The second half ofI Can Read It All By Myself is a book-by-book exploration of Beginner Books and Bright and Early Books. This Beginner Books Encyclopedia, as I titled it in the book, ends in 2019. The following picks up in the 2020s, and I will update it as new books are released.
Note: Much to my chagrin, Random House appears to have discontinued numbering Beginner Books. The last one to feature a number on the spine was Squirrels on Skis (B-102). I have decided to continue the numbering on my own. By my figuring, it goes like this: B-103 Catch That Crook!, B-104 Too Many Cupcakes!, B-105 What Pet Should I Get?, B-106 Dr. Seuss’s 123, B-107 Skunk In My Bunk, B-108 Can You See Me?, B-110 If I Had Your Vote
Shut The Door! (2020)
Robert Lopshire and Maria Karipidou
Robert Lopshire published five Beginner Books in his lifetime, but he also did books for several other publishers. One of his final books was 1993’s Shut the Door!, which was published as a “First Little Golden Book.” These were even littler than the typical Little Golden Books, and the language was simplified. This particular story, told in rhyming couplets, is a logical insanity plot about the escalating effects of little bear forgetting to close the door to his house. Given all of those factors, and the fact that it was done by a beloved Beginner Book veteran, the director Little Golden Books, Diane Muldrow, had the great idea to turn Shut the Door! into a Beginner Book.
Though Bob's illustrations for the original book were charming and well-composed (as his work always was), the square dimensions prevented them from being adapted to the portrait rectangle Beginner Book format. So they brought in German illustrator Maria Karipidou. Maria attended Trier University of Applied Science and graduated with a degree in design and illustration. She lives in Karlsruhe, Germany, and teaches at the School of Design in Pforzheim. Though she has illustrated many children’s books, Shut the Door! is one of her first in English.
Maria’s style is cute and exaggerated, finished in the style of what I call Neo-Mid-Centry-Disney-Concept-Art. The pictures are certainly bolder and brighter than Bob’s originals, but are missing the constant left to right momentum that Bob had baked into his approach from working so closely with Ted and absorbing his philosophies.
The Pink Book(2020)
Diane Muldrow and Mike Yamada
In this book, reminiscent of the Bright and Early Books that spotlight different parts of the body, a young Black girl celebrates her favorite color. There’s no plot, just a journey through all the different shades and manifestations of the hue: “Pink is a leaf / Pink is a place / Pink is a gem / Pink is a face.” Perhaps the most significant moment is when she claims she’ll be president one day, and have the White House repainted in pink. Historically, Beginner Books have never gotten political (unless you count Ted’s repurposing of Marvin K. Mooney to advocate for the resignation of Richard Nixon), but it’s hard not to grasp the significance of a young Black girl confidently stating her intention to be president, especially considering that the book was written and released during the regressive Trump administration.
The Pink Book is written in verse that alternates between couplets, internal rhymes, and four-line rhymes. While it’s not unusual for Beginner Books to combine different meters, usually one dominates over the others. Here the verse goes back and forth with no pattern, which prevents it from establishing a comfortable rhythm.
Writer Diane Muldrow (born circa 1962) is no stranger to Random House. She worked there as an editor for many years, and was primarily in charge of Little Golden Books after Random House purchased the line of books in 1998. Diane has written and edited books celebrating Little Golden Books, and she has even written some Little Golden Books herself, including Where Do Giggles Come From? (with Anne Kennedy), How Do Penguins Play? (with David Walker), and The Fairies’ Ball (with Olivia Chin Mueller). She also worked with fellow Beginner Book creator Bob Staake on 2010’s We Planted a Tree.
Diane grew up in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, and attended Ohio University, earning degrees in both dance and journalism. She would use both in her career. According to her website, in the late 1980s and early 1990s Diane was an avant-garde dancer, actress, and singer in New York. In the mid-1990s she went to work for Scholastic as an editor, which eventually led her to Random House. Her great affection for Little Golden Books made her the perfect person to steward the line, honoring the past classics and finding new artists and writers to add books to it.
The illustrations for The Pink Book are appropriately bright and all-consuming, done in the same Mid-Centry-Disney-Concept-Art style Maria Karipidou and Nicola Slater employ. That’s fitting in this case, because artist Mike Yamada actually worked in visual development for Disney, as well as Dreamworks. His credits include Big Hero 6, How to Train Your Dragon, and Monsters vs. Aliens. The L.A.-based artist is also a veteran of kids’ books, having done pictures for Hannah Barnaby’s Bad Guy, Luke Reynolds’s Bedtime Blastoff, and Jennifer Liberts’s Go, Go…series of Step Into Reading books, among others. He also wrote and drew Cool Cat and Top Dog.
