By Elizabeth Wroten
On 13, Jul 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Wolf & Vampire written by Ellie Ann, illustrated by MJ Erickson
From the publisher: Wolf likes pie, fish, mud, singing to the moon, and most of all her family. On the other hill lives a vampire family, whom she’s taught to fear. One day, silver rain attacks Wolf’s house, and she runs, injured. Wolf meets Vampire, who has also been injured. She must decide if she should help someone she’s afraid of. Can they team up in order to save their families?
This is the third Castor Tales easy reader I got and it was as good as the others. There is both family diversity as well as racial diversity. Wolf is a biracial werewolf. Her father is white (he looks like a hipster werewolf, which made me laugh) and her mother is a woman of color (it’s not stated what she is and it isn’t obvious from the illustrations). Vampire is a girl of color (again it is not specified) who has two dads, one of whom is black.
One day while out and about Wolf’s family is overtaken by a silver storm. They scramble into a cave where they run into their rival, Vampire’s family. Vampire’s family has been chased out of their house by the garlic people. Just try not to laugh at the garlic people when you finally see them. They are hilarious and I think give an otherwise serious story a hit of levity. The story is about how initially the two families distrust each other, but after their concurrent tragedies the two girls bring them together. The werewolf family cleans up the garlic people and the vampire family sweeps up the debris the silver rain left. In the end they have changed their minds about each other and share some tea together.
There were two things that, to me, set this one apart. First, the language seemed a little harder. It still has the great repetition of the others, the list of sight words, and small word count per page. For whatever reason, though, some of the words used seemed just slightly harder. That’s perfect, the series grows with the reader. Second, it will take some background knowledge about vampires and werewolves for kids to understand what exactly is going on in the story. Nothing a little explanation from a parent or teacher couldn’t provide.
This whole series has been incredibly refreshing. Between the diverse casts of characters to the fantasy genre of the books they are really different from the usual early easy reader faire.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 23, Jun 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From the publisher: Petra’s the best archer in the world. They shoot high, they shoot low, and hit whatever they aim for. One day, soldiers come and offer them gold if they’ll do a hard job. Should Petra take it? This book is about using your skills for good, and features a non-gendered protagonist.
This another one of the three Castor Tales that I got and I like it as much as I like Rook. Petra is a talented archer who is approached one day by a group of men who want Petra to shoot a man. They try to justify the murder by saying the man is bad and Petra is a good girl. Petra responds with “I am no girl! I am no boy! I am Petra!” There are two important things going on here. First is the message of standing up to people trying to coerce you into making bad choices. I am not fond of books with a Message or moral, but I think it’s subtle enough here and empowering. That empowerment I think comes from the second thing going on in the story, the fact that Petra both declares that they are only Petra, neither boy nor girl. Petra’s power and strength come from being uniquely Petra. I am not positive, but I hope this story allows children who may be struggling to fit into gender norms a strong character to identify with.
It’s also empowering for children to see that Petra, a fellow child, is brave enough to stand up to adults who want to do something bad. It can be really difficult for children to stand up to older children and adults in order to follow their moral compass. So often we teach them to submit to authority without question. Petra gives kids a good example of someone being true to themselves and not being afraid to speak up and reject the authority figures.
Petra is then approached by another set of people who want help. At first Petra is frustrated thinking they want another murder, but it turns out they need help healing the sick moon. Petra is glad to help with that task and saves the day.
The art is very different from Rook. It’s a lot wispier and softer with a celestial feel that suits Petra’s ultimate task of helping the moon. It also gives the clothing and hair a lot of movement and makes the faces expressive. As with Rook, Petra is very simple and would be a great addition to classrooms and libraries with emerging readers. These books are not first readers, but they’re close. Nearly all the words are either simple to sound out or come from a list of first sight words. They range from 5-20 words per page and when that count is on the upper end of the range most of the words are repeated. For example: “I shoot the sea. I can even shoot the moon! Boom! But I do not. I do not want to hurt the moon.” So just to be clear readers will have to know or be ready for some simple sight words plus have some skills to sound out a word or two.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 21, Jun 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From the publisher: Rook is about a cunning young thief who takes whatever she wants. But one day, she steals from the wrong witch and she’s caught! The witch takes her in, and teaches her how to create, not take.
