Pete the Cat: Too Cool for School. By Kimberly and James Dean. Harper. $16.99.
Fancy Nancy: Just My Luck! By Jane O’Connor. Pictures by Ted Erik, based on the art of Robin Preiss Glasser. Harper. $16.99.
Charlie the Ranch Dog: Charlie’s New Friend. Based on the books by Ree Drummond and Diane deGroat. Harper. $16.99
The Berenstain Bears: Gone Fishin’! By Mike Berenstain. Harper. $16.99.
Splat the Cat Makes Dad Glad. By Alissa Heyman, based on the books by Rob Scotton. Illustrations by Robert Eberz. Harper. $16.99.
The five-level HarperCollins I Can Read! series is a particularly happy way to get young children interested in reading, starting with reading to them and continuing as they learn bit by bit to read the books on their own. Several companies have comparable series, but Harper’s is distinguished by its clever use of familiar characters – usually as interpreted by people other than the characters’ creators – and by story lines that fit the levels of the series particularly well. The earliest, “My First” level is described as “ideal for sharing with emergent readers,” and Pete the Cat: Too Cool for School is a fine example of how it works. Parents can easily read this very simple but still-amusing story with children age three or four, and perhaps even with two-year-olds. All that happens here is that Pete gets dressed for school, but the big-eyed cat is so amusing as he puts on more and more and more clothing – trying to wear what everyone suggests – that kids will laugh at the pictures even as they absorb the words. Finally, Pete looks not cool but unpleasantly hot in all the layers of clothing, and realizes that he needs to change into what he wants to wear, not what everyone else recommends. Then he looks cool and feels comfortable – and the message, straightforwardly delivered at the end, is that it is cool to be yourself. This is a nice mixture of character comedy, amusing art and an age-appropriate bit of self-awareness, and works quite well as an “easy reader” once kids start tackling books on their own.
The remaining books here are all Level 1, “simple sentences for eager new readers,” and this is really the core of I Can Read! It is at this level that kids ages four and up will cement their relationship with characters they may well have previously met in books read to them by the adults in their lives. Fancy Nancy: Just My Luck! has the ever-charming little girl with the love of French and big words worrying about all the things that a friend tells her can bring bad luck – and going overboard, in typical Nancy fashion, trying to avoid all of them. Then, of course, she finds out that her worries are based on superstition, and she ends up with good luck. There is nothing French in this Fancy Nancy book, and the “big” words are not all that large, but at this reading level, that is just fine – and the book opens the door to reading more-complex Fancy Nancy stories later. In a similar vein, Charlie the Ranch Dog: Charlie’s New Friend is a fine entry point to more-involved books about the self-important ranch dog whose greatest talent is sleeping but who thinks he runs the show. The story has Charlie chasing a carrot-stealing rabbit, failing to catch him, and deciding to make friends instead – which he does over several days by offering the rabbit carrots so the bunny does not have to dig up the garden and steal them. Charlie naps repeatedly in the course of all this, which is quite normal for him, and eventually he and the rabbit share a carrot – to Charlie’s displeasure, since he much prefers bacon. Charlie is a particularly endearing character, and early readers will enjoy following this simple story while looking ahead to the somewhat more-complicated ones in books that go beyond the I Can Read! series.
Other popular HarperCollins characters appear in other Level 1 books, and the pattern is the same: simpler-than-usual stories designed to interest young readers and eventually move them along to other books featuring the same characters – books they may have had read to them before they learned to read on their own, and ones they will be able to read for themselves not long after they progress through the I Can Read! ones. The Berenstain Bears: Gone Fishin’! has the usual elements of this long-running series, with somewhat arrogant Papa getting his mild comeuppance and everything turning out just fine for everyone. The plot is about Papa’s use of a fancy fishing rod, while his kids use simple ones – and Papa hooking waterlogged debris rather than fish, while Brother, Sister and Honey catch plenty of fish, although they are small. Eventually Papa does catch the biggest fish of all, but not in the way he intended to – the sort of twist that is common in Berenstain Bears books. And this one has less heavy-handed moralizing than the longer ones frequently do. As for Splat the Cat Makes Dad Glad, it is a slapstick misadventure along the lines of other stories about Splat, who tries to cheer up his father after dad’s team loses a soccer game. Splat’s idea is to enter and win a three-legged race with his dad at Cat School Game Day. But when the day arrives, amusing mistakes and funny missed opportunities cost Splat and his father the victory in several events, including the climactic three-legged race – but it turns out not to matter, because the misadventures do make Splat’s dad happy, which was what Splat was after all along. The silliness of the story is appealing and is right in line with the plots of longer Splat books, to which kids who enjoy this one will likely gravitate as the I Can Read! series prepares them for more-complex stories featuring the same familiar characters.