Book Review: Birds and Pups and Bears, Oh My

As a literacy passionista, I am always on the lookout for books that will engage new readers. I happened upon the award-winning Funny Bone Readers Family Fun Pack during BookExpo America, 2010, and it was love at first sight.

It is very easy to fall in love with these books. That two-page spread to the left is not your average easy reader imagery. Yes, lots of easy readers use bright colors and simple sentences. But more often than not each page is its own panel … this book has the feel of a picture book.

Going back six years to when my daughter was learning to read, picture books were her “comfort food.”  Even as a new reader she wanted a story not just a collection of sentences. I’m sure my daughter was not alone in seeking out books that most closely resembled a picture book in shape, often with rhyme, and didn’t look like the books with Reading Level letters on them.

I wish I would have found these books sooner! They are the kind of books parents and librarians look for: they have a long shelf life.

  • The stories are meant to be read aloud, so they are perfect for sharing with young audiences (e.g., preschoolers) and then letting developing readers read independently.
  • They have “big questions” at the back that help adult readers who want help with ways to measure comprehension or start a discussion.
  • Each book has a theme that relates to character, choices, and personal growth …. life lessons we are always looking to promote.

Here are several books – all available to read on Big Universe – that I have also fallen in love with. The cover images and title link to the book on

Bobby’s Big Bear Hunt
by Gwendolyn Hooks
illustrated by Alessia Girasole

Its not much fun when your sister catches a fish and you don’t! So Bobby stomps off into the woods in search of a bear … he’s not afraid. Luckily the only bear is his sister growling! The story includes lessons in listening to one’s parents, wandering off, and sibling relationships.

  • Parents and teachers alike can use this as a discussion-starter about the importance of sticking together and following directions.
  • It is easy to parallel this scenario with others that kids will know: getting separated from a parent in a store, hearing “scary” noises, et al.
  • The story is realistic without “dumbing down” the lesson and beating kids over the head with it.

A Zany Zoo Day
by Barbara Bakowski
illustrated by Mike Brownlow

Anna and Max are bored. Even television isn’t much fun, so when mom suggests going to the zoo, the kids get very excited. As they visit each of the exhibits, Anna and Max try to copy the animal not just in sound, but in movement. To imitate a snake, for example, Max practiced the Cobra pose.

  • Wiggly, wobbly, active kids will enjoy listening to this book. Kids who are trying to read it independently will likely get up and copy Max and Anna.
  • Incorporating Yoga poses into the story is a wonderful way to engage the reader. Stretching = improving attention span.
  • The book is “shaped” like an easy reader, but can definitely be shared for story time with younger audiences. It would be a wonderful selection for teaching animals, colors, counting (how many flamingos?), etc.
  • Note: Although the title is alliterative, this is not a rhyming story.

Best in Show
by Barbara Bakowski
illustrated by Fian Arroyo

When you want to find a dog … the perfect dog for you, the best place to go is your local dog show. As she searches for a dog of the “very best kind,” a young girl introduces us to and describes all of the pooches she sees at the show. The “Big Question” at the end helps kids extrapolate the dog theme into how each of us is unique.

  • The rhyme scheme for this easy reader is excellent, deftly mixing multi-syllabic and single syllable words.
  • This easy reader expands a young reader’s vocabulary. You don’t often see Chihuahua or Dalmatian in books for emergent readers.
  • The bright illustrations are fun but don’t overtake the girl’s search for a dog.

I could go on for days talking about these books, but I’ll stop here.

Instead, I’ll invite you to read all of the Red Chair Press books at There are 32 titles in the collection that you can read online. Visit to learn more about their award-winning books and easy readers:  Problem Solved! Readers series, Funny Bone Readers, and interactive eBooks.

In the interest of full disclosure and transparency, I first learned of Red Chair Press via the Mom’s Choice Awards. The Reading Tub, my nonprofit, is the official literacy partner of the Mom’s Choice Awards. During shows like BookExpo America, I work in their booth promoting literacy, reading, their award-winning products and interviewing Honorees.

