I am incredibly excited and honored to get a chance to participate in judging this year. Along with four other judges, I will get the opportunity to select the Cybil award winners for both Easy Reader Books and Early Chapter Books. As a second grade teacher these are the books I use with my students every day so I'm excited to get my hands on all the newest titles and test some of them out in my classroom.
Over the last week or so I've been thinking a lot about the Easy Readers. I've thought about the Easy Readers from my youth and the ones that are popular in my classroom. In this post I will summarize my thoughts on easy readers which will hopefully help me prepare for judging this category.
What is an Easy Reader?
The Cybils website defines easy readers as: "those 6"x9" books designed specifically for children learning to read."
Harper's "I Can Read" series of books helped define the easy reader starting in 1957 with the publication of Else Holmelund Minarik and Maurice Sendak's Little Bear. Through the "I Can Read" banner Harper went on to publish such classics as Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad, Syd Hoff's Danny the Dinosaur and 100s of others. Award winning authors such as Betsy Byars, Katherine Paterson and Avi have also written books for the"I Can Read" series. Sadly they have recently begun to publish books based on licensed characters from movies and television.
The other defining series of Easy Readers also debuted in 1957 with the
publication of Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat. Published by Random House and founded by Theodor Geisel (Seuss) and Phyllis Cerf. Beginner books would go on to publish titles by Seuss as well as others such as P.D. Eastman (Go, Dog, Go!) and Stan and Jan Berenstain.
Easy Readers often use a restricted number of different words, feature large text size, short sentences and simplified phrasing to help children learning to read. Good Easy Reader books work with in these restrictions without sacrificing literary quality (i.e. they are not Dick and Jane books).
The Easy Readers that made me a reader
I can vividly remember reading a number of easy readers when I was growing up. My bedroom
bookcase contained a number of Random House's Beginner Books. Some of my favorites included Al Perkin's Hands, Hands, Fingers, Thumbs and Stan and Jan Berenstain's Inside Outside Upside Down and Bears in the Night, as well as a whole slew of Dr. Seuss books. The great thing about Beginner Books is the use of repetition in the text. A title like Bears in the Night is wonderful for a new reader because the text constantly repeats itself. The illustration also serve to aid the reader when trickier words such as window or bridge appear in the text. Using the pictures is a key word attack strategy for 1st and 2nd grade readers and the Beginner Books all seem to understand this.
I also remember reading a good deal of "I Can Read" books when I was in school. I probably checked out Alvin Schwartz's In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories from my school library 2 or 3 dozen times. For me it was all about the "Green Ribbon" story. I can still see myself in my 1st grade classroom opening up the book to the last page of that story over and over again.
I was also a big fan of Peggy Parish's "I Can Read" series Amelia Bedilia. I remember struggling through the first book quite a few times. I recall loving Amelia Bedilia's Family Album in particular. The horse racing cousin was (to me at least) a joke that never got old.
I was in kindergarten when my younger brother was born and I spent many an afternoon 'reading' many of these Easy Reader books to his blank stare or cries (he was actually a pretty good listener for an infant). One title that I loved above all others was William H. Hooks' Mr. Bubble Gum which was part of the Bank Street Ready-to-Read series.
The Easy Reader titles that had the biggest effect on my development as a reader were from a series of eleven books published by Benfric Press from 1959 to 1972. Written by William Hurley the Dan Frontier series of books used controlled vocabulary, simple sentences and full color illustrations to tell the on going story of a Daniel Boone/Davey Crockett type character as he leads wagon trains, scouts for the army, befriends Native Americans, builds a farm and eventually goes to Congress. The Dan Frontier series was probably my introduction to serialized storytelling. At the young age of 6 or 7 I was enamored by the long form narrative. The idea that characters or plot events from one story could be referenced in subsequent stories was mind-blowing. I loved that there was an order in which to read the stories, it made the fictional universe Dan Frontier inhabited seem real. In contrast series like Frog and Toad seemed to have stories which could be read in any order, events from one book did not really affect later stories. While the Dan Frontier stories are all self contained, reading them in order enhanced the experience. Today Dan Frontier is understandably out of print and copies seem to have been weeded from most public and school libraries. Much of the content is politically incorrect (both the gender roles and the treatment of Native Americans show the series' 1950s roots and have dated badly). Thankfully the PC police did not arrive in full force until a few years after I left elementary school so I was able to enjoy these books again and again. I have to thank my older brother for discovering these titles in our school library. He brought the first one home when I was in first grade (he was in second) and so began our quest to read each and every title. I can still see the spot on the shelves in the school library where I would immediately go to check to see which Dan Frontier books were not checked out. I think my father must have read each title to me 25 times before I started reading them on my own but thankfully he was willing (I actually think he enjoyed them as well).
