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The tiny world that Bobby Lynn Maslen created for her students was simple enough. Drawn by hand on sheets of folded paper, it featured a boy named Mat, with a round body and a single curly hair, and his triangle-shaped friend Sam.
At the bottom of each page were a few symbols — cryptic signs that, to many of Mrs. Maslen’s preschool and kindergarten-age pupils, transformed from a series of frightening squiggles into an amusing kind of code.
“Mat sat,” the code said. “Sam sat.” And then, inexplicably, “Mat sat on Sam. Sam sat on Mat.” By the end of the book, a mere dozen pages long, Mat and Sam had stopped sitting on top of each other.
A seating crisis had been averted. A friendship had been restored. And Mrs. Maslen’s readers — a few Oregon students in the mid-1970s and then millions of children across the country — had learned a short vowel sound and finished their first book.
Mrs. Maslen, whose Bob Books series was a teaching tool that became a publishing sensation, died Aug. 16 at a hospice center in Portland, Ore. She was 87.
The cause was Alzheimer’s disease, said her daughter Lynn Maslen Kertell, who oversees and writes for the series.
When Mrs. Maslen created Bob Books, she was teaching children ages 3 to 6 at the private Catlin Gabel School in Portland. “I couldn’t find the books I wanted to teach reading — books that would make it an easy, joyful experience for kids,” she later told Publishers Weekly. “So I took typing paper, cut it and folded it into a small book, and asked my students to help me think up stories and draw the pictures. That was the beginning.”
The stories were personalized, tailored to each child and his or her reading level, and drew from the phonics-based teaching methods of linguist Leonard Bloomfield and British educator James Pitman. Vowel sounds, rather than whole words, were the main focus.
“She wanted it to be even simpler than ‘Hop on Pop,’ ” the Dr. Seuss picture book, said Maslen Kertell. “The kids would read the book with her, sound it out, and when they finished the book she would staple it, and they could take it home and color it. She did this dozens, hundreds of times — until she finally realized she could copy these and save time.”
Mrs. Maslen spent one summer vacation standardizing the books, devising texts that have remained in use for four decades. She compiled three sets of books, with about 12 books in each set and no more than a dozen pages in each book. Beginning with the sit-based saga of Mat and Sam (characters inspired by a pair of leather puppets she found at a craft fair), readers encountered only four letters — M, A, T and S — and three-letter words.
The texts became gradually more complicated, as letters were added until the first set introduced everything but Q, culminating in a sequence that featured a vet, a van, a big cat and a bad leg: “The cat ran zig zag. The vet ran zip zap. ZAM!”
Characters such as Dot, Mit, Peg and Ted also entered the mix. The eponymous Bob, of course, was Mrs. Maslen. “When I realized that I’d written the first set of books primarily with three-letter words,” she said, “I wanted my name to be similarly short, so I went from being Bobby to Bob.”
Her books remained tiny, about the size of a three-by-five index card, which made them easy for both small hands and printers. Mrs. Maslen persuaded her school to let her print 300 copies at its print shop. In an online history of the series, she said she packaged early books in “little sandwich baggies” she bought at the grocery store.
When a parent from another school approached Mrs. Maslen, asking where he could buy the books for his children, she decided to go into the book business. Her husband, John Maslen, an architect and watercolorist, provided new line-drawing illustrations, and the books were published for several years by Portland State University before the Maslens struck out on their own in 1980.
Retiring from their day jobs, they took mail orders through a P.O. box in West Linn, Ore., and became a regular presence at book fairs and publishing events. When they received a favorable notice from syndicated columnist Marguerite Kelly and were featured as a Children’s Book of the Month Club selection in 1992, sales boomed. Within two years, they turned over the series to Scholastic, tired of shipping and packaging tens of thousands of copies on their own.
More than 16 million Bob Books are in print, according to Scholastic, and the series has expanded to include five basic sets along with supplementary books, workbooks, iPad apps, dolls, flashcards and games.
“What we wanted to create was not only the skill of reading but the love of reading. That’s why we made them as easy as we could with the best stories that we could,” Mrs. Maslen told United Press International after Scholastic acquired the series. “It’s the gift of a lifetime. Snuggling down with child and book — it’s such a wonderful thing for parent and child.”
Bobby Lynn Hartness was born in Sanford, N.C., on Dec. 10, 1930. She was 5 when her mother died. She was raised by her father, who operated a local flour mill, Sanford Milling.
She studied clothing design at the Rhode Island School of Design and, after graduating in 1952, worked for the Youngland clothing company in New York City. She designed children’s outfits and dressed and entertained her 5-year-old models before runway shows.
In 1955 she married John Maslen, a classmate from RISD. They settled in Oregon, where Mrs. Maslen focused on raising her four children. She had been volunteering at their preschools when she joined Catlin Gabel in 1968.
In addition to her husband of 63 years, of Portland, survivors include her children, Lynn Maslen Kertell, David Maslen, Sylvia Maslen Davids and Paul Maslen; and eight grandchildren.
Mrs. Maslen received a torrent of fan mail through the years, and the occasional children’s drawing of Mat and Sam. The letters often featured a probing question, one that Mrs. Maslen never fully answered.
“ ‘Why did Mat sit on Sam?’ ” Maslen Kertell recalled. “I don’t think we’ll ever know.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the year Mrs. Maslen graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design. It was 1952, not 1954. The story has been revised.
Harrison Smith is a reporter on The Washington Post's obituaries desk. Since joining the obituaries section in 2015, he has profiled big-game hunters, fallen dictators and Olympic champions. He sometimes covers the living as well, and previously co-founded the South Side Weekly, a community newspaper in Chicago.
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