must-read author

The 16th Elephant and Piggie book by Mo Willems, Happy Pig Day!, is being released today and, in honor of its publication, I spent last night composing this long-winded ode to the Elephant and Piggie series, a collection of easy reader titles that have had a big impact on our household. I’ve wanted to write about Elephant and Piggie for a while now, but it’s hard to know where to begin. Because, at this point, the way I feel about Mo Willems as a children’s book creator is the same way I feel about the Coen Brothers as film directors. It’s not a question of which of their works are good and which are bad. It’s pretty much just a question of measuring excellence.

There Is a Bird on Your Head

There Is a Bird on Your Head

Quick semi-related diversion: In my opinion, the Coen Brothers have never made a bad movie – yes, Ladykillers wasn’t Raising Arizona, but it was way better than most average film comedies (for Hanks’ lead performance alone), and Intolerable Cruelty is an unheralded gem – so, when discussing their films, I mostly just find myself ranking favorites. The same thing happens when I talk about Mo Willems. I simply have yet to meet a Willems title that my family hasn’t enjoyed. So, when looking at his whole body of work, I’ll admit, it turns into a semi-pointless exercise of pure fanboy-esque categorization, with me ranking his titles from “the very best” to the “normal best.” (Ooh, aren’t I a harsh headmaster? Grading his books from “A+” all the way to “A-“.)

That being said, although I love the Pigeon (like many others, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus was our first Willems title), the large bulk of my Mo-love is reserved for the Elephant and Piggie books, a remarkable series for beginning readers. The E&P series, which began in 2007 with There Is a Bird on Your Head!, falls under the category of “easy readers”, a term that generally describes books designed for children who are just starting to read on their own. Easy readers are equal parts illustrations and large, easy-to-read text, and their vocabulary is normally limited to words that appeal to kindergarten to second-grade reading levels.

The Elephant and Piggie books boil down the easy reader to its essential components. The lead characters, Gerald the elephant and Piggie the pig, stand in front of a plain white backdrop, acting out their stories with just their body language and bare minimum of props. The earnest duo – like a more affectionate animal version of Laurel and Hardy – communicate through sound effects and large-text word balloons that make it easy for kids to pick out key words and follow the action. The dialogue-driven E&P books are, actually, a lot like wonderful, condensed one-act plays for kids. There are series of engaging verbal volleys between Elephant and Piggie in each volume, replete with knowing humor, repetition, and facial expressions that really help the young readers understand the inflection and emphasis of the words. [read the rest of the post…]


Before I start my discussion of Mercy Watson to the Rescue – which, by the way, is an exceptionally good book – I’m going to get into an annoyingly pedantic discussion of children’s book categories. Why? Because one big part of collecting books for your child is figuring out what books are appropriate for your kid at what age.

Mercy Watson to the Rescue

Mercy Watson to the Rescue

And I’m not talking about subject matter. Generally, you don’t have to worry about boobs, blood, and salty language until you get into later-age YA fiction. (Unless there are some really awesome picture books that no one has turned me onto yet. Clue me in, guys. I’m cool.) I’m talking about format – how many pages, what’s the text-to-picture ratio, how big is the font, how long is the story, etc. Different formats work best at different stages along your child’s development as a reader. There are lots of categories and terms for these books – some are used often, some less so, some are interchangeable, some are used incorrectly… it can be a huge pain. (If you’re really not interested in reading a brief aside about children’s book types, scan down a bit and I’ll say “BORING PART OVER” when I’m done.)

There are easy readers (sometimes called “I Can Read” books), beginning readers, middle readers, transitional readers, chapter books, young adult books – the list goes on and on. Since my daughter is almost five, we’ve had limited interaction with some of these book types so far, particularly the ones above her current reading level. We have TONS of picture books. (Almost literally tons.) Over the past year, we’ve spent a lot of time getting comfortable with easy readers. And we even have a few younger-skewing YA novels (mostly the works of Roald Dahl) that we’ve read aloud during bedtimes (plus whole shelves of YA novels that can be classified under the “Books My Kid Will One Day Read” category).

If I had to pick a category that we’ve explored the least so far, it’d be chapter books, but I bet that’s going to change a lot over the next year. Chapter books are story-books that are normally targeted at 6 to 10 year olds, and they’re sort of mini large-print novels. They’re short novellas with a relatively large font size and a much higher emphasis on text than images. (All chapter books have illustrations.) They’re the next step up from easy readers and, typically, they’re broken into frequent chapters to help hold the attention span of the reader and make it easier to check in and out if the reader can’t finish the whole book in a single sitting. (As I describe them, they sound a lot like Dan Brown novels… but better.)

BORING PART OVER! – At the moment, our favorite chapter books come from Kate DiCamillo’s Mercy Watson series, which began with the fantastic Mercy Watson to the Rescue. In the world of chapter books, the Mercy Watson series skews pretty young – Chris Van Dusen produces so many expressive, polished, retro-styled paintings to accompany each book that, at times, they resemble longer picture books – but the stories are so simple yet sophisticated that many different age groups can enjoy the series. An eight-year-old would get a kick out of reading them and, I can attest from past experience, a four-year-old loves having them read to her. A lot of that has to do with Kate DiCamillo’s talent as a writer.

Once you start collecting books for your children – or even regularly checking books out for them at your library – you will very, very quickly start to develop a list of “must-read” authors. These are the authors who are so good so consistently that you’ll find yourself going back to them again and again. We have a couple of must-reads at our house. It’s very hard to go wrong with Mo Willems, Maurice Sendak, Lane Smith, Julia Donaldson, William Steig, Doreen Cronin… the list goes on and on. Kate DiCamillo is definitely on our “must-read” author list too. [read the rest of the post…]

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