Early Readers

MC x 2 = FRIENDSHIP BOOK

I started a story a while back that was inspired by this wall decal in my sea-creature-loving daughter’s bedroom:

(From the Etsy shop, MyWallDecals)

(My daughter does NOT have a fancy, white, leather Barcelona chair  — this image is from the Etsy shop where I must’ve gotten the decal, MyWallDecals.)

The first draft focused on a whale with the bad habit of swallowing every interesting thing she encountered. It somehow ended up being more about the whale’s mother and her struggles with having a whale-kid who wanted everythingall the time, and while it was not so much a story for kids, it was certainly one I could relate to. I returned to the manuscript more recently with the goal of making it truly become the little whale’s story; I ditched the mom and introduced a stray cat. It still wasn’t working, and I realized that I’d come to like the cat as much as the whale. It dawned on me that what had begun as a moralistic tale about wanting and acquisitiveness and the gimmes was morphing into a friendship book.

Which led to a recent spate of reading and thinking about friendship books.

Every story is supposed to have a main character (MC): a person or creature or maybe even an animated inanimate object who readers can bob alongside in the currents of hope, despair, triumph and joy. Friendship books have not one but two main characters. Unforgettable classics like Amos & Boris (William Steig), Frog & Toad (Arnold Lobel) and George & Martha (James Marshall) — and more recent favorites, too, like Kate Di Camillo’s Bink & Gollie books and Mo Willems’ Elephant & Piggie series — all fit this mold.

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Bink & Gollie Elephant and Piggie FLY

These books all feature a pair of characters and their interactions, struggles and adventures – their relationships. (Not surprisingly, many have titles that follow the “Friend-A & Friend-B” format.) You might be partial to one of the characters over the other, but both are generally relatable. And young children, who are busily sorting out what it means to have and be a friend, can totally relate to these stories too: in offering up models for this new, non-familial relationship, friendship books provide great templates.

The books are great models for children’s book writers, too, and I’ve gleaned a few things about the workings of friendship books from studying a bunch of them. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

  1. The more distinct and quirky — and real and relatable — each friend is, the more readers are going to like them and want to keep reading their adventures. (My ten year old and I — both well past the age of the books’ target audience — still get fired up whenever we come across new Elephant & Piggie titles.) This is basic character stuff, right? And of course easier said than done.
  2. The two friends have character traits that are different — but not exactly opposite. Opposites are the stuff of concept books, and opposites aren’t nuanced enough to define characters that are full-bodied and real. Amos and Boris, Frog and Toad, George and Martha: there’s not a true opposite in the bunch. But there are lots of differences.
  3. The friends have big feelings and behaviors that children can recognize and relate to: fear, mischievousness, impulsiveness, short-temper, resistance. Fear, for one, shows up all over the place: Toad is afraid to be seen in his swimsuit, Elephant is afraid to dance in front of people, Piggie is afraid of the big guy who takes his ball, and Martha is afraid of scary movies (as is George, it turns out — and both turn out to be afraid of the attic as well).
  4. At the end of the day, the two friends have some pretty fundamental, key things in common too: enthusiasm, strong feelings, frustrations, and — of course — a genuine love and appreciation for each other. The Bink & Gollie books have this sweet three-part structure that drives home this idea: in each book one story features Bink’s challenge/struggle, a second features Gollie’s, and in the third the two have a unifying adventure that underscores their commitment and friendship.
  5. The set-ups and themes — like the feelings and behaviors — are also the typical stuff of childhood: trying something new, collecting things, going to a fair, eating sweets, celebrating birthdays, playing hopscotch, jumping off the diving board, having clubs, going to the dentist, etc. (all from George and Martha)

Not surprisingly, most of these observations revolve around character — which is most definitely my ‘growing edge’.

