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New for New Readers: An Easy Reader Renaissance

In this first entry in a series, the Horn Book editors look at some of the new (and newish) easy readers that we’ve been enjoying while revisiting some old favorites. Recommendations are from The Horn Book Magazine and The Horn Book Guide Online. You can find more on easy readers at hbook.com/tag/easy-readers.

Easy readers are a staple of classrooms and the field of children’s books. Their characteristic traits — limited and repetitive vocabularies; illustrations that typically reinforce rather than extend the texts; story lines that tend toward predictability; and reliance on familiar characters through long-running series — are carefully designed to support the success of new readers. However, as a result of their perceived adherence to formula, easy readers don’t always get a lot of respect. The establishment of ALA’s Geisel Award in 2004 has helped raise their stature. And Mo Willems’s Elephant & Piggie series (2007–2016) has been credited with almost single-handedly revitalizing the genre in modern times, with its direct appeal to new readers in a fresh, child-centric way: relatable, childlike humor; color-coded text and dialogue balloons instead of the more typical words-inside- quotation-marks format; and illustrations that center on characters and action. Elephant & Piggie blew the door off a traditional presentation of easy readers — and opened doors for others — and we are seeing results.

The years 1957–1958 saw the birth of easy readers as we think of them today. Harper’s I Can Read Book series began with the now-classic Little Bear, written by Else Holmelund Minarik and illustrated by Maurice Sendak; Peggy Parish’s Amelia Bedelia books (first illustrated by Fritz Siebel), Syd Hoff’s Danny and the Dinosaur books, and Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad quartet soon followed. Random House’s Beginner Books (developed by Theodor Geisel, his wife Helen Palmer, and Random House editor Phyllis Cerf) featured books by both Geisel (as Dr. Seuss) and Palmer, P. D. Eastman, the Berenstains, and Bennett Cerf. The mission of both series was the same: to ensure success in learning to read while offering children delight in well-told stories. [See also discussion of James Marshall in Leonard S. Marcus’s interview with Regina Hayes in this issue.]

When Andy Met SandyToday, a welcome infusion of authors best known for their contributions to other genres honors that original stated mission. The last few years have seen Kevin Henkes’s Penny books and Grace Lin’s Ling & Ting books. Tomie dePaola’s Andy & Sandy series (written with Jim Lewis) about two good friends — a staple of easy readers since Frog and Toad — debuted in 2016. That same year, the prolific David A. Adler won Geisel gold for Don’t Throw It to Mo!, illustrated by Sam Ricks, featuring the brown-skinned, sports-loving Mo Jackson; the latest Mo Jackson book, Pass the Ball, Mo!, boasts one of the funniest payoffs of late. And a recent entry in Random House’s Step into Reading series is the nonfiction easy reader Dream March by Boston Globe–Horn Book Award winner (for No Crystal Stair) Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport, which focuses on the civil rights movement, especially the 1963 March on Washington. The presence of these “big names” from children’s literature — and the high quality of the easy readers they’ve created — reminds us that easy readers can be both teaching tools and well-crafted stories, with engaging plots, well-rounded characters, and accomplished illustrations.

One of the first megahits of the easy-reader modern era was Tedd Arnold’s Hi! Fly Guy, which buzzed into being in 2005 with its signature googly-eyed characters, slapstick humor, and silly preponderance of zzzzzzs (and was awarded a Geisel Honor). Featuring an oddball pair of friends — a boy named Buzz and his pet fly — the series is going strong with sixteen titles plus nonfiction and picture book spinoffs. Oddball pals newer to the scene were introduced in Snail & Worm by Tina Kügler, Salina Yoon’s Duck, Duck, Porcupine! books, and Bob Shea’s Ballet Cat series (its first title, Dance! Dance! Underpants! is an almost-guaranteed LOL for this audience).

And speaking of odd-couple friends, while Gerald and Piggie officially retired in 2016 with The Thank You Book, their legacy lives on in Hyperion’s new series (begun in 2016, developed in collaboration with Willems) called Elephant & Piggie Like Reading! The books are by various authors and illustrators; its launch titles were The Cookie Fiasco by Dan Santat (Caldecott winner for The Adventures of Beekle) and We Are Growing! by Laurie Keller, which won the 2016 Geisel award. In each volume the inimitable Elephant and Piggie make cameo appearances — introducing the book, commenting on it, and/or bursting in at the middle while they’re reading the same book we are, as they do in Bryan Collier’s entertaining and surprising It’s Shoe Time! in which a little girl chooses her favorite “pair” of shoes to wear on a special day. Each series entry is a standalone, but their “look” instantly identifies them as something familiar; add to that the stamp of approval by Gerald and Piggie (and, implicitly, Willems) for a winning formula.

