Safe Passages: What Makes a Good Early-Expert-Reader Book?

"Mommy, what does mere mean?” a friend’s four-year-old asked, puzzled by a sentence — “Mere minutes later” — in the Superman comic he was looking at. He didn’t recognize mere as a number, and he couldn’t figure it out by himself. But his question revealed that this preschooler had learned to read. Most children learn to read later, in school, gaining fluency and confidence in the primary grades. A few, however, enter kindergarten having already figured out the magic of letters, sounds, and words, or else they pick up the skill so quickly that by the end of kindergarten they are ready for longer books with chapters. These are early expert readers. Like my friend with his Superman comic, some learn to read on their own, while others are taught by parents, babysitters, or older sisters and brothers. But however they gain the skill, early expert readers are fluent long before their peers, and they present a challenge for parents, teachers, and librarians. They are capable of the decoding needed for reading chapter books but not yet ready for the content of many books written for children years older. They need books that will appeal to their particular level of emotional and social development while employing their reading skills and satisfying their desire for longer stories.

As Charlotte Huck wrote in her seminal work Children’s Literature in the Elementary School, “Children of varying academic abilities are more alike than different in the character of their reading interests.” Children from four to seven years of age are interested in their own world and curious about the way things work, but they are primarily egocentric and just beginning to form empathy. While starting to assert their independence, they seek warmth and security in relationships with family and with others outside the family. The world of fantasy is very real to them. Their sense of right and wrong is absolute: bad will be punished, good rewarded. Their sense of humor is taking shape.

lattimore_little pearOne example of a chapter book that meets early expert readers at their developmental level is Little Pear by Eleanor Frances Lattimore, originally published in 1931. Little Pear, a five-year-old boy growing up in a small village in China, is the center of each episode. He is well loved by family and friends, and when he ventures out in the village and even beyond, the world he encounters is a safe one. Some of his escapades would be disastrous if not for the help he receives from strangers: the tall man on the road carries him on his shoulders to the city, feeds him dumplings, and sends him home in a horse cart; the family in the houseboat fishes him out of the river and dries him off when he slips off the riverbank. All of his naughtiness ends with easy solutions and his parents’ quick forgiveness.

lovelace_betsy-tacyRealistic children and everyday adventures characterize books such as Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy, Eleanor Estes’s The Moffats, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods, and Beverly Cleary’s books about Henry Huggins and Ramona Quimby. First published more than fifty years ago, in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, these books suggest a protective view of childhood and convey a sense of innocence: a safe world populated with helpful, kind adults; loving families; adventures that end well. The child is at the center of it all. Curiosity gets him into scrapes, but never into real danger. The episodic format of most of these books is ideal because early expert readers have not yet developed a long attention span. The plots move from beginning to end in a clear, linear progression, with few changes in time, such as flashbacks or prologues. Likewise, there are few changes in voice or point of view. Friends and family, humor, a safe world where risks end well and mischief is seldom dangerous: these are the story elements that early expert readers enjoy.

bredsdorff_crow-girlIn contrast, consider The Crow-Girl by Bodil Bredsdorff. Originally written in Danish, this chapter book was named a 2005 Batchelder Honor Book for outstanding translation, and it is a beautiful story. The format, length, and vocabulary of The Crow-Girl make it accessible to early expert readers, but the content is much too dark. In the opening chapter, the Crow-Girl’s grandmother prepares her to recognize death. “If I’m lying here completely still one day and don’t answer you, take my hand and feel it. If it’s cold and stiff and you can’t move it, it will be because I’m dead.” After her grandmother’s death, the child journeys into a world that is decidedly not safe. Resilience, generosity, and friendship, however, carry the story to a satisfying conclusion, and I recommend this enthusiastically in the middle grades. But it is not appropriate for fluent five-, six-, and seven-year-olds.

estes_hundred dressesThe Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, with its square format and plentiful watercolor illustrations, seems at first glance to be appropriate for this audience. Both the theme and the style of writing, however, make it too sophisticated for very young readers. Told in the third person from the point of view of Maddie, the quiet follower, the story is driven primarily by guilt. The narrative begins after the key events have taken place — after alpha girl Peggy has taunted and ridiculed outsider Wanda Petronski, with her one dress and her immigrant’s name. Much of the emotional power of the book derives from inferences that the reader needs to make about the characters, relationships, and emotions. For example, the girls describe their teasing of Wanda as having “fun with her”; the teasing is designed to ridicule Wanda, and the use of the word fun is ironic. Throughout the book Maddie, Peggy’s reluctant sidekick, tries to convince herself that no harm is being done: “Anyway, they never made her cry.” Wanda ultimately rewards her tormentors with pictures of themselves and, as Maddie struggles to believe that Wanda’s generosity cancels their meanness, we are left to wonder if anyone has recognized and admitted the girls’ acts of cruelty — perhaps only the reader.

barrows_ivy + beanThe use of irony and inference puts this classic children’s book beyond the reach of an early expert reader. Annie Barrows’s Ivy and Bean and sequels present a much more straightforward picture of friendship. Talkative Bean and quiet Ivy prove to be a perfect combination. Like Lovelace’s Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, Ivy and Bean have a joyful connection, rich in shared fantasies and outrageous schemes. Their adventures are funny, mischievous, and never dangerous. In The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin, friendship is one of several themes. During the Chinese calendar year of the dog, Pacy, a Taiwanese American, asks important questions: how can I find a best friend, what am I good at; and how can I be both Taiwanese and American? Her mother answers with family stories, often funny and surprising, always comforting. Pacy is at the center of the book, surrounded by a loving family, with her mother’s stories connecting her to her family and heritage.