But here’s the cool thing I also realized: while my stray-cat/acquisitive-whale story may or may not remain a friendship book in its next incarnation, when you write about friendship and put a character into relationship with another character — even just temporarily — you learn a ton about both of them, which can only be a good thing for wherever your story goes next. Because like us, our characters exist “in relationship”. Characters — real and fictional — need other people to draw them out, let them act and react, and bring them into some version of three dimensions. Maybe any story would benefit by being a friendship story — if only for a little while.

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If you’re inspired to do more mentor text research, here are some other titles offered up by the generous crew over at the 12 x 12 Challenge:

GOOD NEWS! BAD NEWS!, Jeff Mack
SAM & DAVE DIG A HOLE, Mac Barnett & Jon Klassen
OLLIE & CLAIRE, Tiffany Strelitz Haber & Matthew Cordell
MAX AND RUBY, Rosemary Wells
DILL & BIZZY, Nora Ericson & Lisa Ericson
HERMAN AND ROSIE, Gus Gordon
STELLA & SAM books, Marie-Louise Gay
CHARLIE & LOLA books, Lauren Child
NUGGET & FANG, Tammi Sauer & Michael Slack
BOOT & SHOE, Marla Frazee
PUG & DOUG, Steve Breen

In the beginning reader section of my library, alongside FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS, I also found:

OINK AND PEARL, Kay Sproat Chorao
CORK & FUZZ, Dori Chaconas & Lisa McCue
THUMP AND PLUNK, Janice May Udry & Geoffrey Hayes
PINCH AND DASH, Michael J. Daley & Thomas F. Yezerski
IVY & BEAN, Annie Barrows and Sophie Blackall
BIRD & SQUIRREL, James Burks
AGGIE AND BEN, Lori Ries & Frank W. Dormer
ANNIE AND SNOWBALL, Cynthia Rylant & Sucie Stevenson
HENRY AND MUDGE, Cynthia Rylant & Sucie Stevenson
(These last three are more “kid + pet” stories, where both titular characters don’t quite get equal treatment, but that’s a conversation for another day…)

OLD BOOKS in the NEW YEAR

I am a junk shopper. A user of used things. An enthusiast of thrift. Like most people, I’ll never argue with a bargain, but my inner-Scot is really not the main driver when it comes to shopping used.

Newness is a must for certain things (swimsuits, underwear, etc.), and the convenience and predictability of what you find in regular stores is inarguable. By contrast, at an emporium of used stuff you rarely see the same thing twice. You can’t go in looking for anything too specific, and you have to enter the process with an open mind. Merchandise there lacks crisp, packaged anonymity; every item has a history — and in that history there are stories, real and imagined.

In my junk shopping I watch for old photos to use as writing prompts and inspiration. My latest, obsessive craft project involves felting old wool sweaters so they’re a current quarry too. And always, there are books, especially — of course — children’s books.

I regularly find used children’s titles I’ve never seen before, and no matter where a book falls on the overall “greatness” scale, it usually offers inspiration ripe for the repurposing and, as often, delightful glimpses into the history of the field.

I recently came across a trove at Benton Antiques in central PA.

RunawaySquash The Runaway Squash (1976), a Little Golden Book story retold by Gale Wiersum and illustrated by Bunky, gives a new (old) twist to that folksy, pumpkins-run-wild/pumpkin-profusion theme that shows up in various autumn favorites (Too Many Pumpkins, by Linda White, Megan Lloyd ill.; Pumpkin Town!, by Katie McKy, Pablo Bernasconi ill., etc). This was the first time I’d encountered  a member of the squash family growing so fast that the kid who planted it had to hold on for dear life as the thing tore across the land and overtook everything it touched. I’ve had fun mulling the pumpkin-as-bucking-bronco and pumpkin-vine-as-vehicle mashups.

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I’ve long loved Harper’s “I Can Read Book”s from the 60’s and 70’s, so Leonard Kessler‘s Last One In Is A Rotten Egg (1969, Harper & Row) jumped out at me. I did a double-take when I saw that the cover features an inter-racial group of kids — in a pool no less — at a time when kids books were just beginning to diversify (not that they ever made it that far).

