Finally. Finally! I’ve been waiting with some frustration for some publisher to make some more good early reader comics. The market is now swimming in amazing chapter book level graphic novels as well as many good wordless graphic novel options, but there are fewer options for early readers. A bunch have come out, but some of them are so insulting to young readers. Seemingly many publishers think that just putting anything out there with the words “graphic novel” on it is enough. I’ve seen a couple of decent individual titles, but the big winner up to this point has been Toon Books, who publish the award winning Benny and Penny titles, as well as many others, including my personal favorite Stinky by Eleanor Davis. Also, they have an amazing website, which is a nice perk.
But I just discovered some more great options! Balloon Toons is a newish early reader graphic novel imprint from Blue Apple Books. They have five titles so far with four more due out in the next year. Mushroom and I read a couple of them and we’re in love. Seriously. I have never seen him laugh while he read a new book himself. So this is a high recommendation.
The first title we read was Rick and Rack and the Great Outdoors by Ethan Long. The art is simple and bright with thick lines. It contains three slightly silly stories, a bit like reading three comic strips. That was good, but even better was the zany book Adopt a Glurb by Elise Gravel. The art was purposefully messy with a red and black focused color scheme. There is no story to speak of. It’s basically an ad for keeping the strange little creature the glurb as a troublesome pet. Mushroom cracked up when he read about getting the glurb tiny diapers and washing them in vinegar and cranberry juice.
I felt the need for a book review, but I’ve been nose deep in grown-up books lately, so I turned to something new I read from BalletBoy’s library pile. In the grand tradition of Frog and Toad, I bring you Mouse and Mole, an early reader series by Wong Herbert Yee at a slightly higher level than their amphibian cousins. Mouse and Mole are neighbors and friends. Each book contains a series of interconnected stories about their everyday lives. Mouse is exuberant and Mole is slightly gloomy. These books are a little below BalletBoy’s reading level, but he checked them out and devoured them then re-read them, so I figured there had to be something to them. The stories themselves are sweet and mildly amusing. However, I adore the illustrations. They’re just little pen and ink drawings with watercolors, but they’re very vibrant and illustrative. Toss this series in with your Cynthia Rylants and your Cowgirl Kate and Cocoas as another solid early reader offering that isn’t just biding time until you get to the “real” books.
When I spotted that the children’s section at our library had recently updated the comic books section with some new titles, I got all excited. Especially when I found two titles that looked appropriate for early readers, the Johnny Boo books by James Kochalka. I wasn’t familiar with these, but they looked cute, so they came home with us.
The illustrations are simple but amusing. One character, the Ice Cream Monster, looks like he wandered in from an episode of Yo Gabba Gabba. There’s even a quote on the back from DJ Lance Rock. Unfortunately, like that much loved Nickelodeon show that makes me feel utterly uncool for not liking it, I just didn’t get these books. The text and plots were too simple. There was a lot of dialogue where characters actually said things like, “This is fun,” repeatedly. It felt like something a kid would write instead of something written for kids. BalletBoy set it aside after the first one. He agreed that the Ice Cream Monster was funny, but I never saw him pick up the second book.
I’m dying for more early reader comics, but good ones. I know BalletBoy (and Mushroom for that matter) will be on to the world of Lunch Lady and Babymouse very soon, but until then, we’ve read all the TOON Books.
Summer reading time! The hilarious part of this is that what we’re doing for “summer reading” is pretty much the exact same thing we do all the time. We check out books and write down what we read in reading journals. I wish I could have grown up like that. I don’t remember there being “summer reading” when I was kid, but I do remember that I got to read more in the summer because teachers weren’t forever taking my books away or giving me worksheets that interfered with my reading time. However, I just told them it was “summer reading” and the kids got excited. Maybe all some projects need is a catchy title.
This year, the library didn’t issue the kids cute stationary to record all the books they read, so I made some and they immediately dove in. I was especially excited that Mushroom pulled out a book from his pile on the first day after we got them from the library. He’s my slower to read kid but I think he’s going to turn out to be my lifelong reader.
Another cool change to this year’s library program is that they’ve asked the kids to make their own goals with reading. If they meet their goals, then they can come get a little prize from the treasure chest. I’m all about goal setting. We do goal setting every two months when we update homeschool portfolios. The kids have to set their own goals, and while the goals often revolve around achieving a certain score on some Wii game, they also usually throw something really academic and often unexpected to me in there. Then they take it pretty seriously. They take everything about portfolios pretty seriously though.
I have more mixed feelings about the whole rewards issue – probably too many to put in a quick post about summer reading. I try to avoid them myself, but I don’t have a strong problem with other people giving them to my kids. Still, I didn’t tell them about any of the summer reading programs offered by Pizza Hut or Barnes and Noble or anywhere else. If the little rubber ducks and bracelets offered by the DC Library are enough, then I’m not questioning that.