Rook came as one of three in a set of easy readers from Castor Tales. I got them through a Kickstarter campaign. The purpose was to put out easy reader fantasies with diverse characters. Last year when I went through our easy reader collection (you can see the stats here) I was unsurprised to discover it was very homogenous and focused almost entirely on talking animals and/or realistic fiction. Now, I’m sure there are plenty of kids who love those kinds of stories, but if we’re trying to get kids interested in reading we need to be sure we can serve all kids, including those that like nonfiction, fantasy, and science fiction. I think this is especially true for roping in reluctant readers.
When I set out to improve the collection, I struggled to find high quality easy readers that featured diversity in their genres and characters. It often worked out that I could get one or the other but rarely both. I gave to the Kickstarter campaign because I saw first hand the lack of variety and diversity and realized there is a need for books like these.
Rook was a lot of fun. She’s a thief with a pet corvid and, in the beginning of the story, we see her stealing from a variety of people. Then she steals from a witch, oh poo. But instead of a cruel witch, she wants to help Rook change her ways. While you could focus on the theme of making better choices or even friendship, I saw an opening for a discussion around society’s current obsession with consumption. Rook begins by proudly announcing she is a thief who always takes. But with the support of a friend, someone who wants to accept her, she is able to shift to creating. Not to sound like the grumpy old man shouting about getting off the lawn, but kids do a lot of consuming, particularly of online content. I think it’s healthy for us to have conversations with them about not only consuming, but also creating their own content to put out into the world.
Other great features of the book are bright and lively illustrations. They feel like they come right out of an animated series. I especially adore Rook herself. She’s got jewelry, henna or tattoos, a partially shaved head and dirt smudges. I appreciate when characters in picture books don’t conform to some clean, White ideal of what people should look like. Showing girls that they can be strong and beautiful no matter how they choose to look (or are born looking) is an incredibly powerful and important message we need to send.
The book also features a list of the sight words used in the story on the back cover. These are easy readers with some thought put into them. I am tired of books marketed as level one easy readers that have way too many words on a page or really complex spelling patterns. Even a classic like Frog and Toad is not for emerging readers. Rook has a few more difficult words that have more complex spelling patterns in them (“create”), but, by and large, the book uses simple sight words (as seen on the back) and basic, predictable spelling patterns. My own daughter should be able to read it with me in a few months (she recently started reading). Even the harder words are repeated so children will have a chance to see them several times in the course of the story. The text also cleverly repeats which allows them to draw on their memory and shows new readers that, while they are reading the same words again, the meaning has changed.
So, I definitely recommend Rook for classrooms and libraries that serve emerging readers. Unfortunately I don’t think you can buy them just yet. You can visit the website and Kickstarter campaign, but I couldn’t find anything about when or if they would be available outside the campaign which ended last fall. In the meantime I would suggest keeping your eye out for them or contacting the publisher.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 12, Jun 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Hamda has just become big enough to start wearing her veil like her older sisters. Each sister chips in with her own suggestions based on what worked for her. But it is up to Hamda to work out her own unique way to wear the veil making it a part of her active and happy life.
This is a gentle little family story about Hamda growing up and finding her place. It just so happens that for Hamada and her family, that means wearing hijab. It’s also a story about ingenuity. Hamada has to find a way that works for her to put the hijab on and keep it on.
Hamda is a funny and determined little girl who wants to be a “big girl”. She’s the youngest in the family and is finally tired of being told she’s too little to join her sisters in their activities. I think as parents and teachers we all know a couple of those. After a little pep talk with her mother, Hamda realizes part of becoming a big girl is deciding to wear the veil. And here is where this book gets very important for American audiences. This is not something Hamda is being forced to wear nor are her sisters, but it is a really big deal for the family. They are exceedingly proud that Hamda has recognized the step that choosing to wear hijab is and feels ready.
