What makes a great read aloud? The best ones are almost always stories with humor and surprising plot twists. A good refrain and other types of ear-pleasing language also help a book grab a young audience.
Not This Bear! by Bernice Myers
This is an oldie but a goodie. I've been teaching Shakespeare to one of my teenage students, and as we've tried to figure out what comedy is, we've discussed the humorous possibilities of mistaken identity or disguise. So in Not This Bear! we have little Herman, who gets off the bus and walks through the woods to visit his Aunt Gert, but is waylaid by a bear shouting, "You must be my Cousin Julius!" It is a very cold day, and Herman has tucked himself deep inside his fur coat and hat. Dragged home to the bear's den, he tries telling the ursine clan that he is a boy, not a bear, but they won't listen. When he demonstrates his unusual abilities, Papa Bear merely says, "See what happens...when a bear has a chance to go to the big city and learn a trade." But Herman shows a strange reluctance to hibernate, and the bears start to wonder if he really is their cousin... Then just when you think Herman has made his escape, there's a nice little near-miss of a twist!
The Revenge of the Magic Chicken by Helen Lester and Lynn Munsinger
Lester and Munsinger are best known for Tacky the Penguin. Their book, The Wizard, the Fairy, and the Magic Chicken (right), is still in print, but I prefer the sequel, The Revenge of the Magic Chicken, which has gone out of print. Our story begins with the wizard, the fairy, and the magic chicken (who has a pickle wand) arguing over whose shoes are the most beautiful. Tempers rise, and soon the fairy turns the wizard into a cow wizard and the wizard turns the fairy into a blueberry muffin. When the magic chicken laughs at them both, they turn him into a Ballerina Chicken.
The Magic Chicken goes off in a huff, then comes back with a vengeful spell involving scary creatures appearing in the tree above the unsuspecting cow's and muffin's heads. Although he has second thoughts, the Magic Chicken can't remember the spell to call off his attack team. Young readers will enjoy saying the spell, which goes like this: "Pickle, pickle, bright and GREEN,/Make me something very MEAN." We get monsters like Gnarly Gnitbats, who scream, "Eeyipes! Eeyipes!" and Awesome Alligators, who roar, "RrrrG, rrrrG." Not to mention an Enormous Elephant. Kids will enjoy setting the Magic Chicken straight, since the problem with his cancellation spell is that he keeps getting the color word wrong.
The Magic Chicken is a great comedic character, and Lynn Munsinger is a genius!
The Old Woman and the Willy Nilly Man by jill Wright and Glen Rounds
You may have figured out that starting in kindergarten, if not before, a lot of young readers like scary stories. This one turns out okay, but the character of the Willy Nilly Man is, as the author informs us, "scairy."
He lives in a house in the middle of the wood but it's not like a house regular folks would live in. It's all made up out of pieces of tin and old cans and boxes and junk he's found down along the railroad tracks. And it has a cow skull hangin on it and an old goat skull and a lot of skinny dogs are slinkin around outside growlin.An old woman goes to visit the Willy Nilly Man because every night, her shoes get up and dance, keeping her awake. When she gets to the Willy Nilly Man's house, he is banging on an old drum, singing, "Clothes, wash yourselves...clothes, wash yourselves." And his laundry is doing itself! The Willy Nilly Man slyly agrees to help the old woman, but his cure only makes things worse, and she is determined to pay him back. This Appalachian folktale will be an unusual and slightly shivery read for your children, but it is also laced with humor.
I will add that the illustrator himself was a real character. According to his obituary in the New York Times from September 2002, when he died at the age of 96, Glen Rounds "was born in a sod house near Wall, S.D., and worked as a mule skinner, cowboy and carnival medicine man before beginning a long career as an author and illustrator....
Reaching New York in 1930, he took night classes at the Art Students League. In the mid-1930's he visited publishers' offices in late morning, somehow getting a good lunch even if his drawings seemed too coarse. Once he began to be published, however, he proved indefatigable....
In 1989 severe arthritis in his right arm forced him to stop drawing. 'Rather than take up horseshoeing,' he said in an interview, he used the summer to learn to draw left-handed and went back to work."
If you'd like a preview, here's a link to storyteller Judy Peiken's retelling of The Old Woman and the Willy Nilly Man.
Beware of Boys by Tony Blundell
I love this crazy British story! A large but hapless wolf captures a small boy taking a shortcut through the forest and brings him home to eat for his supper. "Silly boy," the wolf says. But the boy is neither silly nor alarmed. He immediately begins proposing recipes the wolf can use to prepare him so that he will be a truly delicious repast. The first of these, "Recipe for Boy Soup," includes the following ingredients:
--One boy (medium-sized)
--One large iron pot
--One ton of potatoes
--One oodle of onions
--One wooden tub of turnips
--One cartload of carrots
--One packet of fruit chews
--One well-full of water
--One barrel of bricks
Sharp-eared readers will notice that the string of recipes (because the boy keeps suggesting different ones) always include treats for the boy, are designed to wear the wolf out, and have cooking instructions which don't include any actual cooking. The verbs that accompany the wolf's efforts to gather each set of ingredients are fun to repeat, and at every turn, we find the refrain, "Oh, silly wolf, you have forgotten the salt!" Watch for the random recipe ingredients to come together as boy defeats wolf in a series of moves worthy of a Loony Tunes cartoon. (Actually, this kid could be a young version of Bruce Willis' Die Hard character, between his unshakable confidence and his ability to manipulate the villain into a corner while quipping!)
Blundell's illustrations are colorful and cartoon-like, with plenty of enjoyable details. They remind me of Colin McNaughton's style.
Mr. Semolina-Semolinus: A Greek Folktale retold by Anthony L. Manna, Christodoula Mitakidou, and Giselle Potter
The authors give us a different take on the traditional fairy tale in which a damsel in distress needs rescuing. Greek princess Areti doesn't like any of her suitors, so she decides to make her own. She literally cooks up a boyfriend out of almonds, sugar, semolina, and prayer. The result is Mr. Semolina-Semolinus, who is "five times beautiful and ten times kind, and his name [becomes] known the wide world over."
Unfortunately, a wicked queen from a far-off kingdom hears of this wonderful man, and she travels across the sea in her golden galley to kidnap him. After that, Areti follows in the pattern of northern European fairy tales such as "East of the Sun, West of the Moon" and "The Seven Ravens" by wearing out three pairs of iron shoes in her search for her lost love. She is given gifts in nutshells by the Moon, the Sun, and the Stars, but it is only the smallest star who can tell her where to find Mr. Semolina-Semolinus. At last Areti is able to rescue him. A nice little post-script is what happens when the evil queen tries to cook up a man of her own!
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the authors is to make the love between Areti and Mr. Semolina-Semolinus seem tender and true in just a few words. For example, when at last she can talk to him again, we learn that "To the princess he now appeared ten times beautiful and twenty times kind, for that is the way love is."
Giselle Potter's distinctive illustration style also makes this story a unique read.