I found Kessler with the help of the generous folks at Purple House Press, who reissued some of Kessler’s out-of-print books, and connected with him through his daughter, Kim. Kim asked her dad about the book’s inclusiveness and whether it had been an issue. She reported back, “He said his editors simply said, it is your book, you make the call… he just felt strongly that his books should reflect real life, and that meant people of all different colors.” His rationale is perfectly straightforward and sensible — while the editorial climate he describes seems unimaginable.

Alexander SoamesKarla Kuskin‘s Alexander Soames: His Poems (1962, Harper & Row) is written at that same early-reader level. Alexander tells his mother “I prefer to speak the speech I speak in poems,” and his mother balks, trying to get him to STOP speaking in poems (never mind that she rhymes a fair bit herself — and not at all ironically). The book drags in the middle as the mother character repeatedly sets Alexander up to speak short, sweet poems, yet there is something so compelling — and right — about the idea of a child character who speaks this way — playing with words and just speak-loving language as we tend to hope kids will.

LittleBoyWithABigHornAnd, there was this little gem, The Little Boy with the Big Horn, (Jack Bechdolt, Aurelius Battaglia ill.) — which belongs alongside my favorite other Karla Kuskin title, The Philharmonic Gets Dressed (1986, Reading Rainbow Books, with Marc Simont ill.). Mid-century Illustrator Battaglia‘s work in this book blew me away (scroll through this great, graphic-filled tribute to see more). The farmer character’s voice made me laugh out loud too: “Drat. The old muley has fallen into the ditch again.” “You can’t play the horn here. It’s enough to sour their milk.”

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Since I’ve landed on a book about a kid with a horn, I’ll end with a musical tribute. Scott Bradlee’s great ragtime cover of Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” makes a better (and more apropos!) case for the fertile and generative pastime of “thrifting” than I ever could.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NARRATION + BUBBLE DIALOGUE in PICTURE BOOKS

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Our favorite Philly graphic novel store. (Photo from http://www.geekadelphia.com)

My kids — now 10 and 12 — LOVE graphic novels. And as the children’s book field explodes with great titles in this format, it is no surprise to see more and more picture books using the graphic conventions of comics as well: serial imagery, speech bubbles and the like. Maurice Sendak is often cited as the first, notable author-illustrator to introduce the low-brow graphic conventions of the comic book into the righteous and upstanding world of children’s picture books — with Hector Protector & As I Went Over The Water (1965, Harper Collins), In The Night Kitchen (1970), etc. Like much of Sendak’s work, this adaptation of comic strip conventions was viewed as bold and transgressive — especially in light of mid-century mores that questioned the morality of comic books (check out the mid 1950’s Senate Subcommittee Hearings on Juvenile Delinquency).

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A recent project got me wondering about picture books that interweave straight narration with embedded bubble-dialogue, and so I did a quick survey of the field to see what’s out there and what sorts of issues come into play when authors and illustrators combine the two. Given how dialogue and narration ostensibly set up very different sorts of rhythm, I found myself paying a lot of attention to flow and cadence as I looked at these books.

There is a whole batch of books that stick primarily with narration, inserting occasional, short speech bubble dialogue here and there in the illustrations: Tor Freeman’s Roar (2002, Candlewick), Mo Willem’s Knuffle Bunny books (Hyperion), Colin McNaughtons’ Suddenly (1994, Harcourt) and  Oops (1996, Harcourt). In all of these books, relatively traditional narrative storytelling is punctuated with small bits of bubble text that offer these sort of staccato punches within the overall rhythm of the narrative. (Agee’s Terrific (2005, Scholastic) has just a single word in bubble dialogue (“TERRIFIC!”) — on the book’s final page.)