Fall Into Reading with Danny and MaryRuth Books

Danny & Abby running through leaves.

One of the wonderful things about seasonal events is that they provide a backdrop to engage emerging and developing readers in something that is already part of their lives.

MaryRuth Books‘ trademark series of easy readers features Danny the dog. As founder and author Mia Coulton explains, the books center around “Danny’s escapades.”

What sets these (and other) MaryRuth easy readers apart for me is not just Danny (lots of children’s books do that), but that they have the look and feel of a “real book.”

  •  Traditionally early easy readers are 6-inches by 9-inches and scream some form of “I can read” on the cover. These books are sized for small hands, but have a picture book shape. You’ll find all the important information about word count in the cover … but not in a spot the kids are likely to read.
  •  Photographs (rather than illustrations) make the events more “real” for young readers and the photography makes the scenery more vivid for exploring and decoding.
  • The text encourages readers to explore the photos, not just use them for coding. For example, in Danny’s Five Little Pumpkins, there are no references to Danny in the story, but he is hiding in the corner of several pictures.

Other books in the Danny series are shaped more like chapter books, but these early readers have a comfortable square that remind kids of picture books and add to the confidence that I am reading a book just like the kind Mom reads to me.  Here are three titles that will carry you from now well into winter! Click the title to read them on

Danny and the Four Seasons
written and photographed by Mia Coulton
page count: 16
word count: 55

In a series of images, Danny shows readers what the season is. At the end, readers have the opportunity to name each of the seasons themselves.

This is an any-time book that you can pick up in any season. It is great not just for emerging readers, but also toddlers and preschool-aged kids still listening to books. The scenery offers the reader (adult) a chance to ask listeners to identify objects from the text (leaves, pool, flowers, snow) or from the photos (trees, chair, house, and colors).

Danny’s Five Little Pumpkins
written and photographed by Mia Coulton
page count: 16
word count: 51

On this fence there are five little pumpkins. One by one they disappear. Who is taking them away?
You won’t see Danny (or more specifically parts of Danny) on every page, but you see him frequently enough that kids will look for him as they explore the pictures. This easy reader blends math (subtraction) with reading practice that ends with Danny and five jack-o-lanterns.

Snow Danny
written and photographed by Mia Coulton
page count: 16
word count: 57

There are lots of things you can do in the snow: walk, dive, look at your shadow, even play in an igloo.


The text is simple but each sentence centers around action verbs. With several two-syllable words, this is a book where you’ll want to have young readers follow under the word with a finger so they can truly parse the digraphs and sounds. Kids will especially love the picture of Danny and Bee at the end.

MaryRuth Books has 30 of its titles that you can read on These engaging books will help young dog, cat, fish, elephant, or horse lovers build their word banks AND a love of reading.




Easy Reader Review: Aggie and Ben series by Lori Ries

For my money, there is nothing more magical than the moment someone realizes they are reading “all by myself.” Their face lights up as though they just got the best gift ever.

Truth be told, they did … just ask any of us who are passionate about literacy and who love to read. Finding those just-right books to engage and encourage new readers is so important. It is also why the Aggie and Ben series by Lori Ries is one of my favorites. For perspective: these are the books you turn to after you’re child has mastered Elephant and Piggie by Mo Willems.

Aggie and Ben (series) by Lori Ries; illustrated by Frank W. Dormer (Charlesbridge )
Titles in this series (links go to Big Universe product page)
Aggie and Ben; Three Stories
Aggie Gets Lost
Good Dog, Aggie
Aggie the Brave

Ben, our narrator, and his adorable dog Aggie grab the interest – and hearts – of his listeners right away.  A boy-and-his-dog story is timeless, yet each one is fresh, with humor and that surprise ending. They are similar to Elephant and Piggie, but for the reader with a little more vocabulary who is ready for a more complex story.

