Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Meet Woof and Quack and Woof and Quack in Winter by Jamie Swenson

Lizzie Nolan is our guest blogger for this post. She's a Senior Librarian in Youth Services at the San José Public Library. Under the great inspiration of this very blog she helped start a mock Odyssey award blog for great childrens’ audiobooks at Ears on the Odyssey.

Woof and Quack are a classic odd couple. Woof isn’t like most dogs, and Quack isn’t like most ducks. Woof doesn’t want to play Fetch and Duck doesn’t want to fly south for winter.

In the mold of the Elephant and Piggie series, young readers will find comfort in these goofballs friends. Meet Woof and Quack and Woof & Quack in Winter have straightforward plots that are offset with just the right amount of silliness. The duo will play fetch with a banana or a cake instead of a ball or build a “snow duck” and a “sand dog” instead of snowman.

Both books do repeat words, phrases and sentence structure to help readers. In the panel below, the opposites of throwing and fetching are mirrored with the sentences “Woof threw the banana” and “Duck fetched the banana.”

The illustrations are cartoony, multicolored and illustrate the action of the plot. The drawings have bright colors, big expressions and thick black outlines that are eye catching to young readers. The background color changes when a new idea to the plot is introduced but stays the same when the idea in the panel isn’t resolved.

In this sequence of a cake falling, wobbling, and splatting the illustrator uses different background colors and literal drawings to convey meaning. Though the meaning of the plot could be understood with the illustrations alone, the words could prove to be more difficult to decode. They are written in a large typeface and but with different fonts and a vertical angle.

One of the most interesting design choices is the word bubbles. The color of Duck’s words are green while Woof’s are purple. Like Mo Willems says of his clever Elephant and Piggie fans, many readers will be quick to spot that Woof’s collar is purple and Duck’s face is green. This color coded dialogue serves as a clue to readers on how word bubbles function. The word bubbles have white backgrounds that help it stand apart with each colorful page change.

On the one hand, the use of color is fun and fast paced. On the other hand, it feels at times like too much is happening for a beginning reader. The constantly changing background could be too hectic and information overload for reader just learning to read. And color blind readers might find all the changes overwhelming and confusing. Woof & Quack in Winter in particularly with its’ snow falling and beach scenes feel busy in this trim size and could be a lot to visually digest for beginners.

This is a bold book with a lot happening to grab the young readers’ attention, but this year’s Geisel Committee will have to decide if one of these Woof & Quack reads will be deemed the most supportive for young readers.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

What This Story Needs is a Bang and a Clang and What This Story Needs is a Vroom and a Zoom by Emma J. Virjan

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.

The wild and be-wigged pig and friends are back for more rhyming, madcap fun in two new titles in Emma J. Virján’s popular Pig in a Wig series. What This Story Needs is a Bang and a Clang and What This Story Needs is a Vroom and a Zoom are both funny, bright, and boisterously illustrated books that have great appeal to kids, with well-placed humor, silly and entertaining subject matter, relatively simple text, and fast-paced plots that motivate new readers to read to the end. However, there are inconsistencies within both titles that could trip up new readers, making for a less than successful reading experience. Thus, while they are deservedly popular and well-reviewed, neither book is a strong contender for the Geisel Award.

For music lovers, noise makers, speed racers, and general silliness aficionados, What This Story Need is a Bang and a Clang and What This Story Needs is a Vroom and a Zoom are the raucous fourth and fifth titles in the series. Bang and a Clang finds the pig in a wig attracting a whole ensemble of animal musicians to come “twang,” “tootle,” and “doom-doom-doom,” until a mouse scares an elephant and hilarious chaos ensues. Vroom and a Zoom also keeps a fast and furious pace as an oversleeping pig dashes to her racecar with seconds to spare before the big race. Naturally there are bumps in the road that lead to a total spin-out, breakdown, and comical pandemonium. Brisk plotting, satisfying rhymes, and colorful, detailed illustrations lead both stories quickly back on track to happy and clever resolutions.

