June 21, 2018


Chicken on Vacation. By Adam Lehrhaupt. Pictures by Shahar Kober. Harper. $4.99.

Mighty Truck on the Farm. By Chris Barton. Illustrated by Troy Cummings. Harper. $4.99.

Syd Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur and the Sand Castle Contest. By Bruce Hale. Illustrated by Charles Grosvenor. Harper. $4.99.

Pinkalicious and the Pirates. By Victoria Kann. Harper. $4.99.

Haunted Halloween. By Sue Fliess. Illustrated by Jay Fleck. Cartwheel Books/Scholastic. $6.99.

     Even the easiest-to-read books can be highly enjoyable for young children when they are put together as well as are most of the entries in the “I Can Read!” series. The easiest books in this series are called “My First” and are intended for adults to share with kids who are almost but not quite ready to read on their own. Then come the Level 1 books (“simple sentences for eager new readers”), which frequently use well-known characters from picture books and chapter books as their protagonists – making it possible for kids to learn reading with those characters and then follow their adventures in increasingly complicated books that are not part of this learning-to-read series. At their best, Level 1 “I Can Read!” books stand up very well in comparison to more-complex books with the same characters, giving their adventures in simplified form but carefully staying true to the characters’ personalities. Two good examples are Chicken on Vacation and Mighty Truck on the Farm. The chicken, Zoe, has a very vivid imagination and is always pulling her friend, Sam the pig, into improbable adventures in which reality never gets in the way of Zoe’s fantasizing. That is exactly what happens in Chicken on Vacation: Zoe tells Sam that they are going on a beach vacation, and also invites Pip the mouse along. But of course they do not really go to a beach: they simply wander around the farm. Zoe exclaims with excitement about seeing the ocean, but Sam points out that it is really just the farm’s pond. Zoe says the beach is right over there, but Sam correctly sees only dirt. Being a chicken, Zoe does not really swim, but she stands on the dock by the pond and tells Sam she is on a surfboard. And then she claims to find a treasure map, and the three friends search for a treasure that eventually turns out to be the pie that Zoe packed as a picnic treat. The whole book is good-humored, with Pip and Sam indulging Zoe’s fantasies and actively taking part in them. As for Mighty Truck on the Farm, the title character here is an old truck named Clarence who gained mighty powers when lightning struck a car wash: he becomes Mighty Truck when wet and reverts to everyday Clarence when dry. In this book, he hopes for a break from his mighty urban duties when his parents ask him to visit them on their farm. But it turns out they have just as many chores for him to do as he has been doing in the city – different ones, but they are still loads of work. So while his parents sleep, Clarence changes into Mighty Truck, gets all the chores done, then changes back by drying off – after which he finally gets a chance to rest, relax and do some fishing. These two books have short but interesting stories that neatly pave the way for the adventures that the book’s central characters have elsewhere. Kids who learn to read with these characters will likely want to find out more about them as their reading skills advance.

     Not all Level 1 books are quite this successful: some push the protagonists in directions that do not quite gel with other adventures. They can still serve as good early-reading material, however, and possibly get young children interested in trying out a few other books in which the same characters appear. The 1958 book Danny and the Dinosaur by Syd Hoff (1912-2004) has inspired a new series of almost-lookalike books that pay tribute to Hoff’s original idea of a museum-dwelling dinosaur befriended by a young boy. Syd Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur and the Sand Castle Contest, a summertime series entry, does not quite read like a Hoff story and is not quite drawn like one, either. But 21st-century children are unlikely to know the original Hoff concept (although they will enjoy it if given the chance!) and may very well be carried away by this mild story of a day at the beach. Danny first uses the dinosaur to create a sure-to-win sand construction (covering the dinosaur with sand to create a “sand sea monster”), but when waves threaten to swamp all the other castle builders’ work, Danny has the dinosaur protect the shore from the water so the other kids’ constructions are saved – even though it means Danny does not win the contest. This is a bit more of a teachable moment than is really necessary, but the book is still enjoyable enough to work as a simple warm-weather tale. Similarly, Pinkalicious and the Pirates is a beach story involving the pink-loving title character; her brother, Peter; and Aqua, a friendly “merminnie” (miniature mermaid). And all that is just fine, but the plot turns on two supposedly scary pirates (whose ship, however, flies pink flags) having a dispute – giving Pinkalicious and Peter a chance to capture them by using Pinkalicious’ pink kite. Then it turns out that Captain Pinkbeard and his first mate are “good pirates” who were only arguing about the best color of sprinkles for their latest batch of freshly baked cookies. This is a very thin Pinkalicious story that is not entirely in line with her usual adventures – but, as with the Level 1 Danny-and-the-dinosaur book, it works for easy summertime reading and some modest enjoyment of the central character.

     Of course, no one says beach stories and other warm-weather tales are the only easy-to-read books for kids during the summer. In fact, some children may tire of the sameness of the variations on summertime activities in many simple books and want something a bit less seasonal. That could be something such as Haunted Halloween, a particularly pleasant board book celebrating a cooler time of year in highly amusing fashion. Some of the book’s pages are traditionally squared-off, while others are rounded – semicircular, for instance, or humped – so just turning the pages is enjoyable. The story tracks five kids walking in their nicely imagined costumes (the oversize Frankenstein-monster head is particularly well done) while the narrative is based on counting from one to 10. That means there are lines such as, “Two toads sleep./ Earthworms creep.” And: “Six snakes slide./ Spiders hide.” Each page very neatly shows the sort-of-spooky creatures in decidedly non-spooky guise – even the five ghosts are mostly seen smiling, as are most of the eight tiny gargoyles (which resemble adorable stuffed toys). Eventually the book gets to: “Ten small feet/ Trick-or-Treat,” and the five kids walk through a suitably sort-of-spooky-looking door to find a bunch of other children having a very happy Halloween party. As a counting book, a rhyming book, an easy-to-read book, and an alternative to all the beach-and-picnic books so common during summer, Happy Halloween is, simply, great fun.

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