These are illustrated, short chapter books that could also double as short stories. Although it can be helpful to read the chapters in order, you don’t have to. More importantly, each book in the series stands on its own, so they don’t have to be read sequentially. Although this is billed as a book series for kids in Kindergarten through Second Grade, the stories are perfect for reading with young listeners not yet ready to read, as well as mixed-age audiences. They also offer a nice way to introduce the chapter concept to that audience.

On The Reading Tub you can read the reviews our families wrote for Aggie and Ben; Three Stories (2009 review), Good Dog, Aggie (2009 review), and Aggie the Brave (2010 review). Rather than republish those reviews here, I wanted to draw out the key thoughts about each book from the parents and kids who read them. Although we didn’t review Aggie Gets Lost, I’m guessing the sentiment would be consistent with what we HAVE read.

Aggie and Ben; Three Stories
Charlesbridge, 2007

When Dad takes Ben to the pet store, he must decide what kind of pet he wants: a A bird? a mouse? a cat? No, a dog. Aggie. Once Aggie is home, she and Ben are inseparable. Ben follows her every move and Aggie follows Ben everywhere. Aggie has a lot to learn, and Ben is happy to teach her … even when he hears a growl in the dark.

  • Our daughter immediately saw herself and HER dog in the stories. Since that first time when we read the book together, she has picked it up herself to read.
  • The author effectively not only speaks with a child’s logic, but has their sense of humor, too. The illustrations fill most of the pages, helping to keep the text to a minimum.
  • The image-to-text balance makes it enticing to read the whole thing in one sitting.
  • Parents who want to talk about the responsibility of owning a pet could (with a little stretch) find the stories helpful.


Good Dog, Aggie
Charlesbridge, 2009
Ben is trying to train  Aggie, who just flunked out of obedience school. When he says sits, she runs; when he says run, she runs. Aggie doesn’t want to sit or stay, and she is causing trouble. Finally, Ben decides Aggie is just not a good dog. He takes Aggie and his little red ball to the park only to learn that she has her own way of deciding when she wants to sit.

  • Ben is a boy who is easy to relate to. Aggie is adorable … and made even more so by Ben’s attempts to train her. Anyone who has tried to train a dog will empathize with Ben’s frustration.
  • This is a text-heavy easy reader, but there is plenty of white space and the chapters give natural stopping points to talk about prediction and review what has already happened.
  • This is a good transition book for kids who need a paragraph or two of text but aren’t ready to move away from illustrations.


Aggie the Brave
Charlesbridge, 2010

Ben and his mom are taking Aggie to the vet to be spayed. Aggie is scared; Ben is brave … until he learns that he’ll be going home without Aggie. Ben hopes that by going to bed in the afternoon tomorrow will get here faster and they can pick up Aggie sooner. Ben is happy, but sad. Now Aggie has to be a “quiet” dog for two weeks. No running around. How can Ben help Aggie be brave now?

  • This story, in particular, will resonate with any family who has a pet going to the vet for surgery and/or overnight. Ben is an “all kids” character who is brave (but then not), happy (but then sad), and always compassionate.
  • Aggie is a dog, but the experiences are equally apropos for cats or other animals who go to the vet. This is great for sharing with young kids, kids learning to read, or older siblings reading for you.
  • The main theme of the book is what happens at the vet, but there are lots of things to explore: Ben’s feelings (and Aggie’s too), how Ben finds ways to help Aggie feel better, and friendship. This would be a good book for helping kids understand empathy and compassion.

As you might guess, the families who read and reviewed these books have one recommendation: Aggie and Ben is a must-have for book series for building reader confidence.


Grants Advancing Literacy for Deaf, Hearing Impaired

Big Universe Learning Applauds Literacy Research Grants.

I was excited to read about the literacy and early intervention research going on at a college in our neighboring state. I think a lot of the teachers involved in the Big Universe online community will be interested too.