A Ticket for Cricket (2021)
Little Cricket loves to hop, snap, tap, and chirp, but he’s been feeling ignored and stymied since the arrival of Baby Cricket. So he decides to run away. He buys a ticket on a rocket ship and visits Planet One, Planet Two, and Planet Three, but ends up finding fault with all of them. When he returns home his family pays attention to him and appreciates him again. Molly’s pictures, done digitally, have a loose ink line (think Quinten Blake) on top of very bold color and varied textures. Her verse is a mix of couplets and four-line rhymes, and feels natural and rhythmic.
A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Molly Coxe (born 1959) grew up with “a lot of free time.” She spent much of that time in nature, exploring and creating. She studied English at Princeton University, and followed that with a year and a half of art school. In the early 1980s she taught preschool at the Walden School in New York, and found herself inspired by her students love of dictate simple stories for her to transcribe. She married writer Craig Canine in 1984, and the couple moved to his family farm in Iowa, where they started a family. Molly set up a studio in a renovated schoolhouse on their property, and began to carve out a career as an author/illustrator.
Her first book, Louella and the Yellow Balloon, was published by Harper in 1988. In 1991, The Great Snake Escape was published as part of the I Can Read! line (which, now that she has a Beginner Book as well, puts her in the rarified group of creators who have done books for both major early reading lines). A series of Step Into Reading books for Random House established her reputation as having a remarkable talent for writing early readers. Her philosophy is right in line with the classic Beginner Book approach laid out by Ted, Helen, and Phyllis: “Easy words! Let the images do a lot of the work. Funny is good.”
In recent years Molly has made her home in northern California, and she has started creating photo-illustrated books populated with sculpt needle-felt animals. They’re published by Kane Press’s Bright Owl Books imprint.
Though A Ticket for Cricket is her first official Beginner Book, Molly’s 1999 Step Into Reading book Six Sticks was retrofitted as one for the book club edition. But even Molly seems to not count this, and her very sweet dedication in Cricket acknowledges the significance of becoming a Beginner Book author. It reads, “This book is dedicated to my adorable dad, age ninety-three, who read me Beginner Books when I was little.”
I Can Be Anything (2021)
I Can Be Anything! is another showcase for the talented lizard that Bob Staake introduced in Can You See Me? (2019; B-108). In the first book, it showed off its skills at subterfuge, camouflaging itself in a variety of different settings. In the new book, the lizard ups the ante by transforming itself into a dizzying array of vehicles (train, boat, blimp), structures (lighthouse, slide, house in a tree), creatures (panda, robot), and objects (weather vane, tuba, famous works of art).
Just as Can You See Me? owed its biggest debt to Robert Lopshire's Put Me In the Zoo (a creature demonstrates its color-changing abilities to two enthusiastic children), I Can Be Anything! is indebted to that book's sequel, I Want to Be Something New (the creature turns into different shapes). But where Lopshire's book takes a dubious path to a moral of self-acceptance, Bob's is a celebration of the power of imagination and possibility ("What's the thing you want to be? / DO IT! TRY IT! / Then you'll see.")
The book's verse is presented in naturally-flowing couplets and triplets ("Look at me fly! / I'm a plane way up high! / I'm a green-headed monster with a giant red eye"), but the greatest joy comes from Bob's bright, funny pictures. Working in a geometric style most indebted to UPA animation, the writer/artist seems to have equal amounts of fun contorting the lizard (which is always recognizable as itself, even in the different shapes it takes on) as he does with the little details, such as a nauseous merry-go-round rider, or a panda giving the lizard some serious side-eye.
It’s Better Being a Bunny (2022)
Marilyn Sadler and Tim Bowers
Nearly 40 years after his Beginner Book debut (It’s Not Easy Being a Bunny, 1983), and 16 years since his last Beginner Book, P.J. FunnyBunny is back! The new story finds the incorrigible young rabbit chafing against the limitations his parents put on what he eats (no ice cream for breakfast), how he plays (no hanging from tree limbs), and his entertainment choices (no scary movies). It feels like he’s not allowed to do anything. His friend Potts Pig, on the other hand has free reign at his house. So while P.J. is spending the day with Potts, he overeats, plays in the tree, and goes to see Scary Larry in 3D at the movie theater. Of course when he goes home he has a stomach ache and nightmares, leading him to realize the wisdom of his parents’ rules.
