March 21, 2013
(+++) FIRST IN LINE
Everything Goes: Henry on Wheels. Text by B.B. Bourne, based on the Everything Goes books by Brian Biggs. Illustrations in the style of Brian Biggs by Simon Abbott. Harper. $16.99.
Pete the Cat: Play Ball! Created by James Dean. Harper. $16.99.
Pete the Cat: Pete’s Big Lunch. Created by James Dean. Harper. $16.99.
The “I Can Read” series from HarperCollins Children’s Books is neatly divided into five levels, which have considerable overlap but are distinct enough so parents and teachers can easily use them to help new readers along effectively. The “My First” books are particularly useful in this respect. Intended for ages 4-8 – an age range that overlaps that of the later Levels 1-4 but that makes perfect sense on its own – these books feature familiar, easy-to-understand characters in modest adventures that have very little plot but plenty of pleasant illustrations to move the simple stories along. The books are frequently based on well-known children’s works and characters, modified for very young readers by people who sometimes receive credit for their work (as in Henry on Wheels) and sometimes do not (as in two new Pete the Cat books).
Henry on Wheels is a pleasant updating of the Dick-and-Jane-style books that brought earlier generations into reading. It is simply the story of Henry’s first solo bike ride and all the things he notices: “Henry rides down the street. Henry sees kids swinging. Henry sees kids sliding and playing in the sand.” And so on. The book follows all the modern dictates of early and easy readers: multiracial and multi-ethnic characters, helmets on bike riders and construction workers, and far more things to see than would likely show up in a short ride around the block in the real world. Henry at first thinks the around-the-block ride will be “boring,” although of course he agrees to be safe and do what his mother says; and at the book’s end, Henry and his mother go biking together to have lunch at some of the places that Henry rode past during his adventure. Really, not much happens here, and not much needs to – the simple drawings and repetitious words make it easy for beginning readers to follow along and get a feeling of accomplishment as they absorb the story.
Pete the Cat has more personality than do Biggs’ characters, and the two Pete books accordingly have a bit more plot. Play Ball! is almost an anti-sports book, but in a good way: it is about a baseball game between the Rocks and the Rolls, and while the Rocks (Pete’s team) win, the focus is on what Pete himself does – or fails to do. He strikes out the first time he comes to bat. “But Pete is not sad. He did his best.” In his second time at bat, he gets a walk even though he wanted a hit. In the field, he gets under a fly ball and it goes into his glove, but he drops it; later, he makes a catch, but then throws the ball too far. And in his one time on base, he is thrown out when trying to score a run. But the refrain of “he did his best” keeps the book moving, and Pete’s super-wide eyes may droop (they always droop) but never show any hint of unhappiness, much less tears. The book reinforces the idea of being part of a team and doing the best you can – even if that is not very much. On the other hand, what Pete can do is make a sandwich, as he shows clearly in Pete’s Big Lunch. Pete is so hungry that he starts with an entire loaf of bread and begins adding pretty much everything he can find to it, from a whole fish to an apple, two hot dogs, a can of beans and more. Eventually the sandwich – which is topped with ice cream (“three huge scoops”) – gets too big for Pete to eat, so he invites all his friends to share it with him, and it turns out to be enough for everybody. The message here, “sharing is cool,” is tacked on at the end and is not integral to the plot in the way “he did his best” is to Play Ball! But Pete’s Big Lunch is a more amusing book, and kids will enjoy seeing the absurd mixture of ingredients Pete uses in his sandwich as it grows and grows and grows. All three of these “My First” books are pleasant, simple, nicely illustrated and created with just enough plot so that beginning readers (and pre-readers on the cusp of managing books on their own) will find them a fine first step into a lifetime of reading enjoyment.