AggleFlagle

Picture books written entirely in speech-bubble dialogue without a stitch of narration sit at the other end of the spectrum. One challenge of going with straight dialogue in books for young kids might be to find ways of dynamically illustrating two characters simply talking. Luckily though, young children (and animals who behave like them) don’t speak primarily with their mouths like many of us older sorts: the full-bodied engagement of the characters in Mo Willem’s Elephant & Piggy series (Hyperion), his Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus books (Disney-Hyperion), and Dev Petty’s I Don’t Want to Be A Frog (2015, Doubleday) are all plenty dynamic. These authors do a great job, too, of manipulating the rhythms of the dialogue’s back-and-forth to create tension and energy. Adam Rex’s PSSST! (2007, Harcourt), John Rocco’s Blackout (2001, Disney-Hyperion) and David Weisner’s Mr. Wuffles (2013, Clarion) show clearly how also adding serial imagery to the mix can also replace narration. (For the younger set there are quieter, simpler books too, like Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s Bully (2013, Roaring Brook) and Jez Alborough’s Hug (2009, Candlewick).)

DevPetty

Between the books that use occasional bubble-staccatos and those that use nothing but bubble dialogue are many that alternate or combine the two more evenly — books like Susan Meddaugh’s Martha Speaks (HMH Books For Young Readers) books, and a whole bunch illustrated by Harry Bliss: Doreen Cronin’s Diary of a….. books (HarperCollins), Bliss’s own Bailey books (Scholastic), William Steig’s Which Would You Rather Be? (2005, HarperCollins), and Robie H. Harris’s Don’t Forget to Come Back! (2004, Candlewick).

Chris Barton and Tom Lichtenfeld’s Shark V. Train (2010, Little Brown) is an interesting one in this group for offering sparse narrative text but, at the same time, holding together well even when you ignore the bubble dialogue entirely (try it!) — at least until you get to the last two spreads. The bubble-dialogue, here, mostly elaborates on the conflict and emotion that is already boldly communicated in the book’s illustrations.

sharkvtrain

Aaron Reynolds and Matt Davies’ new Nerdy Birdy (2015, Roaring Brook Press) doesn’t use actual bubbles for it’s dialogue, instead opting to distinguish dialogue with a hand-written font and quotation marks, though the idea is much the same. Some spreads mix dialogue and narration while other page-series are either all dialogue or all narration. In one spot the dialogue is even given dialogue tags in the narration font — so it’s a bit of a mash-up. In any case:  the two work together to effectively tell a story that is all about social dynamics.

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In Peter Brown’s My Teacher Is A Monster (2014, Little, Brown & Co.), Children Make Terrible Pets (2010, Little, Brown & Co.), You Will Be My Friend (2011, Little, Brown & Co.), Mr. Tiger Goes Wild (2013, Little, Brown & Co.), etc., speech bubbles tend to be orthogonal and are well integrated with the narrative text and the illustrations — via font, color and graphics. For the most part, the narrative text and the speech bubble text are evenly weighted — except where Brown uses size for emphasis. All these visual clues have a unifying effect, creating a really strong narrative flow.

Children-Make-Terrible-Pets-Inside

A Hornbook Calling Caldecott post in 2013 raised questions about how bubble dialogue and the other graphic conventions of comic books fit into the picture book format and how to talk about them in the awards-making process. It seems clear that the floodgates have opened — and to great effect. It should be fun to see what else swims through in the future.

***

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… and lest we think of bubble dialogue as a completely modern convention, check out this 1506 Bernhard Strigel painting. (Wikipedia, “Speech scrolls”)

SMALL THINGS

My husband is Jewish and I was raised Catholic. Pre-nuptial imaginings of our future life together involved lots of talk about religion. And holidays.

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We planned to raise our future-children Jewish, which meant we would celebrate Chanukah, but I knew that there were Christmas traditions that I couldn’t shed: the tree wasn’t particularly important to me, but the Advent calendar and Christmas stockings were. I loved the Advent calendars my mom got for us when I was a kid: simple, cardboard jobs with a little window you opened each day of December to reveal the sweet pictures hidden beneath. That daily reveal — and the repetitive cycle of anticipation and pleasure — mimicked the culminating experience of Christmas morning in miniature, and it was a joy.