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.
Okay, anyone reading this is going to think I’m obsessed with Toon Books, but I just think they’re so darn innovative. Poking around on their website, completely without me, Mushroom and BalletBoy discovered that they run a Benny and Penny blog that’s made specifically for emerging readers. It’s a blog for BalletBoy! There’s a new comic every week and a caption contest as well.
I got so excited by this idea that I went in search of other blogs for emerging readers. I could subscribe to the feed for BalletBoy’s email (yes, my kids have email addresses that they use to send messages back and forth to grandparents, mostly) as he’s always wanting more messages in his inbox. It felt like this was the same sort of excitement that would inspire him to read more the way that a magazine coming in the mail does.
Sadly, that was the only blog I found geared toward early readers. If there are more out there, my Googling was too limited to find them. I did find some cool blogs for older kids, such as the one National Geographic Kids runs. However, now I’m imagining all the different things you could do with a blog for 4-7 year olds who are just learning to read. Poems, coloring sheets, links to online reading practice games, nonfiction stories, book reviews of early readers… My imagination went wild.
When my brother was young, he adored the Berenstain Bears and I remember reading him dozens of titles about them. They were all paperback books with moral lessons. At the time, they didn’t bother me a bit. Being the book collector (or hoarder, depending on your perspective) in the family, we ended up with that collection of titles like The Berenstain Bears and the Trouble at School. Mushroom and BalletBoy were both immediately drawn to them when they discovered them on the shelves. But now, I loathe them!
They’re almost all dreadful in one way or another. The lessons they want to teach aren’t the lessons I want my kids to walk away with. The solutions the parents come to aren’t the ones I would use, but the way the book presents them implies to the kids you’re reading to that this is the “right” way to cure a bad habit or get over your fear of the dentist.
But it’s worse than that. The stereotypes in the family grate on me constantly. Sister is a little know-it-all. Brother is a good natured but rough and tough boy. Mama is a bossy micromanager who always turns out to be right. Papa is a comic oaf who always turns out to be wrong. They’re the Simpsons, except taken seriously! They even have a baby in the later books, completing the comparison. Of course, don’t get me started on the books that came along later. Thank goodness we don’t own any of them, but if you think The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies was a little preachy, you don’t want to see what happened to the series after Stan and Jan Berenstain’s son took over the franchise. Now most of the books are about God. If I thought it was annoying to have the Berenstain Bears tell me how to deal with birthday parties, I’m sure having them tell me what to think about religion will make me apoplectic.
The horrible thing is that at the same time that my kids rediscovered the books from my younger brother’s childhood collection, they also led me to a whole side of the Berenstain Bears I had never known growing up. They authored some of the best early readers ever written. Titles like He Bear, She Bear, Bears in the Night, and Inside, Outside, Upside Down rival any Dr. Seuss for their cleverness in using the simplest language to tell the most compelling little stories. Until Mo Willems started writing Elephant and Piggie, Old Hat, New Hat may have been the only early reader out there that would give me a genuine laugh.
I have finally called a moratorium on reading the lesson-driven paperback stories by the Berenstains. “Guys,” I tell them every time they ask for one now, “if you want to read that, you’ll have to do it yourself.” If it propels them to read quicker, at least they will have served some positive purpose.
Toon Books has recently come out with its latest in the Benny and Penny series. I was initially not in love with Benny and Penny. While they’ve won me over, they still aren’t my favorite titles in this series. That honor belongs to Eleanor Davis’s Stinky, a book that is nearly perfect in my mind. They’ve also just issued another new one called Zig and Wikki, which is a about science and at a slightly higher reading level. I already touted it to all my homeschool friends, but Toon Books has an amazing website with lesson plans, a way to use the characters to make your own comic panels and an online reader that will read the books aloud in multiple languages, including Chinese. No, really, genuine 中文! 真的!
I enjoy comics myself and my kids seem drawn to them in a way that they aren’t to other books. With the way that they integrate visual cues and written language, they seem like the perfect medium for teaching early readers. They’re also a wonderful incentive to read alone because they’re so difficult to read aloud without feeling somewhat awkward or doing a lot of voices. (I get embarrassed to read with too many silly voices. Also, it’s easy to lose track of how you’re doing each voice. Does anyone else have this problem?)
I really wish there were more series of comic book style early readers. There are a few beautiful wordless picture books, like The Adventures of Polo by Regis Faller. And, of course, there’s Mo Willems’s amazing Elephant and Piggie books, which are like very simplified comics. However, the only other early readers I know of are the dreadful Phonics Comics, which are the sort of early readers that seem to assume children don’t deserve decent books. The middle grades and YA markets are increasingly filling up with graphic novels. Even the chapter books section is getting more, such as the Lunch Lady novels by Jarrett Krosoczka. I can only hope that the trend is going to filter down into early readers and give us even more options.