Except putting the scarf on and keeping it on as Hamda frolics turns out to be much harder than Hamda thought it would be. Each sister shows her how she wraps the scarf, but none of their ways work for Hamda. When Hamda goes down to say goodbye to her father before he heads out to the mosque she notices his cufflinks and this gives her an idea for her problem. It’s a bit Goldilocks, a bit Rosie Revere (or any of those inspired girl books).
The one thing I can’t decide about is the fact that religion is not mentioned in relation to the hijab. I suspect this is because the book was originally published in Arabic for a Muslim and/or Arab audience that would have assumed the characters were Muslim or at least understood where the tradition comes from. I don’t think it will be confusing for American children unfamiliar with Islamic practices, but I do think it will be important to point out that they are Muslim so the connection is made with average families and Islam. I found it rather refreshing that they weren’t overly or overtly religious. Not all Muslims are, just as not all Christian are, so I think it’s only fair to show them being Muslim in a range of ways just as Christians are in children’s books.
From a purely reading level perspective this is a worthwhile book to have on the shelf . It is certainly an easy reader in that it has large font, repetitive text, and is fairly short. But it has chapters and a story that carries across those chapters, so in a lot of ways if feels like a beginning chapter book instead of an easy reader.
A few words about the illustrations. They are, as you can see from the cover, quite adorable. Each page has at least one spot illustration and quite a few illustrations spread across the bottom of two pages or are full bleed across the spreads. It’s just another way that the book helps those emerging readers. Hamda is absolutely adorable with her secret smile and curly hair. She looks a bit mischievous, actually. Her mother has some wild red hair and her sisters are all lovely girls, but Hamda steals the show. The pictures are all in a more pastel palette, but they manage to be bright and inviting. Try not to laugh when Hamda tries (and fails) to copy her fashionable sister Jamila (which means beautiful in Arabic). The result of her tying scarfs together looks striking on Jamila and just plain funny on Hamda. I tested the book out on my daughter and she loved the story (we read it several times over the following days), but I think she really clicked with the illustrations and Hamda.
I don’t think this is technically a small press publication, but it was originally put out in Arabic (in the Emirates) and was then translated and brought over to the UK market (as far as I can tell), so I fudged it. I cannot recommend My Own Special Way enough for all library and classroom collections that have easy readers and early chapter books. It’s a gentle little family story that shows a side of Islam and Arabs we don’t normally see. It’s also a perfect transitional book for kids moving from easy readers into chapters or for those kids that want to look like they’re a big kid reading a chapter book.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 23, Nov 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Freckleface and her best friend, Windy Pants Patrick, each have something secret in their backpacks: sticky, gooey gum and a squished, messy donut. When it comes time to pull their homework from their backpacks to hand in to the teacher, suddenly their snack choices seem like a really bad idea.
From Goodreads: Everyone’s favorite red-haired seven-year-old has a loose tooth! And if it comes out at school, she gets a special prize from the nurse. But what if it doesn’t budge before the bell rings? Kids who are at the stage of wiggly teeth will laugh along as they read this light and funny story about Freckleface’s pursuit of the ultimate loose-tooth prize.
So this is a cute little series. It’s a good addition to the actually-easy, easy readers (although it still requires some reading skill and knowledge of sight words). I read the above two titles and one other in the series, but know that neither is the first in the series. I have not read the first book so I cannot speak to how hard/easy it is in terms of reading ability. My hold at the library was cancelled, but it looks like it might be a bit harder than these. It is not part of any of the easy reader series and the trim size makes it look more like a beginning chapter book than easy reader. While all the books appear to be numbered on Goodreads, they did not need to be read in order. They made perfect sense being read out of order and with gaps (I read 4, 5, and 6 but not in order).
