Smaller was better, too.
The original Bob Books, made for little hands, are about the size of a postcard and might contain only six or eight pages. They were sold in sets of 8 or 10 or 12 books, with each set aimed at a slightly more advanced level of reader.
Book 1, Set 1, titled “Mat,” was a masterpiece of sparseness. It told its story (the essence of which was that Mat and Sam sat) with words of three letters or fewer, almost all of them made of up the letters M, A, T and S.
More letters were introduced, then longer words, along with more complex plots, so that by “Floppy Mop,” a Set 3 book, youngsters could be caught up in the high drama of what happened when Tom sat on his dog, Mop, while Jack the cat chased Zack the rat:
“Mop ran after Jack and Zack. ‘Stop, Mop,’ begged Tom. Mop stopped.”
Ms. Maslen’s approach was to combine ideas from phonics — the relationship between sounds and spelling patterns — with just enough storytelling to allow a young reader to feel pride in having grasped the tale. Her husband matched the simplicity of the stories with rudimentary drawings that had a childlike quality; many were just outlines, so children could color them in.
Making the books was not as simple as it might have seemed.
“Writing 12 books in three-letter words is a challenge,” Ms. Maslen said, referring to the 12-book Set 1, “Beginning Readers.”
As word of the books spread, keeping up with demand was also a challenge. Portland State University published the books for a few years, but then the Maslens turned the franchise into a family business. Eventually they couldn’t keep up with demand and struck a partnership with Scholastic.
“By that time we were going crazy,” Ms. Maslen said. “We knew the potential was much more than we could handle ourselves.”
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