I dusted off my all-time favorite school reader last week and read it straight through over a few days. I was reading it in second grade in the fall of 1973. I could never forget People Need People (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973).
It rocked my world then and it turns out I still love it now. It had this cool brown cover featuring cutouts from the different stories within, including a rising witch, a dejected 2nd grader, and tiny Wet Albert holding a telescope. Bright colors and all kinds of pictures. Whoa! It looked so different from my 1st grade books. (I think one was called Worlds of Wonder, published by MacMillan.) I had been used to Dick and Jane type stuff where all the pictures were the same. The only question was what the next adventure would be for Mike, Jeff and their sister, whatever her name was. I liked them at the time. Who could resist Bolo, their dog, and Velvet, their cat?
But now this was 2nd grade and it was a new world for me. I was about cartoons and drawing—the variety in here was intoxicating. Plus our books were new and shiny, which didn’t hurt. I remember the magic of loving the stories and anticipating with the rest of the group what looked good coming up. In September that year I knew I was good on reading a real basic picture book like Frog and Toad, but I had no idea that in a few months I would be reading stories with lots of text. I thought books like that could be read by high schoolers at the youngest.
The first story was “Freddy Found a Frog” by Alice James Napthus. Freddy was black, like several kids in our class. The pictures by Blair Drawson were bright and ‘70s-style. Freddy suddenly has a frog and tries to decide what to do with him. The story still feels real and child-like. The rest of the book also has people of varying shades, which I think was a big difference from our old readers.
My kindergartener in 2012 brings home the photocopied books from his reading program and they’re drab scaffolds of words with no real story to tell. (A great spoof of lame readers is Three by the Sea by James and Edward Marshall. Very funny. A real crowd pleaser.) Thank God for real story-telling. Bill Martin, Jr. (of Chicka, Chicka, Boom Boom and Brown Bear, Brown Bear fame) led a revolution in the late ‘60s of primers that were real anthologies that had good stories and not just a monotonous cast of Dicks and Janes. (For instance Sounds of a Young Hunter, 1967. Also Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Maybe I’ll have to read it sometime for the first time and say what I think.) By the time People Need People came out those textbook publishers were on fire!
My favorite story in the book was “Wet Albert” by Michael and Joanna Cole (later famous for the Magic School Bus series). For some reason a rain cloud follows young Albert around everywhere he goes. At first it’s a problem but then he is able to help people all over the world. I learned the word “drought” from this story and found out the g and h are silent. Weird, huh? The cartoonish pictures by Bernice Myers were irresistible to try drawing myself. My modern 3rd grader and kindergartener love Wet Albert.
Just a few other highlights: “Maxie” by Mildred Kantrowitz is a lovely story about a single, retired lady in an apartment building who starts thinking no one needs her. Of course the neighbors rally ‘round. It reminds me of the powerful picture book Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch by Eileen Spinelli. “Lucy and Her Cousin” by Elizabeth Levy is about how Lucy has to put up with her younger cousin who is nothing but a pain, and how they learn to understand each other. Terrific fiction, a bit like an adult short story. (Levy also has a compelling story of young Mozart later in the volume.) I still love “Tammy Camps in the Rocky Mountains”. She and her dad and brother are climbing Long’s Peak and she’s always taking pictures and lagging. I love the realistic watercolors by Tim and Greg Hildebrandt, so much that I should track down more by them. Last but not least is the story “Boy, Was I Mad!” by Kathryn Hitte. This blond boy tells the story of being mad and going out of his house and he gets a little less mad on each page. Each gray-black drawing by Diane de Groat is on a different colored spread-pink, purple, blue, etc.The bottom right corner is like a flip book—on each successive page the boy looks a bit happier in spite of himself.
I was surprised what a pleasure it was to reread People Need People. I subsequently pulled out The Way of the World, the other reader from my second grade. But the art and subjects paled in comparison. One good thing was that there were some favorite illustrators’ styles that I recognized from the previous book like Myers and the Hildebrandts. It was a lucky stroke that the school district I used to teach for discarded great old textbooks like that one. You CAN go home again.
I prize my collection of old readers and what they say about us and the era they’re from. Anyone else out there have favorite reader memories?