source: Author donated books to the Reading Tub
Y’all know how I love helping new readers, so when I find a picture book that can double as an easy reader? Boo-ya!
Now, I love Cat the Cat, Gerald the Elephant, Piggy, and the Pigeon as much as the next parent. When it comes to beginners’ books, Mo Willems is to easy readers what J.K. Rowling is to middle grade fiction – just read it; you know it is going to be good. Mo gets a lot of well-deserved press and awards, but there are other authors people should be talking about … and reading their books. Wendy Wax and her Arlo series fall in that category.
The world of children’s books is filled with all kinds of animals, but mostly common, everyday ones. There is a reason for that. When kids are learning to read, having images they recognize helps them decode words in the text. Even if they can’t spell elephant, when the word starts with an “e” and there’s a picture of an elephant on the page, they can read it. I understand the why, but sometimes it is nice to have something a little more unique. Arlo is unique. For one thing, he’s an armadillo, and a cute one, at that. When confronted with fear or a need to protect himself, Arlo rolls into a ball … just as you would expect of any armadillo.
In Arlo Makes a Friend, Arlo and his family have just moved into their new home. His parents are busy unpacking, so Arlo decides to go exploring. The adventure doesn’t start out well, as Boris, a snake hiding in a tree, starts bullying him. Then he bumps heads with Jack, a rabbit who was digging a tunnel just like Arlo … but from the other direction. At first they didn’t like each other, but then they decided they needed to work together to deal with Boris. And so a friendship begins.
When we next catch up with Arlo, Jack invites Arlo to come out and play. Arlo looks at the gray, windy day and doesn’t see any possibilities for fun. Until Jack reminds him that it’s a perfect day for kite flying. The wind, it turns out, is too strong for Arlo’s kite, and it breaks away. Just as he and Jack head out on a search, it starts to rain. Jack turns back, but Arlo keeps going. He has to find his kite. He follows the string, rolling it up as he goes. Arlo was so happy to find his kite, but then he realized he was lost and alone, and his path was gone. How was he going to get home? He relied on instinct – armadillos have a strong sense of smell – and he used his to “smell” his way home.
Adam Relf’s illustrations are engaging and colorful. The characters are simply drawn (coloring-book style), and the background are what backgrounds should be for this audience – large swaths of color. There is enough to keep a young listener exploring what’s happening in the page while you read, but not too enough to overpower their senses. The images complement the story, but don’t give anything away or take it over.
Both books are filled with life lessons for young kids. Wendy Wax has done a masterful job creating a character in whom kids will see themselves, and also offering parents books with life lessons in stories that don’t beat them over the head with the message. Arlo is a curious and adventurous … just like them; he gets afraid … just like them; and he makes some of the same bad decisions … just like them. What Arlo shows kids by his actions is that there are different ways to solve problems. Sometimes you have to do it yourself, sometimes it takes teamwork.
Each story has several layers, and parents can draw out the ones that they want. For example, in Arlo Makes a Friend, our little armadillo has moved into a new house and is feeling lonely because he doesn’t have friends. If the scene fits, you can build from it to talk about how the friendship with Jack comes about; or you can just talk about friendship. One of the undercurrent themes is bullying … you decide how much you want to extract from the book. Both books open the door for parents to talk about safety and the dangers of wandering away.
The other thing I like about the books is that the stories have natural “stopping points” where you can ask questions (prediction, feelings): how would you feel if your kite string broke? how can you help a friend when they feel sad? what can Arlo do to get home safely?
These are fictional tales, but Arlo shares some uniquely armadillo traits. These little nuggets are a great start for teaching kids about animals. Whether it’s a nonfiction picture book or a trip to the zoo, you can easily extend the stories by adding these kinds of connections.
If you like books that will grow with kids and take them in new directions as they learn to read, this is the series for you. Arlo Makes a Friend and Arlo Gets Lost are wonderful stories to share with your preschooler or to have your first grader read to his/her younger siblings. Highly recommended for your personal library, as well as school and public libraries.
School Library Journal reviewed Arlo Gets Lost, you can read their review on Amazon.com.
Susan Heim on Parenting (March 2010)