Easy Readers

Easy readers are the books that you move to once your child starts showing interest in independent reading. Also known as “I Can Read” books. There are lots of illustrations, they can be longer than picture books, and they feature short sentences, designed to introduce early important vocabulary terms to kids.

Star Wars Head-to-Head

Oh, the things your child will bring home from school…

I just had a 20-minute conversation with my daughter about who would win in a fight between Darth Vader and Yoda and it was, honest to god, part of her homework. (Let’s give it up for public schools, nerds.) The debate was inspired by a book called Star Wars Head-to-Head: The 30 Wildest Matchups You’ve Never Seen! by Pablo Hidalgo, and I’m not sure if I want to throw the book in the garbage or give it a teen movie-style slow clap to acknowledge it as a subversive masterpiece.

My daughter is in first grade and her class has a daily homework reading program called “Book in a Bag.” Every day, she comes home with a new book (in a bag!) that she’s supposed to read with us that night. After she reads it on her own, we have to decide if the book was “Easy”, “Just Right,” or “Hard” for her to read and fill out an attached form. It’s a good concept, though the books my daughter brings home sometimes can leave a lot of be desired. Occasionally, she’ll bring home a familiar gem (The Princess and the Pizza!), but often, she’s bringing home phonics-focused easy readers that are way too easy for her or she’s bringing home media tie-in books (My Little Pony, Star Wars, etc.) that just seem designed to lure kids away from legitimate works of literature. (Or at least that’s how it feels sometimes, said the grumpy dad with his own kid lit blog.)

But I totally understand why my daughter’s teacher includes those titles in the book-in-a-bag program. Yes, they might not be well written, but the kids love them. They gravitate towards those books and, since those titles appeal to their basest lizard-brain impulses, they feel a sense of ownership when they pick them out and get excited about reading them. I get it. Most of them suck, but I get it. They’re dessert reading. And every kid is entitled to dessert occasionally, right? Just not all the time. Dessert all the time just leads to sloth, rot, and general queasiness. So, if my kid comes home with a Star Wars book from school, it’s no big deal, provided that she realizes that we’re reading Shel Silverstein or Maurice Sendak at bedtime to balance out her diet.

Star Wars Head-to-Head

I refuse to acknowledge the validity of this duel…

That being said, we actually had a very fun time going through Star Wars Head-to-Head: The 30 Wildest Matchups You’ve Never Seen last night. Granted, it’s not the easiest book for a kid to read on their own – each page is set up as stats page for various characters and vehicles, so there’s a lot of small type metadata for kids to sort through. (Did you know that Darth Vader’s height/weight is 2.02 meters/136 kilograms? I do now.) However, the concept of the book is extremely easy to grasp. On each two-page spread, two characters or vehicles are featured and the book essentially asks the question, “Between these two contestants, who would win in a fight?

Yoda vs. Vader? Obi-Wan vs. Boba Fett? Luke vs. Anakin? Jawa vs. Ewok? Star Destroyer vs. Trade Federation Battleship?

And, as much as I hate to admit this, that simple concept inspired a night of very entertaining, very detailed theoretical debate between my daughter and I, a result that I wasn’t expecting at all.

Star Wars Head-to-Head

OK, Billy Dee Williams should be legitimately upset about this.

Maybe I’m just used to the normal kid’s book media tie-in methodology where the book just clumsily retells a story that was previously told better in another medium. But, at its core, Star Wars Head-to-Head has an infinitely more engaging mission. It’s a book designed to be a discussion starter. Yes, it’s filled with clumsy instruction manual-esque prose and photoshopped artwork, but every two-page spread is actually asking its reader a question – “Which one would you pick?” And that one simple question turns those readers into active participants with the book. [read the rest of the post…]

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Eric Wight’s Frankie Pickle Books

Pickles. Why’d it have to be pickles?

