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Between the lines: The joy of book series

I am an advocate for parent-child reading, so my children are in the habit of bringing books to grown-ups for them to read out loud. In the past year, my eldest daughter has started to take books from our bookshelf and read the words silently to herself.

And then one day, I heard her reading Maurice Sendak’s One Was Johnny to her younger sister. The sight warmed my heart: she held her sister on her little lap the same way I hold them when I read to them. Only then did I discover that she reads quite well on her own.
Her strong reading skills make school life a little easier. For example, rather than trying to memorise the letters comprising a vocabulary word, she is aware of words that don’t quite look right when spelled incorrectly. Solving maths questions don’t confuse her because she is able to pick out the needed hints to determine what is required.
To prepare her for Grade One in September, our reading strategy has evolved into book series. I will read aloud the first chapter, to introduce the characters and give them life through animated reading using different voices. Then I leave the rest of the chapters and other books in the series for my daughter to read at her leisure. Book series are helpful tools for developing literacy skills because they often use repeated vocabulary words.
My daughter has happily graduated from Mo Willems’ Elephant & Piggieseries of short, repetitive sentences accompanied by wildly funny illustrations. I have devoted so much column space to Willems in the past few years, that I have nothing to add except: if you have a child between the ages of three and six, you must pick up any one of the almost two dozen books in the series. These are exponentially more enjoyable than “The cat sits on a mat” types of first readers’ books.
For beginning readers, reading well is more important than reading extensively. This summer, I hope my daughter will read over and over the two series that we are enjoying.
E.H. Minarik’s Little Bear series has happy pastoral stories with illustrations by Maurice Sendak. The first four books in the series each contain four short stories. Although each is a self-contained tale, there is continuity in that a later story may make reference to an event from an earlier story. The fifth and final book, published a decade after the earlier books, is one short finale about how a kiss for Little Bear results in the marriage of two skunks.
The book set which I have is the bilingual edition from Taiwan publisher Hsin Yi. The illustrations are accompanied by Chinese text, with the original English at the back of each book. Each book also comes with a bilingual CD.
Available from the same publisher in the same format is the equally pastoralFrog and Toad series by Arnold Lobel. While the Little Bear stories encompass a wide variety of family and friends, Frog and Toad stories centre on the friendship of the two main characters, with a larger dose of humour. Frog and Toad embark on a number of adventures that are silly and delightful.
Both Little Bear and Frog and Toad are quality children’s picture books that also happen to serve as appropriate material for beginning readers. This is different from books made specifically for new readers. Books for new readers generally use large fonts to display sight words, and they tend to be created by educators rather than authors and illustrators.
The above two series also expose readers to different forms of writing as natural enhancements of the stories. For example, in Your Friend, Little Bear, when Little Bear writes a letter to his new friend Emily, readers can become better acquainted with letter-writing, with its specific punctuation and indentation. In A List, a Frog and Toad book, the first illustration in the story shows Toad’s “list of things to do today”. As the story progresses, the text of the story presents handwritten words that are crossed out, in order to show completed tasks.
The aim with book series such as Little Bear and Frog and Toad is that by the end of summer, my daughter will confidently master this familiar material. This will give her a better foundation than hesitantly muddling through dozens of chapter books that are only read once.
Annie Ho is board chairwoman of the non-profit organisation Bring Me a Book Hong Kong bringmeabook.org.hk dedicated to improving children’s literacy by reading aloud to them
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Serialised stories open world of fun