Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Intellectual Freedom and the Leveling of Beginning Readers: When Library Values Clash

Today's guest contributor, Danielle Jones, is a youth and teen public librarian in Portland, OR. Find her on Twitter @DanielleBookery. 

The Geisel Award raises awareness of the importance of quality beginning reader books, and we as librarians and teachers want to connect these quality books with the young readers we are serving. Beginning readers can be one of the most sensitive areas of service as each emerging reader is at their particular reading level and we want to get them a book that will be successful for them, continue to build their reading skills, and curate a love of reading. Many things are at play in how we facilitate that, we need to create accessibility to books and we need to make it a user experience that enables searchability and discovery.

One of the hardest things for libraries is when two values of library service come into conflict. We are champions for intellectual freedom and we are dedicated to accessibility and the user experience. We want to match emerging readers to books close to their reading ability so that it will build their reading confidence. This can be a challenge when trying to wade through all the different publisher designated reading levels that are often in conflict with other publishers’ leveling systems. This is confusing to patrons and to the staff trying to serve them.
Image by Danielle Jones

So what do we do? Do we try to come up with our own leveling system? Do we market books by labeling books or displaying them in their own reading level section? It would make it so easy when a parent or caregiver came into our library and wanted “level two” books for their child. What would the drawbacks be?

ALA’s Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights: Labeling and Rating Systems warns against labeling systems as, “Labeling and rating systems present distinct challenges to intellectual freedom principles.” The American Association of School Libraries’ (AASL) also has a strong position against the labeling of reading levels as librarians’ “should resist labeling and advocate for development of district policies regarding leveled reading programs that rely on library staff compliance with library book labeling and non-standard shelving requirements.” They point out that labeling a book with a reading level allows scrutiny from peers and threatens confidentiality about a student’s reading ability.

So how do we increase the usability of our collections while not falling into labeling systems that might marginalize a child’s intellectual freedom and privacy?

Parent and Caregiver Education
  • Share resources, such as the Five Finger Test, with them to help them pick appropriate books.
  • Compare books to show them what the different stages of reading levels can look like on the inside. This promotes the importance of opening books up to get a true sense of the reading level and if it matches their reader.
Support Staff
  • Educate staff that serve emerging readers on the variety of levels
  • Provide staff with tools for addressing the questions of parents and caregivers. 
For example, if a parent, caregiver or educator is disgruntled by a lack of leveling it may be useful to gently remind them of these factors:

  • Children need a space to build confidence, and with that they need to feel safe from scrutiny of their peers.
  • Children build their skills at different paces.
  • Children will want to read more, and will work harder, if it is something that is of interest to them.
  • Allow children to read a beloved series, whether or not it is challenging to them as a reader. Encourage them to read new things - but as an addition to rather than a replacement for a favorite.

The Geisel Award’s mission is to honor books that motivate children to read, make learning new words a positive experience, and create "a successful reading experience, from start to finish.” It is the job of the library to make successful reads as accessible as possible while still valuing an emerging reader’s intellectual freedom. 

How does your library balance accessibility with intellectual freedom when shelving books for beginning readers? 

In addition to Patrick's post on hosting a mock Geisel, we have a profile of several successful mock programs up at School Library Journal. With so many great tips, how could you NOT host a mock Geisel this year? 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Elephant in the Room

It’s time to talk about the elephant in the room.

We mean Gerald, of course.

For some ALSC awards, there are those in the field who have so encapsulated what that award represents that you could easily nickname the award after them. For the Carnegie Award, it’s the work of Weston Woods that continually sets the bar for excellence. For the Geisel Award, it’s the work of Mo Willems and the ground-breaking Elephant and Piggie Series.