Early readers can be a tricky kids’ book genre. I’m not actually sure that’s the preferred term – sometimes they’re called early chapter books, beginning books, easy readers – but you’d know one when you saw it. They’re the books kids read in between picture books and chapter books. They’re the books that they cram into long, low shelves at the bookstore, because they’re usually series titles, so there’s a million of them, BUT they’re so damn thin, it’s almost IMPOSSIBLE to actually read their spines and find the title you’re looking for. (Am I alone in this?) When I think of an early reader, I think of titles like Junie B. Jones or My Weird School, and kids of a certain age LOVE THEM. They can be great gateway books into the world of chapter books, but, like in most kids’ genres, they can also be really, really mass-produced, lazy, and terrible.

So, when I see a truly superior example of an early reader, it stands out, which is one reason why I think the world of Eric Wight’s Frankie Pickle series.

There are only three books in the series – Frankie Pickle and the Closet of Doom, Frankie Pickle and the Pine Run 3000, and Frankie Pickle and the Mathematical Menace – and, man, I wish there were more.

The concept is familiar. There’s a kid, Frankie Pickle, who has an overactive imagination, and, while doing rather mundane tasks (cleaning his room, building a model car, taking a math quiz), he imagines himself as a hero on fantastic adventures that have some nice thematic ties to what he’s doing in the real world. I’m going to say something that might sound like an insult, but, if you’re a true child of the 1980s, you’ll know that I mean this as a high compliment – the tone of the Frankie Pickle series reminds me of The Muppet Babies. (One of the best Saturday morning cartoons EVER.)

But two things really help distinguish Frankie Pickle from its competition: words and images. First, regarding the words, Wight is a very clever writer with a good ear for dialogue and the kinds of fun alliteration and nonsense language that new readers really love encountering. The stories aren’t anything groundbreaking, but they’re short, sweet, and very well-told. When my daughter reads a Frankie Pickle book to herself, she laughs. Even just saying the name of Frankie’s family – the Piccolini family – tickles her funny bone and Wight does a nice job of making the text quick and interesting without making it difficult for newer readers to digest.

However, while the stories are fast and fun, I have to admit, for me, the real draw of the Frankie Pickle books are the images. Let me just put this out there – The three Frankie Pickle titles are the BEST-LOOKING early readers I’ve EVER seen. They’re gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous.Eric Wight’s Frankie Pickle Books

Wight is a beyond-talented illustrator and each Frankie Pickle book is ingeniously designed as a hybrid between a typical early reader and a comic book. The effect is that each title feels vividly alive. Wight’s artwork pulls readers through each page and, suddenly, they’re rewarded with Frankie’s flights of fancy brought to life in expertly rendered comic book panels. And can I just say – as a longtime comic book fan, I am a big, big kids’ book art snob. I can be extremely critical of the illustrations in my daughter’s books, particularly in the early readers, where, so often, the art feels like an afterthought. [read the rest of the post…]

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Wonder Woman: Princess Superhero

Wonder Woman: The Ultimate Princess Superhero. Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired.com

Following up on the discussion that got started yesterday (and, wow, thanks again for the epic response on that one, guys), when I first set out to find some non-traditional princess books for my daughter, my mind leapt immediately to one of the most iconic female characters in all of literary history – Wonder Woman.

Because, c’mon, can you think of a more kick-butt, take-no-prisoner, I’ll-rescue-myself princess than Wonder Woman? In my mind, I imagined my daughter in her bed late at night, pouring over the adventures of Diana, princess of the Amazons, marveling at her great deeds and bugging me with endless questions like, “Wonder Woman could beat up Superman in a fight, right?” or “When I grow up, can I get my own invisible plane?” Say what you will about Wonder Woman, but she’s no shrinking violet. She’s not going to wait up in a tower for someone to rescue her. She’s an active, forceful princess who isn’t just strong and self-reliant, but she’s also altruistic and actively works to help the less fortunate. She’s the whole package!

