A few “early reader” books

OK, I admit it.

I’m stressed. I can’t work properly. This last day before the election (ARE YOU VOTING? VOTE!) is dragging me down and I need to fight that off.

The antidote to stress is books, in my experience. So let’s talk books. Specifically, let’s talk about my ignorance and learning curve when it comes to “early reader” books.

You see, my Changeling has learned to read pretty well, and is having a glorious time investigating anything in print. She’s having fun, and she has a lot of good picture books, so that part’s fine. I thought we were set. But I started laying in a few other books I thought she’d grow into, and she found them and started reading them, too, which sort of surprised me so I figured I should investigate a bit and get her some more challenging books.

Which is when I discovered that there’s a whole world of books between “high-level picture books” and “MG Fiction” of which I was shockingly ignorant. Those were the books I needed for the Changeling, and I didn’t know which ones were any good.

I happily threw myself into research and am sharing the results with you.

First of all– as you know, something I never do here is criticize books. I find the ones I consider the best, whether old or new, and I share them here, and I never point a finger at the books I consider… less stellar. If you want criticism and negativity, may I introduce you to the internet? But I don’t do that here.

And I’m not about to change that.

That said, I can’t stop myself from one little exclamation here: OH DEAR GOD, there are a LOT of… lackluster… early reading books out there! And, yes, the only reason the language I used was polite is because I know my mother reads this blog. I actually found it difficult to winnow through the early books to find ones I was content to pay for. Thank God for well-curated book shops run by intelligent, thoughtful women at 237 Washington St. in Brookline and here’s the website again in case you missed it the last twenty million times I’ve plugged them. Seriously, if you’re looking to sort through a whole whack of books to find the good ones: enlist help!

Let’s start with the books that started it all: Catwings, by the remarkable Ursula Le Guin, whose work I am now learning to love– sadly, too late to write to tell her so. I really regret that. (Let this be a lesson to you: read early and often and always write to tell the author so.)

Catwings.jpg

I found Catwings quite by accident at the Harvard Book Store. I asked a young woman there whether she’d recommend it for my five-year-old daughter and she hesitated and said, “Wait a couple of years.” So of course I bought it… for… some… reason…? I don’t know, don’t judge me. I’m sure you’ve done the same.

That evening I walked into my room and found the Changeling had rummaged through my bag and found it and was now fully immersed in the story. I quietly left the room and sat down, wondering what to say. After supper I asked her whether it was good, and she said that it was very good but Chapter 2 had sad and scary bits.

Once I recovered from the shock of discovering that my baby girl was reading Ursula Le Guin books I’d never read (I read it that night, and, yep, there are sad and scary bits in Chapter 2), I went out and got her the rest of the series.

People, these books are good. They’re solid, well-written stories, succinct without feeling truncated, and beautifully crafted. That goes without saying. But in addition to the beautiful structure and writing, these books talk about feeling excluded or included, finding your tribe, and what it’s like to be a misfit– all without preaching or being in any way didactic. The books, and there are four of them, are slender, but they sure aren’t thin: if you have, say, a Grade 4-aged child who’s feeling out of place in class, this is the book I’d choose to give them. It won’t change human dynamics, but it will help an outsider feel less alone.

In Aunt Lucy's Kitchen.jpg

This next series, The Cobble Street Cousins by Cynthia Rylant, came to me directly through Terri at The Children’s Book Shop. I told her that my Changeling had read all of the Catwings books and needed something similar in skill level, but it couldn’t be more dramatic or intense than Catwings or she’d get scared. (Seriously, the Changeling is a darling but has been known to hide during the more intense bits of “Elmo’s World.”) Terri said, “But of course she’s read Cynthia Rylant’s books…” I replied, “Um…” and the next thing I knew I was watching my little daughter bury her delighted (and delightful) little nose in the pages of In Aunt Lucy’s Kitchen.

Like Catwings, these books are slim, very quick to read, but more sophisticated than other books of similar girth. Unlike Catwings, there’s no shade of darkness. That said, Cynthia Rylant isn’t anodyne or boring. The tension and excitement of the books is a product of three little girls living and scheming together in their aunt’s home. Aunt Lucy is everyone’s dream aunt: sweet, encouraging, and wise (hi, Auntie Janet!). The girls are friends, and their complementary characteristics help them take their plans to the next level, but without danger of embarrassing failure. Altogether, the books are sweet and dreamlike, but with enough spice of personality to keep them funny and warm, not pretty and saccharine. And there are six of them! (These are probably the Changeling’s current favourites.)

The Hundred Dresses.jpg

I’m including this last book, The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, illustrated by Louis Slobodkin, not because I think it’s at the same level as Catwings and The Cobble Street Cousins (it’s a notch older), but because of how the Changeling and I learned of it and loved it together, so I think it’s a good “read together” book for this age.

I didn’t read this when I was younger, which is astonishing because I knew of it through my mother, who loves it and used it with her Grade 4 classes, and I really ought to have read it. But when my daughter first made mention of teasing at school, I remembered my mother’s words about The Hundred Dresses and immediately got it to read with the Changeling, and we curled up together on our comfy, cat-clawed green sofa, and accordingly read it.

It was better than I’d ever expected. Take a look at the cover up there: the illustrations exactly capture the book. They’re warm, somewhat fuzzy in detail, but nevertheless convey a sharp picture of events. Likewise, the book doesn’t say “the girls were bad and mean to poor Wanda,” but Maddie’s perspective conveys their casual callousness towards her, and makes it painfully clear how Wanda was driven away by the relentless teasing she experienced.

How much did the Changeling understand? Enough. She didn’t get the nuance of Maddie’s position, for example, being both inside and outside the teasing. But she did understand that teasing is cruel and that standing up against it is the right thing to do.

But, you know, that’s not the point. The point is literature. The point is that she was caught up in the girls’ stories and experiences and loved it enough to go back and start to read it on her own the next day. (I’m not sure how much of it she was able to get through on her own, but I was pleased to see her engrossed in it.)

So, there you are. Two series and one standalone book for early-to-middle-range readers. Books with depth but no preachiness, books with stellar illustrations and nuance, books with a touch of humour and/or thoughtfulness. I have more to tell you about later, but these are all books to carry us through the next few days, no matter how the midterms go. And these are all books that, in my view, stand against the tide of infantilizing our children. I recommend them all with all my heart, and I hope your children enjoy them as much as the Changeling does!

And, you know, I’m still looking for good books for her– especially new ones. Any suggestions are welcome!

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