Friday, July 31, 2009

Illustrator Love - Part One

Spoiler alert! What you're about to see are my favorite illustrations from some of the talented illustrators of the new Learn to Read. If you want to wait and see these illustrations in the book, I implore you to STOP READING NOW!

Okay, so you want to see some pretty pictures, do you? I don't have enough words to describe the wonderful work that illustrators do, especially the illustrators that we worked with on Learn to Read. They took texts that were funny or touching or action-packed and added a rich visual world to create some books that I'm excited about.

Ethan Long, who you might know from such hilarious books as Tickle the Duck, illustrated the 1st Grade book, Chick-Chick the Ping-Pong Champ. That's right–we took this masterfully funny duck illustrator and asked him draw a chicken. It appears to be a smooth transition, wouldn't you say?

For The Case of the Missing Sandwich, we wanted an illustrator who could portray a kid's world with just the right amount of menace warranted by this curious mystery. I laugh every time I look at Mary Sullivan's illustrations, like this one where the main character is sure his dentist stole his sandwich.

The first of the Learn to Read books to be illustrated was Slim Sam, the woeful tale of a slim, slim slug who tries so hard to be seen. Everyone was very excited at the first glimpses of Lee Calderon's vibrant illustrations, the most memorable one being the moment when Sam gets mistaken for a piece of licorice.

The giant bunny in My Giant Bunny had to be loveable–a huge, furry best friend. Illustrator Guy Francis gave us some serious cute overload.

Stay tuned for more illustrator love. In the meantime, please click on the artists' names to look at the incredible work on their websites.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Songs By Our Favorite Musicians

As we've mentioned before, the new Learn to Read is a musical extravaganza. And that is in no small part due to the contributions from some of our favorite singers, songwriters and producers.

Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer

Jonathan Feldman

the band

And of course, special thanks to my daughters April and Eva for singing the official jingle:

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Books By Our Favorite Authors

When we embarked on making Learn to Read, we knew there were going to be books. A lot of them. But who will write them, we wondered? As we talked about our favorite books it struck us like a bolt of lightning – what if we could get our favorite children’s book authors to write some? It was worth a shot.

The authors who took our challenge thrilled us beyond our wildest imagination: Rosemary Wells, Robert San Souci, David Ezra Stein, Michelle Knudsen, and Carolyn Crimi. Each author comes with a daunting resume.

Rosemary Wells has given the world characters the likes of Max and Ruby, and one of my favorites, Yoko, in more than 60 books. We also love Rosemary for her dedication to children’s literacy. Check out Read to Your Bunny on her website.

There would be no Disney’s Mulan without Robert San Souci’s retelling of the classic tale, Fa Mulan. Oh, did I mention that he’s a Caldecott winner? It’s true. Have a look some time at his remarkable The Faithful Friend: A Story from the Caribbean.

David Ezra Stein is a gorgeous illustrator. You can’t help but pick up one of his books off the shelf, like Leaves, Monster Hug, The Nice Book, and Cowboy Ned & Andy. After drooling over the illustrations you’ll realize what a terrific writer he is, too. Charming tales, all.

Michelle Knudsen is the bestselling author of Library Lion, and has just published the amazing young adult novel, The Dragon of Trelian. In case you missed it, you can read all about her in my recent interview.

And one of the funniest picture book authors is master of onomatopoeia, Carolyn Crimi. I particularly enjoy her books The Louds Move In and Tessa’s Tip-Tapping Toes. Carolyn’s oeuvre highlights her predilection for things spooky, with the books Boris and Bella and Where’s My Mummy?

Each author was given a grade level and a list of the words that a child would know at that point in the curriculum. As Michelle said in her interview, the task was a challenging one, but they all passed through the challenge to create books as enjoyable as they are readable. David Ezra Stein gets bonus points for making a hilarious tortoise-and-the-hare story out of the shortest word list.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Strategies for Retaining Sanity While Reading the Same Book to Your Child for the Hundredth Time

We’ve all been there. It’s reading time. To your horror, your child reaches for the shelf, then waddles your way waving the same book you read to him the night before. And the night before that. And, well, come to think of it, ten minutes ago.