We worked out a happy mish-mash, and once the kids came and were old enough to question our arrangement the line of reasoning we offered was that because I, their mother, was raised Catholic, Santa fills the stockings my mother knit for us. And because they are Jewish and celebrate Chanukah he doesn’t do additional big gifts for them. (Santa is nothing if not fair.)

As for the Advent calendar: the logic there — if you want to call it that — involves fairies and is much more tenuous. (To share it would be to heap doubt on the idea that I might be able to craft artful stories for children, so I won’t.)

I made an Advent calendar as a sort of embroidery sampler (each pocket attached to the base with a different stitch) when my children were young, and it has been home to an array of lovely things: beads, seashells, polished rocks, and painted acorns; miniature plates and bowls and doll furnishings; funny words, math puzzles, charms and fetishes; and, most recently, a menagerie of needle-felted and wooden animals to grace our Christmas tree (the kids prevailed upon us for this addition to the holiday repertoire a couple of years ago).

The items that go into the pockets of our calendar share one common characteristic: they are all SMALL.

Small things matter to little kids. When my daughters were little there was rarely an outing — neighborhood walk, playground visit, hike, or trip to the grocery store — that didn’t result in the bringing-home of special rocks. For a while small, sloppy cairns built up on various counters and shelves around the house, until finally on one late-night, dog-walking jaunt I pulled a huge old pickle jar out of the trash of a local deli and created a repository for the girls’ geological findings.

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In addition to pebbles and rocks, my younger daughter had an eye for other tiny treasures too. At the end of days when she’d gone to a neighborhood playground or park, I’d find her pockets filled with countless odds and ends: pencil stubs, plastic-coated paper clips, limp pieces of deflated balloon, plastic hair clips and their parts, and little pieces of all sorts of trash. All brightly colored.

In the spring, flower heads and flower petals dominated the collections. And on especially lucky days she’d find what she termed “gem jewels” — those flattened glass marble things. Utility be damned: she was collecting bits of color and light. And she insisted her clothes conform: she required pockets. Every day.

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The girls are now 9 and 11, and I still find rocks and acorns and the like in the laundry — though not with the same frequency. And to this day they still build amazing structures and worlds around and with their small things.

VM Brilliant Plot

Last winter I discovered the Violet Mackerel series, a lovely set (currently six books strong) of beginning chapter books from Australian crafter (or “maker of things”), Sociology professor, and author Anna Branford. Violet is a 7 year-old, big-thinking, youngest-child with a strong attachment to small things. At the start of the series she lives with her single mom and two older siblings, and over the course of the books she negotiates moving house, expanding her family with a new parent, moody pre-adolescent siblings, making new friends, having her tonsils removed, and the like.

Written for early readers (1st or 2nd graders in the U.S.), the books address Violet’s struggles and challenges in ways that feel neither over-burdensome nor pat. In each story Violet develops and plays with a different theory relating to small things: the Theory of Finding Small Things, the Theory of Giving Small Things, the Theory of Helping Small Things, the Theory of Leaving Small Things Behind, etc. With these theories she negotiates and makes sense of the people and world she knows.

Through Violet Mackerel, Branford teases out and articulates the richness of the miniature worlds and small realities of early childhood. Offering us stories of how, through small things, one particular child comes to understand big ideas like caring, sharing and leaving, Branford gives language to the thinking and drives that are behind the way that young children relate to the small things they find and create. And she adds dimension to our own adult understanding too, which is no small thing at all.

Sendak Recalled

 

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Sendak’s final illustration in Else Holmelund Minarik’s FATHER BEAR COMES HOME

So, having babbled  here a couple of weeks ago about the Rosenbach Museum & Sendak, I am so sad to pass along this headline from yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer:

“Bulk of Sendak collection leaving Rosenbach”

It seems that Sendak’s bequest to the Rosenbach was not a bequest at all — but just a loan.

