Jenny's 2010 Picks
How Rocket Learned to Read
by Tad Hills
If your child is starting to match letters with their sounds and perhaps recognize a word or two, you are in luck! This charming book tells a multilayered story about learning to read and making a friend, through a series of very simple words and images. A shift in palette conveys the passage of time, and the changes in the puppy hero’s expressions and body language indicate the furry pupil’s gradual openness to his little feathered teacher’s patient and persistent overtures.
First off, we meet Rocket, a dog who loves to play: “He loved to chase leaves and chew sticks. He loved to listen to the birds sing.” One day, after a full morning of play, just when he’s “settl[ing] in for a good nap,” a little yellow bird alights on Rocket’s tufted forehead. “Aha! My first student! Wonderful!” she sings. Rocket responds by moving on to a new napping place. When the bird begins the story of an unlucky dog, Buster, who’s lost his favorite bone, we see only the tip of Rocket’s tail protruding from a bush. “At first Rocket was disturbed,” and his expression shows it. But as Buster’s story progresses, Rocket perks up. The little yellow bird flies off, leaving her furry listener on a cliff-hanger.
Now the pooch is hooked, and “every day Rocket returned to the little yellow bird’s classroom.” Each morning, Rocket learns a new letter, and student and teacher put the letters together. Hills delightfully drives the plot with the sounds the letters make: with “G” and “R” they spell brown-and-white spotted Mr. Barker’s growl (“GRRRRRRRRRR!”). Hills makes children aware of the omnipresence of sounds of all kinds—a dog’s growl, the whoosh of the wind. Meanwhile, the sky darkens, and the leaves turn “R-E-D.” It’s fall—time for the little yellow bird to head South. “Don’t forget! Words are built one letter at a time!” she cries as she flies off. In her absence, Rocket practices his letters; a snowy field becomes his whiteboard. He traces “A-B-C” in the snow, and sounds out “W-I-N-D” and “C-O-L-D.” Just when Rocket looks the most downcast, we watch the snow “M-E-L-T” and know that spring will soon return and the little yellow bird with it. The pup sees the bird’s chalkboard with the message “Class starts tomorrow,” and spells “W-A-G” as he happily awaits his friend and instructor. All of the words are simple enough for beginning readers to sound out for themselves. And of course the tale of Buster, “the lucky dog who found his bone under the lilac bush,” is one that Rocket and his yellow-feathered teacher read “again. And again. And A-G-A-I-N.” Together Rocket and the little yellow bird reveal a magical world that reading opens up for all of us.