July 17, 2014


Learn to Read with Tug the Pup and Friends! Box Sets 1-3. By Julie M. Wood, Ed.D. Illustrations by Sebastien Braun. Harper. $12.99 each.

Comics Squad #1: Recess! Edited by Jennifer L. Holm, Matthew Holm & Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Random House. $7.99.

     Ever since the creation of Bob Books in 1976, it has been clear to educators and parents that there is a place for small-size, super-simple, carefully directed books that very gradually introduce young children to reading through easy-to-master stories accompanied by pleasantly engaging drawings. And even before the Bob Books (which continue to be available from Scholastic), HarperCollins had the I Can Read! series, which dates all the way back to 1957. Now the two concepts have merged in an entirely new level of the I Can Read! grouping called “My Very First.” Each of the three boxed sets includes 11 small, very short, simple books with a guide for parents and a two-page sheet of reward stickers. Unlike the Bob Books, which are phonics-based, the new ones featuring Tug the Pup and other animal characters focus on the Common Core State Standards that most U.S. states now incorporate into elementary education. Educational consultant Julie M. Wood not only wrote the books but also included a “Parents’ Corner” in each inside back cover, offering activities designed to reinforce each book’s skills. In addition, the parent guide in each box gives suggested general approaches to the books, such as previewing the book with your child before actually reading it, helping him or her understand that letters stand for particular sounds, showing how to become accustomed to phonemes, and so on. The first box contains very simple, rhythmic and repetitious stories: “This is the barn. This is the nest. This is the egg.” The second box introduces dialogue and slightly more complex plots and sentences: “‘How can I get the corn?’ asks Big Pig.” The third box offers somewhat more-advanced vocabulary and more-complicated plots, although the overall books remain very easy to follow: “‘It walks like a skunk,’ said Tug. ‘It has black-and-white stripes like a skunk.’” Progress from book to book and box to box is easy and pleasant, thanks to the careful storytelling and the attractive characters, which do not have much personality but are fun to follow through their everyday adventures at Little Blue Farm. Sebastien Braun’s illustrations are pleasantly cartoonish, with suggestions of expression nicely done and character motions being clear and easy to follow. Parents especially concerned about teaching emergent readers in a way that will conform to Common Core State Standards will especially appreciate these boxed sets, but even adults who are not focusing specifically on those standards will find Learn to Read with Tug the Pup and Friends! (and the Bob Books, too) to be very helpful series for getting the youngest children interested in books and written words and starting them on the road toward reading on their own.

     Cartoon drawings can also be a way of keeping older children interested in books even when the kids are what are euphemistically called “reluctant readers.” This partly explains the popularity of graphic novels and the interest publishers show in books such as Comics Squad #1: Recess! This is certainly not a book intended to teach or re-teach reading or to pull kids toward non-pictorial books. It is, however, interesting and fun in its own right. Edited by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm, joint creators of the Babymouse books, and Jarrett J. Krosoczka, who developed the Lunch Lady series, Comics Squad #1 includes eight entries – from the editors and from Dav Pilkey, Dan Santat, Raina Telgemeier & Dave Roman, Ursula Vernon, Eric Wright and Gene Luen Yang. The very different drawing styles of the contributors are a bigger attraction than the plots of the stories, most of which are straightforward and overly familiar. Among the highlights are Pilkey’s comic, “drawn” by two students who insist on being creative even though the school insists they do what everyone else does; Vernon’s distinctively drawn tale of two squirrels and a “magic acorn” that turns out to be a small spaceship; and Santat’s surprisingly moving look at homework and middle-school angst. The Babymouse and Lunch Lady entries are plenty of fun, too. Comics Squad #1 is unlikely to turn reluctant readers into ones eager for, say, Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, but it will at least make them less reluctant to pick up other graphics-heavy books, including, of course, future entries in this series itself.

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