April 26, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Great Beginnings | Books for Emergent Readers

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Like all youngsters, kids learning to read benefit from exposure to high-quality titles that blend well-written narratives with eye-catching illustrations. Formatted to support the needs of emergent readers, these offerings also capture the interest and imaginations of their audience with enticing subject matter and stirring storytelling. Use them to implement core standards by improving reading fluency; encouraging students to explore characterization, setting, plot, and point of view; and initiating discussion of key details and themes in a text. Children will return to these appealing books again and again, fortifying literacy skills while forging a lifelong love for reading.

Short Texts Go Far

Utilizing only a handful or words each, these offerings rely on carefully chosen vocabulary, descriptive artwork, and well-executed book designs to convey their stories. The spare narratives, supported by clues in the illustrations, can be efficiently decoded and mastered, building readers’ confidence and encouraging them to think about the interplay between text and image.

The power of words resonates throughout Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s picture book, Bully (Roaring Brook/Neal Porter, 2013; PreS-Gr 2). Told to “GO AWAY!” by an adult bull, a young bull turns his anger on the animals that ask him to play, derogatorily shouting out their names (“CHICKEN!” or “PIG!”) and hurling insults (e.g., “YOU STINK!” to a skunk). With each outburst, the aggressor looms larger on the page, until his face—and his fury—fill the spread. Finally, a billy goat confronts him and tells it like it is (“BULLY!”). Realization sets in, and the protagonist deflates balloon-style to normal size before offering a tearful, “Sorry,” and amity is reached.

Depicting animals with expressive features and eloquent body language, the vibrant artwork helps readers decipher the story’s emotional connotations along with the text. Lighthearted visual touches and gentle humor (readers can’t help but smile at the double entendres) keep the message from becoming heavy-handed. A deceptively simple take on an important issue, this book encourages children to think about the interactions between the characters and opens the door for further discussion.

Using only five words (and one sound effect), Andy Pritchett cleverly relates the adventures of a lively long-eared pup and his Stick! (Candlewick, 2013; PreS-Gr 2). Wanting to share his newfound plaything, the pooch bounds up to a cow, emitting a gleeful “Stick?”, but the bovine responds by identifying his own favorite object, “Grass!” After things go no better with a bird (“Worm!”) and a pig (“Mud!”), the downcast dog tosses away his treasure. However, it is promptly returned with a “CLUNK!” by a tail-wagging stick-lover who initiates a game of fetch. Cobbled out of simple shapes, the cartoon characters are set against clean sherbet-hued backdrops, keeping the focus on the action and the single-word dialogue balloons. Kids will appreciate the story’s sparkling moment of making a new “Friend.”

Two entries in Holiday House’s “I Like to Read” series also employ minimal word counts. Beginning with the image of a bright-eyed boy, Ted Lewin inspires youngsters to Look! at and admire a variety of African animals. On each spread, the text follows the same sentence structure (“Look! An elephant eats” or “Look! A gorilla hides”), helping readers to anticipate and decode. Infused with sparkling light, the gorgeous full-bleed watercolors offer realistic depictions of the critters in their natural habitats, telegraphing information about their way of life. The youngster reappears at book’s end to interact with toy versions of the animals (“Look! A boy plays./A boy reads./A boy dreams”) adding another story element for readers to discover and interpret.

Bob Barner’s I Have a Garden is narrated by a sprightly white pooch, who repeatedly parallels the title phrase to highlight the living things that dwell in this flower-bejeweled locale (“I have a frog in my garden”). Each is clearly introduced in the stylized artwork, which bursts with warm earth tones, flowing lines, and effervescent energy. Surrounded by these smiling inhabitants on the closing spread, the pup creates a lovely sense of community with his final variation on the title: “We have a garden” (youngsters can be prompted to identify each character and revisit the text to locate the appropriate word).

Paul Meisel’s mischievous mutts returns in See Me Dig (all Holiday House, 2013; PreS-Gr 2), an easy reader that utilizes limited vocabulary and very short sentences but takes it to the next level with a more complex plot and surprising twists and turns. Members of this canine crew love to dig, and their frenzied activity earns them the ire of forest animals, leads to the unearthing of a treasure chest (and release of pirate ghosts), and ends with an encounter with a kindred spirit (a construction excavator).

Packed with humor and dynamic detail, the cartoon artwork masterfully supports and expands the text. Simple yet satisfying, this funny romp can be used to discuss story elements (including setting, characters, and major events) and boost the confidence of novice readers.

Enticing Easy Chapter Books

New readers with a bit of experience under their belts will be ready for these more challenging offerings which feature longer stories divided into chapters, more complex sentence structures, and wider-ranging vocabulary.

In Monkey and Elephant Get Better (Candlewick, 2013; K-Gr 2), two endearing characters return to once again discover that despite their differences, they will always remain best buddies. When Elephant comes down with a cold, Monkey tries her best to take care of him (though she is surprised that instead of sipping the water and resting on the hay she provides, the pachyderm wets the hay and slaps it on his head). Next, Monkey gets sick, and Elephant is equally compassionate (and just as astounded by Monkey’s idea of making herself comfortable).

The book ends with a celebration of individuality and friendship, as each entertains the other with his or her special skill (trunk-trumpeting or rock juggling). Carole Lexa Schaefer adeptly uses repeated phrases in the dialogue while retaining a strong narrative voice for each character. Galia Bernstein’s aqua-marine elephant and purple monkey are real charmers, and their shared affection shines through in each illustration.

