Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Could The Princess in Black win the Geisel?

This year there are not just one, but two entries to this series – a series that I recommend at every possible opportunity, and often to readers that I would still consider to be beginners. But are they “beginning readers” in the eyes of the Geisel Criteria? Let’s take a look. 

The purpose of the Geisel award is to recognize “the author(s) and illustrator of a book for beginning readers who, through their literary and artistic achievements, demonstrate creativity and imagination to engage children in reading.”

Is The Princess in Black series creative, imaginative, and engaging?  Absolutely!

Is it for “beginning readers”? Well, that depends on your definition of a beginning reader, doesn’t it? Let's read on . . .

Does it provide “a stimulating and successful reading experience for the beginning reader containing the kind of plot, sensibility, and rhythm that can carry a child along from start to finish”? This bit of the criteria is one of the reasons it is so crucial to see children actually read these books. Did that child reader have a successful reading experience? Were they motivated from start to finish? Let’s give these two titles to all the children and find out – if it meets our other criteria, of course . . .

Are the authors and illustrators citizens or residents of the United States? Yes, the Hales hail from Utah, and LeUyen Pham from San Francisco. These two titles are also published for the first time in the United States during 2016, while we're at it.

"Contribution to the body of children’s literature that encourages and supports the beginning reader" indicates the text of a book, which must be directed at readers from pre-K through Grade 2. So, is the text of this series directed at readers that fall from pre-K through Grade 2? Now we're at the crux of the matter. We know that readers from grades pre-K through Grade 2 may actually be at a variety of stages in developing their literacy skills. There are precocious five-year-olds reading quite fluently, and second graders who struggle. It’s one of the reasons we encounter so many leveling systems – guided reading, Accelerated Reader, Lexile - attempting to pin down where a reader is on their particular journey to reading fluency.

Which pre-K through Grade 2 readers should we be considering when determining Geisel eligibility? The average reader? The “grade level” reader? Only the reader who is truly just beginning to decode? ALSC awards with less tightly defined audiences (*cough*Newbery*cough*) have established the precedent that a title does not have to serve all the children within its range, as long as its audience falls somewhere within that 0-14 span. Does that precedent apply here, with our much more specific audience? Can we recognize a book that will more often be suitable to second graders than to a pre-K audience?

There is some evidence from the Geisel canon that we may. In the second year of the Geisel, Mercy Watson Goes for a Ride  written by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by Chris Van Dusen was awarded an honor. The title has 72 pages,14 chapters, and vocabulary that includes “caromed” and “prodigy”. Did the 2007 committee establish a precedent with this choice? Or was it an anomaly, selected before the criteria had fully been developed and the award had really found its footing?
Page 2 of TPiB and the Hungry Bunny Horde

Does the Princess in Black “contain illustrations, which function as keys or clues to the text”? It does. LeUyen Pham’s delightful illustrations grace each two-page spread, although there is occasionally a single page unbroken by text or a chapter heading. (In both The Princess in Black Takes a Vacation and The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Horde, the first page of nothing but text arrives on page 16). Do these prevalent illustrations function as keys to the text? Often they do. On page 2 of The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Horde for example, we see all the new vocabulary for brunch options illustrated. The other text on the page “Brunch with Princess Sneezewort meant . . .” is repeated three times over.

Is the “subject matter intriguing enough to motivate a child to read”? Princesses and ponies and monster fighting? Yes.

“The book may or may not include short “chapters””. Well, we definitely have chapters here. The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Horde has 12 chapters and 85 pages. The first chapter is 7 pages long. The Princess in Black Takes a Vacation has 13 chapters and 88 pages. The first chapter is a heavily illustrated 11 pages long. Is an 11- page chapter short? Does the definition change when that chapter contains 13 illustrations, and four of those pages have only 1-2 sentences?  Both titles slip in on the higher end of the allowable 24-96 page range.

 “The plot advances from one page to the next and creates a "page-turning" dynamic.” On the very first page of The Princess in Black Takes a Vacation the paragraph ends with those compelling ellipses as “She was almost asleep when . . .” How could we not turn that page? Again on page 11, we see “Just then, someone pulled the monster’s tail.” While this is an example of text that is not illustrated on the same page, it does present us with a compelling reason to turn the page. (And the payoff is fantastic – we meet “the Goat Avenger” who looks an awful lot like The Princess in Black’s friend, Duff. “But it couldn’t be Duff. Duff did not wear a mask.” p.15)

“New words should be added slowly enough to make learning them a positive experience. Words should be repeated to ensure knowledge retention. Sentences must be simple and straightforward.” This is an area of the criteria where TPiB really shines. Shannon and Dean Hale tell humorous, compelling stories with simple, direct sentences that vary in length and avoid contractions. They make use of the repetition that is crucial for a beginning reader to support the humor in their stories, repeating both new vocabulary and sentence structure. In The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Horde p.31 we see this in the description of Blacky’s solution to a hungry bunny after his tail:
Page 31 of TPiB and the Hungry Bunny Horde

"Blacky swished his tail. The bunny did not let go.
Blacky pranced about. The bunny did not let go.
Blacky sat down. On his tail.
The bunny let go. The bunny crawled away."

