From the archives — The Fine Art of Reading Aloud, 3c, Chapter Books for Emerging Readers

This was first posted on elizabethannewrites on June 13, 2011.

From picture books we move into the exciting, vast realm of chapter books with our emerging readers. This post continues my series about reading aloud to emerging readers.

As I have done in previous posts, I want to recommend not just the listing of suggested books, but the entire chapter that Emma Walton Hamilton devotes to this age group — Elementary School: Nurturing the Budding Reader — pages 57 to 87 in Raising Bookworms. There is also a brief listing of “short novels” and a much longer listing of “full-length novels” beginning on page 223 of Jim Trelease’s The Read-Aloud Handbook, sixth edition, although one must sift through all the books listed to find the ones specifically geared to any particular age group.

Since many in my reading audience are not Canadian, I can’t easily use an image that would be familiar to any Canadian who has either grown up in the last 50 years or so, or who has had children in that time (other than in the last few years). Still, I’m going to paint a word picture for you that came to my mind as I started thinking this evening about reading aloud. There was a wonderful television program on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) that aired from 1958 to 1985 (and possibly in reruns for some time thereafter) called The Friendly Giant. At the beginning of each episode — all 3000 of them — Bob Homme, the Friendly Giant, would draw little miniature chairs up to a miniature fireplace, and say, “Here’s one little chair for one of you, an armchair for two more to curl up in, and for someone who likes to rock, a rocking chair in the middle.” Did you hear that sound? That was the sound of all my Canadian readers snuggling back into their chairs, ready to hear a story, because at the heart of all of Friendly’s shows were books and music. Is it any wonder I loved this program?

So, snuggle back into your chairs. We’re going to read some stories.

When I was in Grade One, we were told that we were NOT to open the cupboard where the readers were stored (there was a series of Dick and Jane readers that followed sequentially, only the one we were learning from at the time was distributed to the class) and we were NOT to read ahead. I don’t know if our teacher was using reverse psychology, but I could not resist that cupboard, and I can clearly remember dragging a chair over to the cupboard at recess, climbing up, and standing on that chair reading the next reader, and the next, and the next. Miss Kidd never said a word, for which I am truly thankful. How I would have loved the plethora of Early Readers that are now available.

You may be saying just about now that I’m supposed to be talking about books to read aloud to children, and Early Readers are for encouraging children to read on their own. Yes, but — they also provide a wonderful opportunity for children to begin reading aloud to others. I remember the first time I was able to take over the family tradition of reading the Christmas Story at the breakfast table on Christmas morning — it’s a great feeling to be able, finally, to read aloud to others!

I’m just going to touch on a couple of Early Readers, both parts of series (kids love series, they love the familiar characters getting into — and out of — different situations). Both are in the category of “MY FIRST Shared Reading”, the very first step in the Early Reader staircase toward full chapter books. Vocabulary is carefully chosen, with a limited number of words used, and repeated often. Colorful illustrations enhance every page.

Quite some time ago, I reviewed the picture book Dumpy, the Dump Truck. Children who have come to know Dumpy in picture books, will greet him gladly in Early Readers. Dumpy to the Rescue! by Julie Andrews Edwards & Emma Walton Hamilton, illustrated by Tony Walton, tells an intriguingly puzzling story in simple words, large print and bright pictures. Where is Baby Goat? And why are so many things missing? As you might guess, Dumpy comes to the rescue and solves the mystery. By the end of the book, the child will have learned some new vocabulary words, will have eagerly waited to find the answers to all the questions, and will be delighted to say to the person next to them, “Now I will read it to you!”

Another series that children will enjoy, especially any who have accompanied a strong-willed puppy on a walk, or on a visit to the park, is the Biscuit series, from the same publisher as the Dumpy Early Readers. Biscuit Takes a Walk, by Alyssa Satin Capucilli, with pictures by Pat Schories, uses the same formula of repetitive, carefully chosen words in a story that will capture a child’s interest combined with lively illustrations. Although there isn’t the build-up of questions leading to the solving of a mystery as there was in Dumpy to the Rescue, children will find Biscuit’s antics and his owner’s frustration hilarious as she tries to get him to walk to Grandpa’s. Biscuit has the last laugh, however, as reader and read-to will discover.

Although if emerging readers are the ones who will be doing the reading, the text and vocabulary need to be kept simple, it’s important to remember that they are able to understand much more complicated vocabulary and storylines, so reading aloud can encompass much more than the simple and the basic. In this post, we’ll take a look through a few of the simpler chapter books available, and in the next post, we’ll look at some longer chapter books.

One of my favorite Canadian writers for kids is Jean Little. Jean, who is legally blind, often writes about kids with special needs, and she does this very well. Two books that caught my eye recently were written about something very dear to Jean’s heart — dog guides. Three times, Jean has gone to the Seeing Eye headquarters in New Jersey to be paired with a dog guide. These books, two in the Orca Young Readers collection, and one a Puffin juvenile book, are another step up the chapter book staircase, with only a few black and white illustrations scattered through each book, and much longer text — excellent read-aloud material to extend over several days (or several bedtimes).

Two of her books tell the story of how this happens — from the dog’s point of view. Rescue Pup and its sequel, Forward, Shakespeare! tell the story of a yellow Labrador learning to be a Seeing Eye dog. Rescue Pup tells of the first year of the life of the puppy, whose rather improbable name is Shakespeare. (It is a good name for this puppy, who, unlike his littermates and other puppy friends, understands Human language as well as being fluent in Dog.) Puppies destined to become Seeing Eye dog guides are raised in homes by “foster families” for their first year — in this case, as a 4-H project. Throughout the first book, the reader learns all that a puppy must be taught in that first year. It is fascinating to learn all this from the dog’s point of view, and puts quite a different spin on it than would an ordinary recitation of the facts of puppy-raising. In the book, we see how fears are developed (in puppies and in humans) and we see Shakespeare struggle to overcome his fears. We see him reaching out to the girl who is to raise him — a girl who is in foster care herself — and we see tremendous changes in her as well as in her puppy. At the end of the book, Shakespeare is ready for the next step — specialized training at the Seeing Eye center itself. The second book, Forward, Shakespeare! (the title comes from the command that tells the dog to walk forward leading its person) tells of this intensive training period, some of which is quite bewildering for Shakespeare at first, but because of his high intelligence, he is able to figure out what is required of him. He is then matched with a seventeen-year-old who is bitter about his blindness, and does not think he needs a dog. Both dog and young man change and grow as the story progresses, until both are ready to face the world and its challenges together. Children will be intrigued by these books, and may well plead to raise a puppy themselves, after getting caught up in Shakespeare’s story!

One more book by Jean Little, one more book about a dog. In Lost and Found, a girl, Lucy, moves with her family to a new town. She has left her friends behind, she’ll soon be starting a new school, and she feels very much out-of-place. Enter a stray dog who is as eager to make friends with Lucy as she is to make friends with him. His home can’t be found, and so he becomes part of Lucy’s life, while she also takes tentative steps toward making friends with a girl who lives down the street. When the dog’s owner is found, and the best friend of the girl down the street comes home from vacation, Lucy is bereft — until she finds a way to heal her hurt, and to heal the hurt of a lost dog she meets at a shelter. Children will identify closely with all that Lucy feels through this book, and will learn much from the way Lucy gets through the things that trouble her, including losing her dog, “Trouble”.

These longer chapter books work well as read-alouds for families, or at bedtime as the child begins to feel too old for picture books. Just don’t be surprised to hear the plea, “Just one more chapter?”

Next up, longer chapter books, easing into middle-grade novels.

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