a list of…five early-reader series with pizzazz

Mr. Putter and Tabby Paint the Porch, by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Arthur Howard

Mr. Putter is one of the sweetest old men in literature!  Balding.  Rumpled.  Bespectacled.  Pot-bellied.  He loves his cat, Tabby, as well as reading, tea, beautiful days, hammocks, and his dear neighbor, Mrs. Teaberry.

Every one of the Mr. Putter stories is a mixture of sweetness, humor, small troubles, and clever solutions.  His friendship with Mrs. Teaberry is a thread of kindness that weaves through the ordinary and niggling days of life.  Her dog Zeke and his cat Tabby provide slobbery trouble and quiet companionship respectively!

In this episode, Mr. Putter is feeling very chipper because it is a gorgeous spring day.  Yet…something is amiss.  Ah.  It’s the porch.  It really needs a fresh coat of paint.  Mr. Putter cheerfully sets out to paint his porch — pink — whith Tabby for company.  But, when a squirrel joins them, and Tabby chases it, the porch sort of “paints itself.”  What a sight!  It takes two more attempts, including a blue-paint-dog-chipmunk catastrophe, before Mr. Putter can finally relax on his beautiful yellow porch with his friends.

Arthur Howard’s illustrations are perfect.  Not cute-sy.  Not predictable.  They are artistic, warm, exuberantly colorful renderings that add tremendously to the tone of the stories.  I think I might have to say this is my favorite early-reader series.

Frog and Toad All Year, written and drawn by Arnold Lobel

This is the classic early-reader duo, and for very good reason.

Arnold Lobel invented Frog and Toad way back in the days of “See Spot.  See Spot run.”  He mercifully threw out the prescribed list of Words Children Can Read and instead focused on characters and stories children could love, paving the way for many of the great series in print today.

Frog is the calm, sensible one of the pair, while Toad is a bit neurotic, a lovable worrywart, a sweet-natured pessimist.  Even though these guys are about 40 years old now, they are not in the least bit outdated.  The stories of their friendship are funny and dear and ring as true now as they did in the 70s.

In Frog and Toad All Year, there are, as in each book, five chapters, and in this case they move from season to season.  These are some of my favorite Frog and Toad tales.  “Down the Hill” is the story of a careening sled ride for Toad.  “The Corner” tells the story of looking for spring just around the corner.  “Ice Cream” is a hilarious episode involving melting ice-cream cones on a hot, summer day.  “The Surprise” is a sweet, funny autumn story in which Frog and Toad both happily concoct a surprise for one another.  In “Christmas Eve” we watch a very-worried Toad anxiously wait for Frog to arrive at his house.

Lobel’s faintly-colored drawing of green Frog and browny-green Toad are not in the least flamboyant, yet are packed with personality and classic charm.  Seriously, you cannot miss with Frog and Toad.

Henry and Mudge and the Great Grandpas, by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Sucie Stevenson

Here’s another winning series written by Cynthia Rylant, and is there a larger series out there?  I believe there are a whopping 28 Henry and Mudge books.  Which means, if your child likes Henry and Mudge, there is lots of candy in the store!

Henry is a pleasant, red-haired, seven-0r-eight-ish sort of boy who, happily, spends a great deal of time outdoors.  Mudge is his massive, 180-pound dog and constant companion.  Slobbery.  Large.  Lovable.  Good for cuddling.  These two star in light-hearted, warm, adventures galore, from first snowfalls to camp-outs, to sick days and spy clubs.  The stories are grounded in realism — Mudge does not talk; their adventures are believable;  Henry’s parents are involved in his life.

The story of Henry and Mudge and the Great Grandpas is a delightful account of inter-generational friendship.  Henry visits his Great-Grandpa Bill in a senior’s residence — but this is not your standard nursing home.  It’s a big ol’ house with a wide front porch surrounded by green lawn, and occupied by a bunch of grandpas.  Grandpas who play croquet and checkers and love feeding mints to Mudge.  While visiting, Henry explores the adjacent woods and finds a pond.  Amazingly, all the grandpas decide to join Henry and his dad for a swim in the pond — in their skivvies!  The day turns into a beautiful, sunny day of splashing, sunning, story-telling, and spaghetti-eating.  So lovely.

Stevenson’s pictures are bright splashes of liveliness that bring a wonderful vitality and warmth to the stories.

Good Work, Amelia Bedelia, by Peggy Parish, pictures by Lynn Sweat

Amelia Bedelia is another classic character, born in the early 1960s, who makes kids laugh while they learn to read.

Amelia Bedelia, the housemaid for Mr. and Mrs. Rogers, is a literalist.  Figures of speech are taken at face value by Amelia, which results in crazy mix-ups such as putting sponges in the sponge cake, dressing the chicken in frilly clothing, and pitching the tent — as in flinging it off into the woods!  It is amazing how topsy-turvy things can get with Amelia Bedelia around!

Amelia tickles our funny bones because the situations get so ridiculous.  We hear Mr. Rogers tell her to “oh, go fly a kite” and we groan, knowing that Amelia is about to head out doors with some kite string!  We listen to Mrs. Rogers give instructions about punching down the bread, and we anticipate the silly scene that will ensue.  It is rather a smug feeling to know more than someone else, and we always know more than either Amelia or the Rogers do.

Peggy Parish wrote about a dozen Amelia Bedelia books.  After her death, her nephew began writing more Amelia stories.  The illustrators for these books have changed through the years as well, but all of the stories about the grown-up Amelia have a similar look.  There are some new stories about Amelia as a young child which I have not read, and which have a very different look to the artwork.

All the kids I know love Amelia Bedelia.  She may annoy the Rogers, but she definitely pleases kids!

Fox on Wheels, by Edward Marshall*, pictures by James Marshall

The “Fox” stories were some of my son’s favorites.

Here is a good helping of humor without any sentimentality, cute fluffy animals, poignant emotions, or moral lessons — just laughs.  I would put this in the same category with the old fashioned Loony Tunes cartoons, where one character — Sylvester, or Wile E. Coyote, for example — always tries to come out on top and is ever thwarted.

Fox is very likeable, though a bit lazy.  No mean streak.  Not outrageous behavior.  Yet over and over his plans go awry.  He attempts to outsmart the system and ends up outsmarted.  His littls sister Louise gets the best of him.  He is luckless in love.  He goofs things up.  He tries to be cool but winds up looking foolish.  We cannot help shaking our heads at Fox and his propensity for trouble.  I think Fox  makes us not feel so bad about all the ways we goof things up; how un-smooth we are at life.  His woes are never so terrible as to make us sad; always funny enough to make us chuckle at him.

In Fox on Wheels, little-sister Louise has a mishap while Fox is supposed to be babysitting, Fox works to overcome his fear of heights by climbing a tree, and Fox and his friends race their shopping carts around the grocery store with dire results.  For kids who may be bored by cute little mice, the Fox books have zesty plots and zingy wit.  They make learning to read FUN!

*Edward Marshall is a pseudonym used occasionally by James Marshall.  Thus, the great, witty James is truly the author/illustrator

James Marshall

of this series.  I read a humorous account of how this pseudonym came about.  “I wanted to do an easy-to-read book, but I was under an exclusive contract at a publishing house so I made up Edward, supposedly a cousin of mine from San Antonio.  One day an editor called me and said ‘we’re having so much trouble reaching your cousin to get publicity material, could you tell me something about him?’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘It’s very difficult for him living way out there near the crematorium with his eighteen children…’I just spun a whole yarn about this so-called cousin, and before I knew it, it was printed in a publication.” (“James Marshall”, Gale Literary Databases; http//www.galenet.com.)