His estate is recalling most of the Sendak papers, drawings and other documents currently in the Rosenbach’s possession, as it works out plans to convert Sendak’s former Connecticut home into a still-being-fleshed out study center/museum.

There are new, fantastic gifts arriving from the Sendak estate for the Rosenbach: rare Melvilles and Blakes and more from Sendak’s own collections. And there is a stipulation in Sendak’s will that the Rosenbach and the estate continue to work together, so hopefully some of Sendak’s own work will continue to travel the I-95 corridor, on loan.

Meanwhile: all the more reason to get to the Rosenbach and check out Sendak in the 60’s — while it’s still hanging. (until November 2)

Becoming an Independent Reader with a Pod of Dolphins

My ancestors, down one side, came to Beaverwyck (now Albany, NY) as fur traders from Holland — which was all the excuse my husband and I needed to troll through a list of Dutch names before the birth of our second child. We chose the name “Adrie” for our daughter, because we liked the way the name rolled around in our mouths. In Dutch “Adrie” means “of the Adriatic” or, by extension, “of the sea.”

Adrie (now 8) is a child who has always known her mind: her likes, her dislikes, her desires. As if by prophecy, at 5 she discovered the sea. She had experienced it before in all its pounding, salty, rollicking power, but when her kindergarten class began studying the ocean she came home chattering non-stop about the daylight zone, the twilight zone and the midnight zone, and the denizens of each. She recounted the habits of fish we had never heard of, and she bandied about terms like “symbiotic relationship”, “bioluminescence” and “echolocation”. She was fascinated, too, with whales and the words that describe their surfacing beahviors: breaching, spyhopping, logging, lobtailing. The mystery and wonder of the sea — and its language — took an immediate and firm grip on her imagination.

Adrie has zero interest in mermaids and she won’t eat fish. A twiggy kid with no body fat, she is always cold in the water, and the only way I’ve gotten her to learn to swim is by buying her neoprene and dangling before her the lure of one day snorkeling and scuba diving. In first grade she led a cadre of her buddies in a collaborative writing and illustrating endeavor to create a 42-page book called “The umazing crechrs of the Sea”. The book is loaded with drawings of invented sea animals, witty speech-bubble dialogue, and wonderful, first-graderly, invented spelling.

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Her growth as an independent reader has tracked right along with her interest in the sea and, especially, dolphins and whales. As she was just beginning to regularly read aloud on my lap, I stumbled upon a book from Harper & Row’s fantastic old “Science I CAN READ Book” series: Red Tag Comes Back (by Fred Phleger, ill. Arnold Lobel, 1961). The book beautifully follows the lifecycle of a single salmon.

We ended up reading every book from the series that we could find — mostly published in the 1960s and 1970’s. The series’ books are  in a genre that I would call “illustrated narrative non-fiction”, and they were a boon to a child so entranced with science and the natural world. The stories, language and illustrations are straightforward and direct, very much a product of the era when they were written and completely on-target for an emergent reader. Other of the titles that fed her sea-love were:  Fish Out of School (by Evelyn Shaw, ill. Ralph Carpenter, 1970), Seahorse (by Robert A. Morris, ill. Arnold Lobel, 1972), Dolphin (by Robert A. Morris, ill. Memoru Funai, 1975) and Catch a Whale by the Tail (by Edward Ricciuti, ill. Geoffrey Moss, 1969).

Together, we also worked our way through the non-fiction section of our Free Library branch devoted to the ocean, coral reefs, dolphins and whales. We checked out biographies of Jacques Cousteau, Sylvia Earle and Rachel Carson. She especially enjoyed two new-ish narrative non-fiction picture books: Winter’s Tail (Craig, Juliana & Isabella Hatkoff, Scholastic, 2009) and The Eye of the Whale (Jennifer O’Connell, Tilbury House Publishers, 2013). At some point we also read aloud George Selden’s much-loved and tragically out-of-print Oscar Lobster’s Fair Exchange.

