In making my way through this year’s collection of Cybils nominees in the Easy Reader and Short Chapter Book category, I have been struck by three things. 1. the number of books that are part of a series; 2. the number of books that feature animal characters; and 3. the recurring theme of buddy stories. As I mentioned in my b0ok talk about Cybils nominees Elephant and Piggie, new readers like familiar things. Not unlike friends in the real world … when they (or us for that matter) go to a new place, we immediately look for someone or something familiar we can connect with.
With so many early reader books centered around friendship, you would think that they risk becoming repetitive. At some level I guess they are, but I have been pleasantly surprised by the variety of content. Sticking with the idea of animal stories with a friendship theme, I’ve selected a couple of our recent reads to talk about.
This is my first introduction to Bear and Mouse, and I am very happy to have made their acquaintance. Mouse, as a devoted friend, wants Bear to have a nice birthday. Bear doesn’t want to celebrate his birthday … he is too busy for that. So with each of Mouse’s attempts – balloon, birthday card, and a present – Bear is more adament: “I do not like presents. I do not like birthday cards. I do not like balloons. I do not like parties. I do not like BIRTHDAYS!” That is, until Mouse helps him discover that he DOES like his birthday afterall!
The illustrations — particularly bear’s facial expression — add to the story and create wonderful opportunities to pause. In reading this with my daughter, we talked about what we saw and I asked her about what might happen next (prediction). Although this isn’t a rhyming story, the cadence will remind you of Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss. The repetition is fun and adds to the story; the sentence length varies; and the story offers more than a few giggles!
I met Cork (a muskrat) and Fuzz (an opossum) last year. Cork & Fuzz: The Collectors was a Cybils 2008 nominee in the Easy Reader category. Theirs is an “Odd Couple-ish” relationship, where Fuzz likes to collect things and Cork who likes to keep things. Last year, Fuzz found some “rocks” that turned out to be duck eggs, this time, the object of his admiration is a green stone. When Cork finds Fuzz’ lost stone, he wants to keep it for himself. Cork tries his best to accept what happened, because he likes Fuzz; but he really wants his stone back.
All kids know – and often repeat – “finders keepers, losers weepers.” You never get the sense that their friendship is at risk, but Cork’s feelings lift off the page and tug at your heart. By the time they read this book, they have probably been on both ends of that situation, so it is easy for them to empathize with each character. Because of the way the story unfolds, their empathy is likely to shift back and forth between Cork and Fuzz. The colorful, rich illustrations really add to the story. They are well positioned on the page and vary in size, allowing for just a few sentences on one page and more text on the next. The story flows nicely, and this isn’t a “sterile” easy reader, but the sentence structure is pretty consistent throughout, with most sentences about five words. Many sentences repeat the first few words of the one before it. School Library Journal characterized it as representing the “authenticity of friendship.” That is absolutely on point and is what I like about these stories.
When I first met Houndsley (a hound) and Catina (a cat) last October (Cybils 2008), they were stuck in the house on a snowy day. Now, spring has arrived and there is nothing Houndsley loves more than to quietly paddle his canoe on the river. Catina loves to ride her bike. Usually, Catina talks so much that Houndsley never really enjoys the trip. When the wave rocked the boat, Catina stopped talking and she didn’t really want to go out anymore. What she couldn’t understand, though, is why Houndsley didn’t want to ride bikes with her. What they learn, is that they each have fears and that they need each other to help overcome them.
The contrast in the personalities is distinct, yet they are artfully woven into the fabric of the friendship. I like that the “events” that drive the plot pivot around a single idea that each character deals with separately and together. In Plink and Plunk, it is fear. For Catina, dealing with fear meant talking incessantly; for Houndsley dealing with fear meant withdrawal. Different manifestations of the same emotion.
This is a story pulled together by separate events. When I read the book the first time, I was puzzled by the “leap” between chapters, because Chapter 2 wasn’t a direct continuation of Chapter 1. They are short stories, but not quite, because they are dependent on details from the previous story. Once you understand the mechanics, though, this is a truly delightful story. Marie-Louise Gay captures the personalities so well. In my mind’s eye, Catina has a southern drawl and Houndsley a British accent. The tenor of their words as beautiful as what they say.
If I had to identify a consistent thread among these books, it would be that in each story at least one of the two main character helps another discover something about himself. In Houndsley and Catina Plink and Plunk, they help each other overcome their fears; in Cork and Fuzz, Finders Keepers, they learn that you can’t have a true friendship without compromise or respect; and in A Birthday for Bear, Mouse cajoles Bear to accept that it is Okay to change your mind.
In learning something about themselves, they also learn about the responsibilities of friendship. These characters are good friends to new readers, too. They not only let us enjoy their company, but they hold up a mirror, as well. Young readers will see themselves – and their friends – in Houndsley, Catina, Cork, Fuzz, Bear, and Mouse. Connecting kids with good books. You can’t ask more of a friend than that!
1. The opinions expressed are mine and only mine. They should not be construed as representing the Cybils.
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