As of this writing, the Geisel Medal has been presented eleven times. Elephant and Piggie books have been eligible for nine of those years. Here’s their scorecard so far:

Photo by Susan Kusel
Geisel Medal

  • There is a Bird on Your Head (2008)
  • Are You Ready to Play Outside? (2009)

Geisel Honor
  • We are in a Book! (2011)
  • I Broke My Trunk (2012)
  • Let’s Go For a Drive (2013)
  • A Big Guy Took My Ball (2014)
  • Waiting is Not Easy (2015)

 That’s two medals and five honors: or seven phone calls Mo Willems has received from the Geisel committee. The only years that the Geisel committee didn’t call were 2010 and 2016  (although Mo Willems and Weston Woods won the Carnegie Medal both those years- so he didn’t go home empty handed.) 
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 With Piggie and Gerald, Mo has expanded our expectations for what an easy reader can be. You can see the Elephant and Piggie influence in new series’ like Bob Shea’s Ballet Cat and Emma Virjan’s Pig in a Wig. With the launch of the new Elephant and Piggie Like Reading series, it’s hard not to see parallels to all those books bearing a logo with a certain cat in a hat and the legacy of Geisel himself.

Whether The Thank You Book will bring a third gold to Mo’s collection is the subject of another post, but it is impossible to deny the impact of Piggie and Gerald on the easy reader shelf. 

Looking at the series through the lens of the Geisel criteria, it becomes obvious that it sets a high standard. Kevin Delecki, chair of the 2015 Geisel Committee, says that Elephant and Piggie is effective most of all because of its simplicity, even while incorporating something new into each book in the series. “They use easy to interpret, easily visualized words that allow even the most beginning of readers to have a successful reading experience. Plus, they're funny, and have an engaging plot - something missing from most *very* beginning readers.”
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While Elephant and Piggie aren't the first easy readers to introduce humor and comic style, the humor and engaging plot come up repeatedly when discussing what the series has accomplished.  Amy Seto Forrester, member of the 2016 Geisel Award Committee and a host of this blog believes that “this guarantee of laughter as a reward can be a great motivator for emerging readers.” Nate Halsen, member of 2017 Batchelder Committee shares that “just yesterday a dad was asking me why they were so hard to get (our shelves are often empty of them). I pointed to their popularity and he agreed, saying they are just perfect for keeping his kids’ attention on the words and making them laugh even when they are struggling to read one or two.” 

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Elephant and Piggie have undoubtedly raised the bar from a design standpoint, incorporating deliberate choices with regard to font size, white space and illustrations gloriously informed by Mo Willems’ relationship to cartoon animation, and the comic inspired speech balloons. When 2014 Geisel Committee Chair Penny Peck shares A Big Guy Took My Ball! with classes of children “there are always children who point out the background color is the same as the character - pink for Piggie and gray for Gerald.” That detail alone thoughtfully supports the needs of a beginning reader while also serving as a cue for readers of all ages sharing these stories. It is difficult to look at the white space in an easy reader, or the indications as to which character is speaking and with what emphasis, without comparing it to the standard set by Elephant and Piggie. And the illustrations excel at supporting a child reader. Nate Halsen notes that The emotions and actions are so well depicted that decoding becomes simpler. If a child gets stuck the images are great at allowing them to move past a word they may not know without losing too much of the story.”

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Elephant and Piggie themselves, like their good friend The Pigeon, have attained children’s literature celebrity status. Justin Azevedo, member of the ALSC Intellectual Freedom committee, observes that their dialogue is simple while still feeling entirely natural and that they each have distinct voices. Amy Seto Forrester appreciates that Gerald and Piggie invite the reader into their strong friendship by breaking down the fourth wall. Kevin Delecki noted that in 2015’s Honor Book Waiting is Not Easy the reader is as surprised as Gerald by the stunning two page vista that ends the story. This strong character development and inclusion of the reader within each book and throughout the series, has resonated with readers of all ages.

And for every reader, there seems to be another way to share Elephant and Piggie with their target audience. Kevin Delecki says “both of my boys 'read' for the first time at 3 years old by memorizing the dialogue of an Elephant & Piggie book and telling it back while turning the pages.” Justin Azevedo “loves using the books as a model for how comics can be used to teach literacy, as the books essentially follow the graphic novel format with the story being told solely in dialogue and contextual clues in the art.” Penny Peck reads A Big Guy Took My Ball! to classrooms on "Read Across America" Day in celebration of Dr. Seuss and the Geisel Award because “this entry in the series makes a great classroom read-aloud; the plot is very strong and easy to relate to, for kids who spend any time at recess.” Nate Halsen has given Elephant and Piggie titles to well over a hundred first readers who “eagerly come back for another, inspiring their first series addiction (and we all know how great that is for someone just starting to decode).”