* * *

The examples above look like traditional easy readers, with their distinctive vertical design and easy-to-“read” illustrations that help support the text. However, the Geisel Award list shows that books that might typically be seen as picture books (and so classified by The Horn Book) are being recognized for, and doing double duty as, easy readers: examples include the Medal winners from 2013–2015 — Up, Tall and High; The Watermelon Seed; and You Are (Not) Small. [More on this topic in a future column; see also the late Robin Smith’s Calling Caldecott blog post “Early readers vs. Picture books.”] Holiday House took this idea even further by designing its I Like to Read series as bona fide picture books. Their impressive lineup of authors and illustrators includes James E. Ransome, Ann and John Hassett, Betsy and Ted Lewin, Emily Arnold McCully, David Catrow, David McPhail, Rebecca Emberley, Douglas Florian, Bruce Degen, Joe Cepeda, and more, working in a mix of genres and styles. The common denominator seems to be a determination to extract the maximum amount of drama, humor, or emotion (depending on the book) from a minimum of elements: the briefest of texts with the least variance from sentence to sentence, and few distractions — clean typeface often set against white space, for instance. For those precocious preschoolers who are eager to start reading on their own, these easy-reader picture books provide practical and entertaining possibilities—and their simplicity and level of engagement set children up for reading success. (NB: several of the I Like to Read titles are now simultaneously published, in paperback, in typical easy-reader format for those readers who may not want to appear babyish — or for parents for whom that might be a concern.)

* * *

Comics have always provided an entree into reading, and now some easy readers are getting in on the game. TOON books (brainchild of The New Yorker art editor Françoise Mouly and her husband Art Spiegelman, creator of the Maus graphic novels), for example, combine easy readers with graphic novels, capitalizing on kids’ visual literacy skills to ease them into conventional literacy. The results are often off-the-wall in the most child-pleasing (and sometimes head-scratching) ways. The Great Antonio, Flop to the Top!, the Benjamin Bear and the Benny and Penny series, and anything by Liniers (see Written and Drawn by Henrietta, a 2016 Horn Book Fanfare selection, and his latest, Good Night, Planet) are characterized by dialogue balloons, unique characters, unexpected events, and lots of the action communicated through the pictures. And it goes both ways. As Mouly said in her May/June 2017 Horn Book Magazine article “What’s So Funny About Comics?”: “…comics have put their mark on many of the funniest (and most beloved) works of children’s literature. From Dr. Seuss, P. D. Eastman, H. A. Rey, and Crockett Johnson to Ian Falconer, Mo Willems, and Jeff Kinney, much of the canon of children’s literature has been penned by cartoonists and inspired by the rhythm of comics.”

The mechanics behind learning to read are not The Horn Book’s bag; our mission is blowing the horn for good books, period. Happily, the easy readers discussed above (and recommended on pages 32 and 120) both support new readers in their sometimes-Herculean-seeming endeavor while enhancing their pleasure in story.

Photo: Lolly Robinson.

Recommended Easy Readers

The following are recent easy readers recommended by The Horn Book. In cases of series, the title given is the latest one as of March 2018. See also “From the Guide” on page 120.

Pass the Ball, Mo! (Viking, 2018) by David A. Adler; illus. by Sam Ricks [Mo Jackson series]

Fly Guy’s Big Family (Cartwheel/Scholastic, 2017) by Tedd Arnold [Fly Guy series]

It’s Shoe Time! (Hyperion, 2017) by Bryan Collier; with additional illustrations by Mo Willems [Elephant & Piggie Like Reading! series]

Benjamin Bear in Brain Storms! (TOON, 2015) by Philippe Coudray; trans. from the French by Françoise Mouly [Benjamin Bear series]

Flop to the Top! (TOON, 2015) by Eleanor Davis and Drew Weing

Andy & Sandy and the Big Talent Show (Simon, 2017) by Tomie dePaola and Jim Lewis; illus. by Tomie dePaola [Andy & Sandy series]

The Great Antonio (TOON, 2016) by Elise Gravel; trans. from the French by Richard Kutner

Benny and Penny in How to Say Goodbye (TOON, 2016) by Geoffrey Hayes [Benny and Penny series]

Penny and Her Marble (Greenwillow, 2013) by Kevin Henkes [Penny series]

I Am (Not) Scared (Two Lions, 2017) by Anna Kang; illus. by Christopher Weyant

Snail & Worm Again (Houghton, 2017) by Tina Kügler [Snail & Worm series]

Ling & Ting: Together in All Weather (Little, Brown, 2015) by Grace Lin [Ling & Ting series]

Good Night, Planet (TOON, 2017) by Liniers

Written and Drawn by Henrietta (TOON, 2015) by Liniers

I Hug (Holiday, 2017) by David McPhail [I Like to Read series]

I See a Cat (Holiday, 2017) by Paul Meisel [I Like to Read series]

Dream March: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the March on Washington (Random, 2017) by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson; illus. by Sally Wern Comport [Step into Reading series]

I Like the Farm (Holiday, 2017) by Shelley Rotner [I Like to Read series]

Ballet Cat: What’s Your Favorite Favorite? (Disney-Hyperion, 2017) by Bob Shea [Ballet Cat series]

The Thank You Book (Hyperion, 2016) by Mo Willems [Elephant & Piggie series]

That’s My Book! And Other Stories (Bloomsbury, 2017) by Salina Yoon [Duck, Duck, Porcupine! series]

From the March/April 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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