As she began to brave chapter books at school, her fantastic teachers — who have been with her for both first and second grades and know her well — gave her A Dolphin Named Bob, by Twig C. George (ill. Christine Herman Merrill). Adrie thoroughly enjoyed this fictional account of a mischevious aquarium-dwelling dolphin. Then a couple of weeks ago, while waiting for a few titles from the library that seem to be in the same adventure-dolphin-story vein (Wayne Grover’s books Dolphin Adventure,  Dolphin Treasure and Dolphin Freedom, and Ann McGovern’s Little Whale and Shark Lady: True Adventures of Eugenie Clark) we began taking turns reading Karen Hesse’s The Music of Dolphins aloud to one another.

Hesse’s narrator, Mila, was raised by dolphins from the time she was 4 years old. Captured, she becomes the subject of scientific study. Mila’s narration varies in complexity as she acclimates to and struggles with the human world: early chapters are printed in large, bold, choppy text with simple vocabulary. As Mila’s mastery in her new world grows, the font size shrinks, her vocabulary expands, and her language grows increasingly complex.

Hesse’s technique is effective in conveying Mila’s transformation and challenges — and it had the side-benefit of cultivating confidence as Adrie increasingly worked through this longer chapter book. I read the introductory sections to her, then she began reading the large-print sections to me. When the text shrank, she adjusted without being bothered. And by the end of the book she only let me read the small-print italicized format that Hesse used when Mila was back with her dolphin family. The Music of Dolphins proved to be a perfect transition piece for a child ready to move into reading more complex chapter books independently.

Then last week at bedtime Adrie and I began reading an even longer chapter book together — Gill Lewis’s One White Dolphin. After two nights, though, Adrie cut me loose: I was holding her back and she couldn’t wait. Between the bus ride to school, classroom reading time, and down time at home, she finished the book in a matter of days. And over the course of those days she repeatedly called out, annoyed, to the rest  of our family “can you please stop talking? I’m reading!”

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Last weekend, as a belated 8th birthday present, we drove from Philadelphia down to Baltimore to visit the National Aquarium. The timing of the trip somehow felt, accidentally, like a sort of culminating celebration. We spent our first two hours there in the Dolphin Discovery exhibit, where Adrie and her 10 year old sister, Mira, watched the animals circle and studied each dolphin’s markings and distinct fin and fluke shape — the better to know who was who. They chatted with trainers April and Ashley like old pros, full of thoughtful questions and observations.

At one point Adrie got sad about how boring the tanks must be for the dolphins. I pointed out the irony of it being because of those boring, sad tanks that we were able to watch the dolphins at all and she returned, “Mom, its sort of sweet and sour, being here.” She meant “bittersweet” — which is a concept that entered her lexicon years ago through one of our family’s favorite ever picture books, The Sea Serpent and Me (by Dashka Slater, ill. Catia Chien, HMH Books For Young Readers, 2008). It was an apt moment for the reference: Slater’s story about growing up and letting go is one for parents as much as for children. It follows a girl as she cares for and raises a foundling sea serpent, and then reckons with the fact that it is time to set it free in the great, wide sea.

Watching Adrie move through all these ocean and dolphin books and develop a love of reading, I remain in awe of her focus and the depth of her knowledge and interest. And I am so thankful that, as she flies through this period of intense learning and growth, there are good titles at every stage for her to stretch and grow with. (Somewhere down the line I’m guessing  she will have to read Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins which, as I recall, does not have any active dolphin characters — despite its titular marine mammal.). And somewhere down the line her interest in dolphins and their kin will probably wane (or maybe not). In any case, these creatures — and all the great authors who have chosen to write about them — have been fantastic partners as she has grown to be an independent reader and a great lover of books.