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It’s easy to see what has convinced many of the Geisel committees of the past decade that Gerald and Piggie “demonstrate creativity and imagination to engage children in reading” above all or most other contenders. This year’s committee faces the challenge of evaluating the final title in this series (and of course, they must evaluate it on its own merits compared to the other titles this year, without considering the rest of the series). But beyond shiny gold and silver medals, there remain the readers, some now well into their teen years, whose first memories of truly reading a beloved book featured Elephant and Piggie. Will those teens grow into parents, teachers, and librarians who pass their love of this series down to their children, the way readers have long shared the iconic works of Dr. Seuss? Keeping its legacy alive, even as Gerald and Piggie move on to new projects?

It may be some time before we see another author/illustrator with such a consistent showing in the Geisel. Who do you think the next author/illustrator to earn a third Geisel award will be? 
Photo by Susan Kusel
Speaking of those new projects, Elephant and Piggie aren’t ready to hang up their pink and grey speech balloons yet! They appear as the emcees in Elephant and Piggie Like Reading, and we’ll examine the first two titles in that series in an upcoming post.

Many thanks to Kevin Delecki and Penny Peck for sharing insights into their committees’ choice to award a Geisel Honor to an Elephant and Piggie title, and to Nate Halsen, Amy, and Justin Azevedo for weighing in with thoughts on the series’ strengths.  

Today's post was collaboratively written by Susan Kusel and Amanda Foulk.
Susan Kusel is a librarian, children's book buyer and selector at an independent bookstore, and the owner of a children's book consulting company. She blogs at Wizards Wireless. Her favorite Elephant & Piggie story is "We Are In A Book". 
Amanda Foulk is a fan of Elephant and Piggie. Her favorite Elephant & Piggie story is "My New Friend is So Fun".

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Planning a Mock Geisel? Here are 12 Ideas to Consider

Bracket voting system used at the Catherine Cook School.
Photo courtesy of Patrick Gall
Today's guest contributor is Patrick Gall. Patrick works as a librarian for children in preschool through eighth grade at the Catherine Cook School in Chicago. He served on the 2015 Newbery Award Committee and is a guest reviewer for The Horn Book Magazine.

I was recently posed the following question by a fellow school librarian, “How do you do a Mock Geisel?” In my head, I thought “you just…uh…do.” I love the Geisel Award. A Mock Geisel is an experience ripe with opportunity for substantive critique, debate, and appreciation with the newest of readers. Yet, my response was less than inspiring, amounting to something like “you just…uh…do.”

Of course, “you just…uh…do” isn’t good enough, nor is it accurate. Any meaningful mock award experience is academic, yet exciting. Structured, yet flexible. Immediate, yet expansive. It takes planning and collaboration among colleagues. It takes buy-in from students – after all, they will be spending a lot of time with a finite number of books. It also takes trial and error. After five years of facilitating various mocks with young people, including two years of Mock Geisels, here are some (hopefully) useful tips to consider based on our library’s Mock Geisel experience with first grade students:

1. Stick to the Geisel Award criteria (sort of) – While the Geisel Award Committee Manual and Terms & Criteria page are necessary resources for facilitators to know and understand, it's different for participants. Instead, we focus our students’ attention on finding the “most distinguished American book for beginning readers” by identifying and comparing the excellence of three key attributes distilled from the actual criteria: “page-turner” quality, use of repetition, and helpful illustrations.
2. Be intentional about diversity – As Gigi said in her 8/21 post, #WeNeedDiverseBeginningReaders! when selecting candidate books for your mock list, provide young readers with what Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop calls “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors”: choose from as many diverse books (and creators) as possible, with regards to (but certainly not limited to) ability, ethnicity, family, gender expression, race, religion, sexual identity, and wealth.
 3. Look beyond traditional beginning readers – While many mock-worthy titles fall under the traditional “I Can Read!” structure (32-40 pages, upright, plenty of white space), many do not. Board books, nonfiction, and longer beginning chapter books (to name a few examples) easily meet the Geisel Award’s criteria.
4. Share past winner and honor titles – A great list of distinguished beginning readers already exists. Model the mock discussion process using past award recipients and make these books as visible and available as possible throughout your library and classrooms.