It is also worth noting that while this is the first time Blacky “swished”, Frimplepants the unicorn began to prance way back on page 3, and in that instance there is a supporting illustration to help decode this new word.

 The list of criteria concludes by pointing out that “Not every book relies equally on every element.  The committee need not find excellence in every element listed above.  The book should; however, have distinguished qualities in all of the elements pertinent to it.”

The Princess in Black series offers creative, engaging tales suitable for a reader just beginning to read chapter books. Both the illustrations and the writing have qualities that distinguish these titles from the field of beginning readers. Are these strengths enough to motivate readers past those pages of full text and provide the successful and satisfying reading experience central to the purpose of the Geisel award?

Do you think that The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Horde or The Princess in Black Takes a Vacation will find a place on the Geisel table this year? Do they fall within your definition of a “beginning reader”?

For me, they do. While they may not take home the gold or silver this year, I hope that one or both of these titles finds itself under consideration at the Geisel table. I’m sure members of this year’s committee will enjoy sharing these titles with the first or second graders who are ready for them.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

What's it like to be on the Geisel committee? #2

A recurring feature on this blog will be reflections by previous Geisel committee members on their experiences. If you've served on the Geisel Committee in the past and would like to share your experiences, please contact one of the blog administrators.

Jenna Friebel is a Materials Services Librarian at the Oak Park Public Library. She was on the 2016 Geisel Award Committee and has been elected to the 2018 Printz Award Committee. She’s on twitter @jenna_friebel.
Picture provided by Jenna Friebel

Hello, my name is Jenna, and I was on the 2016 Geisel Award Committee. I still think this is the coolest statement I can make about myself. I am so proud of this award and all the work my committee did. There’s truly nothing like being in *the room where it happens.* But of course, the majority of the work happens outside of that room. It happens throughout the committee year reading book after book and listening to kid after kid.

Picture provided by Jenna Friebel
But wait, let’s back up. Before I was appointed to the Geisel Committee, I participated in the ALSC Bill Morris Book Evaluation Seminar at ALA Midwinter 2014. Fun fact: 5 members of the 2016 Geisel Award Committee participated in the 2014 Morris Seminar together. 3 of those members are the co-creators of this blog! Suffice it to say, the Morris Seminar draws in awesome people and leads to amazing opportunities.

Okay, back to my Geisel year. There was definitely a learning curve for me. I realized that although I had a lot of knowledge about children and about children’s lit, I didn’t know a lot about how kids learn to read. I hadn’t spent much time looking at early readers through the lens of how it would be for the intended audience. Reading and re-reading all the previous Geisel winners and honors was immensely helpful. I became more confident in my ability to judge what a good early reader is and threw myself into evaluating.

And then I realized my confidence was a bit misplaced. I learned my evaluations could completely change after hearing a child read the book. There were books I was confident would end up with stickers on them come January but after hearing them actually being read to me, I realized major flaws I failed to notice during my own readings. There were scenes and punchlines that children just did not understand. On the flip side, there were also books that I was indifferent to only to realize how well received they were by children and how confident they made them feel as readers.

At first, I second guessed myself. Maybe I just wasn’t good at this? And that’s why my initial evaluations were so off? But no. I learned this is part of the process. This is why we listen and seek out different voices. This is why we read and re-read and re-read again, trying to look at each book from many different angles. This is why the committee meets for hours and hours to discuss before the final votes are taken. It is all part of the process, and we are all on a learning curve.

Serving on the Geisel Committee was eye-opening and exciting. I am beyond pleased with our winner and honors. It was a year of awesome books and new friends, and I’m still sad that it’s over. But alas! Now it is time for me to wave hello to the 2018 Printz Committee! Wish me luck!

Picture provided by Jenna Friebel

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Rabbit & Robot and Ribbit by Cece Bell

Image from
Hi there! Amy here, ready to take a look at Cece Bell’s Rabbit & Robot and Ribbit, the long awaited sequel to the 2013 Geisel Honor book, Rabbit and Robot: The Sleepover.

