.J., the girlfriend of Peter Parker (Spider-Man), so Spidey and the bad guy have to fight it out until Spidey can rescue her. Simply told, the story is puzzlingly illustrated: the characters do not look at all like the ones in Spider-Man comics or films, a fact that may disappoint young children hoping to duplicate their existing experiences with the characters. Parents should thumb through the book with Spidey fans before buying it.

     Ages 3-8. A book of poetry for kids fascinated by the lure and lore of baseball, This Is the Game provides verbal snapshots of the early days of the sport, when it was called “rounders,” then “town ball,” and eventually “base ball” (two words). Various scenes from both amateur and professional play are accompanied by straightforward rhymes: “These are the All-Stars, the best of the best –/ the players are lined up and put to the test,/ as legends are made in the afternoon sun/ with the Hall of Fame saving a place for each one.” The pictures here are a big attraction, portraying players and fans alike in close-ups that emphasize facial features and the expressions of those who work at or simply enjoy the game.

     Ages 4-7. Mercer Mayer’s Little Critter stories are a perennial favorite for this narrow age group. In Just a Little Luck, Little Critter finds a penny, which his friends say may be good or bad luck – and after first seeming good, his luck soon turns bad, so he throws the penny away. But he has bad luck anyway, for several days, until he goes to the State Fair with Grandpa and has a wonderful time – realizing that his luck is good after all. A thin story filled with typical scenes that this age group will recognize (dropping an ice-cream cone, getting sick on the day of a special class party) is complemented by Mayer’s immediately recognizable drawing style, to which fans of Little Critter will gravitate immediately.

     Ages 4-8. Another book in the “I Can Read!” series, Earth Day Fun features Sid the Science Kid, whose TV show is popular with this age group. This is a Level 1 book, identified as having “simple sentences for eager new readers.” The story involves Sid’s plan to plant a tree with his father for Earth Day – which gets Sid curious about just what dirt is. He asks his classmates, who talk about worms and rocks and “stuff…that is good for plants and trees.” The book includes simple suggestions for being environmentally responsible, such as recycling plastic and walking more places instead of using a car. The lesson, not the story, is the main point here, but kids who know the TV show will already be aware of that, and should enjoy teaching things to themselves.

     Ages 3-7 and 4-8: Still other “I Can Read!” books are designated Level 2 (“high-interest stories for developing readers”) but are still officially intended for ages 4-8. The reason is the great divergence of reading ability among kids in this age range. The books in this series may use familiar characters from TV or films, or introduce children to ones from new movies, as is the case with two based on the soon-to-be-released film Rio, which is about a rare macaw that cannot fly – and needs to learn how in order to escape from dastardly smugglers and find where he really belongs (which turns out to be in Rio de Janeiro). Amply illustrated with scenes from the film, both books draw on the movie’s basic story line, although in different ways: Learning to Fly clearly introduces the characters but does not come to a buttoned-up conclusion, while Blu and Friends starts right in with the story and moves along to the film’s expected happy ending. There are also books based on this movie for ages 3-7, and they are of two different types. The two HarperFestival volumes – Rio: Birds of a Feather and Rio: Greetings from Rio! – are packed with stills from the film and include just enough text to knit the pictures together. Their orientation is even more strongly visual than is that of the “I Can Read!” books. But Rio: The Movie Storybook is something different: a hardcover souvenir-style book that, although amply illustrated with movie scenes, is also filled with enough text to tell the entire story of the film. The words here are not significantly more difficult than those in the four softcover volumes, so the overall age range seems appropriate for all five of these movie tie-ins. In fact, although these are strictly books for kids who find they like the movie and want to re-live its story at home, the books can be a useful aid in reading improvement for children who find the film endlessly fascinating. There is also a full-fledged, 136-page Junior Novel presentation of the film available, with eight color pages of movie stills in the middle – the whole thing supposedly intended for ages 8-12. That is a stretch: the film is unlikely to be highly appealing to most preteens. And the Movie Storybook does a better job than the Junior Novel of telling what happens in the film in a way calculated to appeal to the movie’s most likely audience. The Junior Novel, in fact, represents a step backwards from publishers’ usual approach to books whose target age range reaches to first grade and beyond.

     Ages 6-9. The general assumption of publishers is that by age six – usually the age at which kids are in first grade – children are ready for more-complex stories. Miss Dorothy and Her Bookmobile is light-years beyond the other books here in topic, approach, story depth and illustration quality. This (++++) book is based on the true story of Dorothy Thomas, who operated a green van that brought books to rural residents during Gloria Houston’s childhood – Houston herself being one of those who benefited. The book is Houston’s tribute to the woman she calls Miss Dorothy, whose burial place is unknown, so there is “no stone with her name on it… Her memorial is the love of books she engendered in the lives of her patrons, young and old.” Houston’s book shows how Miss Dorothy did that: despite her dreams of becoming a librarian in a fine brick building in her Massachusetts hometown, Miss Dorothy ended up in North Carolina after marrying a man who wanted to move to a farm there. Unable to become a “real” librarian, she travels around in a green bookmobile lending books donated by townspeople – never attaining her original goal, but becoming a beloved figure in rural North Carolina, and strongly influencing the lives of many of the people there. A small story about an ordinary life that proved extraordinarily important to the lives of others, the book is lovingly illustrated by Susan Condie Lamb, whose pictures artfully show both the beauty and the remoteness of the areas Miss Dorothy served with her books. It is a fitting memorial to Dorothy Thomas, a celebration of the joys of reading, and a wonderful transitional work for kids ready to move beyond simple fare into books with considerably greater depth.

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