A selection of recent titles
Jill Bennett recommends some books, published over the last three or four years, which she has found ‘work’ well in the context of learning to read with real books…
When I first wrote Learning to Read with Picture Books it was relatively easy to decide which titles to include; I had comparatively little choice in the matter – the number of appropriate books was fairly small. However, since that time – almost ten years now – there has been a positive explosion in the market with many publishers including in their lists picture books which can be used with children in the earlier stages of their reading apprenticeship.
This in itself must be something to welcome, indeed to celebrate, although I have to say that I do have reservations about the number of ‘manufactured’ series for early reading, many of which seem to me to be bandwagon publishing. Indeed, very few of the titles I have included in this selection of some of the best published in the last three or so years (since the last edition of LTR) are from such series, the vast majority being one-off titles which are first and foremost good books in their own right and only incidentally ‘learning to read’ books.
One of the criticisms levelled at an approach to learning to read based on picture books is that the apparent lack of structure means that beginner readers do not experience the repetition of words met through more traditional approaches. However, those of us working with picture books do recognise and value books whose patterned language helps beginners: traditional tales and rhymes, for example, and the picture books which use those same structures.
One such with simple predictable repetition is Ron Maris’ I Wish I Could Fly. There’s very little poor tortoise can do; his attempts to ‘fly like a bird’, ‘dive like a frog’ and ‘climb like a squirrel’ all end in disaster. Then down comes the rain and tortoise discovers something he can do better than anyone else.
In This is the Bear, Sarah Hayes uses the same rhythmic pattern as ‘The House that Jack Built’ in her easy-to-read rhyming tale of the bear ‘who fell in the bin’. Everything is right for beginner readers – the text printed in large clear type and marvellously expressive, beguiling pictures by Helen Craig.
The Cake that Mack Ate goes one stage further; it uses both the rhythm and the cumulative structure of ‘The House that Jack Built’ and tells of the making of a mouth-watering birthday cake and its consumption by Mack (dog). The anticipation is brought to a satisfying though unexpected conclusion in the last two double-spreads which belie the deadpan ‘This is Mack/HE ate the cake.’ Delicious!
Sri Lanka is the origin of Joanna Troughton’s The Quail’s Egg, a lively cumulative tale in the vein of ‘The Old Woman and her Pig’. Again the book has natural repetition, vigorous illustrations and a wholly satisfying concluding chain reaction, here culminating in the release of quail’s egg from the crevice.
Mouse’s Marriage is another folk tale, this time from Japan, and tells of an elderly mouse couple’s search for the ‘best and mightiest’ husband for their beloved daughter. A succession of would-be suitors is rejected in turn as each is supplanted by a yet more mighty candidate. The mouse parents’ exhortation to each suitor supplies the natural repetition – just one of the pleasures of this inviting and beautifully designed book.
More natural repetition comes in Mem Fox’s Hattie and the Fox, a splendid variation on more familiar fox versus hen stories.
Anthony Browne has created many successful books but in Knock, Knock, Who’s There? he joins forces with Sally Grindley whose text uses the familiar and much loved ‘Knock, knock’ joke form to create a sort of imaginary game, one the reader shares with the little girl tucked safely in bed with her teddybear. Many readers will enjoy the guest appearance of Browne’s gorilla who, along with a variety of fantasy figures, comes to visit. This is a book with many possibilities: it is ideal for sharing between beginner and experienced reader, with a group or as a jumping-off point for further imaginative expression.
Mortimer is one of those immediately appealing and involving books that children want to read over and over. Mortimer refuses to sleep when his mum takes him up but instead sings his ‘clang, clang, rattle-bing-bang’ song much to the increasing distress of his family. Both the song and the pattern of feet as they thump up and down the stairs to try to silence Mortimer are oft repeated and carry the reader through an enormously enjoyable romp.
