February 22, 2018

(++++) FROM 1 TO 2

Pinkalicious at the Fair. By Victoria Kann. Harper. $16.99.

The Berenstain Bears and the Ducklings. By Mike Berenstain. Harper. $16.99.

Pete the Cat and the Cool Caterpillar. By James Dean. Harper. $16.99.

Beat Bugs: In My Life. Adapted by Cari Meister from a story by Josh Wakely. Harper. $3.99.

Louise Loves Bake Sales. By Laura Driscoll. Pictures by Kelly Light. Harper. $3.99.

Batgirl: On the Case! By Liz Marsham. Pictures by Lee Ferguson. Harper. $3.99.

My Weird School: Teamwork Trouble. By Dan Gutman. Pictures by Jim Paillot. Harper. $16.99.

     There are many guided reading programs intended to help turn pre-readers into beginning readers and then into full-fledged readers of chapter books. But the distinctions among the programs’ various reading levels are not always obvious. That is one thing that makes the five-level “I Can Read!” system so good: there really is considerable care taken to place books at appropriate levels so children, parents and teachers can select ones with a particular label and have confidence that they will interest early readers and somewhat challenge them as well. The initial level, “My First,” and Level 1 (“simple sentences for eager new readers”), have the largest type and the shortest stories and sentences. The transition Level 2 (“high-interest stories for developing readers”) is the trickiest to manage, but generally comes across well through increasing complexity and word count without trying to pull young readers too far ahead too quickly. Levels 3 and 4 then further expand plot complexity and get kids ready for chapter books. As a whole, “I Can Read!” is a (++++) series, although a number of the specific books at the various levels are less than compelling and would individually get (+++) ratings.

     Within each level, the “I Can Read!” books often use well-known characters in simplified circumstances, the idea being that as kids move beyond guided reading, they will seek out more-extended adventures of the same type, generally by the same author and illustrator (although either or both of those will occasionally be different in the “I Can Read!” series from the originators of the characters). The variety of characters and authors is quite wide here, as is seen in five recent Level 1 releases. First is Victoria Kann’s Pinkalicious at the Fair, which focuses on one aspect of the pink-loving little girl: the fact that she has a pet unicorn named Goldie. In the story, which of course liberally uses pink in its illustrations, Pinkalicious has fun at the fair but misses Goldie – and is often reminded of unicorns by, for example, the Unicorn Ring Toss game. Eventually Goldie shows up at the fair, bringing a friend – so both Pinkalicious and Molly, her friend, have unicorns with which to share the fun. Second is The Berenstain Bears and the Ducklings, which is by Mike Berenstain, son of character inventors Stan and Jan, and follows a familiar-to-fans trajectory in which any problems are very mild and are readily solved by the super-cooperative residents of Bear Country. In this story, ducks from a nearby farm settle in at the Berenstain Bears’ yard and build a nest, so the bears rearrange their comings and goings to help the ducks – and eventually, after ducklings hatch, the family manages to get the local police to stop all traffic so the ducks can waddle to a nearby pond. The story is somewhat overly sweet, as are many involving these characters, but it is true to type.

     The third new Level 1 book, Pete the Cat and the Cool Caterpillar, omits the musical material that James Dean almost always includes in Pete books, instead focusing on a backyard “bug safari” during which Pete finds an interesting caterpillar, takes it home, and soon discovers that it has become a pupa – and, after a considerable period of time, emerges as a butterfly, which Pete and his parents release back into the yard. The emphasis here on the time needed for the caterpillar to become a butterfly provides a touch of realism that is absent in another caterpillar-focused Level 1 book, Beat Bugs: In My Life. This book is a paperback rather than a hardcover – “I Can Read” books come both ways – and is one of a series based on an animated TV show in which anthropomorphic bugs act out scenes very vaguely related to songs by the Beatles. The focus in this one is on Katter the Pillar, who does not feel well during her birthday party and eventually goes home to sleep, which she does for two days and with her head clearly visible outside a cocoon-like blanket. She then emerges as a butterfly, and everyone is happy. Like the other Beat Bugs books, this one is strictly for fans of the TV program – it is among the more thinly plotted books in the Level 1 series. The fifth new Level 1 book, also a paperback, requires knowing before starting to read that the little brother of Laura Driscoll’s character, Louise, is named Art: the information is not presented directly in the first part of the book, but is crucial to its climax. Louise Loves Bake Sales starts with Louise proclaiming how much she loves art – while she does things in the kitchen with Art to get ready for a bake sale. Determined to make her cupcakes extra-colorful, Louise gives young readers a quick lesson in how colors combine to make other colors. But Art then mixes all the colors, creating gray and not very artistic frosting that at least tastes good. At the end, though, Art’s appearance (he has been wearing a costume throughout the book) inspires Louise to create something that is art after all. The twist is clever, and early readers who like Louise will enjoy it.

     Matters become a bit more complex in Level 2 books, such as the paperback Batgirl: On the Case! This is actually a rather weak book for anyone interested in comic-book-style crime-fighting and general derring-do, because the whole story is about Batgirl’s search for a package that she has misplaced while fighting crime. The main point of the book is Batgirl’s niceness: she scours the city for the missing gift, is shown mugging for the camera with one fan and posing for photos with others, and eventually gives the recovered package to her police-commissioner father – the box turns out to be a birthday gift for him. The story is quite mild and will mainly interest kids who already know Batgirl in a more-active role and are looking for something different. The hardcover My Weird School: Teamwork Trouble, on the other hand, is a fairly typical entry in the long-running Dan Gutman/Jim Paillot series. Sports-loving Ryan narrates the book, but the main focus is always-arguing A.J. and Andrea, whose constant fighting is indeed a significant ongoing element of the various My Weird School series. The most interesting thing in this book is the specific sport for which Ryan is assembling a team: curling, not a particularly well-known activity in the United States (although it is popular in Canada and elsewhere). The plot has Andrea on Ryan’s team but A.J. off it – there is room for only so many people – with the result that A.J. is frustrated, because if the team wins, the members will get to visit the sports-themed mansion of super-athlete Mo Deen. A.J. really wants to go there, and a couple of complications later, he does get to play, the team wins, and everybody is able to make the visit. This is one of the “I Can Read!” books that is particularly effective at presenting early readers with characters and situations that they will be able to explore at much greater length when they “graduate” from guided reading and start looking for longer (but not much more complex) chapter books featuring the same characters.

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