This hilarious book, aimed at more confident first and second grade readers, focuses on the universal difficulty of sharing your bestie with a new friend. Rabbit makes a surprise visit to Robot, only to discover Robot’s new frog friend Ribbit is already there. Through a game of checkers, an episode of Cowboy Jack Rabbit, and a rousing game of make believe, Rabbit resists all attempts to become friends with Ribbit. But when Robot’s “Emotion Decoder” overheats, Rabbit and Ribbit work together to rescue their friend.

From cover to cover, there’s much to appreciate in this humorous book. Actually, let’s start with the cover and title. Together they introduce all three characters with visual clues to their relationships. This establishes story context, allowing readers to open the book confidently. The story is divided into four chapters (all titled “Ribbit”), each one leaving the reader dangling on a cliff hanger creating a wonderful page turning dynamic.

Word repetition is quite strong as well. New concepts and words are introduced slowly, supported by helpful visual context clues and strong repetition. The word “Engrossed” is used frequently throughout. It’s probably an unfamiliar word for most new readers, however, Bell has chosen it well. Not only is it phonetic (en-grossed), but it also becomes the focus of a repeated pun. It’s easy to imagine the joy and satisfaction of a young reader learning a new word and then being able to understand how it’s used in humorous wordplay.

There’s plenty of white space to keep the focus on the text, with sentence lengths alternating between short and long. The punctuation is clear and intentional. As befits a more confident emerging reader audience ellipses, quotation marks, and dashes are included. Italics are used sparingly, but quite effectively to show emphasis.

Also, there’s a robot in the title and on the cover. That gives the book about 500 kid appeal points, at least with the kids at my library.

There are also a few possible concerns when looking at this book through a Geisel criteria lens. One possible challenge for new readers could be Ribbit’s translated jokes. Robot uses his “Built-in Frog Glossary” to print the jokes onto long strips of paper. The text of the joke, only seen in the illustration, flips sideways and upside down, and even crosses the gutter. Additionally, some words are incomplete as a sentence disappears into a loop.
Image from Rabbit & Robot and Ribbit by Cece Bell (photo by Amy Seto Forrester)

A similar problem arrives later in the story when Robot prints out single word emotions using his “Emotion Decoder.” These words also change direction from the standard left to right and are only seen in the illustration. These are fabulous words, but they are rather difficult without intentional repetition. One could argue that a reader could enjoy the story without these two sets of text, but is the story less satisfying without them?

Image from Rabbit & Robot and Ribbit by Cece Bell (photo by Amy Seto Forrester)

Image from Rabbit & Robot and Ribbit
by Cece Bell (photo by Amy Seto Forrester)
There is the occasional awkward line break, such as the page to the right. It’s regrettable that the line breaks interrupt the sentences in such unnatural, illogical places.

I’ve noticed that some new readers are easily tripped up by words that only differ by a letter or two.I love the alliteration of Rabbit, Robot, and Ribbit, but I wonder if visually the words look too similar. However, this book is definitely for a more confident emerging reader, so perhaps this won’t matter.

All in all, I feel that this title is a strong contender. The subject matter, format, and length are well-suited to a second grade reading level, the upper range of the Geisel criteria. The overall package, especially the humorous illustrations, is attractive and enticing. Although there are some concerns, I’d really like to see how kids interact with this book. Have you read it with kids? Have they found it to be a successful, satisfying reading experience?

Friday, October 7, 2016

Noodlehead Nightmares by Tedd Arnold, Martha Hamilton, and Mitch Weiss

Today's post is from Carrie Wolfson. Carrie lives and works in Denver, Colorado, where she's a Children's Librarian for the Denver Public Library.

Image from Noodlehead Nightmares by Ted Arnold,
Martha Hamilton, and Mitch Weiss
Noodlehead Nightmares is a beginning comic about Mac and Mac, two brothers who are literally noodles. Sourced from folklore, the story unfolds in three chapters, each drawn from popular motifs from world cultures across time. Noodleheads is both a goofy romp for young readers and a distinctive book that connects children to a wider culture of storytelling.

In Chapter One, What a Nightmare! Mac and Mac opt to sleep outside instead of making their beds, only to get their feet tangled in the dark. Chapter Two, The Best Dream sees the noodleheads swindled by their neighbor, Meatball, who cons them out of a pie during a nap. The final chapter, Bedtime for Noodleheads, sees Mac and Mac deploying some seriously flawed logic to solve their sleep.

