Saturday, September 17, 2016

September Spotlight on #OwnVoices:
Dive Into Reading! series

Lily's New Home. By Paula Yoo Illustrated by Shirley Ng-Benitez. Lee & Low, 2016. 32 pages ISBN 978-1-62014-249-3 Click to purchase
Want to Play? By Paula Yoo. Illustrated by Shirley Ng-Benitez. Lee & Low, 2016. 32 pages ISBN 978-1-62014-250-9 Click to purchase

It's a sad fact that the vast majority of easy readers are about cute little animal characters. Cute little male animal characters, in fact.  I've got nothing against Frog & Toad and Elephant & Piggie -- I've recommended them to countless parents and kids and bought them as gifts for many of the children I know who are learning to read. 

But not all kids like animal fantasies. Many children develop clear reading preferences for nonfiction, for science fiction, for realism, for the anti-cute, at an early age, some as young as three or four. So what do we have to give them when they are just learning to read? If they don't like animal fantasies, not much. If you are looking for books about female characters (other than Amelia Bedelia), even less.  And if you are looking for any easy readers reflecting diversity, almost nothing.

That's why I was so excited to see the new easy reader series just launched this year by Lee & Low. In addition to reissuing two older books by Lulu Delacre about two little coquís named Rafi and Rosa, we have two brand new volumes by Paula Yoo and Shirley Ng-Benitez about a diverse group of playmates: Lily, Pablo, Padma, Henry and Mei.

In the first volume, Lily has just moved to a New York City apartment building from a home that had a yard with flowers. She's not sure she's going to like big city life -- it's not at all like what she's used to. But her parents show her parts of her new neighborhood that remind her of home -- a flower stand and a public garden, for instance. And they introduce her to some of the rich multicultural elements a big city can offer, such as Italian pizza, signs in Spanish, a store with Kenyan artwork, and a shop selling saris from India. Finally they go to the public library where Lily finds many of the same books she loved in her previous home. And she also meets a new friend -- Pablo, who also loves to read. 

In Want to Play? Pablo takes center stage as he leaves his book behind for a while and ventures out to play with Lily, introducing her to new friends along the way. They join Mei and Padma on the swings and then join Henry for a game of basketball. Before long, the playground equipment turns into the setting for their imaginary play, as they climb a mountain (the slide), spend time at the beach (the sandbox), and board a spaceship (the merry-go-round).  

Both books have the simple, episodic story lines that are the hallmark of good easy readers, as well as short sentences, large font, and plenty of white space. The watercolor illustrations offer both context clues and cultural specificity. There is a large cast of characters (this is a big city after all) but you can always tell who is who, and which children are the five main characters. 

While Paula Yoo has written excellent books for older readers, she proves herself to be just as good at writing for new readers, which is no easy task. Although the story lines are simple, she adds depth to each one. In Lily's New Home the diversity that defines the city becomes part of the story line, and in Want to Play? the children's imaginary play (so well reflected in Shirley Ng-Benitez's illustrations) makes the playground even more fun.

Most remarkably, Yoo and Ng-Benitez together have created truly engaging child characters living in a vivid realistic world with just a few masterful lines of text and ink.  I hope these will be the first two volumes of a long and successful series about the five friends. What a great beginning for Dive into Reading! -- and for brand new readers.

Reviewed by KT Horning

1 comment:

Heidi Rabinowitz said...

I'm happy to learn about these books! But I do want to point out that Piggie in the Elephant and Piggie books is female. Since she's undressed and doesn't have a signifier like a bow in her hair it's not always easy to tell. But once you get to know the character, you'll realize that she's a girl.