You stall for time. “Say it politely?”

“Read, p’ease!”

Whereby the book is deposited in your lap. Dutiful parent that you are, you find your fingers opening to page one.

It is a truth universally acknowledged by parents far and wide that any book, no matter how good, becomes slow torture upon multiple rereadings. Dr. Seuss at his best can feel as dull as a hundred-page trust.

Here are a few strategies I’ve developed for keeping my head in the game.
  1. Act It. Pretend you’re Books on Tape’s latest star and let fly with the funny voices and weird accents. Your child will laugh.
  2. Slow It Down. Though the inclination is to go faster (to get it over with), try taking it even slower than usual, looking for new details. Stop and point out funny drawings neither you nor your child has noticed before. Surprise yourself with new discoveries on the one hundred and first reading.
  3. The Old Bait and Switch. Say something like this, “Great, sweetie. Let’s read a couple of pages of name of dreaded book here then move on to name of book that hasn’t bored you to death yet. Then we’ll get a snack, okay?”
  4. Daydream. The old standby. Next time you’re cornered into a repeat read, get in touch with your inner Walter Mitty. As you begin, work on your Oscar speech. Imagine your cover as People magazine’s Sexiest Person of the Year. Trust me: Your child won’t know the difference. At the end of the book, as inevitable as the morning sunrise, he or she will look at you with wide eyes and say, “Read again?"

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Learn to Read's Biggest Fan

Hooked on Phonics Learn to Read is hitting the shelves this week, and I think that no one is more excited to get her hands on a copy than my 4-year-old, Olive. You see, I was the producer on the project and in my house we lived Learn to Read for a full year. I even wrote a few of the books. Olive had only the vaguest sense of Mommy's work, but she had a front row seat to all of the steps of production.

"Mommy, what's that?"

"This is the book that I'm writing. See? All of these words here will be the words in the book later on."

"Oh," she said, and walked away.

Her interest grew as I started reviewing illustrations.

"Mommy, what are those pictures?"

"These are illustrations for one of my books. These are the pictures that will match the story."

"Why didn't you want any color?"

"Well, these are called sketches. They're just an idea of what the picture will look like."

"Oh," she said, and walked away.

From the sketch phase to final color, the question was constant: "Mommy, do you have any of the color pictures yet?"

Until finally, "Why yes, sweetie, I do!"

Olive particularly liked the lay
out phase of production because that's when we could print the books and have read aloud time with this whole new library. She was even known to help me proof workbook pages.

The best part? All throughout production she told me that she wants to make children's books when she grows up–write the words AND make the pictures. Of course, that was a few months ago. Now she wants to be an astronaut. I'd better get to work making a book about astronauts...

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

It's Here!

Do you know what you're seeing in this picture?

It's Hooked on Phonics Learn to Read arriving in the warehouse! We're really quite excited.

Be sure to check out our
exclusive online-only limited time offer for Learn to Read Kindergarten through 2nd Grade.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Too Many Books

You know the drill. Your child asks for a story, you dutifully traipse into his or her room to get a book. But when you pull it off the shelf, what happens? A veritable avalanche. Sandra Boynton, Dr. Seuss, and The Complete Peter Rabbit come tumbling down in an epic crash.

If it’s one of those rare days when sleep deprivation hasn’t reduced your reaction time, you might actually manage to jump out of the way before getting brained. (Yes, I love Go, Dog. Go!, but not when its hard spine thwacks my temple like a karate chop.)

The problem is this: We want to be good parents. We want our kids to excel, be literate, and one day get into college, maybe even with a scholarship. So while we can sometimes manage to say no to assorted dolls, candy, trucks, and trains, we can’t muster the strength to deny our child another book.

“Daddy? Can I buy Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! in Mandarin?”

“You betcha!”

Contrary to popular belief, children do not generally destroy each and every book they touch. In fact, most survive our children’s many re-readings in perfectly fine, if somewhat tattered, shape. Which leads to the overloaded shelves. Of course, we can’t throw the books out. I mean, come on! Enlightened parents don’t destroy intellectual property!