Throughout the book, action-oriented images and thoughtfully selected text scaffold readers’ confidence. Noodleheads Nightmares’ language is primarily simple, straightforward dialogue; when longer words do appear, the text carries readers through on a tide of short, repeated words. Check out this sequence that builds readers up to decipher “untangled,” a three-syllable doozy:
Image from Noodlehead Nightmares by Ted Arnold,
Martha Hamilton, and Mitch Weiss
Image from Noodlehead Nightmares by Ted Arnold,
Martha Hamilton, and Mitch Weiss
When Mac and Mac’s legs become tangled, the story uses variation on a theme to empower readers. The authors also introduce words early in the book that anchor later chapters, preparing readers for success with more complex storytelling and wordplay. For instance, in the sequence above, Mac declares “I have an idea!” In Chapter Two, after mom has baked an apple pie, the noodleheads’ friend Meatball turns that phrase into the pun, “I have a pie-dea!,” a linguistic leap that could trip up many readers.

In addition to the well-considered text, the book shines with illustrations that balance absurdity with wide-eyed charm. Casting the noodleheads as two children (rather than foolish adults or gullible animals as they can appear in folklore) brings the story closer to home for reluctant young readers and adds gentleness to three old tales that are, after all, jokes at the expense of the main characters. Author and illustrator Tedd Arnold recieved Geisel honors in 2006 and 2010 for books in the Fly Guy series, and co-authors Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weiss are seasoned oral storytellers. These creators know how to hook an audience with laughs. Physical comedy propels this book’s tight, witty plotting, from tangled legs to stolen pies to going to bed wearing hats and mittens.

Image from Noodlehead Nightmares by Ted Arnold,
Martha Hamilton, and Mitch Weiss
As a Geisel contender, Noodleheads falters slightly around design; while much of the book uses panelling and speech bubbles that provide just enough white space, some sequences feel overcrowded. Cramped speech bubbles here and there may fatigue new readers, and the final chapter features a dreamscape with a texture similar enough to the waking moments that deciphering the storyline may frustrate readers.

Whether it winds up on the Geisel list or not, Noodlehead Nightmares is a witty, satisfying comic that this librarian will share widely.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Is That Wise, Pig? by Jan Thomas

Today's guest blogger is Liesel Schmidt. Liesel is a Children's Librarian at Denver Public Library. Liesel is a former preschool teacher and she gets excited about books that get young children reading.

Image from
Jan Thomas, author of such wonderfully silly books as Can You Make a Scary Face? and Is Everyone Ready for Fun? has a new book out and it is just as goofy as one might hope. Is That Wise, Pig? gives us the tale of three friends and their collaborative soup-making venture. Cow and Mouse assiduously add vegetables such as onion and cabbage to the big red soup pot, while Pig attempts to add galoshes and umbrellas, prompting the question, “Is that wise, Pig?” As the animals add ingredients to the soup, the number of ingredients increases, from one onion, to two cabbages, to three umbrellas. Lots of specific vegetables are introduced, from carrots to Brussels sprouts. Finally, Pig, Mouse and Cow find a use for the galoshes and umbrella after all, in a giggle-inducing ending. It is a goofy book about a warm and welcoming friendship. How does it fit into the Geisel Award criteria?

Is the subject matter intriguing enough to motivate a new reader? The plot is carefully structured around the creation of the soup. Readers will know to expect that the number of ingredients will keep increasing, following the structure of a counting book. Into this steady, predictable narrative structure, comes Pig, disrupting the flow and adding suspense. Kids will laugh to see their expectations thrown off course. These elements create the "page-turning dynamic" that the Geisel Award requires.

Are new words added slowly enough to make learning them a positive experience? This book has quite specific vocabulary for a beginning reader. Terms like Brussels sprouts and cabbages may be unfamiliar to someone just learning to read. The challenge of these words is helped by Thomas’ clear, bold illustrations of the vegetables. The action of making soup may also provide a clue to readers. Savvy young readers will know to expect Cow and Mouse to be adding vegetables to the soup, which will provide a clue as to the meaning of the words. This will make Pig’s addition of galoshes even more challenging, however.

Are words repeated to ensure knowledge retention? This book is full of repetition, used to humorous effect. In particular, the refrain, “Is that wise, Pig?” is repeated often enough to allow readers to become comfortable with the words and the joke behind them. The plentiful repetition provides support for the young reader. The repetition of vocabulary, in combination with reinforcement from Thomas’ illustrations may provide readers with enough help to navigate challenging words.

Are the sentences simple and straightforward? Thomas excels at imbuing simple, declarative sentences with mischief. Each time the friends ask, “Is that wise, Pig?” Pig answers, “Oh. I guess not,” and the illustrations show us Pig’s puzzled face. No sentence in the book is longer than seven words.

Is That Wise, Pig? is a funny and big-hearted book that manages to meet many of the goals of a beginning reader. What did you think? Will it win the Geisel?

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?