One of the greatest joys for parents and educators is to witness, first-hand, children learning to read independently. This week, I’ve got several new and upcoming books on the mind that will engage emerging readers. Let’s get right to it.
I’ll start with my favorite of the lot, because it makes me laugh. Salina Yoon’s Duck, Duck, Porcupine!, released in May, is a set of three very short stories about a Big Duck, her Little Duck, and their porcupine friend. They are stories paced for beginning readers and feature dialogue in speech balloons. There’s a story about a picnic, a birthday party, and a camping trip. Yoon brings readers brightly-colored illustrations on pages with a thick, black border. In fact, all her characters are outlined in a thick, dark line, making them stand out on the page. This is fitting, as it’s a character-driven set of stories.
It turns out that Little Duck never says a word. Big Duck and Porcupine are busy talking and bustling about, but it’s the mute one who really knows what’s going on. (Isn’t that usually the case in this life? Those quiet ones take in a lot.) Furthermore, Big Duck and Porcupine are so busy talking that they often get things confused, and it’s Little Duck who saves the day. For instance, in story two (“I Think I Forgot Something!”), a memory tugs at Big Duck’s mind. She’s busy pacing, trying to recall it, and all the while Little Duck wordlessly appears with reminders: a gift, an invitation to a party, etc. It’s Porcupine’s birthday, and when Big Duck finally figures this out, she shows up to the shindig, proudly telling Porcupine, “How could I forget?”
This is the name of the game for each story: Little Duck is the straight man, while those around him are too harried to stay on track. And each story closes the same: Little Duck breaks the book’s fourth wall and turns to stare knowingly at the reader, as if to say, “Can you believe these guys?” It brings to my mind the classic Looney Tunes cartoons where characters would often speak to the viewer, though in this case Little Duck just stares. Somehow, this wordlessness, wrapped up in that deadpan look at readers, makes it all the funnier. I can almost hear a rimshot (badum-CHING) in my mind every time Little Duck turns to us. (I should note: The Kirkus review points out in detail the book’s attributes as a beginning reader; it seems to have been written by a reviewer who knows beginning readers well.)
If we go even younger—technically, Yoon’s offering is a beginning chapter book of sorts—there’s Toni Yuly’s Cat Nap, all about a kitten who wants to play and keeps the other household cat (the adult one) from napping. This one was released back at the beginning of 2016, and there’s a lot here that will engage emerging readers: Short, simple sentences; the streamlined, sprightly illustrations; a playful exploration of opposites; and the relentless energy of Kitten, harassing hapless Cat.
When Kitten suggests that Cat play hide-and-seek, Cat agrees – but hides as far away as possible, often trying to sneak in a nap while waiting, in the hopes that Kitten will give up and sleep will come. Yuly has fun hiding Cat all over the house, and she employs unfussy shapes and lines on uncluttered spreads to communicate a great deal. At one moment, when Kitten pops her head out from behind a chair, her head consists of merely a few lines and a dot of color for her eye. Cat, way atop a tall set of shelves, looks warily at her. Any child with an older sibling who refuses to play will find humor and catharsis in this tale of Kitten’s frisky, rambunctious energy. It’s impish fun. Until the end, that is, when Kitten collapses with a happy smile in Cat’s own bed. In fact, Cat looks right at the reader here as well – with a funny I-am-simply-doomed look.
Finally, there’s the new picture book series for beginning readers from Marilyn Singer and illustrator Greg Pizzoli. What’s an Apple? and What’s a Banana? are the first two books, coming to shelves in August. That books about healthy fruits can have child appeal in spades is quite a feat – and a testament to the award-winning creators. (Singer received the 2015 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, and Pizzoli received the 2014 Geisel Award.)
Picture books in rhyme are a challenge to pull off without boring the reader with too much of a static, sing-song rhythm. But, not surprisingly, Singer—as one of children’s literature’s most talented poets—pulls these rhymes off swimmingly, making this both a great read-aloud for those about to dive into reading and a good choice for those who’ve just learned to. “What’s an apple?” the book’s title asks. “You can pick it. You can kick it. You can throw away the core. You can toss it. You can sauce it. You can roll it on the floor.” Pizzoli’s illustrations (in both books) feature children of varying skin colors, rendered in simple shapes, demonstrating what the rhymes describe. I note the book’s sturdy, well-designed covers and spines; I think new readers will handle these a lot and read them repeatedly. They shine with a breezy, cozy charm.
Good choices, each and every one, for sharing with those first exploring the joys of reading.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
CAT NAP. Copyright © 2016 by Toni Yuly. Published by Feiwel and Friends, New York. Spread reproduced by permission of Toni Yuly.
DUCK, DUCK, PORCUPINE! Copyright © 2016 by Salina Yoon. Spread reproduced by permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury, New York.