Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Johnny Big Ears: Book Review by ChristineMM

Title: Johnny Big Ears, the Feel-Good Friend
Author: John Paul Padilla
Genre: Easy Reader, grade three children’s book
Publication: Dorrance Publishing Co. Inc., 2008
Format: softcover
ISBN: 9780805974966
Full Retail Price: $17.00

Summary Statement: Good Idea But Book Has Too Many Problems

Rating: 1 stars out of 5

According to the author, this book is for children aged 6-8 years old and is an easy reader written at a third grade level. It is about teasing and bullying that a boy receives for having big ears, when he begins Kindergarten.

I love the idea and the topic of teasing and bullying. However, the book disappoints on all levels. There are major problems with this book.

First the text is not that of an easy reader. An easy reader has controlled vocabulary that children of a certain grade can read, and simple sentences. This book is supposed to be for kids in grade three. I doubted the grade level, so I did with a Flesch-Kinkaid grade level using my word processor, which rated page 3 at a 5.2 grade level writing (and that is not even one of the more complex pages). Also, unlike the industry standard with easy readers, this font is too small and the sentences are too crammed together, leaving lots of blank areas on the page. Easy readers use larger font and have wider line spacing for ease with eye tracking which is still developing in children who are learning to read. Each page has two paragraphs of text while typical easy readers have just a few sentences on each page.

There are grammar errors throughout the book, mixed tenses within paragraphs, shifting from present to past tense. There are too many adjectives and adverbs. The book is too wordy, it needs to be edited down and more finely focused on only the most important things. There are just too many details in this book that kids don’t care to know about. The details slow down the action of the story and bog it down. Also the paragraphs are sometimes confusing, jumping from topic to topic within one paragraph, so the simple notion of one topic for one paragraph was not even adhered to.

Regarding the story itself, it focuses on the first day of Kindergarten. To be blunt, children past their first day of Kindergarten don’t want to read a story about that subject, and kids in third grade definitely don’t want to read of someone’s first day of Kindergarten. Children like reading about exactly the same aged kids or kids who are just slightly older than they are. If the author wants this to be read by third graders the main character should have been in at least grade three.

The entire story seems unrealistic and Johnny lacks credibility. This is mainly because when Johnny is teased at school he feels not one single negative emotion, other than surprise that the kids are criticizing his looks and judging him on his appearance. The entire issue with teasing and bullying is that it hurts and yet Johnny seems unaffected. Johnny’s reaction sounds more like the voice of an adult therapist’s, like a cross between Mr. Rogers and Dr. Phil. It comes across preachy. There is nothing kids hate more than books with a message that come off preachy in tone. A good book must have a character that the reader can emotionally connect with.

I can’t imagine a bullied child with hurt feelings ever connecting to Johnny who from unconditional love of extended family has self-esteem that surpasses that of some adults. What would have been more effective and useful for children to see in a story is how Johnny was hurt by the teasing and how he OVERCAME his hurt feelings. Kids need to see examples of overcoming adversity and how to react to negative situations.

The artwork is terrible. The illustration of the Kindergarten teacher is the ugliest and scariest teacher I’ve ever seen, and the author gave her the name of Mrs. Wrinkles. Come on! The children including Johnny have the bodies of children aged 10 or 11!

Lastly, the price of $17 for a paperback easy reader is more than four times the price of a typical easy reader published by a publishing house.

The theme of the book is an excellent idea. I have been disappointed with the slim pickings of books for young children on the topic of handling teasing and bullying that are presently in print. I suggest that the author hire an editor and re-write the book. He may want to consider using a picture book format that is for a parent or teacher to read aloud because that can have more complicated vocabulary instead of using the limited vocabulary of an easy reader. Books on this topic are perfect for discussion with a parent so the read-aloud is a better idea anyway. General information and discussion prompts could be at the back of the picture book instead of trying to work that language into the story itself, since giving adult type advice from the mouth of a five year old book character is not natural or believable. Picture books on this topic would be of interest to parents, public libraries and school teachers to purchase (a wider audience to market to).

“The ABC’s of Writing for Children” edited by Elizabeth Koehler Pentacoff is an excellent book to learn more about what makes a good children’s book and what mistakes to try to avoid. Also a tip from Heather Sellers from her book “Chapter After Chapter” is to first read 100 books in the genre you wish to write about. Reading 100 easy readers and 100 picture books “with a message” will teach many lessons about what works and what does not work in children’s books.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book for the purpose of reading and writing a book review.

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1 comment:

Peter N. Jones said...

That is too bad the book is no good. We need books on bullies to help kids deal with school problems. The one I found really helpful was The Bully: A Discussion and Activity Story. Beautifully illustrated, the book is more then just a story, it has activities to help a kid cope with the situation. You would think Dorrence could have done better.