Friday, August 22, 2008

Born to Read

Sierra, Judy. 2008. Born to Read. Illustrated by Marc Brown.

Great premise. Great start. Ultimately falls into mediocrity. Slightly disappointing. That's my short review of Judy Sierra's newest picture book, Born to Read. (Sierra and Brown also teamed up previously for Wild About Books.)

I loved the illustrations for the most part. There were some that I loved, loved, loved. Some that I liked. But average it all out, and the illustrations were a great plus to the book.

I didn't care for the rhyming. Mostly. I found it especially tiring after the first five pages; I found it to be a bit forced, a bit trapped in must-rhyme-land. I thought the rhyming held the book back and prevented it from being a really great book.

And the giants. Don't get me started. Here's a more detailed analysis of why it worked and didn't work for me.

The cover. I like it. I like Sam's red hair and blue eyes. I like his cute little ears. (Of course, the reader doesn't know he's a Sam yet.)

The end papers. I like them. I don't love them. But it's a cute concept. They're black letters sprinkled on a white background. The title letters b-o-r-n and t-o and r-e-a-d are colored letters that are part of the random scrambling.

The title page. I love this. It's bright. It's fresh. It's a picture of a town. A town we soon learn is "Sunny Skies."

Then the story begins.

In the town of Sunny Skies,
A tiny baby blinked his eyes
At dragons dancing overhead
And letters painted on his bed.
"That's me!" he thought. "My name is Sam.
I'm born to read. I know I am."

See, isn't that a great beginning? Sam is a cute baby with one wee little tooth showing. In his crib are scattered books. Among the books are Pat the Bunny and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. The illustrations had me at hello. I'm thinking this is going to be a great book.

Then we turn the page and get the next spread,

Sam flashed his mom a hopeful look.
She opened up a picture book,
Then another,
Then another,
Then another,
Then another.
Such a perfect, patient mother!

I'm seriously loving it at this point. The illustrations still show Pat the Bunny and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. But we've added The Cat in the Hat and The Very Hungry Caterpillar to the mix. In fact, it is this Eric Carle classic that the mother is shown to be reading to her book-hungry son.

So far so good, right. This love continues on to the next spread...

Sam became a reading star.
He helped his papa drive the car.
He helped his sisters do their chores.
He helped himself at grocery stores.

The illustrations are still working for me. I love the one of Sam clutching his bag of lollipops.

But it is at this point, however, that the love begins to fade just a little. At first, it fades to like. On the next page, we see that Sam is smart enough to use the dictionary to outwit his pediatrician. Next, it shows him reading anywhere and everywhere.

At this point, without too much transition, we begin mini-story number one. Sam is now grown up quite a bit. Definitely school age by this point. We see Sam on his bike riding through town; we see him spotting a sign advertising a bike race. There are six pages devoted to this event--from his spotting the sign, to reading books about bikes, to his actually winning the race.

If the book had ended there with the bolded (not-so-subtle) message of "Readers win and winners read." Then I would probably feel slightly more enthusiastic about the book.

But now we get mini-story-number-two which is twelve pages of the picture book. Up until this point, the book was grounded firmly in reality. Now, without any transition whatsoever--and sacrificing all flow--we are introduced to a big, bumbling giant baby named Grundaloon who wreaks havoc on the town. Sam, the voracious reader, is the only one brave enough to take on this menace. And he does it with books and snacks. Now I'm not saying that books and snacks are a bad thing. They're both rather nice things actually. And if giants existed...maybe just maybe being read to and eating a few cookies might tame him a tad bit so he could be contained and removed. But it's a bit much for me. Why are their giants stomping around in this story, why??? (*That should be giant not giants. And it's cake not cookies.) I suppose so we can get another bold message: "Yes, readers can do anything!"

After the giant episode, we get a stuck-on-semi-lame ending. This is four pages in length. And the theme/message of this one is that because Sam is a reader he can grow up and become anything he wants. Good message. Nothing wrong with that. It's not that it's bad in and of itself. I think it only reads as awkward because it immediately follows the giant episode. And it's hard to recover from that. But generally speaking the book has a very segmented, non-flowing, odd-to-awkward feel to it. I think it all comes down to Grundaloon. (I felt like the Sesame Street song was playing, one of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn't belong...) Lift out the giant, transition the bike race into the ending and voila, a better but shorter book. (Or perhaps if the author had gone a non-giant route but had another mini-story-number-two.)

© Becky Laney of Young Readers

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