The reason I picked these up to see about purchasing them is that Freckleface’s best bud, Windy Pants Patrick, has two moms and it isn’t a big deal. Unfortunately, they do not make appearances in Loose Tooth! or Lunch or What’s That? (the other I read) only Backpacks! Now, they could appear in others and I’m hoping they do, but what I loved best is they were shown right alongside Freckleface’s hetero family and it isn’t even really something of note. It’s just a stated fact, naturally part of the text, and the reader moves on. Perfect. This is exactly the kind of representation that I am looking for and am struggling to find. These aren’t gay-family issue books, they’re messy-kid and loose-tooth issue books.
All in all, the books are cute and funny. I wish we saw Windy Pants’ moms in more books (and they may appear in others, I’ll be checking before buying). The author and characters are white and I don’t especially need more of those books, but the illustrator is a woman of color (Vietnamese-American) and if Windy Pants’ moms make an appearance those particular titles are worth it to me.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 16, Nov 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Buzz Beaker keeps oversleeping. He misses the school bus. He wears his pajamas to school. He knows he can’t be late again, so he finds a way to win the race to school!
From Goodreads: Buzz is excited when a toy store owner hires him to sell science kits at her store. After trying a few different sales tactics, Buzz finds a hit with a science show with goo, but then he faces a new problem. The goo won’t stop growing! What will he do with all that goo?
These were the perfect little easy readers. They feature Buzz Beaker, a kid of color and a scientist. The books are also humorous In The Race to School, Buzz ends up at school in his PJs. In The Growing Goo, Buzz entices customers to buy science kits at the toy store by showing off some goo that ends up getting out of hand. A funny punch line at the end will make readers think and laugh as they get the joke. I cannot stress how much we need humorous books on our library shelves. They are what kids want and yet it seems they aren’t what is there. Many of our easy readers seem so serious! Not depressing or sad, but serious. And the ones that are funny seem to have a pretty sophisticated sense of humor (Owl At Home I’m looking at you).
The focus isn’t really on the actual science Buzz is doing. He’s presented as enjoying science, so much so that he is constantly late for school and wants to help sell the science kits at the toy store, but he never talks about his experiments or gets into jargon. I think this keeps these easy readers from getting bogged down in difficult vocabulary and concepts, so to my mind it isn’t a problem. Your diehard nonfiction fans might not buy into it or might give one or two a try. On the other hand, they might really relate to Buzz and his mishaps and inventions and get into them. Either way they should end up on your shelves if they can.
I know Ada Twist is a girl scientist, but for the kids who like her I would recommend these books to read by themselves. As I’ve said my library desperately needs to add more diversity to the easy reader collection. I also feel like libraries can’t have too many easy readers. They’re short reads even if kids are just learning so they need lots of books in that easy reader range to practice with. These are on the lower end, but feel more sophisticated, which seems to be a rare combination. Buzz Beaker is a fantastic option to add to your collection.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 07, Nov 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Mo Jackson is a small boy with a big passion for sports. He may not be the biggest, the fastest, or the strongest kid on the team, but he won’t let that stop him from playing!
I would call this a cute story. Mo is the youngest and smallest on his baseball team. He’s kind of bummed because he always bats last and he always plays right field. He is also pretty terrible at bat. Through the course of the game he thinks about how to bat well enough to get a hit. He also thinks he wants to get a home run. In the last inning and after two strikes Mo turns to hear what his coach is yelling and accidentally gets a hit. It’s not a great hit, certainly not a home run, but Mo gets to second base and bats in two other runners, winning the game. Mo realizes home runs are nice, but not necessary to win.
I loved that the crowd and players on the team were diverse. There are girls and boys and various skin tones. Mo himself, as you can see on the cover, looks African American. I particularly like that. It seems that usually these books feature a white main character and you see the diversity in the background.
The reading level is fairly low which is just right for those emerging readers (but not very beginning readers). I think I have first graders and some low second grade readers who would be confident reading this. There are a handful of sight words and a few more advanced spelling patterns, but otherwise it’s totally manageable.