There is certainly much to help new readers in both books; the subject matter is, as the Geisel criteria state, “intriguing and motivational,” and the hyper-saturated, cartoony illustrations are appealing, entertaining, and full of clues for helping readers decode word meanings. There are a limited number of words per page, and sight words are included. The kid-engrossing, giggle-inducing, zany plots of both books certainly create that “page-turning experience” that the Geisel Award Committee is looking for.

A main factor that hinders these books’ utility to early readers is their vocabulary word choices. The Geisel criteria establish that “new words should be added slowly enough to make learning a positive experience” and “words should be repeated to ensure knowledge retention.” While the silly sound words that the books use are easy and fun for adults to breeze through as an entertaining read-aloud, for new readers, they are unfamiliar, can be difficult to sound out, and are frequently irregularly spelled. Both books are peppered with these new and odd words, and without much repetition to help kids build familiarity. This can detract from the positive reading experience when kids try to read these books on their own, and can’t sound out many of the words without help; meaning is lost and so is much of the humor and motivation.

These newest titles in the Pig in a Wig series are as entertaining and appealing as their predecessors, and for that they are valuable and useful within the canon of beginning readers. Unfortunately, many of their difficult and inconsistent vocabulary word choices make these books hard for new readers to truly get through independently, are not in line with Geisel criteria and rule out their consideration as Award contenders.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Design Discussions with Heidi Kilgras, Editorial Director at Random House Children’s Books

Hi there,

Heidi Kilgras - photo courtesy of Heidi
For this month’s Design Discussion I interviewed Heidi Kilgras, Editorial Director at Random House Children’s Books. Heidi’s also been running Random House’s Step into Reading line for over 20 years.

Heidi provided insight into design elements that are standard across all Step into Reading books. The font is the same across all levels, or “Steps”. Within each step, there are specific guidelines for font size, leading (the space between lines of text), word spacing, and margins. Adhering as much as possible to strict word count ranges for each Step is also important to ensure that the reading experience from book to book within a level is similar. Spot art is utilized in most Step into Reading titles, “Particularly for the youngest Steps, you don’t want text printing on top of art and creating confusion or an impediment to the important work of decoding.” Heidi wants the art to support the pacing of the text and create breathing room and natural pauses for readers.

 For the very earliest of readers, she specifically looks for stories that take place in real time. No flash-backs or -forwards, dream sequences, or major subtext. The art must mirror what’s happening in the text. She notes, “To some writers, this might feel like a limitation, but within these boundaries, you can really play and build text that reads aloud well and aids comprehension. Write visually!”

Image from Time for School, Little Dinosaur
by Gail Herman, illus. by Michael Fleming
Heidi told me that getting suitable submissions can be challenging, “Some writers are tricked by the simplicity of leveled readers and think they must be easy to write.” She often manuscripts that may seem like easy-to-read text, but upon closer scrutiny, don’t measure up to the Step into Reading standards. What does she look for? Text that creates a visual narrative that allows for the art and text to have interplay. “Art must directly reflect the text, serving as a visual cue to the reader working to decode the text. If the text says, ‘the cow tipped his hat,’ there had better be a cow on that page doing just that!”

I’ve become very curious about the relationship between author, illustrator, and editor in the process of creating a beginning reader. Random House provides writers with guidelines that discuss suggested word count ranges, sentence length, number of lines per page, and page length for each Step. Adhering to these guidelines allows consistency across books in the same Step, and ensures there will be enough room for art. Writers are also given information about the vocabulary, punctuation, grammar, and syntax appropriate for each level. Heidi gave me the following example, “it’s ideal for Step 1 books to have rhyme, rhythm, and repetition; lots of monosyllabic words are best (e.g., consonant-vowel-consonant); and, please, no independent clauses, run-ons, or contractions.” However, Heidi points out, “We do not provide sight word list at all; they ran counter to the thinking of the late, great publishing maven Janet Schulman, who created Step into Reading in 1984.”

