Review: We Can!

The earliest readers need diverse books too! Here’s one appropriate for the beginning reader.

We Can! (also titled If You Can, I Can) by Gay Su Pinnell, illustrated by Barbara Duke.
Scholastic, New York, 2002.
Realistic fiction, 9 pages.
Lexile: BR  (What does BR mean in Lexile?)
AR: not leveled
NOTE: Intended for the earliest beginning readers, a later edition is titled If You Can, I Can.

We Can is the sweet story of two non-white brothers, told in extremely simple words with pictures carrying most of the story, for the earliest of pre-readers and beginning readers.

We Can! by Gay Su Pinnell, Illustrated by Barbara Duke.

I was delighted to find a nice selection of early readers at a local thrift store.  It is incredibly difficult to find a good batch of books at this level in general, let alone culturally appropriate and diverse books, so I quickly sorted through the stack to find any that had diverse characters.  At a dollar each, this particular store was a little expensive for pre-readers (most places sell used ones for 50 cents down even as low as 10 cents, especially for used books which have writing and highlighting in them as some of these did), so I wanted to only select those that I might not find elsewhere.

After sorting for covers with non-white characters, and discarding any with too much damage, in the end I found four new-to-me books.  After reading them, there were three winners and one dud – don’t worry, this is one of the winners!

Until I looked up the author for this review (to see if this was an #ownvoices book and would qualify for the Diverse Books Challenge), I had no idea that she was Pinnell of Fountas and Pinnell!

Okay, let me back up for those of you who aren’t educators, or aren’t American.  If you have kids in an American school system, chances are good that when they were little, at some point you heard something like “Sumeet’s reading at a level B now and with effort he’ll reach C by the end of the semester.”  That was Fountas and Pinnell.

Basically it’s a system of leveled reading that teachers can use as a whole classroom or whole school teaching method or as a pull-out supplemental method.  The system covers Pre-readers all the way up to 8th grade, but it’s mostly used with kindergarten through about third grade, and it is the best I’ve seen yet for working with the earliest readers.  Even then, it is still a challenge to find good books for the very first readers.

We Can pages four and five.

Level A books are highly formulaic and rely on the pictures to keep them from being insanely dull.  In this book, the formula has two parts.  Big brother does something (such as ride a bike) and says what he is doing (“I can ride.”).  Then we turn the page and little brother is doing the same (riding a bike with training wheels) and adds too to the end of the statement (“I can ride, too.).

In this style of reader, the pictures are make or break.  Luckily the illustrator not only chose diverse characters, but also has an engaging style.  The illustrations with the younger brother speaking have white space around the edges as a subtle way of denoting the speaker without using text bubbles.  The two boys are moving through a park with a colorful city background.  Each of the challenging verbs (ride, jump, play) is clear from the context of the illustrations.

The painted illustrations offer enough detail to engage a child in a re-read, but they also keep the features just vague enough that children from a variety of different ethnicities could picture themselves as the main characters.  The boys do have straight hair, but their features didn’t pin them down to a specific group (in my mind – your opinion may differ).

We Can page nine (the final page)

It’s true that children who have been raised in a literacy-rich environment might be able to skip right over level A and find such books as mind numbingly boring as adult readers often do.  However many children, sadly including many children of color, need to experience the magic of being clued in to the pattern and then read dozens of these books as they make their first steps towards independent reading.

This is not a read-aloud book, nor is it one you’d want to hear over and over.  But it is an important step in a child’s reading journey, written by a master educator and illustrated very well.  Recommended.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

9 thoughts on “Review: We Can!”

  1. “It is incredibly difficult to find a good batch of books at this level in general, let alone culturally appropriate and diverse books, so I quickly sorted through the stack to find any that had diverse characters.”

    Agreed. It was a struggle to find good books for my children when they were reading at this level. My youngest might be a little too advanced for this book, but I still might try to grab a copy. I have many young readers in my life who could benefit from it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s exactly why I am trying to find and review as many books like this as I can – this year I really want to focus on reviewing more diverse early readers and board books. If you do end up buying it, the newer (2007) edition is titled If I Can, You Can and has the same content – it’s a little easier to find although appears to also be out of print.


  2. Such important advocacy – thank you!

    I’m in New Zealand, where there has been much better awareness of these issues for the last few decades, so there’s a pretty good stock of early reader with diverse characters and illustration, making sure, in particular, to include and reflect Māori and Pasifika experiences. SO IMPORTANT!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow. You are so lucky that you have access to diverse early readers. I’ve never even seen a children’s book with a Māori or Pasifika character here in the American Midwest.

      My local libraries are pretty decent about diverse books, but indigenous characters are sparse so I’ve had to order a lot of my own. Do you have any recommendations of diverse early readers? I’ll try to get them.


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