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 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 like (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.