‘It’s a bit like Bears in the Night‘ was the instant reaction to Pamela Allen’s A Lion in the Night and indeed the structure is similar, so too is the energetic nature of the book. Here we have a baby astride a lion on the rampage pursued by the inhabitants of a castle, the pace of the chase being altered by skilful use of the double-page spread. Children will make links with other books too.
Also with a night-time setting is Goodnight Goodnight which tells in amusing rhyme printed in enormous type how the animals in the ark prepare for night; they wash, put on clean pyjamas, clean their teeth and perform their daily exercises before gently rocking to sleep. A real winner.
Eric Hill’s ‘Spot’ titles are enduring favourites but a most welcome, fairly recent development is their appearance as dual-language texts. This is particularly valuable when a home/school reading programme is in operation: adults literate in, say, Punjabi can share a story like Where’s Spot? with their young children, as well as those learner readers being able to have the opportunity to read a story their classmates love in a language that may well be more familiar than English. Other dual-language favourites with one of my children (an Urdu/Pushtu speaker of seven) are Not Now, Bernard, Rosie’s Walk and One Rich Rajah, all available as English/Urdu editions.
Extremely popular in my experience has been The Trouble with Gran, one of a quartet of ‘trouble with’ titles. Here the trouble is that Gran is an alien (in secret of course). But the trouble Gran causes on the Old Age Pensioners’ seaside outing is far from secret: she cheats in the Glamorous Gran competition and causes uproar in the amusement arcade before finally transporting the whole party to her planet. Both the visual and verbal humour delight learner readers and will most likely send them in search of more Trouble!
From bears Susanna Gretz turns her attention to pigs, notably one Roger, who is the subject of several titles, a favourite being Roger Takes Charge. Here Flo from next door tries throwing her weight about when mum is out; however Roger’s timely decision to take things in hand succeeds in making bossy Flo look somewhat foolish. Bubble talk is a distinctive feature in all the ‘Roger’ stories.
Jill Murphy is another artist who has turned her attention from bears to other animals, this time elephants; a firm favourite with learner readers being Five Minutes’ Peace wherein Mother elephant endeavours to get a brief respite from her demanding young family – a situation adults will be all too familiar with.
There are many things apprentice readers will learn through picture books, not only the messages both verbal and visual contained within the stories but also, through the bond with the author, a hugely important aspect of what reading actually is. The makers of such books – the authors and artists – are the real teachers of reading for it is they who show children how each particular book should be read.
Who better than John Burningham in Where’s Julius? to teach children something about ambiguity. Here Mr and Mrs Troutbeck, Julius’s parents, prepare one tempting meal after another but for Julius there is more to life than mealtimes. He is too engrossed in such all absorbing occupations as ‘Riding a camel to the top of the tomb of Neffatuteum which is a pyramid near the Nile in Egypt’. However, his flights of fancy engulf his somewhat staid-looking mum and dad as one or other delivers the next meal to the site of Julius’s current expedition. Burningham’s pictures nicely juxtapose Julius’s fantasy journeys with the straight-laced reality of his parents, thus offering an unspoken explanation for the boy’s behaviour.
One of the bonuses of using picture books with learner readers is that they are not so anxious to ‘get on to the next book’ that they never have time, or indeed wish, to return to a book they have already read. Many books are read over and over and those that can be read on several levels are especially valuable. David McKee’s Two Monsters certainly can; this fable has two monsters (one red and one blue) living on opposite sides of a mountain and having opposing views on dawn and dusk. Inevitably conflict results and the two hurl first abuse and then missiles at one another. The size and ferocity of both increase until the mountain is levelled and then the pair come to see each other’s viewpoint. Such insults as ‘And you’re a bandy-legged, soggy cornflake’ delight young readers; older readers may see the whole thing as a political statement; in between, there is great potential for discussion and all will enjoy the deftness of McKee’s touch.
