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Learning to Read: Dr. Seuss Started Us Off with Mischief

Posted by Terry on October 13, 2009 at 6:00 AM in Easy Readers
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cat_in_the_hat.jpgDo you know the story of The Cat in the Hat? Not the one about hat-wearing mischievous feline, but how he came to be the world's most recognized cat. In 1954, Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist John Hershey wrote an article for Life magazine called "Why Do Students Bog Down on First R?" In his article, Hershey said that the primers given to kids to help them learn to read were "antiseptic." For one thing, the children were "unnaturally clean." He said what they needed were better illustrations ... like the kind Walt Disney and Theodor "Ted" Geisel created.

As a result of the article - and Rudolf Flesch's book Why Johnny Can't Read and What You Can Do About It (1955) - publishers Random House and Houghton Mifflin joined forces and hired Ted Geisel (known for his illustrations) to create a primer using new-reader vocabulary. The result was the 220-word story known the world over as The Cat in the Hat. This book catapulted the writing career of Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss.

green_eggs_and_ham.jpgThrough repetition and rhyme, Dr. Seuss' books not only have given us hours of pleasure reading with our kids, but they helped many of us become accomplished readers. Many of the Dr. Seuss books we love sharing with our kids are, in fact, what we now call easy readers.

So what IS an easy reader? They are books designed for children learning to read. These are books with short, simple sentences. Many of them have a banner or label that says "learning to read" in some form, but others look like picture books. Here are some clues. Look for ...

• books sized for the reader's comfort, usually 6 inches by 9 inches.
• lots of white space on the page and the print style is larger.
• illustrations or images that match up with the text so kids can "decode" the words in the story.

You can sometimes gauge the "level" of an easy reader by the illustrations. In the basic books (sometimes called level 1), illustrations are still a prominent feature. Usually they fill most of the page and there is a word or a sentence or two at the bottom. As you "move up," the illustrations shift. First, they may move to one page while the text is on the other. Then there may be half-page illustrations on both pages and then smaller illustration on one page of a two-page spread.

Fifty years later, you can still find "antiseptic" books that take the fun out of learning to read. Luckily, there are authors and illustrators who have followed in Dr. Seuss' path, creating engaging books that help kids grow as readers and have fun learning, too. Here are two places you can go to find some of the best easy readers available.

mo_play_outside.jpgVisit the American Library Association (ALA) Website and see the Geisel Award Winners. Each year, the ALA sponsors the (Theodor Seuss) Geisel Award to recognize and celebrate the legacy created by Dr. Seuss. The award, first presented in 2006. "recognizes the "the author(s) and illustrator(s) of the most distinguished American book for beginning readers published in English in the United States during the preceding year." In addition to a medal winner, the ALA commemorates honor books, too. The 2009 medal winner is Are You Ready to Play Outside? By Mo Willems. This is the latest addition to Willems' Elephant and Piggie series.

Check out the 2008 Cybils List . Since 2006, the Kidlitosphere has had an award program to recognize distinguished books for children. The Children's and Young Adult bloggers Literary Awards, aka "Cybils," annually recognizes books that combine the highest literary merit and "kid appeal." For the first two weeks in October, nominated by parents, librarians, teachers, authors, illustrators, nominate "favorite" for the year in one of nine categories.

mo_surprise.jpgEasy Readers was a new category last year. The panel winnowed 31 Easy Reader nominees to a list of 5 Easy Reader finalists to 1 winner: I Love My New Toy (Elephant and Piggie series) by Mo Willems. The 2009 nominations won't close until Thursday, but already there are more than 35 titles in the Easy Reader and Short Chapter Book category.

I could do a whole post on Mo Willems, but I'd have to arm wrestle Pam, and I know I would lose. I'll just say this: I love introducing kids to Elephant and Piggie. The stories are wonderful, engaging, and always have a little twist. What I like best is that they are "built" to give new readers confidence. Willems uses different sizes to help kids visually recognize how the word should be read. They can instantly see the difference between what? And WHAT?

When you are ready to for new stories to sit side by side with The Cat in the Hat and his friends, you can't go wrong using these lists for recommended reading. Do you and your kids have a favorite Dr. Seuss book or easy reader? I would love to hear about them!


Jen Robinson writes...

Great post, Terry! I look forward to seeing what books the 2009 Cybils team comes up with in the Easy Reader category.

TerryAuthor Profile Page writes...

Thanks, Jen. These can be such fun books to share with kids. There is nothing like the sparkle in their eye when they see themselves reading "just like you." When I brought home the Cybils-nominated Mo books from the library, Catherine JUMPED for them. I haven't been able to get them back! [sigh]

Rebecca Reid writes...

Thanks for defining something so basic as "Easy Reader." I've been blogging about books for a year and a half but I've never been comfortable talking about kids books (I have a two-year-old) simply because I don't know much about the "kidlitosphere" or even the levels of the books I'm picking out for my son! I'm looking forward to following the Cybils this year so I can get more ideas on what to read next!

We haven't gotten in to Dr. Seuss yet, but it sounds like I should get on it!

TerryAuthor Profile Page writes...

What a fun age to be reading with your child, Rebecca! They get so excited about being able to point out the things they see and start "reading" for themselves. Whatever kind of book you pick up, enjoy them as stories ... don't worry about the reading part. With the Seuss books, just hearing the fun sounds and giggling about the illustrations will create great memories for both of you. One of the best things you can do is share a variety of stories. You're filling your son's reading toolbox with lots of new words, reinforcing sounds, and encouraging imagination.

Dawn writes...

You brought back a lot of memories here, Terry! One of my children's favorite easy readers was Green Eggs and Ham. The words and rhymes are just right for a newly independent reader.

Some people think that the made up words on some of Dr. Seuss' books are silly distractions from real reading, but actually, they offer a great way for children to practice letter sounds. Also, why can't children create their own words as well? What a great way to activate the imagination!

Thanks for another great post, Terry.

Susan writes...

Some of my favorite Easy Readers are Robert the Rose Horse by Heilbroner, Wiley and the Hairy Man by Bang, and the Frog and Toad stories by Lobel. The language flows, and the structure is good for storytelling, so you know that the true quality of the literature has not been sacrificed to the needs of the genre.

Sarah writes...

Where's Pup? by Dayle Ann Dodds helped turn the corner for one of my sons. We also loved the Poppleton books by Cynthia Rylant.Go Dog, Go! was the first book my oldest son read himself.

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