Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Ballet Cat: Dance! Dance! Underpants! by Bob Shea

Image from Books.Disney.Com
Hi there! Amy here to take a look at Ballet Cat: Dance! Dance! Underpants! by Bob Shea, a book  that corners the market in cover appeal. The bright colors and sparkles fairly scream to young readers, “read me!”

Ballet Cat, introduced in last year’s Ballet Cat: The Totally Secret Secret, is ready to do some super-high leaps with her friend Butter Bear. Unfortunately, there’s a secret that’s making Butter Bear shy away from this pinnacle of balletic fun. What could it be? Underpants, of course! It’s very worrisome to think that others will laugh at Butter Bear’s underpants while she does her super-high leaps. Naturally, Ballet Cat forges ahead to save the day. Amid showers of applause and roses she exclaims, “Hooray! Ballet conquers all!”

Let’s take a look at the Geisel Award criteria. How does the latest Ballet Cat adventure stack up?

“Page-Turning” Dynamic
The criteria indicates that a plot that advances with “page-turning” dynamic is one marker of beginning reader excellence. In other words, does the plot engage the reader and are they encouraged to turn the page for more? I think Ballet Cat excels in this area. The page turns are well-timed for humor and pacing. The cartoonish illustrations use thick outlines, eye-catchingly bright colors, and comical facial expressions, drawing the reader into the story.

Word repetition is another award criteria. In this title there are many instances of repetition, “cereal” shows up three times and “underpants” is repeated a whopping eleven times. However, some unusual words only appear once, such as “conquer” and “dangerous.” New readers may find these words difficult to sound out because they have unfamiliar sounds (the q in “conquer” is quite intimidating) or because of their length (“dangerous” has 9 letters).

Another factor is sentence length. The need for “simple and straightforward” sentences is listed as an award criteria. Some sentences in this story are quite long and include several newly introduced words. Ballet Cat’s declaration, “If you dance with all your heart, the only thing they will see is the beauty of ballet” is eighteen words long and it’s the first time words “heart” and “beauty” appear in the text.

The criteria calls for illustrations to “function as keys or clues to the text.” These visual context clues can help readers with new words. Although the illustrations in this title add to the kid appeal, the lack of visual context clues for words such as, “orange juice”, “practiced”, and “lazy,” is disappointing. The off-page dialogue could be problematic as well, as there aren’t any visual clues to the unseen action.

Another element to consider is the choice, color, size, and placement of the font. This book has a nice large, bold, black  font well-chosen to stand out on the colorful pages. Like Willems’ wildly popular Elephant and Piggie books, Shea makes great use of color coded speech bubbles--pink for Ballet Cat and yellow for Butter Bear. This design choice helps new readers follow the dialogue even as they sound out new words. On the flip side, many sentences are divided in order to squeeze all the text into the speech bubbles and this can create some problematic line breaks. Butter Bear speech bubble reads, “No wonder I am so / tired. I must go to / sleep for the winter.” It’s a shame each sentence could not have been printed on it’s own line.

In conclusion, with great repetition and color-coded speech bubbles, there are some very strong elements in this engaging, energetic story. The font is easy on the eye and the page turns are well-placed. The eye-catching cover and humorous story have clearly been designed to create maximum kid appeal. Unfortunately, there are some weaknesses as well. The presence of so many difficult new vocabulary words, lack of visual context clues, and long sentences could make this a frustrating reading experience for a new reader.

What do you think? Have you read this book with kids? What did they have to say about it?


  1. I have found that many kids at my library reach for the Ballet Cat series because of the attractive covers and seductive subjects (cats! ballet!) but tend to abandon the books before the end. As you say, Amy, the series has a lot of shelf appeal but can be a lot to tackle for readers who aren't yet super-confident.

    1. Thanks for sharing your observations, Katya. The powers of attractive covers and seductive subjects should not be underestimated and I hope other titles will harness them as well.

  2. Hey Amy,
    Thank you for serving on the Geisel and for launching this blog. It is great to have a new space for discussion of beginning readers.

    Could you share more about when a word in the text is considered to be a "new word"?

    1. Hi Ernie,

      Great question! A "new word" would be one that's not seen on a standard sight word list, such as "practiced" or "conquer" in this title. It's especially important to make new words clear in beginning readers because it may very well be the first time a reader encounters that word. So having a visual context clue, as well as repetition is super helpful.

      Hope that helps,

    2. Amy,
      Do we know if it is common for authors of beginning readers to be provided sight word lists from publishers?

    3. Ernie,
      Another great question! :) I don't know for sure, but my guess is that it varies from publisher to publisher. In my experience, it doesn't seem like a current publishing trend to list of sight words before or after the narrative text of beginning readers. I know I've seen this in older titles, but don't recall it in very many last year.

      This is something we could definitely explore in a future post (if you'd like to be a guest contributor on this topic, we'd love to have you!).