5. Read together (as a class, in small groups, and in pairs) – Due to their typically small trim size, traditional beginning readers can be a challenge to effectively read aloud to a group. Using a projectable document camera is an ideal way to share small books, but isn’t always an option. Having students work in small groups or pairs can maximize time and effort, particularly for re-reading.
6. Re-read – Re-reading at first may seem unnecessary to young participants (especially if they “get” the book the first time through), but it is essential for successfully applying the award criteria. A particularly effective activity when re-reading is to have students react to notes from different groups regarding the same title – this almost always leads to a fuller understanding of the text.
7. Document work – Document the students’ thoughts, reactions, and questions throughout the entire process. You might film conversations, implement thinking routines, or simply use a quick exit slip for feedback. Use these artifacts as another form of text to critique, debate, and reflect upon with students.
8. Over communicate with everyone – A Mock Geisel needs to live both inside and outside of the library. Share your candidate books and award criteria with teachers and families. Make bookmarks and posters for the hallways and classrooms. Use every social media tool available to you to post up-to-date voting results. Most importantly, create a buzz.

9. Celebrate and share the results – Selecting your Mock Geisel winner is reason for celebration! Find a way to extend the revelry to the greater community. This may mean an assembly presentation, announcement video, and/or a kid-designed award seal.
10. Watch the ALA Youth Media Awards – Although we stress that the goal of our library’s Mock Geisel is NOT to predict the official winner, but rather to understand and implement our criteria, it is certainly exciting to watch the ALA Youth Media Awards with an invested and informed group of young readers.
11. Contact committee members – Award committee members do a lot of work. Their knowledge is deep and experiences varied. They are also children’s advocates and have much to contribute beyond their award year. Consider having students create a list of questions, reactions, and comments to share with official committee members through email, Twitter, or a Skype interview. The 2017 committee is listed here.
12. Reflect and improve – The success of any reoccurring unit or program is always contingent on reflection. Ask for feedback from not only your students, but all members of the process, including colleagues, administration, and families.

Are these 12 approaches essential for the perfect Mock Geisel? Probably not. Guiding mock award experiences is perhaps as much of a learning experience for the facilitator as it is for students. Knowing, and adjusting to, your community of learners is critical. Find what works, change what doesn’t, and share your successes with others.

Note from the Guessing Geisel editors: Looking for more about hosting a Mock Geisel at your school or library? A School Library Journal column on Mock Geisels is coming your way soon! We'll post a link when it's live. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Link Roundup

We're working on more great book reviews, and we have some excellent guest posts coming up, but for now, here are a couple of points of interest: Travis Jonker posted a Geisel Award Infographic over on 100 Scope Notes. I love to geek out over stuff like this! I wonder what that graphic will look like ten years from now? Heavy Medal is back, kicking off with 10 picture books that could win the Newbery. What do you think -- any potential crossover with the Geisel? Stranger things have happened... And, speaking of crossover potential, Calling Caldecott is back, too! I'm always interested to hear what they have to say, and though the Geisel and Caldecott criteria are very different, I'm sure we'll be touching on some of the same books as the award season rolls along. Meanwhile, now that fall is here and everyone is getting into award mode, do you have any favorites for the 2017 Geisel? Post them in the comments!

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Pug by Ethan Long

Today's guest contributor is Elisa Gall. Elisa is the Director of Library Services at an independent school in Chicago serving children in preschool through high school. Find her on Twitter @gallbrary.

I’ve been thinking about the word "distinguished" lately. It is no stranger to ALSC award language, and no matter how much the association goes out of its way to define it (see graphic) it can still seem ambiguous. One person’s perceived flaw for a book can be that same thing which makes a book "individually distinct" to another committee member. But it is true (to me at least) that a book cannot be a serious contender for the award if it does not fit all the elements of the "distinguished" definition.