I was CONVINCED that Wonder Woman was going to be the answer to every one of my over-worrying dad, princess gender-identity woes, because you know what’s cooler than a princess? A princess SUPERHERO. How the heck can Snow White or the Princess and the Pea compete with that?

Plus DC Comics has been publishing Wonder Woman since 1941, so there HAD to be libraries full of Princess Diana stories just waiting for my daughter to discover them, right?

However, I very, very quickly ran into a series of problems that I just never anticipated. Because, while Wonder Woman, on the surface, should be an incredibly easy sell to young readers as the coolest princess they’ve EVER seen, in reality, the character has a whole, whole lot of baggage that prevents kids – at least most kids younger than 11 – from embracing her as anything other than a Halloween costume.

Basically, I think there are two BIG, essential issues holding Wonder Woman back from being every five-year-old’s favorite princess.

PROBLEM #1: IMAGES

Wonder Woman

This is a very tame example of WW looking like a “Glamazon.” There are much, much creepier examples out there.

OK, while I might roll my eyes at the over-frilly, completely impractical ball-gowns in most princess stories, at least they’re not wearing star-spangled panties and a steel-plated halter-top in public. Wonder Woman’s costume is, indeed, iconic, but it’s also way too easy to sexualize and the vast majority of Wonder Woman comic book art can be described with adjectives like “heaving” or “engorged”. Fine, I understand why the ongoing “appropriate for teens and older” Wonder Woman comic book indulges so heavily in the cheesecake sexuality. They’re pandering to their 18-35 male demographic. However, it just seems to strange to me that, given Wonder Woman’s global appeal, DC Comics, WW’s publisher, doesn’t seem concerned with trying to find ways to introduce Princess Diana to younger readers. It’s like they’re purposely leaving money on the table.

Wonder Woman: Disney Style

THIS is a Wonder Woman a young girl could fall in love with…

There was actually an amazing recent post on the Tumblr blog “DC Women Kicking Ass”, where Tom Bancroft, an artist and former Disney animator, drew some fantastic sketches of Wonder Woman in the “Disney” style, as if she was a classical princess rather than a hyper-sexed valkyrie. And I LOVE those sketches. THAT looks exactly like the kind of young, tenacious, non-passive princess character that my daughter would INSTANTLY fall in love with. The author of the Tumblr post even commented that, “I’ve never, ever figured out why DC and Warner Bros. don’t do more to market Wonder Woman to young girls. She’s a princess for heaven’s sake.” [read the rest of the post…]

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Don't Stay Up So Late: A Treasury of Bedtime Stories Written for Children by Children

Good advice that kids never listen to…

As I’ve mentioned, 826 Michigan’s Don’t Stay Up So Late is a brilliant book, a “treasury of bedtime stories written for children by children” that was crafted with an obvious sense of affection and pride by both its publishers and student authors. But, despite all my praise, I don’t really know if I’ve been able to properly convey how much this anthology is packed with impressive details and inspired ideas. Don’t Stay Up So Late is a book that just begs for you to linger and appreciate it. So, in order to make sure that you truly get a sense of what this book is all about (and to encourage more of you to buy it), here are ten completely amazing items, details, and flourishes you can find within the pages of Don’t Stay Up So Late:

1. The book’s dedicationDon't Stay Up So Late

2. This disclaimer on the copyright pageDon't Stay Up So Late

3. The handsome title page illustrationDon't Stay Up So Late

4. Section headings like this:Don't Stay Up So Late [read the rest of the post…]

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Don't Stay Up So Late: A Treasury of Bedtime Stories Written for Children by Children

No one tells better bedtime stories than kids…

Reading at bedtime is a big deal in our house. My wife and I alternate putting our daughter down each night and our nightly rituals always involve reading before she goes to bed. Sometimes she reads to us. Most nights, we’ll either read her two or three picture books or a few chapters from longer kid-friendly novels. (We’re reading a lot of J.K. Rowling and Rick Riordan lately.) The bedtime story ritual is very, very important to our family, That said, even though we have literally read HUNDREDS of night-time books to our daughter over the years, I’m confident in saying that the hands-down coolest bedtime book we’ve ever bought for her is Don’t Stay Up So Late: A Treasury of Bedtime Stories Written for Children by Children, an AMAZING collection of stories, published by 826 Michigan, that was entirely authored by elementary school students.