My only complaint is that it’s baseball. We really don’t have any kids that play baseball right now (okay, maybe one or two?). I suppose they may enjoy reading about baseball even if they don’t play it, but it seems to be our basketball and soccer books that check out more regularly. Regardless, I’ll be purchasing a copy of this one for the easy reader collection. I would recommend it if you are looking to add diversity to that collection too, or if you need some easier readers or if you want a sports themed book.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 01, Nov 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Four friends. Three cookies. One problem. Hippo, Croc, and the Squirrels are determined to have equal cookies for all! But how? There are only three cookies . . . and four of them! They need to act fast before nervous Hippo breaks all the cookies into crumbs!
From Goodreads: Walt and his friends are growing up! Everyone is the something-est. But . . . what about Walt? He is not the tallest, or the curliest, or the silliest. He is not the anything-est! As a BIG surprise inches closer, Walt discovers something special of his own!
So Elephant and Piggie are kind of back. They introduce these new easy readers which have totally different characters and stories in them. Both books seem to follow that funny and successful format of the Elephant and Piggie books. The characters want to do something, but there is a problem. Everyone overreacts and then a solution presents itself.
I think kids will like these books. I know in my library we have to limit the kids to one Elephant and Piggie book per check out otherwise there aren’t enough to go around. The similar format will help pull them in. They have a similar sense of humor which kids L-O-V-E, LOVE. The illustrations are great and they have the same quality as Elephant and Piggie so I suspect they’ll hold up as long as those.
In terms of difficulty of spelling patterns and vocabulary, they aren’t for your very first readers even if they don’t have that many words in them. They’ll require some knowledge of spelling patterns like -ing and a good ability to blend sounds. They also have a fair amount of sight words in them. I would say they’ll work for first grade and early second grade and any low readers. Certainly anyone who has read Elephant and Piggie will be able to manage them.
I’ll be buying these, but they don’t feature any diversity. It’s all animals and grass. We don’t need more animals books in our easy reader section, but I know our kids will love these and I have to balance my desire to improve the collection with getting things I know the kids will go bananas over. Which isn’t to say there aren’t diverse readers out there that the kids won’t go bananas over, I just haven’t found them yet.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 27, Oct 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Andy is small. Sandy is tall. Andy is quiet. Sandy is LOUD. But when these two seemingly opposites meet at a playground one day, it might just be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Written in simple words and short, declarative sentences, this book is perfect for little ones just learning to read on their own.
So my own daughter just started reading a week or so ago. She’s been asking about letter sounds and sounding out words for a few months, but she really started putting it together about a week ago. And this has given me a huge new appreciation and perspective on easy readers.
When Andy Met Sandy is a really sweet friendship story between two little kids. They both arrive at the playground where one is new and the other is familiar with it. The see each other and dance around playing with one another because they are both a bit shy and afraid of asking the other to play. They visit different structures that can be played on by individual kids, but eventually end up at the seesaw. Since they both want to play on it they have to ask the other to join. Once they do, they realize they both wanted to play with each other and can have a lot of fun together.
As an introvert and kid who didn’t always want to join in with other kids, I appreciated that the story doesn’t have them miserable and not having fun when playing alone. They do realize they can have fun together, but it isn’t set up as bad that they played alone and worked up the courage to talk to the other child.
Andy is clearly not white, but it isn’t stated or obvious what he is. He has no last name, no parents in sight, and doesn’t speak in another language. It isn’t necessary to have it made clear and I think allows non white kids to read their own identity into Andy’s. I am looking for books that have diversity in them and this certainly fits the bill there.
Finally, the actual reading level. The text is easy. “I am Sandy.” and “I am Andy.” are the first two sentences, but they get a bit more complicated. Easy readers are supposedly designed to be read by an emerging reader, but I find many if not most of them are only for those with a fairly decent working ability to actually read. Children like my daughter who are just learning to read need a lot more predictability in the word/letter sounds (i.e. more short vowel sounds and short words, fewer digraphs and consonant blends). When Andy Met Sandy has some vocabulary that a new reader could sound out (phonetic) and use the pictures to help them figure out more difficult words. But, there is a fair amount of vocabulary that would have to be in a child’s sight word vocabulary (words like through, could, climb, yourself, etc.) or would require an adult sitting next to the child to help tackle those words. Some of them would also require a knowledge, either explicit or internalized, of long vowel patterns.
