The category of books known as early readers, now more sophisticated than in the past, deserves attention from scholars, says a Longwood University specialist in children’s and young adult literature—and she has followed through on that belief. In a collection of essays coedited by Dr. Jennifer Miskec, these books are treated as literature rather than simply as vehicles to help children learn to read.

“More and more of these authors are getting creative, clever and playful,” said Miskec. “Early reader books are often thought to be tools to get kids to read, but the writing these days is better than many people think. These books are simple but not simplistic.”

Early reader books, typically consisting of about 10 chapters and about 100 pages, are written for readers who are just beginning to read on their own, usually around age 8 or 9, said Miskec.

“It’s easy to dismiss these books because they used to be formulaic and in the past were seen more as a literacy project,” she said. “They still adhere to a formula, and some books can be heavy-handed and didactic, but now there’s a playfulness about many of these books, with humor, good dialogue and interesting characters and plots. The books can be literary.”

There’s a playfulness about many of these books, with humor, good dialogue and interesting characters and plots. The books can be literary.

Dr. Jennifer Miskec, associate professor, Children's and Young Adult Literature

Miskec pointed to the popular Ivy and Bean series by Annie Barrows as an example of the “really interesting craft” taking place in early reader books—interesting enough for Miskec to have written and published scholarly articles on the series. She also is a fan of the Anna Hibiscus and The No. 1 Car Spotter series by Atinuke and the Alvin Ho and Ruby Lu series by Lenore Look.

“The Anna Hibiscus books, set in Atinuke’s native Nigeria, touch on a diversity of issues, including poverty, social class and disability,” she said. “For example, in one book, Anna, who is not poor, goes home after seeing poor kids selling oranges, and she sells oranges from her orange tree until she finds out that it’s hurting the poor kids. These are some hard facts about poverty. Atinuke and other authors are encouraging serious, high-stakes stuff.

“Atinuke understands that even though readers might be new to this, that doesn’t mean they don’t know how to think. Even though they may be 7 or 8, she doesn’t imagine them as naïve or less intelligent but as interested, curious and smart. Just because they’re 7 doesn’t mean they don’t know about poverty or disabilities.”

Miskec said that, although authors sometimes underestimate the abilities of young readers, the tide is changing, and more and books that challenge this group are becoming available.

Miskec’s book, The Early Reader in Children’s Literature and Culture: Theorizing Books for Beginning Readers, was coedited with Annette Wannamaker of Eastern Michigan University. Miskec served for six years as secretary of the Children’s Literature Association, of which Wannamaker is the immediate past president.

“The book tries to fill in the gaps of this overlooked category,” said Miskec, who, in addition to her coeditorship, contributed a chapter on the Ivy and Bean series. “We’re critiquing the books and not just celebrating them. The essays were written from various perspectives, including  feminism, consumerism and even Marxism.”

Despite the serious nature of her scholarship, Miskec also enjoys the whimsical, low-brow humor of some children’s literature, including the Dirty Bertie series, about a boy whose disgusting habits include eating dirt and picking his nose. “This makes me giggle every time I read it,” she said, pulling one of the books from a shelf in her office and flipping through its pages. “Who doesn’t like booger jokes?”

Annie Barrows, the author of the popular Ivy and Bean series, will be appearing at the Virginia Children's Book Festival along with Sophie Blackall, the series illustrator and Caldecott winner. The festival takes place October 19-21 on Longwood's campus.

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