a list of…five beginning readers that are the bees-knees

Upstairs Mouse, Downstairs Mole, written and illustrated by Wong Herbert Yee

These two charming friends, Mouse and Mole, are neighbors; one lives in a little hollow of an oak, and one lives in a little hole underneath.  In many ways Mouse and Mole are alike.  They both like a tidy home.  They both like gardens, luncheons, swimming and boating.  They both are kind-hearted and hard-working. 

But…they also have some differences.  Different tastes, for one thing.  Worms might suit Mole to a tee, but they are simply revolting to Mouse.  Cheese is her preference, but just the smell of it sends Mole in spasms. 

With thoughtfulness and cooperation, pluck and smarts, Mouse and Mole solve their tiny troubles and maximize the good times in this delightful story, the third (I believe) of the Mouse and Mole series.  This is a book that walks in the footsteps of Frog and Toad; plenty of dear, warm, friendship and just a pinch of difficulty.  The perky illustrations are happily sprinkled about the pages.  Velvety-soft mole in his pudgy sweatshirt and spritely mouse in her twirly dresses are sure to pull you into their stories.  Great little series to check out.

Little Bear, by Else Holmelund Minarik, pictures by Maurice Sendak

This is the first in a  classic collection that every beginning reader ought to have a crack at.  Little Bear is a curious, playful, friendly fellow, brimming with questions, longing for adventure, yet still sweetly attached to Mother.  Else Holmelund Minarik was a shy Danish woman who created these stories more than 50 years ago, a great gift to thousands and thousands of children.

In this book, we get four memorable stories.  A story about the age-old trial of getting ready to play in the snow; a delicious account of Little Bear’s birthday; a fine time of going to the moon; and a storytelling session at bedtime for a bear who can’t get to sleep.  Each of them is packed with charm and gentle humor.  Vintage though they are, they have not lost any of their magical ability to connect with kids.

The Little Bear books are illustrated by the master himself, Maurice Sendak.  He has given us the frowsy, spirited Little Bear, the comfortably bulky and domestic Mother Bear, and numerous outstanding settings for Little Bear’s meanderings.  With his light ink line and very subtle tinting, Sendak has conjured up an immensely appealing, very recognizable, character.  Don’t miss these!

Zelda and Ivy: The Big Picture, written and illustrated by Laura McGee Kvasnosky

Zelda and Ivy are sisters.  Fox sisters.  Together with their friend, Eugene, they begin this episode by heading off to the movies to catch a pretty scary flick — “Secret Agent Fox.”  Although Zelda ends up most of the time quaking under her chair, the movie does give them the bright idea to become a trio of spies themselves. 

Equipped with secret agent names and code words they set off on their first mission…which somehow evolves into munching chocolate chip cookies with the neighbor lady.   Meanwhile, Zelda, the large and in charge older sister, comes up with a fantastic plan for an indoor campout which, despite all obstacles, turns out very nicely indeed for the three wanna-be detectives.

Great, humorous plotline, plucky characters, plenty of juicy words (imagine how halibut, s’mores, and voila! add zest to a beginning reader), and lovely imaginations.  Kvasnosky’s bright, bold, action-filled pictures lend themselves very nicely to the upbeat, confident mood of her text.  There are numerous other Zelda and Ivy adventures, and a web-site where you can print out Zelda and Ivy paper dolls, send in your own foxy artwork, bake Mrs. Brownlie’s cookies, or spin off of the book series in other jolly ways!

My Brother, Ant, by Betsy Byars, illustrated by Marc Simont

Betsy Byars, an amazingly prolific children’s author, and Marc Simont, one of  my favorite illustrators, are a dream team!  In this book, they’ve paired up to bring us a typical preschooler named Anthony (Ant for short) and his big brother, in four funny chapters. 

Anthony’s brother is the narrator of the book.  While Ant is a somewhat pesky little brother, he is met with a large helping of patient,  witty, helpfulness from his older brother and only a reasonably-sized serving of annoyance.  We see Ant and his bro dealing with a monster under Ant’s bed, addressing a scrawling squiggle drawn by Ant on his brother’s homework, wrangling over a humorous read-aloud session starring the Three Little Figs…or was that Pigs?,  and collaborating on an untimely letter to Santa.   Each account is nicely told with a clever plot and good humor.

Simont’s illustrations are understated, soft watercolors.  While nicely bringing to life the antics of these two, they forego the bright-and-cheery tone of many early readers, and in doing so, I feel the book rises in appeal for slightly older boys who are its likely readers.  Having had a son who struggled with reading, I appreciate a book that does not have an overly childish appearance and which incorporates capable, resourceful male characters.  Scope this out for your beginning-to-read boys.

Bink & Gollie, by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee, illustrated by Tony Fucile

Bink is the short one, whose blond hair bursts from her scalp like a dandelion having a bad hair day.  Gollie’s whole body is long and skinny, and when she speaks, she uses fancy, long words to match.  Bink likes her socks extremely bright; Gollie finds them outrageous.  Bink thinks goldfish are extraordinarily fine companions; Gollie believes them to be utterly unremarkable.  Beyond a love for pancakes and rollerskating, these two friends certainly have buckets of differences, but when the chips are down, they are happily adept at working things out and being there for one another.

There are 3 chapters here.  A sock-shopping bonanza, an expedition to the top of the Andes mountains, and a fish catastrophe, all intertwined with the highs and lows of Bink’s and Gollie’s friendship.  Fucile’s illustrations are outstanding.  Truly, they draw you into the book.  Using a sparse, black line with some gray fill, he sketches out a charming background, then drops the zingy, colorful Bink and Gollie in the midst of the scenes.  The graphic lay-out of the pages is very, very appealing. 

This book won the 2010 Theodore Geisel Award, given for most distinguished book for beginning readers.  It has won heaps of praise from many reviewers, including my own far-from-beginning-reader kids.  I must admit–I don’t completely get it.  It is a likeable book — fantastic in appearance, with unusual conversations and quirky characters — but it puzzles me a bit.  With sentences such as:  “Furthermore,” said Gollie, “that fish is incapable of being a marvelous companion.”   Or: “Here I am,” said Gollie, “where none but a few have ventured. What an extraordinary accomplishment.”  I’m a little baffled as to its audience.  If a child can read that why read beginning readers?  Certainly one way to enjoy the book is to read tandem-style, reading Gollie’s lines yourself while a younger reader tackles Bink.  It may also appeal to older kids who still read at a beginning level, as the illustrations and tone of the book are not as juvenile as many others.  At any rate, although I am not as enamored with this as, apparently, the entire rest of the planet (!) I am including it here because my guess is that many of you will love it!

Here are Amazon links for these titles.  I am an Amazon Associate, which means that if you click on my  links, and order from Amazon, I receive a micro-dash of the sales!  Thanks to those who do!

 Upstairs Mouse, Downstairs Mole paperback (Mouse and Mole)
Little Bear (An I Can Read Book)
Zelda and Ivy: The Big Picture
My Brother, Ant (Easy-to-Read,Viking)
Bink and Gollie (Junior Library Guild Selection (Candlewick Press)) (Ala Notable Children’s Books. Younger Readers (Awards))