My daughter is what I would call a "developing" reader, meaning she's just starting to take on chapter books. That transition from picture books to real chapter books is sort of a mystery to me. I got a book by Beverly Cleary for her in the fall, only to find out that it is a fifth-grade level book on the Accelerated Reader list -- two levels above her "zone" (or whatever. I may have to rant about Accelerated Reader some time). Anyway, she tried reading the first couple of pages and now it's lying on the top of her bookcase, in the same spot where she put it down that day. So what do "developing" readers read?
In my daughter's case, the "Magic Tree House" books by Mary Pope Osborne. She's crazy about them. So I decided I would read one to see what they are like. I read #17 (they all have a number), which was Tonight on the Titanic (they apparently all have an alliterative title, too), and I was pleased. My son never really got into the MTH books -- I think they came along after he had already "developed" as a reader. Instead, he read Junie B. Jones, which I find rather annoying after a while. I get tired of the cutesy "kid" talk and the immature social skills -- who needs to read that in a book when you can look out and see it sitting at your dinner table?
Back to Tonight on the Titanic. The overall premise of the MTH books is that a brother and sister (Jack and Annie) discovered a magic tree house that will take them anywhere they point to in a book. (That's already a plus for me -- I remember wishing I could do that when I was a kid.) To add some plot (and sell more books, I do believe), there is a "mission" that Jack and Annie have to fulfill that will last for 3 or 4 books. For example, in ToT, they have to retrieve four items to free a little dog from a spell. In this case, it is a gift from an "unsinkable ship." So they go back in time to the Titanic, help a little boy and his sister get to the lifeboats, get the gift they need, and come back home in the tree house just in time.
I can see the story would appeal to "developing" readers. I mean, even though it was a very simple plot, I (as an adult) was interested in how it would turn out. Characterization of Jack and Annie was decent -- at the end, after they are back home and safe, there is sort of a nice little section where they are thinking about the people who died when the ship went down. It's not maudlin, but it also doesn't try to ignore the reality of what happened, which I think is a good lesson for young kids. Mary Pope Osborne wrote in the forward that she wasn't sure she wanted to write about such a sad event, but that she decided that if she could show something good that happened, it would be worthwhile. And I think she succeeded -- Jack and Annie do something that is believable and kind and brave.
One thing I really liked was that this is a way to sneak in some history on kids. My daughter will say, "This part is in dark print - that means it's real." See, Jack has to put together "clues" to help them accomplish their mission, and those clues are usually historical facts. Another thing my daughter likes is "when the kids have on different clothes." Osborne sneaks in a little social/cultural history by having the characters' clothes magically change to those of the time period. Ha! Clever, Mary Pope Osborne!So, thumbs up! My "developing" reader has something good to read. She'll eventually be ready for that Beverly Cleary book, but for now, I'm happy she's crazy about something that actually teaches her something instead of something that simply entertains her.