Books We Love

Book Review: Early Starters Series by Rod Campbell

I expect many of you have a copy of Dear Zoo on your children’s bookshelf, it’s become one of the most popular pre-school books since it’s publication in 1982.

Rod Campbell is a prolific author and illustrator and I’m a big fan of his work. As most people know Dear Zoo I’ve decided to take a look at a couple of books in his Early Starter series: Can You? and How Many?

Why I Love These Books

Each book in the series takes on a key developmental theme but don’t let this make you think they aren’t fun!

How Many? as you may have guessed is all about learning first numbers. Now, this could be quite dull and I’ve seen a lot of books where your little learner is shown a series of balls, or cars (CAAARR!), or blocks. Sometimes I feel like we might as well be counting previous Prime Ministers; and you say together, “Look one Harold Wilson, two Margaret Thatchers…” (urrgh, imagine that).

Rod Campbell’s characters and animals are so entertaining you’ll forget you’re learning to count at all. You and your little one I mean, I assume you can count.

So who’s in the book? A puppy, two kittens, three baby rabbits, four ducklings and five chicks!  I think Little B would have preferred at least one lion (“Raaa Raaa!”) but I explained that these are UK farm animals so no Raa-Raas.

Each double page has a four line rhyme so read out and down the right hand side of each page is a drawing of the animal, which disappears to reveal the number as you turn the pages.

How Many? book

Finally at the end there’s a great little game to play spotting and counting up all the different animals together on one page.

Can You? is all about actions and activities but also includes different textures and flaps to lift – which as you may know is Little B’s and my favourite thing about children’s books so we’re already onto a winner!

We kick off with

Baby can play peek-a-boo.

Can you?

And here’s the baby in question, who we think looks a lot like Little B – another reason we love Rod Campbell’s books featuring this little chap. Little B loves hiding behind towels in our bathroom so he finds this one hilarious.

Next up is a mirror (which works), a then a kitten with an actual furry tummy that is literally jumping out of the page (at this point your toddler may be in heaven).

Can You? book - cat picture

And the big climax is looking through a window onto the final page where you can see the garden with a dog, frog, bird, and rabbit to spot. If any of you are saying ‘What, that’s it?’ then I will add that the drum on the cover is very sparkly and shiny. Happy now? Ahhh, I knew it!

The Illustrations

Rod Campbell’s drawings of people are very simple, pen and ink lines and dots for faces and big swashes of colour for their clothing. The animals all have rounded edges and slightly googly eyes, tongues sticking out; it could all add up to making them look a bit odd and scary but the opposite is true. I honestly want to pick up the cat and hug it just like Baby in Can You?

I think adding interactive elements really helps young children to engage with the books at a point when reading seeds are being sown. And there is a nice repetition to the text building to a satisfying end – even though there isn’t a narrative as such, the final pages have a pay-off and reward for sticking with the book.

Who Is This Book For?

As the series title says these books, along with their playmates What’s That? and My Day are for reading to babies from the first months. I think they will love looking at the drawings from a few weeks old and then reaching out to play with the materials not long after. You can keep reading them right through the first two years and begin to name animals, start teaching numbers, and talk about what’s happening in the pictures. I think an upper limit would be 30 months old, by then your toddlers are likely to be looking for a bit more from a story!

The Author

Born in Scotland and raised in Zimbabwe Rod Campbell apparently grew up in a house without books! But this didn’t stop him loving reading after being introduced to books at school.

He says

I wanted to create books that enticed babies and toddlers into books, and gave them a good fun experience. Also, I wanted to help them in that magical mysterious process of learning to read.

Interestingly he refers to himself as a maker of books rather than an author or illustrator, and I can see what he means.

Books like Can You? or Dear Zoo are tactile, active experiences; objects to explore and experiment with that will hopefully be the start of a life-long love of books in all their forms.

There’s a great interview with Rod here on the official Dear Zoo website.