July 31, 2014


Huff and Puff and the New Train. By Tish Rabe. Pictures by Gill Guile. Harper. $16.99.
Diary of a Worm: Nat the Gnat. By Lori Haskins Houran. Pictures by John Nez. Harper. $16.99.

Flat Stanley: Show-and-Tell, Flat Stanley! By Lori Haskins Houran. Pictures by Macky Pamintuan. Harper. $16.99.

Riff Raff the Mouse Pirate. By Susan Schade. Pictures by Anne Kennedy. Harper. $16.99.

Monster School: The Spooky Sleepover. By Dave Keane. Harper. $16.99.

Plants vs. Zombies: Save Your Brains! By Catherine Hapka. Harper. $3.99.
Batman: Batman Versus the Riddler. By Donald Lemke. Pictures by Steven E. Gordon. Colors by Eric A. Gordon. Harper. $3.99.

     The I Can Read! series from HarperCollins is distinguished not only by its five levels of writing for differently advanced young readers but also by its use of characters that tie into longer, more-complex books outside the series itself. Kids who learn reading from simple adventures of Pinkalicious or Little Critter, for example, will have a wealth of other books to choose from when they move beyond the series itself and are ready to explore reading on their own. Not all the characters in the I Can Read! series are necessarily well-known, and some are certainly more important in modern children’s literature than others – but what makes the series work so well is the way any and all the characters are used in stories that intrigue kids at all reading levels and help them move into more-complex tales as their reading ability grows.

     The series starts at the My First level, identified as “ideal for sharing with emergent readers” – that is, books at this level are intended to be read with a young child to help introduce him or her to reading that will eventually be something he or she can do alone. Huff and Puff and the New Train is an example: Huff is an engine and Puff is a caboose, and together they make trains go. But a new, sleek train shows up and is much faster than the old-fashioned friends.  The trains have a race – and in unsurprising tortoise-and-hare fashion, the new train is so far ahead that it stops to rest, which lets Huff and Puff pass by and win. The language is very simple and presented in very large print: “The two trains raced uphill and down,/ in the country, in the town.” And the colors and settings are pleasant and enjoyable for pre-readers and the youngest readers: the book is officially intended for ages 4-8, but is more likely to attract kids in the 3-6 age range.

     Also designed for ages 4-8, and more reasonably targeted there, Level 1 books offer “simple sentences for eager new readers” – an example being Diary of a Worm: Nat the Gnat. The original Diary of a Worm, which young readers may seek out after they become more adept with books, is by Doreen Cronin and Harry Bliss; but as usual in this series for the youngest readers, the Nat the Gnat entry is an adaptation based on the original book, not a work by Cronin and Bliss themselves. The approach and characterization remain true, though, in a story – slightly more complex than those in the My First level – that has Worm allowed to take care of the class pet, Nat the Gnat, until Worm accidentally leaves the cage open. Not knowing what to do, Worm has to decide whether or not to tell everyone what happened. His decision is to catch another gnat – with the help of his friend Spider – but even then, he feels bad and eventually does tell the class that he lost Nat. Telling the truth helps everything work out when it is discovered that Nat is not lost after all – a simple moral, no more overstated than the tortoise-and-hare one in the Huff and Puff book, with the language here slightly more complex: “This morning, I brought Nat a nice wet leaf. I opened his tank to put in the leaf. Then I closed it and went out for recess.”

     The writing becomes still more complex in Level 2 books, which offer “high-interest stories for developing readers.” These too are for ages 4-8; with the natural differentiation of reading skills, that age range continues to make sense – earlier readers will be done with them by about age six, but some kids may not even start at this level until that age. In any case, there are many, many characters at this level from whom to choose, some quite well-known and others less so. Jeff Brown’s Flat Stanley, for example, is at the center of Show-and-Tell, Flat Stanley! – although, as usual in this reading series, the book is based on Brown’s work but not created by him. Stanley’s little brother, Arthur, takes Stanley to school for show-and-tell, where the teacher, Miss Plum, has something of her own to show the class: an engagement ring. In a series of misadventures, the ring ends up on the head of another show-and-tell offering, a mouse, and Stanley alone can get into the ceiling crack where the frightened mouse has gone to hide. The mistakes and heroics happen quickly and amusingly; kids who already know Flat Stanley – perhaps through an older sibling – will enjoy this book and look forward to reading more about the flattened-by-a-blackboard boy.

     Speaking of mouse matters, Riff Raff the Mouse Pirate commands a crew consisting of Cheddar, Munster, Swiss, Colby, Blue and Brie on a treasure quest complicated by the fact that the map they are using is partially torn. Riff Raff promises cheese to the first mouse pirate who spots the right street – all they know is that its name starts with PLU. Several misspellings later, the correct street is located and the treasure is found – and proves not to be what the mice expected, although they are quite happy with it nevertheless. Riff Raff’s story was created specifically for this reading series rather than spun off from other books – but there is more of Riff Raff within this series for kids to enjoy. There are several Monster School books by Dave Keane, too, such as The Spooky Sleepover. These feature entirely nonthreatening monsters with eyes on stalks, a single eye, 10 eyeballs, and various non-eye-related anatomical features, such as the ability to change into a bat or werewolf, two heads – that sort of thing. Keane carefully draws the kid monsters to look as much as possible like ordinary children – such as Norm, who in The Spooky Sleepover is having his first-ever sleepover, which happens to be at Monster School. Norm interacts with Gill (who has gills), Gary (a ghost), Harry (a werewolf who eats two whole pizzas, plus the boxes they come in), Miss Grunt (the zombie librarian), and other at the school. But Norm cannot sleep – not because of the monstrousness around him but because he does not have his usual sleeping environment. So the monsters help Norm out – for instance, Hilda the witch turns her salamander into a cat to keep Norm company – and everything ends happily. The gentle lesson here, that everyone worries on his or her first sleepover, is nicely meshed with the unusual setting.

     Some Level 2 books draw on characters originally created for purposes having little to do with learning to read – video games and comics, for example. Kids who enjoy the Plants vs. Zombies game and comics featuring Batman can easily find Level 2 books that they will like, such as Save Your Brains! and Batman Versus the Riddler. The first of these is essentially an introduction to the silliness of a world where brain-craving but slow and ridiculous-looking zombies are easy to fight off by using various helpful, anthropomorphic plants, such as potato mines, two-fisted Bonk Choy and (for Pirate Zombies) Snapdragons. The second is a typical story in which a supposedly smart bad guy cannot outwit Batman (helped in this case by Batgirl) – and the villain ends up foiled by his own miscalculation, leaving the Bat duo (drawn in contemporary hyper-craggy style) triumphant. These books are not as carefully designed to advance kids’ reading ability as are many of the other I Can Read! books, and therefore get (+++) ratings. And neither of these books will appeal to early readers who are not already involved in their subject matter. But those who are interested in the video-game or comic-book background of these books may be encouraged to read more-traditional books by seeing the characters they know and like in this context. And that is ultimately what all the I Can Read! books are after, with whatever characters they contain: getting kids interested in reading in a systematic way that is progressive through multiple stages of difficulty.

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