Image from Go, Go, Trucks! by Jennifer Liberts, illus. by Mike Yamada
Heidi often works with writers who are not illustrators. So design discussions with illustrators cover very specific art notes about what should be depicted on the page to align with the text. “Unlike picture books, there shouldn’t be a separate visual narrative running through the background—the art should directly reflect the text. If the reader is struggling to decode the text, they should be able to look at the art and ‘read it.’”

White space is an important design element, and “both illustrators and designers come up with innovative solutions to scaffold the text while providing pleasing, fresh, playful, and surprising illustrations.” Ultimately, it’s that interplay between art and text that Heidi strives to cultivate. “We want the whole package to be integrated and seem simple and organic; when that happens, we know we’ve done our jobs well!”

I have a few pet peeves when it comes to beginning readers (those pesky page breaks!). What’s Heidi’s? Too much dialogue! “Some submissions have no visual narrative to the writing, and the illustrations would basically have to depict two characters talking throughout the book. As clever as the dialogue may be, if nothing happens, it’s going to be a very boring book, visually!” She’s also tired of all the “episodic/chapter buddy book” manuscripts that come across her desk, “People feel the need to keep trying to recreate Frog and Toad, I guess!”

When asked about her favorite beginning readers, Heidi narrowed it down to a couple stand outs. Molly Coxe’s Step 1 readers, such as Big Egg and Hot Dog, “are really wonderful...and successful.” Heidi’s heard so many personal stories about how Coxe’s books helped kids unlock the mystery of reading. She also really loves Jack and Jill and Big Dog Bill by the late Martha Weston who “skillfully wrote a 150-word reader using only 28 distinct words. The text matches the art, but there is a variety to what is happening on the page that keeps the story lively.” (2018 brings a sequel, Jack and Jill and T-Ball Bill, written by Terry Piece and illustrated by Sue DiCicco with the blessing of Weston’s estate.) Last, but not least, she’s always loved Cynthia Rylant and Arthur Howard’s Mr. Putter and Tabby books, “The personalities! The line work! Just delicious.”

Overall, Heidi says that most important quality of a beginning reader, no matter the level or line/series, is that it creates a successful reading experience. “We want our books to be decodable, fun, and most of all, to support burgeoning reading skills. We want nearly instant gratification, or at least by the end, we hope the kid will put down the book and proudly say, “I read that!” Excitement and success beget more excitement and greater success. The more excitement emergent readers feel, the more likely they are to stretch themselves in terms of level. That’s why we provide such a wide array of topics in Step into Reading. Leveled readers are a gateway drug to chapter books and novels! The end goal is to instill a love of reading.”

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Charlie & Mouse & Grumpy by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Emily Hughes

When I first encountered Snyder and Hughes’ first Charlie & Mouse title, I was delighted! Not only does the book support beginning readers in many important ways, it’s also set in Hawaii and features biracial brothers. Two things I’ve never encountered in a beginning reader title (please comment if you know of any!). For more about the first title, check out Elisa Gall’s wonderful post from earlier this year.

So imagine my joy when I found out there was to be a second book, and that it would be published in the same year! In this second title Charlie and Mouse’s bespeckled grandfather, affectionately known as Grumpy, comes to visit. Whereas the first book shared neighborhood adventures, the four episodic stories in the second book all take place inside Charlie and Mouse’s house. First, the siblings meet Grumpy at the door and talk about how Charlie is getting big; Mouse admits he’s only getting medium. The next morning, the brothers are excited to pounce on a sleeping Grumpy, but he’s already awake! Later, the boys enjoy a “Grumpy Night” while their parents go on a date, filled with pizza, forts, movies, and bedtime songs. All too soon it’s time for Grumpy to leave, but Grumpy tells the sad boys that, “Sometimes, it has to rain. So that you can be happy when the sun comes out again.”

The plot of each episode is subtly built around repetition so that readers gain confidence with the completion of each chapter. Italics are used sparingly and always to show readers something of import. For instance:
 “And how many hot dogs can you eat?”
asked Grumpy. “When you are medium?”
“You can still eat three hot dogs,” Mouse said.
“But not with mustard. Mustard is not medium.” 