In Pug by Ethan Long, readers follow a wide-eyed pug (named "Pug") as it looks pleadingly out the window at "Peg" on a snowy day. When Pug sees Peg, readers see a bundled-up girl walking through the neighborhood. Pug yaps at each member of its family (with leash nearby) to hint that it would like to be outside. Only when Tad, the kid of the family, fears that Pug will have an accident on his bed does he reluctantly leave the cozy house to fulfill Pug’s request. When Tad and Pug meet Peg, it is revealed that Peg is the pet pug of the girl who has been walking through the snow, and not the girl readers have seen (and who Tad later befriends).

Using twelve unique words, Long presents an engaging and accessible story. Sentences average three words each, and the polished digital illustrations are full of bold lines that appropriately match the text’s large, clear font. Words and images work in tandem, but readers must make some inferences. When the dogs communicate through yaps, for example, the sounds are color coded to represent which animal is barking. Readers even see Peg’s yaps when she is not shown on the page. (Pug’s ear is in the air to show that the noises are coming from somewhere unseen.) As words are repeated, they take on deeper meaning too. For example, after Pug lifts its back leg into the air (and Tad says, "No, Pug, No.") readers turn the page and see Tad and Pug outside, with the words "Go, Pug, go." accompanying them. The "go" on this page can mean Pug is going outside, but there is another (more humorous) type of "go" that it can also represent.

Some critics might argue that it might be confusing for an emergent reader to see Peg revealed as a dog (and not the girl previously shown) in the story’s surprise ending. They might point to the part of the Geisel criteria that states, "illustrations must demonstrate the story being told." I would ask someone with these concerns to consider how that final revelation does tell the story—through images. I would ask them to think about how many works of visual narrative use complicated and in some cases contradictory images and words to tell their stories. Pug is a beginning reader for children who are learning to read a book’s text, pictures, and everything in between. It is a reader for both traditional literacy and visual literacy. To me, that makes it "individually distinct" and worthy of the debatable "distinguished" category. What do you all think?

Sunday, August 21, 2016


This week's contributor is Gigi Pagliarulo, a librarian for the Denver Public Library. Gigi is especially interested in youth services, early literacy, and issues of diversity and multiculturalism within children's literature and programming, and has served on the steering committee of Colorado Libraries for Early Literacy.  

It’s time for a short but important digression from our regularly scheduled mocking. I’m here today to talk to you about diversity in children’s literature and publishing, and to promote this idea:


In 2014, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign was formed to create dialogue and action around the pervasive and endemic dearth of diversity in the children’s book publishing industry. In the short time since its inception, #WeNeedDiverseBooks has accomplished an enormous amount. Most importantly, they have spearheaded noticeable, significant change in publishing trends, book convention panels, and many of the recent major children’s book award winners. Today the organization hands out awards and grants, provides author and illustrator mentorships, holds writing symposiums, assembles roundtable forums, creates resources and booklists, mobilizes awareness and publicity campaigns, and champions issues of diversity in children’s literature and publishing across multiple digital forums. 

The statistics on children’s book publishing and diversity, as I’m sure you’ve heard, aren’t very pretty. Annual reports on diversity in children’s publishing from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center display dismal trends and scant improvement over the last decade when considering books by and about African/African Americans, American Indians/First Nations, Asian Pacifics/Asian Pacific Americans, and Latinos. Of the 3400 books received by the CCBC in 2015, only 10.6% of them were by and 14.8% were about people of color and First/Native Nations. To make matters worse, many characters in children’s books are animals, rather than people, knocking the number of reflective images kids see in books down another notch. Kathleen Horning, director of the CCBC, informally estimates that in any given year, less than 10% of picture book protagonists are people of color. 

With a vision of a world where all children can see themselves in the pages of a book and a mission to put more books featuring diverse characters into the hands of all children, #WeNeedDiverseBooks has outlined 7 essential benefits to reading diverse books. These are benefits shared by children of color and white children alike. 