It's certainly novel to see a children’s book that addresses parenting so directly, let alone one that also acknowledges children’s feelings of resentment at not being allowed to follow their impulses. And while on the surface P.J.’s embrace of his parents’ rules seems to be a straightforward (and square) “listen to your parents” moral, there’s a more complex undercurrent in It's Better Being a Bunny. P.J.’s parents want the best for him, but they come across as overly strict and controlling. Potts Pig’s mother isn’t portrayed as neglectful. She tells P.J. to be careful when he plays in the tree, and she sends Potts’ older sister to accompany the younger kids to the movie. While the text doesn’t make this explicit at all, perhaps Marilyn Sadler is giving us a sly comparison here. P.J. learned his lessons – and came to understand the reasoning behind his parents’ rules – by being given the freedom to indulge and make mistakes.
P.J.’s co-creator, Roger Bollen, passed away in 2015. His replacement, Tim Bowers, is one Roger likely would have chosen himself. Tim was born and raised in Troy, Ohio. Discovering a love and talent for art early on, he attended the Columbus College of Art & Design on a scholarship. After school he landed a full-time job at Wanamaker Advertising Art studio, but soon realized his true goal was to work in children’s books. After a disappointing attempt to break in, he moved to Missouri and took a job at Hallmark, where he became one of the first artists on the Shoebox line of cards. He didn’t give up on kids’ books, and his perseverance landed him his first contract, illustrating Jan Wahl’s The Toy Circus (Harcourt, 1986).
Tim met Marilyn and Roger in 1989 at a children’s book festival in Akron, and then arranged a visit to their home to learn more about how they worked. There, Roger offered Tim the opportunity to become his assistant on the Animal Crackers comic strip. Tim was flattered, but turned it down, since he knew it would ultimately take away from his children’s book work. It was a good move. Tim has gone on to publish over 50 books, and to work with many prominent authors, including fellow Beginner Book creator Laura Numeroff. He’s also done several books with celebrity authors, among them Kristi Yamaguchi, Neil Sedaka, and Kenny Loggins.
When Random House expressed interest in Marilyn bringing back P.J. FunnyBunny, her mind went right to Tim. Though Tim’s highly-detailed paintings are a far cry from Roger’s minimalist pen-and-ink cartoons, Tim studied his old friend’s style carefully, and replicated it almost perfectly. It’s refreshing to see a new book illustrated in a style that’s not currently popular. Besides ensuring it fits with the rest of the books about P.J., it makes It’s Better Being a Bunny stand out from the crowd.
Busy Street (2022)
Busy Street finds the gopher-like Bonnie and her mother setting out in the morning to run errands downtown. The book follows them as they encounter every type of vehicle you might see in a city: school buses, fire engines, tow-trucks, front-end loaders, police cars, etc. driven by a wide array of animals. Along the way they go grocery shopping, mail a letter, and get some ice cream. By the time they get home, night has fallen, and young Bonnie has fallen asleep.
Told in four-line rhyme, Busy Street is aimed squarely at car-and-truck-obsessed little ones. There’s no real story to speak of. Bonnie and Mommy’s drive through the city is merely a *ahem* vehicle for showcasing the different conveyances and the purposes they serve. Edward Miller, who both wrote and illustrated, gets in the Beginner Book spirit with bright, busy layouts that are meant to be lingered over. And while the book might have benefited from a stronger punchline, Ed does throw in a few visual jokes. There’s the fact that the garbage collectors are skunks, the box labeled “FRAGILE” bouncing out of the back of a moving truck, and the line of cars stopping for a mama duck and her ducklings to cross (Make Way for Ducklings, anyone?)
A New York native, Edward Miller graduated from the Parsons School of Design in 1986. He has worked as a book designer and art director for the likes of Scholastic and Random House, and now runs his own graphic arts studio, Ed Miller Design. His first book, Fredrick Ferdinand Fox, was published by Crown in 1987, and since then has been joined by over 50 others. Besides books, Ed’s whimsical artwork can be found on puzzles, fabrics, and greeting cards. He also does murals for the New York City public schools as part of the Spagheddie Art Group, a collective of artists who volunteer in their spare time to help “make the schools a more colorful place for learning.”