It’s difficult to overstate just how boring early readers can be. True, the genre is packed with dynamos such as I Like Stars and Spot and the Baby, and the unforgettable tour-de-force I Like Bugs, but overall, I find it frustrating enough to teach my kids how to read: I don’t want the reading material to make me want to bang my head against the wall any harder. Sorry. Did that sound bitter? These days I’m trying to teach my third child how to read and she will literally avert her eyes when I ask her to look at a word and try sounding it out. AVERT. HER. EYES!
There are two series I’d recommend. The first is the classic Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel, which consists of four books, all great. Lobel has a few good early readers under his belt, actually, featuring an owl, a mouse, and a grasshopper, but Frog and Toad are the best. They’re a pleasure to read largely because of the funny dynamic between the ever-pleasant, even-keeled Frog and the cranky-yet-earnestly-well-meaning Toad. My two eldest kids were lucky enough to see a great production of the musical based on the series, A Year With Frog and Toad. The soundtrack of the original Broadway cast is available on iTunes and I’m not afraid to admit that it’s in heavy rotation in our minivan — clever, endearing and catchy.
The second series we return to again and again is Mo Willems’ revelatory Elephant and Piggie oeuvre, which has the feel of classic comedy sketches brought to life for preschoolers…and yet still funny for their parents. The books are pure dialogue, which appeals to kids immensely — the lack of quotation punctuation and “saids” makes the text less intimidating. Willems has very cannily taken Lobel’s proven formula by creating another odd couple nevertheless completely devoted to one another: the joyful, expressive Piggie and the somewhat ponderous, befuddled Gerald (the elephant). But don’t worry: with a little prodding from Piggie, Gerald can fly his crazy flag just as high as any other elephant out there. We especially enjoy I Love My New Toy!, There is a Bird on Your Head! and Elephants Cannot Dance!, and check out We Are In A Book! for Gerald’s existential crisis within the book-as-metaphor-for-life. No kidding.
I don’t know where I picked up Linda Hayward’s Hello, House! — probably a charity shop, or one of my Mum’s friends picked it up for us at a church sale? Wherever it came from, I thank ye pitiful god of early readers for sending it thusly anon. Brer Rabbit outsmarts Brer Wolf (doesn’t he always?) in the cleverest of ways — a plot both parents and kids will appreciate. Giggles abound.
These are so good my older kids still read them for fun: Mr. Putty & Tabby by Cynthia Rylant and Arthur Howard. Mr. Putter is retired. He and his cat, Tabby, prefer to stay home, eat muffins and drink tea, but occasionally they get up to something after a bit of prodding from Mrs. Teaberry and her dog Zeke. There are more than a dozen books in this series in which Mr. Putter gets up to things like painting his porch and attending a cooking class; you wouldn’t expect the Mr. Putter & Tabby books to be so entertaining, but they are: gentle humour winks at you from every page, or plain old classic slapstick if Zeke is involved. Our favourites are Mr. Putter & Tabby Run a Race and Mr. Putter & Tabby Stir the Soup.