A pair of professors at Georgia State University (GSU) has been developing new curriculum and intervention protocol for pre-K and kindergarten students with hearing loss. Dr. Amy Lederberg and Dr. Susan Easterbrooks from the GSU College of Education hope soon to have comprehensive professional development resources for other teachers working with this population.

A $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Special Education Research will help them see this dream come to fruition. The curriculum in the works will offer methods to teach the alphabet, phonological awareness, storytelling, narrative structure and other literary components. The developers want to be able to offer a companion curriculum for non-speaking deaf children, as well.

We hope to have an even more successful intervention that will focus on both meaning-based parts of reading – how to read and understand a book – and code-based parts of literacy, which has to do with learning letters and being able to take apart words and put them back together again,” said Dr. Lederberg, a professor of educational psychology and special education, in a GSU news release written by Claire Miller.

While the Department of Education grant is exciting, an even bigger grant to the Atlanta school just has been announced. The National Center for Special Education Research of the Institute of Education Sciences – a research arm of the U.S. Department of Education – has awarded $10 million to fund the creation of the National Research and Development Center for Literacy and Deafness. It will be the first nationally funded center to improve the reading skills of deaf and hard of hearing children.

I tip my hat to you, Dr. Lederberg, Dr. Easterbrooks and fellow researchers. Your hard work and vision are going to make a difference in a lot of classrooms and in the lives of many hearing impaired children.

Big Universe’s wide variety of online children’s picture books provides tons of reading options for special population students, including kids dealing with hearing loss, autism, Asperger’s and other literacy challenges.

Story Predictions Serve as Comprehension Tool

I just listened to a podcast that described a simple, but effective, way to promote thoughtful interaction when reading stories to young children. While this may come naturally to some adults, it bears repeating.

Rather than treating children as a passive audience, literary professor Nancy Anderson of the University of South Florida in Tampa, encourages parents and teachers to use a listening/prediction model when reading stories to them. This method helps children connect prior background knowledge to clues in the title, pictures and text as the story progresses.

For example, read the title of a book to your children and ask, “Who do you think this book is about?” Allow a few volunteers to make predictions. Respond briefly and read the opening page or two. Then show a picture and ask, “What do you think will happen next?” Again, let your audience respond.

Continue reading. Stop before critical turns in the plot to ask more leading questions.

     “How do you think Horton is feeling?”

     “Is the teacher going to be happy with what Junie B. Jones is planning?”

     “Why is the gardener mean to Peter Rabbit?”

This prediction and listening pattern helps pre-readers develop critical thinking skills, trigger their imagination and stretch their ability to pay attention and make logical predictions. It’s kind of like a game of ping-pong – a series of volleys.

“This (activity) encourages divergent thinking rather than convergent thinking,” said Dr. Nancy Anderson, the author of “What Should I Read Aloud? A Guide to 200 Best-Selling Picture Books.” You aren’t necessarily looking for the “right answer,” she explained in the podcast.

“The beauty about the listening-prediction activity is it helps the parent or reader know whether or not the child has a well-developed sense of story structure. And that is the comprehension skill that is necessary for comprehending stories,” said Dr. Anderson.

Dr. Anderson recommends that parents establish a 30-minute nightly reading routine to reinforce bonding, establish a calm bedtime and to ensure future academic success. To learn more about Dr. Anderson’s perspectives on literature and literacy, go to the University of South Florida’s news website and click on the interview podcast link.

Eighth-grade teacher Laura Robb of the Powhatan School in Boyce, Va., touts the benefits of using prediction reading strategies, too. “Predicting involves more than trying to figure out what happens next. As kids find evidence to form hunches, they also ask questions, recall facts, reread, skim, infer, draw conclusions, and, ultimately, comprehend the text more fully,” Robb said in an article written for Robb has coached K-8 teachers on successful teaching methods and is the author of “Reading Strategies that Work” and “Whole Language, Whole Learners.”

Big Universe offers close to 3,000 online picture books and chapter books from premium publishing companies, so there is always something new to read at bedtime. Old favorites can be saved on your own private bookshelf and read over and over and OVER again.