I found myself recently decrying the lack of really great early readers among this year’s crop of books. It’s a perennial problem; early readers aren’t particularly sexy, so there are never enough really wonderful ones to feed this particular, critical need. And every time I talk about early readers, I find myself recommending one particular work of genius.
As works of genius go, See Pip Point is a pretty unassuming one. It doesn’t take your breath away, like Moonshot, The Fire-Eaters or The Race to Save the Lord God Bird. (What? You haven’t read these yet? Ooh, you’re in for a treat.) No, breathtaking it probably isn’t. But that’s part of what makes it so special.
See Pip Point is one in a quintet of books by David Milgrim that center around Otto the robot. Created for children who are just getting ready to make the shift from being read to to reading independently, they present stories of winsomely childlike characters written with very few words, which are repeated frequently, and illustrated with total clarity. They use the syntactical trope made famous by the infamous Dick and Jane books—you know, “See Dick. See Dick run. Run, Dick, run.”
The Dick and Jane books have been chucked onto the trash heap of children’s literature. They are boring, and they are also sexist. (Do you remember anything that Sally ever did? No, she always seemed to be watching Dick have all the fun.) But what people forget about the Dick and Jane books is that while they may have been dull and sexist, they were also pedagogically right on target. May Hill Arbuthnot took care to use words—just a few of them—that were easily sounded out by children who had a sense of phonetics and to repeat them a lot. This resulted in rapid mastery of texts and a feeling of great success on the part of the child learner.
Milgrim takes this principle and transforms the dull Dick-and-Jane formula into sublime, developmentally spot-on magic.
At the beginning of See Pip Point, readers see Otto the robot happily promenading by with a purple balloon. So does wee Pip the mouse, giving rise to the first page of text: “See Pip. See Pip point.” Pip and the text are on the left-hand page, while Otto and the balloon look back over the gutter from the right-hand page. It’s pretty straightforward and easy to decode. Little Pip’s teeny-tiny forefinger is clearly pointing, and it’s clearly pointing at that balloon. Turn the page.
“Point, point, point. Point, point, point. Point, point, point.” Pip levitates with urgency, his frantically gesticulating finger and arm replicated four times to indicate the physicality of his excitement. Turn the page.
“See Otto share.” Kindly Otto hands a beaming Pip the balloon, but—”Oops, there goes Pip. / See Pip go…. / Uh-oh.” Here a tiny Otto looks up at an empty blue sky; where is Pip? The text throughout is carefully calibrated for rank beginners, and it is complemented in every spread by pictures that interpret the action for readers and reinforce the meaning of the words. Every preschooler knows what “uh-oh” means, and they all know that when the main character has left the page entirely, it’s a real “uh-oh” moment. The previously arcane marks on the page suddenly take on meaning. Turn the page.
“See Pip go up. See Pip go way up.” Clutching the string of the balloon, Pip has been borne so far aloft that the lower half of North America spreads out below him, the curve of the Earth clearly evident. That’s funny enough. But it’s the last sentence on this page that cemented my adoration for See Pip Point: “See Pip go up, up, and away.”
Parents and grandparents of a certain generation know those words. This is important, as learning to read is not a task undertaken by children alone. Ideally, it happens in a lap—the same lap that cuddles them while reading longer, more complex texts aloud—and while the child reader is in the driver’s seat, the adult is there to help. The child sounds out the syllables; the adult (of a certain generation) echoes the child: “See Pip go up, up, and awaaaaay!”
I did this myself with my daughter, and I heard countless adults do it with their children as they worked together in the library. And each time it happened, everybody laughed.
The Gestalt created by the excited interaction of book, child and adult creates magic, magic that will help lift children into the world of independent readers. Learning to read is hard work, as I have noted before. A book like See Pip Point that is so elementary that very beginning readers can master its text, that has such carefully composed and paced illustrations and that is so much gosh-darn fun on each and every page—well, it’s a work of genius.
The tragedy of See Pip Point and the rest of the Adventures of Otto books is that every last one of them is out of print. Find them in libraries; do an online used-book search. There are other awesome early readers out there, and some of them are on our Best of 2013 lists. But I lost my heart to Pip years ago, and even out-of-print works of genius deserve recognition. Check Pip out.
Vicky Smith is the children's and YA editor at Kirkus.