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie is an unassuming little book that could all too easily be overlooked. A glass of milk to have with a cookie is just the beginning of a whole string of demands made of a little boy who attempts to satisfy the tiny mouse he finds at his gate. The pictures show the full implications of the apparently innocent words as they are unfolded by the narrator. It’s one of those stories you help to create as you read and its circular nature means that readers will very likely re-create it several times before letting it go.
If I had to pick just one book I couldn’t be without from the past few years, it would have to be the Ahlbergs’ The Jolly Postman. Initially this can be seen as just a novelty but it conveys a valuable message (and indeed one rarely found in books for younger readers): the envelopes and their contents delivered by that Jolly Postman, and an integral part of the story, powerfully demonstrate some of the varied purposes for writing. In addition, by their use of familiar fairy tale characters such as Goldilocks and Cinderella, the Ahlbergs reinforce and build on the literary knowledge of young readers. I’ve seen this book act as inspiration for many writers as well as readers.
It seems that it is at the stage of just going solo that series books excel. The `I Can Read’ series remains for me the leader in the field and two recent titles, In a Dark Dark Room and Surprises, are well up to the standard one has come to expect from the series; in both, the layout is impeccable. One of the best things about In a Dark Dark Room, a collection of seven wonderfully scary tales, is that it is suitable for a wide age range. Though aimed primarily at those in the fairly early stages, it will equally be enjoyed by everyone, such is the strength and excitement of the tales, from the familiar title one to the somewhat bizarre ‘The Green Ribbon’. Also excellent is Surprises, Lee Bennett Hopkins’ collection of poems whose subjects include animals, the weather, moods and feelings, and bedtime. Not in the series but from the same publisher (Heinemann) and in similar format, are two Amanda Pig titles: Tales of Amanda Pig and Amanda Pig and her Big Brother Oliver.
New to the field of solo readers is a most exciting series called ‘Jets’. There are six titles to date, published simultaneously in hardcover by A & C Black and in paperback by Fontana Lions. All the books have a highly attractive format with text and illustrations fully integrated; clever use is made of cartoons, diagrams, maps and bubble talk, yet all of them further the story and enjoyment of the books and, at the same time, offer different ways of reading within a single story.
There is a real feeling of author speaking to the reader in all the stories and it is difficult to single out any particular one (indeed I had two sets in my class of seven and eight-year-olds and, in response to demands of ‘Where are the Jets?’, kept discovering that individuals had taken the whole set, secreting five away in their trays while reading one); my favourite has to be Ging Gang Goolie, It’s an Alien, Bob Wilson’s hilarious tale of a scouting hero, Gary Wimbush, and his encounter with Grot, the Grobblewockian alien, though the children all seemed to have their own favourites. Incidentally some teachers may recognise Helen Cresswell’s Two Hoots from a number of years back. The two owls are still as daft as ever but the story is different and the telling much better.
You are certain to need several sets of these in every class where there are readers, no matter what their age. Let’s hope this high standard can be maintained.