  1. They reflect the world and people of the world 
  2. They teach respect for all cultural groups 
  3. They serve as a window and a mirror and as an example of how to interact in the world 
  4. They show that despite differences, all people share common feelings and aspirations 
  5. They can create a wider curiosity for the world 
  6. They prepare children for the real world 
  7. They enrich educational experiences (Source here

So where do traditional (and nontraditional) beginning readers fit in to all of this? They certainly aren’t the darlings of the children’s publishing industry, and they usually aren’t the flashiest kids on the block. They only got their own award 10 years ago. And yet, while they are but a short part of a child’s lifelong reading diet, they serve a vital purpose. As Kathleen Horning (her again, that smart lady!) says in Cover to Cover, her seminal guide to children’s literature, “It is during this stage that the child gains confidence and discovers that reading is personally important and pleasurable” (2010, p 132). Thus, if we want the social and educational benefits of diversity in children’s literature to become a foundational element of children’s experiences of reading as enjoyable and worthwhile, we need high quality books written specifically for children who learning to read… #WeNeedDiverseBeginningReaders! 

With all of this in mind, here is a small starting point, with some suggestions for read-alikes that pair Geisel award-winning titles with high-quality, culturally diverse beginning readers.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Classic Beginning Readers: Useful? Relevant?

Today's guest contributor is Carol Edwards. After many years as a youth services librarian, Carol currently works as the Project Coordinator for SPELL; Supporting Parents in Early Literacy through Libraries. She has a granddaughter just starting first grade who is a real reader and has been reminding her of the way learning to read is both a challenge and very rewarding. Carol has served on the Newbery, Caldecott, Morris, and Coretta Scott King Award committees as well as being involved in CLEL, Colorado Libraries for Early Literacy and their CLEL BELL Awards.

The classic books for early readers that are still around exemplify the needs of beginning readers. These readers struggle to look at the black ink marks on the page and turn those into first words, then ideas and stories in their heads. I’ve looked back at a number of titles that charmed and delighted those just learning to read long before the Geisel Award was instituted in 2006. While Dr. Seuss is the obvious name to mention, I thought I would not focus on his work this time, but on others who were, I think, just as influential in developing the standards that have been handed down.

One thing is clear. The subject matter must be intriguing enough to motivate the child to read and the story move along quickly. A Kiss for Little Bear by Else Holmelund Minarik (1968) is a favorite. Things happen from page to page, and always the pictures provide clues to the decoding required. I just love the memorable phrases, such as "Too much kissing" [p.21]. A satisfying story with a beginning, middle and end.

Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books are classics that everyone knows. Frog and Toad are good friends, and the books about them evoke many of the best qualities of early readers today. Frog and Toad are both not nearly as clever as the average kid learning to read. Doesn't this remind you of Gerald and Piggie? This ability for the reader to feel superior and to laugh at their antics is a quality that Lobel showcased in Owl at Home (1975) as well. There are places in them to pause and consider the motivation and thoughts of the characters. This allows the reader to both focus on what is being read and to consider it at a slow pace that is commensurate with their reading ability. Since these books are often read with a better reader nearby, whether grownup or older child, the humor is bound to connect the two readers, making the reading seem cooperative rather than competitive.

Helen Palmer, who wrote A Fish out of Water, was married to Ted Geisel until her death in 1967, and adapted this book from a short story of his. The lovely repetition and the increasingly unbelievable results are reminiscent of other Dr. Seuss titles, but this book has its own charm as the conclusion returns the reader to normalcy. The flow between pictures and words works very well, providing cues and laughter simultaneously. Personally, this story always resonated with me, as I have distinct memories of being told not to feed the fish too much fish food. There are probably many kids who have wondered what would happen, although the fish usually die as mine did. A sad ending deftly avoided here.

Robert Lopshire wrote Put Me in the Zoo (1960), and it's certainly showing its age, particularly in the illustrations. However it continues to serve young readers. Not full of plot, but an engaging stroll with a strange creature sharing his odd powers. He speaks directly to both a young girl and boy, and to the reader. It's an early example of how engaging the reader as a participant can pay off.
Johnny Lion's Book (1965) shows the reader how the story in a book can be as exciting as doing those things in the real world, but not nearly as dangerous. Johnny's good behavior is rewarded by being able to stay up "very, very late." p.59. A reward indeed -- as every book you read should be.

Classic early readers show us that repetition and simple vocabulary are not all that is needed. We need stories that are appealing, that both move along quickly and allow the reader time to absorb the meaning of the words. Illustrations play a key role, and there is obviously no one right way to do it, but a light touch is certainly appreciated.