August 31, 2017


Uni the Unicorn and the Dream Come True. By Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Illustrated by Brigette Barrager. Random House. $17.99.

Clark the Shark and the Big Book Report. By Bruce Hale. Illustrated by Guy Francis. Harper. $16.99.

Syd Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur: School Days. By Bruce Hale. Illustrated by John Nez. Harper. $16.99.

My Weird School: Class Pet Mess! By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $16.99.

     Very simple stories told in very simple language can be just right for very young readers, their simplicity paving the way for much greater depth and complexity in later years of reading. Uni the Unicorn and the Dream Come True, for ages 3-7, is as simple as can be. This is Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s second story of the only unicorn who believes that little girls are real – and, of course, a little girl who believes in unicorns. Illustrated by Brigette Barrager in the same warm, fanciful style she used in the first book, in which pretty much everything is rounded and sweet and smiley, the second book actually brings girl and unicorn into the same place at the same time (after they apparently met only in dreams in the first story). The reason for the get-together is that it is raining and raining and raining in the land of unicorns, and since unicorns get their magic from the sun, from rainbows and from “the sparkle of believing,” the magic has just about faded away. Keeping it alive is Uni, thanks to his belief that little girls really do exist. In the little girl’s world, it is also raining – and at one point, girl and unicorn see lightning and hear thunder at exactly the same moment, and right then both have the same wish, and in the book’s best illustration, “Then everything went white and quiet.” The picture looks like a white-out, with girl and unicorn seen more or less in silhouette and tinges of color bleeding through – it is an exceptional scene. And right afterwards, girl and unicorn are together at last! And soon they are running and jumping and playing and helping all sorts of animals and, eventually, finding their way to a huge tree under which all the other unicorns are huddled unhappily. Realizing that Uni was right about little girls, all the unicorns erupt with joy and become, “once again, sparkly, strong, and magical.” And they wish the rain away, and the sun comes back, and everything is super-delightful and utterly happy. And there are two rainbows in the sky, not just one, which means the little girl can use one to go home and Uni can use the other to visit her world – a scene-setter for another book if there ever was one. Uni the Unicorn and the Dream Come True is super-easy to read and super-straightforward in plot, and its pervasive happiness is just the thing to encourage the youngest readers (and even pre-readers) to start discovering all the wonders that books can bring.

     Some books bring along their delights as part of a sequence specifically designed for early readers of all types, such as the “I Can Read!” series. Here too there are recognizable characters – usually ones whose longer adventures can be found in picture books for slightly older readers. Within the guided sequence, though, the tales are designed for ease of comprehension and simplicity of involvement. Big, bumbling, toothy-but-harmless Clark the Shark, for example, appears in a Level 1 book (“simple sentences for eager new readers”) suffering both from his typical overconfidence and from a case of stage fright. In Clark the Shark and the Big Book Report, Bruce Hale and Guy Francis have Clark hyper-eager to give his report on “The Frog Prince,” sure that he will do wonderfully well because “I know my book like the back of my flipper!” The other fish students are nervous about standing up in front of the class to give their reports, but not Clark, who successfully tries out a joke on his classmates at lunch and then gives his report to his family in the evening – with everything going beautifully. But as usual, things do not go well for Clark when the big moment of the actual report arrives: he has “a brain freeze” and forgets what he wants to say: “His mind was as empty as a seashell.” No big deal! His friends and teacher encourage him and tell him they know he can do it, and Clark finds that he can give the report after all, and everything ends happily. Clark’s misadventures are fun for very young readers specifically because Clark is the biggest and most fearsome-looking fish in his school but is really sweet and befuddled much of the time, and good-natured all the time.

     Even bigger than a shark, but portrayed as equally sweet, is the dinosaur introduced by Syd Hoff nearly 60 years ago in Danny and the Dinosaur (1958). Hoff (1912-2004) created the thoroughly unrealistic, ever-smiling dinosaur – who walks on his back legs but is shaped like the huge, long-necked plant eaters that walked on all fours – as a simple, charming companion for Danny, who meets the dinosaur in the museum. In Hoff’s book, the two have a day filled with small adventures, such as going to a baseball game and the zoo and playing hide-and-seek – and the well-meaning dinosaur takes Danny across a river and lets Danny and other children use him as a slide. Most of what Hoff created translates well to a new Level 1 book in which the dinosaur decides to follow Danny to school. Thanks to apt and sensitive writing by Bruce Hale and pictures in Hoff’s style by John Nez, Syd Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur: School Days will be enjoyable for young readers whose grandparents are likely the only people around them who might remember Hoff’s original. In the new story, the dinosaur behaves as expected, mixing easily with the children and teacher, cooperating in lessons, letting the kids learn math by measuring parts of his body, and joining Danny for an outdoor lunch at which the dinosaur munches leaves from a tree while Danny eats what he has brought from home in an old-fashioned lunchbox. The style of writing, the type of adventure and the form of illustration all have a pleasantly nostalgic feeling about them here. Everything is warm-hearted and thoroughly non-threatening.  And this simple story is one to which very young readers will be able to relate – although the classroom does not really look like the type usually used for kindergarten, which is about the right grade for Level 1 books, but more like one for kids in first or second grade.

     Of course, by the time they move beyond kindergarten, most kids will be reading more-complex books than those in Level 1 of the “I Can Read!” series, which actually contains five levels from “My First” to Level 4. A step beyond Level 1 are books such as My Weird School: Class Pet Mess! This is a Level 2 book (“high-interest stories for developing readers”), and again, what Dan Gutman and Jim Paillot offer here is right in line with what they provide in their longer, more-elaborate books for somewhat older readers.  The story here actually fits nicely into what might be called the ethos of My Weird School, because instead of getting a typical class pet such as a hamster or turtle, Mr. Cooper’s class votes to get a snake. It is a small, harmless hognose snake named Bob, and the reactions in class, as usual in other My Weird School books, are divided. Alexia, who narrates the book, considers Bob really cool, but Andrea finds the snake gross. Gutman includes some factual material on hognose snakes and weaves it nicely into the story: the snake “mostly eats live toads,” the teacher explains, and Alexia cannot wait to feed Bob – who takes his meal in “one big gulp,” so Alexia comments, “It wasn’t as disgusting as I hoped.” Several other kids bring their own, sometimes rather weird pets to school over the next few days, including  a ferret, a skunk, and finally Andrea’s poodle. But the dog leaps at Bob’s cage and barks loudly, and Bob collapses on his back and the whole class freaks out, thinking Bob has died of a heart attack. It is left to Mr. Cooper to remind the class that hognose snakes play dead when they are frightened – something he told them before, but a fact the class completely ignored. So all ends happily, especially for Alexia, who says Bob is “the best, coolest class pet in the world” because “Andrea HATES HIS GUTS.” My Weird School: Class Pet Mess! offers a more-elaborate story than kids would get in a Level 1 book, but not much more elaborate, so this and other Level 2 books are effective stepping stones toward the more-complex books that kids will increasingly be reading as they move through school. And of course, the Clark the Shark and My Weird School books are designed by their authors and illustrators to encourage young readers to familiarize themselves with the central characters and look for more of their adventures in longer, more-invoved books as kids’ reading abilities grow.

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