Several months ago, my son asked me to recommend novels for my granddaughter who is not yet 4 years old. At first I balked — novels were too complex for a child so young. I arranged a Skype session hoping to discourage this effort. “I’ll read Catie a few pages of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox,” I told my son, “And we’ll see how it goes.”
We Skyped.I read aloud.Catie seemed engaged, but I cringed inwardly as I read about the rich villains, Farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean. A 3-year-old knows nothing about wealth; the book was too sophisticated. Mr. Fox was one of the first novels I read aloud to my children in early elementary school, but by then, they had an inkling of what rich meant.
Less than a week later, my son reported that they’d gotten the book and were enjoying it. I softened, remembered how we’d shared so many novels over the years, and how we’d looked forward to nightly readings. When they finished the book, my son sent a video of my granddaughter’s “first review.” She didn’t understand everything, but clearly she was a fan of novels. I’ve been seeking out first chapter books ever since.
A friend lately told me about an audio experience that paralleled mine. I know her children love audio books, and she has a difficult time finding those that please both her preschooler and first grader. I suspected that these early novels might be a good fit for her children, so I asked her to road test the first in Ellen Potter’s new series, “Piper Green and Fairy Tree” (Book from Knopf; audio from Live Oaks, 45 minutes) Both are suited for ages 5 to 7.
Piper lives on Peek-a-Boo Island in Maine and rides a lobster boat to school. On the first day of second grade, she sports green monkey earmuffs once worn by her older brother Erik who is attending boarding school on the mainland. Piper’s younger brother is as eccentric as she. He is “married” to a piece of paper, and his children are Post-its which he has attached to his “mother.” Piper’s understanding parents are patient and, one imagines, long-suffering.
Tavia Gilbert performs Piper’s first-person narration with an enthusiastic high-pitched reading, perfect for the eager young heroine. Piper is a small girl with big feelings that shift constantly, and Gilbert captures all of these. She also transitions easily to portrayals of the other characters. She adopts a Maine accent for the caring, teasing lobster boat captain and is just as convincing as Piper’s snooty classmate, and her new teacher, whose manner is commanding, rather than the fairy tale princess tones that Piper expected.
When Piper’s new teacher does not allow her to wear the ear muffs, she skips school. She watches the ferry boat leave from high in a tree with a hole. This hole conceals two kittens, and later, Piper learns it’s a fairy tree. If you leave a treasure, she’s told, you’ll find a treasure. New kittens and the fairy tree renew Piper, whom readers quickly understand, is so feisty she can’t remain sad for long. Gilbert stresses the positive feelings and humor more than the underlying pathos.
My friend’s 7-year-old son listened primarily for the plot and was fascinated by the thought of going to school in a lobster boat, but listening twice was his limit. A missing brother is definitely a stretch for preschoolers, but my friend’s 4-year-old daughter loved the story and wanted to hear it again and again. Her mother thought it gave her “something to chew on.” Her daughter was fascinated by the fairy tree and asked, “Could that really happen?” She wondered if she found two cats could she keep them and put green monkey ear muffs on her Christmas list. (Her mother’s currently trying to find them!)
Happily for his mother, this is an audio that held up during replaying. They’ve already ordered the sequel!