Using the same soft and muted colors as the first book, Hughes’ graphite and Photoshop illustrations never overwhelm the text. Instead, they set the tone, provide visual context clues, and give insight into character relationships and emotions. No small feat!

There’s also a lot to be admired in the design and layout. The slightly wider trim side allows for truly glorious amounts of white space on all sides of the text. Line breaks are thoughtful and logical. This is especially important with so much dialogue and the quotation marks that go along with it.

All of these elements combine to create four poignant and gently humorous vignettes that draw readers like a cozy, comforting charm. When it comes down to it, both books are strong Geisel contenders and I’d be hard pressed to say which one I like more. Might this be a year when two books from the same series are recognized by the Geisel Committee?

Friday, November 3, 2017

I'm Smart by Kate and Jim McMullan

This post is contributed by Jamie Holcomb, a reference librarian at the Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales branch of Denver Public Library. She recently co-presented on reader's advisory for beginning readers at CAL's 2017 conference.

Kate and Jim McMullan continue their enchanting series of vehicle books with a school bus. As the "I" narrator, the bus takes very seriously the responsibility to pick up the children, keep them safe, deliver them to school, and pick them up again afterwards. When a construction site causes a delay, the "smart" bus must think fast to keep the children in their seats and still reach school on time.

While the vocabulary includes primarily sight words, other features make it clear that this title is for an adult and child to read together, rather than for the latter to read alone. The decorative font includes a mix of capital and lowercase letters, with some words in color, and words sometimes merge into the illustrations or curve around them. The result, though attractive, is not likely to create a "successful reading experience" for a child learning to read.

Rather than being a Geisel contender, this one is better read to school-age children. The school bus's palpable excitement about their own lights and stop sign and their sense of urgency make I'm Smart fun to read out loud -- to a child, not by a child.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Holiday House I Like to Read series

This post is contributed by Jamie Holcomb, a reference librarian at the Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales branch of Denver Public Library. She recently co-presented on reader's advisory for beginning readers at CAL's 2017 conference.

This year, Holiday House is adding several new titles for its I Like to Read series. New with items appearing later in the year is a Guided Reading Level printed on the cover. This move is helpful for differentiating titles in the series from each other--they have always varied in the level of difficulty--but will be controversial.

For the purposes of this review, I’ve divided the titles into two groups: the very first reads; and slightly more advanced entries.

Four different titles have been released as Guided Reading Level A, the starting place. When a child has only a handful of sight words, anything more than a few repeated words is likely to cause frustration. It may be helpful to know “start here.”

All the titles share strong supportive characteristics. There is ideal repetition--just one phrase, with only the last word changing. Picture support is concrete and clear, and, like all I Like to Read works, they use kid-friendly “ball and stick” As and Gs. Some, though, offer up more in the way of motivation and page-turning dynamic.

I Like the Farm: Full-page photographs draw in young readers, and since they are on a separate page from the text, they do not distract from the words. They have been learning farm animals since before they could walk, so the subject is likely to inspire confidence. Oh, a cow! I know about cows! The alternation between mother animals and baby animals is fun, and the diverse group of children shown snuggling with the animals is engaging. There is, however, a lack of plot; the animals appear in no logical order aside from the mother/baby pattern.

I Hug: Here, there is something more of a plot; at least, the story moves toward night time. The muted, old-fashioned drawings, however, offer little to motivate little readers to keep turning the pages.

I See a Cat: A dog waits by the back door, watching animals go by. Finally, he sees a boy, and gets to go outside that chase that pesky squirrel he’s been watching. The illustrations are colorful and attractive and fill the whole page; they offer motivation to keep going. Children may also relate to the appearance of the boy (a child like themselves) as the highlight of the story.

I Can Run: Another strong very-first reader. With just three words on the page--”I can” and a concrete verb--this tale manages to contain an entire plot. A squirrel, serving as the I narrator, is menaced by a hawk! I can see! I can run! I can hide! Squirrels are very familiar to young children, who are often fascinated by them, and the full-page photographs draw them right into the story and keep them coming back.