This is on the easier end of what I have in my library collection, but it still requires some ability to read. I do need books like that because they are few and far between in our actual collection (our classroom libraries have a lot more targeted and leveled books that help develop reading skill). Andy’s ethnicity and the sweet story also make this an excellent addition to any easy reader collection.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 13, Oct 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: A Quaker family living in Ohio in the early 1800’s makes peace with a Shawnee Indian tribe during a very troubled time.
This is actually a book that is on our easy reader shelf. On seeing it I immediately pulled it, worried that it contained stereotypes and racist content. Judging by the cover and style it looks like a book from the 1960s. It’s not. It was written in 1987. I will say upfront this book is not perfect, but I am leaving it on our shelf. Here’s why.
I was reminded of Joseph Bruchac’s The Arrow Over the Door so I turned to that book’s author’s note for good historical context and research into the actual events these books are based on. Bruchac did extensive research into both white and native perspectives on dealings between native tribes and the Friends (Quakers). There was an actual event similar to the one featured here and most similar to Bruchac’s story. The biggest differences being that The White Feather takes place in Ohio and Arrow takes place in New York and in Arrow the Native Americans come to a meeting of Quakers, not an individual homestead. The use of the broken arrow is also more accurate than the use of a feather.
I found some evidence that the book was written by a Quaker couple who were probably familiar with the story Bruchac researched. It has, over the years, become changed and exaggerated (as you might expect). Problems with The White Feather include the lack of acknowledgement that the Quakers were still taking land from the native tribes. And being kind didn’t exonerate them from this injustice. This is not a true story so the way it’s fleshed out is not as accurate as it could be. The historical context provided in the back is short and not overly informative. The natives all look the same, but I kind of think the white people do too. I think it’s the style? It’s pretty simplistic and not great art.
The story is, however, tribe specific (Shawnee) and accurate to the tribes living in the area of the story. Their clothing is close to what was worn (although maybe not totally true to the times they would have worn it (feathers I’m looking at you). Bruchac’s is also tribe-specific, but because of the setting it is a different tribe.
One of the first scenes in the book has the little boy making a war cry and scaring his mother and sister and their neighbors. He is very quickly reprimanded and corrected by his mother who angrily shames him “Abe, never, never do such a thing again! You know the Indians have always been our friends!” She later tells him they are worried because the Shawnee are angry over settlers taking what is not theirs and cheating them. She is nervous they will be targeted, and this is why she was frightened, but she is also makes the point that what the white settlers are doing is not okay and the Shawnee are justified in their anger.
In the next chapter Abe accompanies his father on a trip to visit the Shawnee tribe. There the father speaks with them “in their own language”. We are also told this is not his first trip to visit them. He has a relationship with the tribe. When the men of the tribe return the visit a few days or weeks later, they are not violent (although they do make a mess eating the biscuits and molasses the mother provides) nor are they unreasonable. They are a bit abrupt, but I think that has more to do with the fact that Abe, the boy telling the story, doesn’t speak their language the way their father does. The father provides some context for the children as the events unfold.
This would make a decent book to have a discussion around. It’s a little grey-er in the open collection. It makes me a bit uncomfortable, but I also spent the summer weeding our Native American resources and know that is a strong collection. Kids picking up this book will also be having conversations in their classrooms and will be exposed to all kinds of good resources and #ownvoices. The cover is unfortunate in that it makes the Shawnee look war-like and the white settlers look peaceable. If you read the story though, it’s considerably more nuanced. Like I said, it isn’t perfect and Bruchac’s book is much better and longer, but Bruchac also takes some liberties with the story. I think in the context of our collection it works. I do like that it provides an entree into Bruchac’s book and I would eventually point children interested in this book to that one. I would not recommend going out of your way to purchase this (but do go out of your way to purchase The Arrow Over the Door), but if it’s on your shelf take a look at the collection as a whole.