Learning to read is hard. A colleague of mine pointed that out when she asked that we relabel the "Easy Reader" section in my library's children's room. What kind of message are we sending to children who might be struggling with literacy that they should find the task "easy"? It was a good point.
Read Every Thing On It, a new book of verse by Shel Silverstein.
Go into any children's room in any public library in the country, and you will find that the section with the heaviest use is the one that holds books designed for children just beginning to read independently. You will find in that section some truly terrible books. Books with low production values, books with leaden writing, books with dreadful—or nonexistent—stories. These books are usually based on sound research into developmental literacy and very scientifically combine phonetics with sight-word vocabulary to scaffold learning, blah, blah, blah.
What is missing from these books is joy.
Mind you, there are countless wonderful early readers available. I grew up with Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad stories, and I can't count the number of children I watched tearing through Cynthia Rylant's books about Henry and his big dog, Mudge, or Mr. Putter and Tabby. When I was working with my own daughter in her beginning-reader phase, we discovered David Milgrim's books about Otto the Robot; one, See Pip Point, is as close to perfect as any first reader as any I know. It plays with the pedagogically sound formula employed by the hopelessly sexist Dick and Jane series in a way that is both extremely funny and entirely approachable for children taking their first baby steps into reading.
But right next to the many engaging, genuinely delightful readers on the shelves are scores of soulless basal readers churned out to fit the latest research into literacy acquisition and utterly devoid of any sense of fun. For a child who has experienced reading cuddled in a parent's lap, drenched in rich vocabulary and bathed in gorgeous illustrations, these wretched readers must come as a rude awakening. If this is independent reading, who needs it?
This is why I was so happy to see that Holiday House has entered the early-reader market with a new series called, optimistically enough, I Like to Read books. They're slightly larger than the common 9-inch by 6-inch trim size, and, refreshingly, each looks different from the other, avoiding the often institutional feel of the format.
See Me Run by Paul Meisel invites readers to an eventful day at the dog park: "It is mud. Splat-splat. Mud is fun." The completely unexpected twist at the end will have readers chuckling. Steve Björkman's Dinosaurs Don't, Dinosaurs Do combines an unlikely theme—manners—with a can't-lose cast of dinosaurs. David McPhail contributes Boy, Bird, and Dog, a winningly simple tale about a day of play in treehouse. And the father-daughter team of Ed & Rebecca Emberley give Aesop's traditional story a razzle-dazzle visual makeover with The Lion and the Mice.
This quartet does what those scientifically sound basal readers don't: Each appropriately uses controlled vocabulary and phonetics to deliver an individual story illustrated with care and designed to deliver the appropriate visual cues. They elevate the utilitarian format into the realm of literature.
And each one makes the hard work of learning to read enough fun to encourage children at this crucial developmental moment to try another one.
Vicky Smith is the children's and YA editor at Kirkus.