The Birchbark HouseTwo other books rich in family and traditions are Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods and Louise Erdrich’s The Birchbark House. Wilder’s book, the first in a series of nine, chronicles the life of a pioneer family in a log house in Wisconsin in the 1870s. The series continues as the family grows and moves further west, traveling by covered wagon. In Little House in the Big Woods Laura and Mary are very young children, making this book especially appropriate for early expert readers. Written as a straightforward third-person narrative, the story is linear and episodic. Laura’s world is the cabin and the woods around it, with occasional visits with cousins and neighbors. The details of pioneer life — hunting and farming, cooking, making butter and maple syrup—are all seen from Laura’s perspective. There are dangers such as wolves and bears, but the little house is always a safe place: “She was safe inside the solid log walls . . . All around the house was a crooked rail fence, to keep the bears and the deer away.” Most of all, Laura has Ma and Pa to protect her, and they are capable, caring, and constant. The days always end with Laura and Mary tucked in their beds, Ma and Pa by the fire, music from Pa’s fiddle filling the house. Later in the series, calamities and hardships occur, such as Mary’s blindness and the terrible winter of hunger and endless blizzards. But the themes in the first book are safety, security, and the permanence of family.

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich, a National Book Award finalist, parallels the Little House books, focusing on an Ojibwe family living on an island in Lake Superior in 1847. Even the illustrations are similar: detailed pencil sketches drawn with warmth and humor. Omakayas’s family is strong and loving; daily life is punctuated with humor and the wisdom of the grandmother and others in the community. As the year passes, details and traditions of Ojibwe life are woven into the story in a fashion similar to the descriptions in the Wilder book. Perhaps it is because of these similarities that the difference between the two books is so striking. The Birchbark House is a book about danger and the impossibility of escape. White people, or chimookoman, moving westward threaten the Ojibwe way of life. The book’s two-page preface begins: “The only person left alive on the island was a baby girl.” This baby is beautifully dressed and clearly loved, but “the family who had loved her was gone. All of the fires in the village were cold. The dead lay sadly in blankets, curled as though sleeping. Smallpox had killed them all.” Later, when smallpox strikes again, scarring a lovely older sister and taking the lives of many others, seven-year-old Omakayas must play a role far beyond her years. I enthusiastically recommend The Birchbark House to children in the middle grades and older for its craft, its history, and the emotional power of story. But rather than safety and security, its themes are vulnerability and resilience. The stark descriptions of disease, death, and the pain of loss make this inappropriate for young children.

jacobson_winnie dancing on her ownFortunately, of course, many other chapter books are appropriate, and they don’t need to be entirely free of conflict or difficulties. In Winnie Dancing on Her Own by Jennifer Richard Jacobson, for instance, Winnie’s friends want her to take ballet with them, but Winnie proves to be terrible at ballet and is miserable at being left out. With help from her supportive father, the third grader learns that friends can have different interests and still be friends. Since the world of fantasy is still quite real for young readers, books that feature toys and animals have great appeal. Toys Go Out by Emily Jenkins relates six adventures of three unusual best friends: a smart toy stingray, a tough toy buffalo, and a third toy simply named Plastic. A clever toad manages to win over the owl who is saving him for a birthday feast in the classic A Toad for Tuesday by Russell E. Erickson. Cleverness and mischief is a winning combination in Lady Lollipop by Dick King-Smith: Lollipop, a smart pig, helps a swineherd teach a spoiled princess a much-needed lesson. Another pig, Mercy Watson, the star of Kate DiCamillo’s series, is inevitably the center of humorous domestic calamities.

Specific reader guidance for these early expert readers is not needed for long. Their peers catch up, and within a few years they become indistinguishable from their classmates. But during the first years, reader guidance is crucial. Naturally, we hope early readers will become lifelong readers. The first step is finding satisfying and appropriate books for them in the early primary grades.

Titles Discussed Above

Annie Barrows Ivy and Bean; illus. by Sophie Blackall (Chronicle, 2006)

Bodil Bredsdorff The Crow-Girl; trans. from the Danish by Faith Ingwersen (Farrar, 2004)

Kate DiCamillo Mercy Watson to the Rescue; illus. by Chris Van Dusen (Candlewick, 2005)

Louise Erdrich The Birchbark House; illus. by the author (Hyperion, 1999)

Russell E. Erickson A Toad for Tuesday; illus. by Lawrence Di Fiori (Lothrop/Morrow, 1974)

Eleanor Estes The Hundred Dresses; illus. by Louis Slobodkin (Harcourt, 1944)

Eleanor Estes The Moffats; illus. by Louis Slobodkin (Harcourt, 1941)

Jennifer Richard Jacobson Winnie Dancing on Her Own (Houghton, 2001)

Emily Jenkins Toys Go Out; illus. by Paul O. Zelinsky (Schwartz & Wade/Random, 2006)

Dick King-Smith Lady Lollipop; illus. by Jill Barton (Candlewick, 2000)

Eleanor Frances Lattimore Little Pear; illus. by the author (Harcourt, 1931)

Grace Lin The Year of the Dog; illus. by the author (Little, 2006)

Maud Hart Lovelace Betsy-Tacy; illus. by Lois Lenski (Crowell, 1940)

Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House in the Big Woods; illus. by Garth Williams (Harper, 1932)

From the November/December 2008 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
Christine McDonnell
Christine McDonnell is an author and the librarian at the Edward Devotion School in Brookline, Massachusetts. Her latest book is Dog Wants to Play (Viking), illustrated by Jeff Mack.

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