So we keep EVERY SINGLE BOOK THAT COMES INTO OUR POSSESSION! This forces us to get creative, stacking books sideways on shelves, making new shelves out of windowsills, and piling books on the floor, even in the bathroom.

I’m happy to report that there is a solution: the book swap party. Invite over some of your child’s friends and ask them to bring five books they want to exchange. (Of course, this leaves you with the same number of books, but at least it’ll mix up your collection).

If you really want to clear the shelves, there are lots of places to which you can give away your used books with a clear conscience: libraries, schools, churches, synagogues, mosques, the Salvation Army, even neighbors.

So the next time that pop-up copy of The Wizard of Oz nearly takes out an eye, cull the herd. But be forewarned. Whatever you give away might well be the book your child wants the next time you sit down to read.


On second thought, maybe just buy another bookshelf.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Presenting the New Hooked on Phonics Learn to Read!

I couldn’t be happier to tell you about the launch of our all-new Hooked on Phonics Learn to Read, which will be hitting the first store shelves on August 1st!

Over the course of a year, the team here has lovingly taken Learn to Read, which has worked for so long for so many families, and given it all new storybooks (28 of them), workbooks loaded with stories, music, characters and, for the first time ever, Visual Phonics lessons on DVD. The entire company came together to bring the vision of our development team to life.

As the product took shape, you could hear the music in the halls, see the illustrators creating and the educators making sure we were providing the best reading tools to build the next generation of confident readers. Our digital team has developed online games, progress charts and bonus materials that will debut on the new Learn to Read website that goes live on August 5th.

And I’m not the only one shouting from the rooftops. Educators and parents who were given a sneak peek of the product have been thrilled with what they’ve seen.

With the new Hooked on Phonics Learn to Read, we’re giving you everything you need to make your child a confident reader. The lessons are easy to follow, and each one ends with an entertaining story or book that your child will be able to read to you. I laugh out loud at some of these books, and I think you and your child will, too.

These moments of reading together are to be cherished. I’ll never forget hearing the first words my son read to me, and I’m so proud of having had a role in that. Helping your child learn to read is a gift of a lifetime and will provide your child with wonderful memories of time spent with you.

We are so excited we want to give you a special opportunity to purchase the New Learn to Read for an exclusive, limited-time, online-only offer. Check it out!

New Hooked on Phonics Learn to Read


Monday, July 6, 2009

Michelle Knudsen's Sharks, Lions, and Dragons

We were very happy to have celebrated children's author Michelle Knudsen as one of the authors on Hooked on Phonics Learn to Read. Her book, Smart Shark, illustrated by Ted Frymark, tells the tale of Mark the shark. One day Mark ate something he found in the water something small and green and glowing. And it made him very, very smart, much to the consternation of his underwater friends.

Michelle is also the author of the bestselling
Library Lion, and her latest is a young adult fantasy novel, The Dragon of Trelian. I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Michelle and asking her about smart sharks and library lions.

What is your relationship with libraries both before Library Lion and after its release?

I have a long relationship with libraries. I remember g
oing when I was little and bringing home books and I remember when I was old enough to go and pick out my own books. There was a particular shelf in one of the Staten Island libraries that had all these collections of fairy tales and dragon stories and I just worked my way along the shelf. The idea that you could just go and come home with all these new books every time and then bring them back and get more new books was always very exciting.

I was a library monitor in junior high. I always found my way to the library in any community that I was in. When I was in college I got a job at the library and then when I moved back to Ithac
a as an adult the first thing I did was go back to the library and see if I could work there again. There’s just something as a book person it’s wonderful to be around books and other book people.

One of the reviews of Li
brary Lion called it a love letter to the library, which is perfect. That’s exactly how I’d like people to think of it. Writing the book has only increased my affection for libraries and I’ve gotten to see a lot more, I’ve been invited to visit other libraries. I think you can learn a lot about a community, too, by the way that its library is put together and the people who you meet when you’re in the library. I really could go on and on. I think they’re wonderful.

