January 10, 2013


Mia and the Tiny Toe Shoes. By Robin Farley. Pictures by Aleksey and Olga Ivanov. Harper. $16.99.

Mia: The Sweetest Valentine. By Robin Farley. Pictures by Aleksey and Olga Ivanov. HarperFestival. $4.99.

Fancy Nancy: Too Many Tutus. By Jane O’Connor. Cover illustration by Robin Preiss Glasser. Interior illustrations by Ted Enik. Harper. $16.99.

How to Drive Your Sister Crazy. By Diane Z. Shore. Pictures by Laura Rankin. Harper. $3.99.

Batman: Fowl Play. By John Sazaklis. Illustrated by Steven E. Gordon. Colors by Eric A. Gordon. HarperFestival. $3.99.

      The staged reading series from various children’s-book publishers are an excellent way to get kids interested in reading on their own – starting when they are as young as age four. HarperCollins has a series called “I Can Read!” that includes five levels, from “My First” through Level 4 – or as the descriptions put it, from “Ideal for sharing with emergent readers” through “The perfect bridge to chapter books.”  Mia and the Tiny Toe Shoes is at the “My First” level, and like many of these books, uses characters who appear elsewhere and may already be familiar to young children – or may become familiar through this series and attract kids to further books about the same characters.  This particular book has Mia, in ballet class, trying to help the newest would-be ballerinas learn some basic steps – and becoming worried when the new students have a lot of trouble following what Mia suggests. Then Mia comes up with an idea to turn the difficulties the class members are having into a positive thing, and everyone, including the teacher, is impressed and happy.

      Another story about Mia, The Sweetest Valentine, shows one way in which reading can progress. This is an illustration-focused book in the HarperFestival line rather than part of the “I Can Read!” series. The story is somewhat more complicated (although still designed for ages 4-8), and the book includes a page of stickers. Kids who enjoy the simpler Mia story may well move on to this one, in which Mia and her friends inadvertently eat Mia’s mother’s Valentine’s Day gift, a box of candy, so Mia and her father, Mr. Cat, have to come up with an alternative gift in just a few minutes. Their answer: a Valentine’s Day show, featuring Mia dancing and helping her father learn to do all the steps so Mrs. Cat will be both surprised and delighted. And of course everything works out just fine.

      Back in the “I Can Read!” series, Fancy Nancy: Too Many Tutus also has an obvious ballet connection, but here dancing is not the point – dress-up is. The always overdressed and thoroughly delightful Fancy Nancy loves wearing colorful tutus, and does not even care if some are too small or torn (a torn one makes a great cape, she says).  Nancy’s mother wants to make room in the closet by giving some old or damaged tutus away, but Nancy initially refuses – and then agrees, reluctantly, when she finds out that her class at school will have a swap-and-shop event, with kids bringing in clothing they no longer want and getting points that they can put toward clothes they do want that someone else has donated. This is a Level 1 book (“Simple sentences for eager new readers”), and the plot is clearly more complex than at the “My First” level. It even includes Nancy doing a good deed for one of her fellow students – before getting two more tutus for herself.  Fancy Nancy is a particularly attractive character for little girls: funny and effusive and given to big words that are explained at the end and can help build young readers’ vocabulary.

      For young boy readers, the books in the “I Can Read!” series take on a somewhat different and often more mischievous tone. How to Drive Your Sister Crazy is a Level 2 book (“High-interest stories for developing readers”), and is really a step toward chapter books, since it includes four separate events that are all eventually tied together.  Bradley Harris Pinkerton, who narrates the book, explains in detail how to upset his big sister, Abby – and how other younger brothers can upset theirs, too. The first suggestion is an elaborate one involving a rubber snake that the sister does not know is rubber, and a snake search done while Abby is in the shower.  The second idea involves sneaking into Abby’s room and rearranging a number of her items in suitably upsetting ways. The third is a phone prank , used when Abby is talking with her best friend.  And the fourth is an apparently sincere apology that makes everything all right again – until the middle of the night, when a leftover element from the room-rearrangement plan comes into action.  This is a more-elaborate book than those in earlier stages of the “I Can Read!” series, and unlike those, it does not end happily for all concerned – it ends with Bradley’s sister being driven crazy one more time. Whether that is appropriate for what parents want their young readers learning will be up to each family to decide.

      There are boy-oriented books in the HarperFestival line, too, often involving superheroes – for instance, Batman: Fowl Play, which has the Caped Crusader encounter a nefarious ring of thieving birds, trained through hypnosis by Oswald Cobblepot, also known as the Penguin.  The superheroics are the point here – although in reality, Batman does not have superpowers and solves crimes by investigation, making him (despite the outlandish costume) the most human of the superheroes created by D.C. Comics.  This book features nonstop action and not much of a mystery, since Bruce Wayne (Batman’s alter ego) simply follows a thieving bird that has broken into Wayne Manor and stolen some objects that are conveniently equipped with tracking devices.  Not a very elaborate story, to be sure, but one that kids who already enjoy Batman tales may find interesting enough to encourage them to read about the prime crime solver in Gotham City instead of simply enjoying his adventures on film or in videos.

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