Details of books mentioned (alphabetical by title)
The Cake that Mack Ate, Rose Robart, ill. Maryann Kovalski, Viking Kestrel, 0 670 81516 0, £5.50
Five Minutes’ Peace, Jill Murphy, Walker, 0 7445 0491 0, £5.95; 0 7445 0918 1, £1.99 pbk
Goodnight Goodnight, Sandra Boynton, Methuen, 0 416 97350 7, £5.95
Hattie and the Fox, Mem Fox, ill. Patricia Mullins, Hodder & Stoughton, 0 340 42337 4, £6.95; 0 340 48519 1, £9.95 large format pbk
I Wish I Could Fly, Ron Maris, Julia MacRae, 0 86203 254 7, £5.95; Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.735 3, £1.95 pbk
If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, Laura Joffe Numeroff, ill. Felicia Bond, Hodder & Stoughton, 0 340 39238 X, £5.50; Knight, 0 340 41095 7, £2.50 pbk
The Jolly Postman, Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Heinemann, 0 434 92515 2, £6.95
Knock, Knock, Who’s There?, Sally Grindley, ill. Anthony Browne, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 11559 0, £5.50; Magnet, 0 416 96060 X, £1.95 pbk
A Lion in the Night, Pamela Allen, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 11556 6, £6.95
Mortimer, Robert Munsch, ill. Michael Martchenko, Oxford University Press, 0 19 279844 8, £3.95
Mouse’s Marriage, Junko Morimoto, Blackie, 0 216 92386 7, £5.95
Not Now, Bernard, David McKee, Andersen, 0 905478 71 1, £4.50; Sparrow, 0 09 924050 5, £2.50 pbk; and also published by Ingham Yates in Bengali, Gujarati and Urdu dual-language versions, £5.95 each
One Rich Rajah, Sheila Front, ill. Charles Front, Andre Deutsch, 0 233 981012, £5.95; 0 233 98252 3, £2.95 pbk; paperbacks also available in Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu dual-language versions, £2.95 each
The Quail’s Egg, Joanna Troughton, Blackie, 0 216 92397 2, £6.95
Roger Takes Charge, Susanna Gretz, Bodley Head, 0 370 30778 7, £5.50
Rosie’s Walk, Pat Hutchins, Bodley Head, 0 370 00794 8, £5.50; also available in Greek, Turkish and Urdu dual-language editions, £5.95 each
Tales of Amanda Pig, (0 434 94715 6) and Amanda Pig and her Big Brother Oliver (0 434 94713 X), Jean Van Leeuwen, ill. Ann Schweniger, Heinemann, £5.95 each
This is the Bear, Sarah Hayes, ill. Helen Craig, Walker, 0 7445 0482 1, 0.95; 0 7445 0969 6, £1.99 pbk
The Trouble with Gran, Babette Cole, Heinemann, 0 434 93296 5, £5.95; Picture Lions, 0 00 662873 7, £1.95 pbk
Two Monsters, David McKee, Andersen, 0 86264 122 5, £4.95; Beaver, 0 09 945530 7, £2.50 pbk
Where’s Julius?, John Burningham, Cape, 0 224 024116, £5.95; Picture Piper, 0 330 30168 3, £2.50 pbk
Where’s Spot?, Eric Hill, Heinemann, 0 434 94288 X, £5.95; Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.420 6, £3.95 pbk; also published by Baker Books in Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu and Turkish dual-language versions at £6.95 each
I Can Read series, Heinemann, £5.95 each:
In a Dark Dark Room, Alvin Schwartz, ill. Dirk Zimmer, 0 434 94403 3
Surprises, collected by Lee Bennett Hopkins, ill. Megan Lloyd, 0 434 94404 1
Jets series, A & C Black, £3.95 each; Fontana Young Lions, £1.50 each pbk:
Desperate for a Dog, Rose Impey and Jolyne Knox, 0 7136 2980 0; 0 00 673007 8 pbk
Free with Every Pack, Robin Kingsland, 0 7136 2983 5; 0 00 673005 1 pbk
Ging Gang Goolie, It’s an Alien, Bob Wilson, 0 7136 3000 0; 0 00 673004 3 pbk
Hiccup Harry, Chris Powling and Scoular Anderson, 0 7136 29819; 0 00 673009 4 pbk
Mossop’s Last Chance, Michael Morpurgo and Shoo Rayner, 0 7136 2984 3; 0 00 673008 6 pbk
Two Hoots, Helen Cresswell and Colin West, 0 7136 2982 7; 0 00 673006 X pbk
Jill Bennett is currently working in the junior department of a primary school in Heston, Middlesex. She is a widely respected anthologiser and author of the immensely influential Learning to Read with Picture Books (0 903355 28 0), which is being reprinted this autumn and includes a fresh selection of books published during the last three years. It will celebrate its tenth anniversary next year and cannot be recommended highly enough. It is available direct from The Thimble Press, Lockwood, Station Road, South Woodchester, Stroud, Glos. GL5 5EQ (tel. 045 387 3716) for £3.00 inc. p&p.