For Learn to Read, you had lists of specific words you could and could not use. How did this affect the w
ay that you write?

It was very challenging because I’ve written a lot of beginning reader-type books but never with a specific word list. It took me a while to get used to that idea. At first I thought, oh I’ll just write and then I’ll go back and make sure the words are okay, but that doesn’t work out.

On the other hand, it was also inspiring
in a way. Smart Shark came from the fact that I was trying to figure out what to write about and I was looking at the patterns of words in the word list and 'smart' and 'shark' were in the same little window and that’s probably not an idea that I would have thought of without the word lists to refer to. And it’s a fun challenge to have to tell the story using only the words that you’re allowed to use. There might be a word that’s perfect in terms of being what you want to say at that moment in the story but you’re not allowed to use it and so you’ve got to find a different way to get the same idea across. It was fun. It was hard, but fun.

Were you happy with the illustrations?

Yes! I loved the illustrations. I LOVED them! I think Farmer Ted did an excellent job. Whenever you write something and someone else does the illustrations you never quite know how you’re going to feel because you see pictures in your head and no one can see what’s in your head, obviously, so they’re always different. But they’re so much better. They added a whole other layer to the story. They just bring it to life in a new way, and they’re so funny.

Were you surprised with how Library
Lion was illustrated?

That one’s so interesting because the illustrations are so perfect I can’t imagine having thought of them in any other way. Kevin Hawkes did such a beautiful job. The only thing that I remember at the time was I wasn’t thinking that Miss Merriweather would be as old as she was because I am very conscious of the old lady librarian stereotype, and so part of me didn’t want her to be an old lady for that reason but she’s so perfect. And she’s also a very snappy dresser, which I appreciated. The lion was perfect, too. He really got the story and again added a whole other dimension to it that wasn’t there before. I’ve been very lucky with a lot of my illustrators.

What reading tips would you give to parents?

It’s hard because I’m not a parent and so my experience of children’s books is a different one. Obviously I read a lot of them and I write for children, but a lot of it is specific to the child. I would say the very best thing that parents can do is read to their kids and read in front of their kids. That was very important to me growing up, seeing my parents reading and wanting to be able to read the kinds of books that they were reading, and seeing it as an enjoyable activity, not a chore, not something you did because it was good for you but something you did for fun. I also think it’s great to let kids participate in the book selecting process.

How about reading tips for kids?

I think to be patient, especially for younger children. I remember when I couldn’t read and how frustrating that was. When I was learning to read, it was very difficult. It’s so easy to get frustrated – if you want to read a book that’s beyond your reading level and you can’t do it. I think it’s really important to just be patient with yourself during that whole process. And for kids who are already confident in reading I think it’s important to read a lot of different kinds of books – you may be interested in one kind of story but there’s so much out there. The more you read, the better.

Do you have any picture books you’d recommend?

Mog the Forgetful Cat
by Judith Kerr. It’s an oldie. It was my first favorite picture book from when I was younger. They rereleased it several years ago in an anniversary edition. There are a lot of Mog stories but I am mostly partial to the original story of Mog, a forgetful cat, and her adventures. She’s so cat-like and it’s a small story but you feel so much for Mog.

Something by Leo Lionni, I can’t think of which one. It’s very hard to pick.

All right, I’m going to pick one that nobody ever picks which is T Is for Terrible by Peter McCarty, Peter McCarty of the Hondo and Fabian books, which are wonderful. This one’s about a Tyrannosaurus Rex. It’s sort of a small story but his art is amazing. It’s a self-reflective “why am I so terrible, would I be so terrible if I were pink?” There are pictures of him with all the other animals running away from him. And then at the end he sort of embraces “well, you know, I’m Tyrannosaurus Rex and I’m terrible” and he’s going to eat all of the other dinosaurs. It’s very clear in the art. It’s a weird book. I probably shouldn’t say that – weird in the most perfect way. I came across it in the store one day and fell in love with it and bought it and recommend it to people. It’s different. It’s a different approach.

For more on Michelle's new young adult novel, The Dragon of Trelian, see the rest of my interview at Media Macaroni.