Sure, I had heard of Cynthia Rylant before BalletBoy dove into the early readers, but I never really appreciated her work. Now I’m in love with it. Sometimes, I get this silly idea in my head that nothing new happened in early readers between the early classics of the 1950’s and 60’s and the moment when Mo Willems thought, what if a pig and an elephant were best friends? But it’s not true! In 1987, years before she won the Newbery Award for Missing May, Cynthia Rylant began her series of books about a boy and his enormous, lovable dog and they’re some of the best early readers out there.
It’s easy to miss them today in bookstores, where early readers are dominated by poorly constructed books about licensed Disney and Nickelodeon characters, but if you look at the hardcover early readers section in our library, Cynthia Rylant gets something near a full shelf all to herself, maybe a good eighth of the whole section just for her books. After creating Henry and Mudge, she went on to make Mr. Putter and Tabby, Poppleton and the High Rise Private Eyes. Now there is also a somewhat new spinoff series to Henry and Mudge called Annie and Snowball. My favorite is Poppleton, in part because I love Mark Teague’s illustrations and each book contains several little stories, each about the right length for BalletBoy in one sitting. I remember the first time we read the story of Poppleton being sick and making a mess as he sneezed. I broke out in peels of laughter at the end of the tale. However, all these books are great, each in their own way. She has even somehow made the tribulations of an elderly man with a cat into something compelling for 5 year-olds. And most importantly in the world of early readers, her books tell proper stories with proper plots. They know that the readers are young and have a small vocabulary, but still deserve a funny, well-crafted tale.