Are you not convinced that a grade school kid could write an engaging bedtime story? Here’s the first story in the anthology, written by a first-grader:"The Alien in the Attic" by Zachary Smith

When I woke up I heard a rat-a-tat-tat. I went straight down the hallway and turned right and opened the attic door. I saw a green alien. The alien had eight eyes and four arms. He could make things in one minute. I grabbed him. He punched me in the nose. I called the army but the army didn’t believe me. I put him in the basement. He ran up the stairs and I picked him up, put him back, and put a gate up. I gave him some food. I wanted to keep him. I wanted to keep him forever.

The End. That’s the whole story. Admit it – that story was ten times more engaging, heartfelt, and AWESOME than 95% of the movie tie-in, Disney, or kidlit spin-off picture books that your kid begs you to buy at Target. It’s direct and honest and Don’t Stay Up So Late is FILLED with stories just like that – stories with titles like “Supersnake,” “A Cow and a Mouse at Dance Class,” “The Super Dog That Helps People,” “The Mermaid Disappeared?”, “Dr. Jell-o’s Jell-o Plan,” and “Tiny’s Tale,” to name a few.

The bedtime stories in Don’t Stay Up So Late are overflowing with exuberant, imaginative storytelling leaps, the kinds of ingenious flights of fantasy that always seem to crop up when a kid sets his mind to tell you a story. As a parent, I found the stories in the collection to be immediately endearing and couldn’t help feeling both proud for the kids and grateful to 826 Michigan for attempting to catch such lightning in a bottle. [read the rest of the post…]

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I’ve taken to calling November “Building a Library‘s Month of Failure” around the house. First, my daughter tells me that she wants to “pause” our reading of The Phantom Tollbooth. (Sigh.) Next, she tells me that she doesn’t want me to read her any more chapter books at bedtime, even though my wife – my wife who, in case you were wondering, did NOT start a blog all about how much she loves sharing books with her daughter – gets to read her Harry Freakin’ Potter at bedtime, a book that my kid is LOVING. And, finally, THIS happens…

My daughter, who is lovely and amazing and is such a fantastic reader, comes to me and says, “I want to write a fan letter to my favorite author.”

I perked up IMMEDIATELY. She’d never asked to do this before.

“That’s great!” I said. “Who are we writing to?” In my head, I began thinking about how I could get the mailing addresses for Lane Smith, Kate DiCamillo, Cressida Cowell, Mo Willems, Adam Rex, the estates of Shel Silverstein or Roald Dahl, etc. And then she hit me with the bombshell.

“I want to write a fan letter to Daisy Meadows who writes the Rainbow Fairy Books.”

Daisy Meadows. The Rainbow Fairy Books.

MONTH. OF. FAILURE.

Rainbow Magic

Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion…

“SERIOUSLY?” I replied in an immature tone, practically guaranteed to send her further into Daisy Meadows‘ open and waiting arms. “She is seriously not your favorite author. Seriously. She’s not, right?” [read the rest of the post…]

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Bink & Gollie: Two For One

Having a best friend is awesome…

In my last post, I waxed on and on about Bink & Gollie: Two For One by Kate DiCamillo, Alison McGhee, and Tony Fucile, even though, pretty early in the article, I commented, “How can I possibly convey the depth of the warmth and humor in Bink & Gollie in a simple blog post?” (And yet I still tried. Was it passion or hubris? You be the judge…) So, for the sake of argument, let’s just assume that I failed in my attempt to really convey how endearing the two Bink & Gollie books are and you, as the skeptical blog lurker, need more empirical evidence to sell you on my recommendation. You need more evidence? No problem.