Easy Readers in my classroom
In the twenty years since I was was reading Easy Readers, the category has made some
significant progress. That said, many of the Easy Reader titles of my childhood are still enjoyed by my students today. My students love the Beginner Books, especially those by Dr. Seuss. They also read a lot of "I Can Read Books" including Frog and Toad, Little Bear and In a Dark, Dark Room. I was so excited the first time I saw one of my students discover "The Green Ribbon" story and then immediately started showing the gory image on the last page to all his friends. It's a good thing I have about 8 copies of In a Dark, Dark Room because every year at some point one of the kids finds the book and then EVERYONE wants a copy for their silent reading boxes. The most popular "I Can Read" books in my classroom are the Biscuit books by Alyssa Satin Capucilli. I often have a good number of below grade level readers and the Biscuit books are perfect for these emerging readers.
Other traditional Easy Readers that have been popular in my classroom over the years include Cynthia Rylant's Henry & Mudge and Poppleton series, Ted Arnold's Fly Guy series, James Marshall's Fox series and Kate McMullan's Fluffy series. My students also LOVE Harriet Ziefert's fairy tales published by under the Puffin Easy-to-Read banner. My students (most of which are non native speakers) are less familiar with classic fairy tales so Ziefert's simple retellings and equally simple illustrations are absolutely perfect. I found a bound collection of these stories a few years back and my students read the binding right off the book (I have since purchased a number of copies of each title).
In 2007 Mo Willems published four of the most innovative Easy Readers since the 1957 release of Cat in the Hat and Little Bear. With the publication of Today I Will Fly!, My Friend is Sad, There is a Bird on Your Head!, and I am Invited to a Party! Willems forever changed the Easy Reader model and put his permanent stamp of the genre. By incorporating word balloons and other comic book/graphic novel elements into an simple to read stories, the Elephant & Piggie books became not only wonderful tools for reading teachers, but also hilarious books that students refuse to read just once. Nine more Elephant & Piggie books have been released since 2007 and there is at least one more on the way in 2011. Each and every title is a hit with my students. I've got two or three of each title in my classroom and I can't remember the last time any of the books stayed in their basket on the shelf for more than a few minutes before another students stanches it up for their silent reading box. For a long time There is a Bird on Your Head! was my favorite but last week Willems topped himself with the release of We Are in a Book! a metatextual, fourth-wall breaking, extravaganza of excellence. My students were so excited to see the new book I read it to them so they wouldn't have to wait to read it on their own. I am not exaggerating when I say my students were rolling on the floor with laughter. Next week Mo Willems is coming to town to celebrate the publication of the newest Knuffle Bunny book but I'm thinking I need to have him sign at least one copy of all 13 of the Elephant & Piggie books.
Since the release of Willems' Elephant & Piggie books, more and more easy readers began
to incorporate comic book or graphic novel elements. First among these new comers is certainly the Toon Books published by RAW Junior and edited by New Yorker art editor Fracoise Mouly. Toon Books feature authors and artists from the world of graphic novels and cartooning. The stories are all beautifully crafted and the art is always outstanding. Some of the more popular Toon Books in my classroom are Little Mouse Gets Ready by Bone creator Jeff Smith, Jack and the Box by Maus creator Art Spiegelman and the Benny and Penny series (three titles so far) by Geoffrey Hayes. My students also love the online Toon Book Reader where they can read or listen to all the books in both English and Spanish (or Russian, or French, or Chinese). There is also a comic maker where students can use characters, props and backgrounds from the books to create their own stories. Most of my students do not have computers or internet access from home but we use these resources a lot at school and those with computers take home the website addresses for both the comic reader and the comic maker.
Right now I am busy reading all the 2009 Cybils short listed Easy Readers and Early Chapter books that I had not previously read, hopefully I'll get a post up about early chapter books in the near future. Meanwhile please mark your calenders for Friday October 1st when Cybils nominations begin. You can nominate one book per category so don't be shy. Nominate your favorites from any or all of these award categories: Easy Reader/Short Chapter books, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Fiction Picture Books, Graphic Novels, Middle Grade Fiction, Non-Fiction Picture Books, Non-Fiction: Middle and YA, Poetry, and YA Fiction.
Visit Cybils.com to learn more.
You can read more about my fellow judges and the panelists selecting the short list here.