When a batch of banana muffins is stolen from a stand at the Mango Market, Murilla Gorilla: Jungle Detective (Simply Read, 2013; K-Gr 2) is hired to solve the mystery. Though perhaps not the most single-minded investigator (indulging in frequent nap-taking and lemonade-sipping breaks), Murilla follows a trail of clues and even dons a disguise to eventually apprehend the perpetrator.

Energized by Jennifer Lloyd’s straightforward text, Jacqui Lee’s expressionistic candy-hued artwork, and the hilarious missteps of the protagonist, readers will likely crack the case long before Murilla, adding a feeling of sleuthing success to the sweet satisfaction of completing an entire book.

A second adventure about identical twin sisters, Grace Lin’s Ling & Ting Share a Birthday (Little, Brown, 2013; K-Gr 2) stars two siblings who look alike but are each unique. Six tales (the table of contents presents the story titles on the layers of a towering pink birthday cake) illustrate how the girls are different (for example, Ling carefully follows a recipe to make a tasty cake while Ting rushes through and forgets to add flour—“Yuck!”), but always manage to appreciate and look after one another (Ling happily shares her cake with Ting).

Deftly depicting the action along with the siblings’ emotions, the sweet-and-nostalgic gouache artwork supports the narrative, which employs take-your-time pacing and reassuring repetition. Have youngsters identify the similarities and differences between the protagonists and use details to discuss how the author creates strong characterizations in both text and pictures.

Stretch those Reading Muscles

In her second tale about a “busy, busy, busy” character, Lisa Moser describes the giggle-inducing happenings of Squirrel’s Fun Day (Candlewick, 2013; K-Gr 3). Looking to share new adventures, the peppy protagonist calls on his friends, but Mouse is too busy sweeping, Turtle is reluctant to leave his comfy log, and Rabbit doesn’t want to stray from his set-in-stone ways. Though at first hesitant, the critters eventually step out of their comfort zones, and each episode culminates with a smile. Later on, the rodent makes the rounds with thank-you flowers, but the other animals are nowhere to be found (“oh, oh, oh…My friends did not have fun”). Never fear, a surprise is in store for Squirrel, along with a satisfying ending.

Presented in four lengthier chapters, the text is propelled by the protagonist’s repetitive dialogue and boundless energy. Valeri Gorbachev’s summer-day watercolors depict the entertaining highpoints of each escapade. Have students take a closer look at details in the narrative and illustrations to compare and contrast Squirrel’s interactions with the various characters. What does the story say about friendship?

Part of David Macaulay’s stellar nonfiction series, Toilet: How It Works (Roaring Brook/David Macaulay Studio, 2013; Gr 2-5) plumbs the depths of this fascinating household essential. From the origins and processing of waste in the human body, to the workings of the porcelain apparatus, to the details of septic tanks, citywide sewer systems, and wastewater treatment plants, the clearly written text presents the basics in a format perfectly attuned to newly proficient readers.

The crisp ink-and-watercolor artwork brims with engaging humor (a lineup of folks wait near a bathroom door or a fuzzy pooch watches his bone take the plunge) while also expanding upon the narrative (solid information is provided through labelled diagrams, cutaways, and magnified insets). Scientific terminology is featured throughout and defined in a glossary, and the index can be used to help readers practice fact-seeking skills. A riveting read, this book also encourages youngsters to develop the tools need to navigate informational texts.

Read One and Reach for Another

These recent additions to well-established series will captivate established fans and earn new followers. In Fly Guy and the Frankenfly (Scholastic/Cartwheel, 2013; PreS-Gr 2), the google-eyed boy and his intrepid insect pal return to play monsters on “a dark and stormy night.” Their activities set the scene for Buzz to have a nightmare about Fly Guy constructing and zapping to life a gargantuan fly fiend. Tedd Arnold’s zany cartoons and concise text keep the action—and the laughs—coming, just in time for Halloween.

Mo Willems’s “Elephant & Piggie” series maintains its reader-winning streak. When a tearful Piggy runs up to Gerald, claiming that A Big Guy Took My Ball! (Hyperion/Disney, 2013; PreS-Gr 2), the elephant is determined to get it back (“I AM BIG TOO!), but stops dead in his tracks when he catches sight of the apparent perpetrator, a “BIGGY-BIG-BIG” whale. However, appearances—and size differences—can be deceiving, and three critters eventually find common ground and end up having “BIG FUN!” A delightful and insightful look at friendship, told with just a few speech-bubble words and kinetic interplay between text and cartoon art.

An elderly gentleman and his orange-stripped tabby continue their reign as easy-reader favorites in Mr. Putter & Tabby Drop the Ball (Houghton Harcourt, 2013; K-Gr 3). It’s summertime, and the two take a break from napping to play on the Yankee Doodle Dandies baseball team along with Mrs. Teaberry and her bulldog Zeke. Cynthia Rylant’s lively text and Arthur Howard’s enchanting artwork add up to an unforgettable—and laugh-out-loud funny—day on the diamond.


The activities suggested above reference the following Common Core State Standards:

RL. 1.1. Ask and answer questions about key detail in a text.
RL. 1.9. Compare and contrast the adventures and experiences of characters in stories.
RL. 2.3. Describe how characters in a story respond to major events and challenges.
RI. 1.5. Know and use various text features to locate key facts or information in a text.
RF. K.4 Read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.
RF. 1.4. Read with sufficient accuracy and fluency to support comprehension.


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Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.