Below are two videos that, I think, do a nice job of showing off the quirky charms of Bink & Gollie. The first is a book trailer for the original Bink & Gollie, put together by Candlewick Press. The second video is a very cool, very home movie-esque clip of illustrator Tony Fucile reading Bink & Gollie to a group of children at a bookstore. It is not the most professionally-produced video ever, but I actually find it charming as hell. The camera moves all over the place, kids interrupt and ask questions, and Fucile does his best to read the story and explain his illustrations with unflappable good humor. The shaky-cam nature of the video and the iffy sound might make it hard for some to watch, but I find it to be a wonderfully real glimpse of a creator really connecting with his target audience. If these videos can’t sell you on Bink & Gollie, I don’t know what can.

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My Brave Year of Firsts

This is pretty much what it felt like to drop our daughter off to first grade….

Before we get to Bink & Gollie, if you’ve been wondering if Building a Library was on hiatus, I totally understand. Things here at Library Headquarters have been beyond hectic now that my daughter has just begun FIRST GRADE, a big life milestone that (if I’m being honest) I’m still a little weepy about.

The race up to the beginning of her school year was overwhelming with school supply shopping, orientation meetings, and desperate attempts to squeeze in a few final day trips to museums and zoos before first grade finally began.

The weekend before school started, I took my daughter to a local bookstore and told her that, in celebration of her new school year, she could pick out ANY book she wanted. An hour and a half later, I almost regretted that decision. We looked at EVERYTHING. New books, old books, picture books, easy readers, chapter books, audiobooks. Yes, I did have to reiterate SEVERAL TIMES that the toys and stuffed animals in the children’s section did not, in fact, count as reading material and, thus, was not eligible to qualify as “any book you wanted”, but, on the whole, it was fun to watch my daughter browsing her head off, completely lost in the stacks trying to find the perfect book.

My Brave Year of Firsts

This is actually a “perfect” book for any kid about to start first grade…

After trying to steer her towards some good-looking chapter books – she’s interested in Judy Moody, but won’t take the plunge yet – I spent twenty minutes advocating for My Brave Year of Firsts: Tries, Sighs, and High Fives, a new picture book by Jamie Lee Curtis and Laura Cornell. Even though I had been previously pushing for my daughter to pick a chapter book, I’ve written about my affection for Curtis and Cornell’s picture books in the past (I find them sentimental in all the right ways) and the book just seemed PERFECT for a kid about to start first grade.

It’s all about a young girl taking the leap and trying a myriad of new things for the very first time. She starts first grade (perfect!), she tries to ride her bike without training wheels (we’re doing that right now!), she makes new friends (just like my kid!), she helps her dad (I’m a dad!), and her name is Frankie (my daughter is named Charley!). My Brave Year of Firsts is a fun, wonderfully illustrated rumination on the benefits of being brave and trying new things and, thematically, it couldn’t have been more perfect for my kid.

So, of course, she didn’t pick it.

(Sorry Jamie and Laura. The book IS pretty great, though, and my daughter has a birthday coming up, so guess what she’s getting?)

Give a kid the power to pick out their own book and they will take full advantage of that privilege. And, after I vetoed a few more toys and at least one Barbie book, I heard my daughter gasp in the stacks and come running towards me.

“THIS is my book.”

Bink & Gollie: Two For One

My kid could’ve picked ANY book in the store, but this is the one she wanted.

The book was Bink & Gollie: Two For One, by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee with illustrations by Tony Fucile. It’s an illustrated early reader/chapter book hybrid, a sequel to the original Bink & Gollie, the New York Times bestseller and Theodor Seuss Geisel Award Winner, which happens to be one of my daughter’s favorite books.

I love it when my daughter exhibits good taste.