There are three titles in the slightly harder range (still for very early readers), one with a Guided Reading Level D and two that were unleveled.

Pip Sits: In arguably the weakest of this group, a young bear is asked to sit on a duck nest, but doesn’t quite know what to do when the ducklings hatch and follow him.The old-fashioned drawings do not engage young readers effectively, nor does the plot. Pip and the ducks flail around a bit and then they are all rescued by their respective mothers.

Pizza Mouse (level D): A mouse navigates the perils of a major city, stumbling across a slice of pizza that he brings home to baby mice who happily greet their daddy. Colorful, enticing pictures offer lots of motivation for small readers. Pizza! Mice! These are familiar and appealing subjects. There is some supporting repetition, but more variation from page to page as befitting a next-level reader. With the pictures covering almost the full two-page spread, though, finding room for the words was a challenge, and occasionally they are hard to see. The most difficult words (subway and pizza) are not repeated.

Peeper and Zeep: A baby bird and young alien find themselves stranded after bad falls; they seek help from a frog and make themselves comfortable until their families arrive to take them home. The two title characters have names that are very fun to say, and the sci-fi plot is more interesting and complex than is often conveyed with just one short sentence on a page. Helpful repetition and strong relationship between words and pictures supports young readers. The kid-friendly page layout includes interesting full-cover pictures, reminiscent of an animated film, that help hold interest over repeated readings. Again, unfortunately, the most difficult words (spaceship and everyone) are not repeated.

This year’s Holiday House titles are sensible additions to your beginning reader section serving the relatively underserved very-new-reader segment. While none of them have the spark of originality that sets apart an award winner from a merely interesting book, some of the stronger entries may be “honor book” contenders.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Princess in Black and the Mysterious Playdate by Shannon and Dean Hale

The Princess in Black has plans -- mysterious plans. As her mild-mannered alter-ego, Princess Magnolia, she is off to a playdate with Princess Sneezewort. It should be a fun and relaxing afternoon, far away from her monster-fighting responsibilities. But when a cry for help is heard just outside of Princess Sneezewort's castle, the Princess in Black must spring into action once again. With a little help from a mysterious friend, the Princess in Black vanquishes her sneakiest foe yet.

Clocking in at 90 pages, this book falls just inside the Geisel page-count criteria. Is this more of a chapter book than a book for beginning readers? I was just catching up on some professional reading, and read the excellent Horn Book article by Summer Clark, "What My First Grader Taught Me About Reading." Near the end of that article, she mentions giving her son, now fluently reading books at a first-grade level, a more challenging text to read, and watching him stumble over the more difficult vocabulary and syntax. She concludes that "fluency learning isn’t something that occurs and is then finished; it happens in stages, and it depends on the context." Perhaps that is why books like last year's The Infamous Ratsos are still, rightly, honored by the Geisel committee -- because learning to read goes far beyond that first exciting moment when a beginning reader discovers that they know what that first word on the page means. Which brings us back to The Princess in Black. 

Is The Princess in Black and the Mysterious Playdate a book intended for fluent readers? Or does it have a place in the spectrum of books for beginning readers? Yes, and yes. Some fluency is required to be able to tackle the more challenging vocabulary presented in this book, but the book's text, illustrations, and design work hard to help readers along. In the first few pages, readers encounter words like "mysterious," "drawbridge," and "squatted," among others. Some of these words may already be familiar to readers at this level of fluency, while others may require some puzzling out. However, many of them are repeated in the text, and whenever possible, they are underscored by LeUyen Pham's eye-catching full-color illustrations that accompany each page. Moreover, the generous font size, spacing, and leading give each word plenty of space on the page. And finally, The Princess in Black and the Mysterious Playdate wins at child appeal, as the entire book presents an appealing package that readers with an interest in the subject matter (princesses! monsters! adventure! disguises!) will be motivated to pick up and read. There's plenty here for Geisel discussion, that's for sure.