ARE YOU MY MOTHER?
By P.D. Eastman
(Beginner Books, 1960)
THIS IS DANIEL COOK AT THE CONSTRUCTION SITE
Written by Yvette Ghione
Illustrated and designed by Celeste Gagnon
(Kids Can Press, 2007)
It is often said that up until grade four children are "learning to read" while they are "reading to learn" from grade four onward. The statements are simplistic. I would think my first forays on the Internet as an adult constituted a new chapter in my own learning to read (How do I go back?! If there are 3,140,000 articles on "mosquito repellent"--you can tell where my mind's at today--, what should I click?). And, most definitely, young children are learning a great deal as they read or listen to early picture books. Still, the publishing industry (and many teachers) have stuck with the learning/reading dichotomy. Perhaps that's partly why it is more cumbersome to find a decent nonfiction picture book than a catchy, funny work of fiction.
The first true "learning to read" book I recall from my childhood was P.D. Eastman's Are You My Mother? I have fond memories of the dopey little bird who falls out of its nest. Whenever I come across a worn copy in a library (with ample amounts of librarian's tape slathered here, there and everywhere), I stop and give it another read. The words are simple and repeated often to help the budding reader increase sight words and correctly guess words from sentence and story context. The illustrations are grey-brown with red and yellow accents. (The drawings of the kitten and the hen would never be considered gallery-worthy as many of today's figures in picture books. Dog and cow show more expression though proportions are not quite right.)
None of that matters. It's the goofy, inquisitive bird that commands full attention. For me, the highlight of the story always comes down to little bird's "conversation" with the massive red machine, seemingly powered by no one. "Mother, Mother! Here I am, Mother!" gets the distinct reply, "Snort." I giggle at the silly bird and I love how the machine comes to the rescue. Forget humans and animals; machines can save the day! Vroom, vroom!
I was intrigued by the title This is Daniel Cook at the Construction Site (when I did an unsuccessful library search for a current bestseller, Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site). The publisher, Kids Can Press, focuses on nonfiction so I grabbed the title to see how current nonfiction is designed to engage young (boy) readers, the kind of readers who find awe in the power of big machines.
I typically only select books that I like for blogging. Let another online someone relish in not having something nice to say. This book would have been a pass, but I feature it for two reasons. First, I was troubled before opening the book. The only words on the cover and spine are the title. Wordless book? I peeked in; plenty of text. I cringe when an author fails to get due credit. The writer's name did not appear on the title page either. Writer Yvette Ghione and illustrator/designer Celeste Gagnon are only recognized in the fine print on the last page of the book. Oh, the injustice!
My second quibble is that the book takes a subject of high appeal to many youngsters and does the old-fashioned nonfiction treatment, making the book a far distant cousin to Tonka gear and real construction sites. There are lots of curvy red arrows linking still photos to text but that's about all the bounce to be found in this book, part of a series based on the Canadian television show "This is Daniel Cook". The focus of the construction site, the making a new sidewalk, lacks the draw of a building demolition and a new skyscraper project or even the creation of a new house. And I shook my head when the writer twice compared framing the sidewalk and pouring cement to baking a cake. The comparisons were unnecessary and highlighted a lack of understanding for the audience.
Not being awed by construction (now or ever), I did learn something from Daniel Cook. That Snort from Are You My Mother? I'd always referred to it as a bulldozer or a crane. Turns out I'm as silly as the bird. It's a backhoe. Go figure.
Still, when given the choice between the classic fiction and the authentically photographed recent nonfiction, it still isn't a contest. Little bird and Snort win.