I’ve been meaning to write about the original Bink & Gollie for months now (and I still probably will one day), but it’s one of those books that is SO good that it’s actually intimidating to write a review of it. How can I possibly convey the depth of the warmth and humor in Bink & Gollie in a simple blog post? It’s just an amazing title and Bink & Gollie: Two For One definitely lives up to its reputation. [read the rest of the post…]

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I Want My Hat Back

He just wants his hat back. Is that so wrong?

One of my favorite things about reading books to my daughter is that, through the process of reading out loud, she learns so much about not just language, but also things like intonation, context, sarcasm, and all of those other glorious abstractions that come hand-in-hand with verbal communication. Funny books do a particularly good job of teaching children about those subtle underlying language rules, and I love watching my daughter realize on her own that, even though a character is seemingly saying one thing, you can infer through the context of the illustrations and the intonation of how the line might be read that the character actually MEANS something completely different. And, if you’re looking for an example of that kind of book, you can hardly do better than I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen.

Named as one of the New York Times best illustrated children’s books of 2011, I Want My Hat Back is a masterpiece of understated, slow-burn humor. Even Klassen’s illustrations revel in the art of the deadpan, giving us a menagerie of animal characters with stony, nearly unchanging faces. And yet the blank expressions of the animals – especially the face of the lead character, a bear – can suddenly convey volumes of emotion with only a slight shift of posture or eye position. Fun with language aside, this is a beautiful book – Klassen’s illustrative style reminds me of an exquisite hybrid of Frederick‘s Leo Leonni and A Sick Day for Amos McGee‘s Erin Stead.

I Want My Hat Back

Seriously, Mr Fox. If you're holding out on me...

And it’s a heck of a lot of fun to read too. The premise of I Want a Hat Back is gorgeously understated – there’s a bear who’s lost his hat and he wants it back. But, out of that set-up, Klassen creates an extremely funny scenario. Realizing that his hat is gone, the bear starts to ask other animals in the forest if they’ve seen his hat. He asks a fox and a frog, and they offer polite, repetitious responses, informing him that, “No. I have not seen any hats around here.” The bear then encounters a rabbit, who’s wearing a bright red pointy hat, the color of which starkly stands out against the muted earth-tone palette of all the other illustrations in the book. When asked about the hat, the rabbit responds:

No. Why are you asking me.
I haven’t seen it.
I haven’t seen any hats anywhere.
I would not steal a hat.
Don’t ask me any more questions.

And, no matter how obvious it is that he’s lying – talk about a self-incriminating witness – the bear doesn’t pick up on it, says “Thank you anyway”, and moves on to questioning a turtle.

I Want My Hat Back

Awww... poor guy...

As soon as I turned the page after the rabbit’s rambling response, my daughter did a brief double-take and said, “Wait… he totally stole that hat, didn’t he?” I gave a non-committal shrug and replied, “What do you think?”, and, suddenly, my daughter’s engagement with the story exponentially increased. She couldn’t believe that the bear hadn’t picked up on the rabbit’s obvious lie OR that the bear didn’t notice what was probably his own hat sitting on the rabbit’s head. Now my five-year-old had more information than the bear narrator and, enlivened by her discovery, she couldn’t wait to see how the mystery played out. [read the rest of the post…]

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I Broke My Trunk

Hooray for I Broke My Trunk!

I may have mentioned in the past that my family is a wee bit fond of Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie books… OK, fine, we’re borderline-obsessed.

So, it should be no surprise – with our psychosis so clearly stated for everyone to judge – that we were excited to hear that I Broke My Trunk, a hysterical E&P book from last year, was named as a Geisel Honor Book at the 2012 ALA Youth Media Awards. (The Elephant & Piggie series previously won the 2009 Geisel Award for Are You Ready to Play Outside?)

And Mo Willems, being the mad genius that he is, decided to make this video to thank the Geisel Award committee. Enjoy.

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