Friday, December 13, 2019

Smell My Foot! by Cece Bell

Robbin Friedman is a children's librarian at the Chappaqua Library. She writes reviews for School Library Journal, serves on ALSC's Budget Committee, and reads a lot of science fiction.

In her new early reader series, "Chick and Brain", Cece Bell ostensibly sends up stilted "Dick and Jane" primers. Of course, today’s beginning readers don’t know that. They’ve never heard of Dick and Jane. And the rare child who might understand the reference probably wouldn’t associate those dry slices of white suburbia with these two weirdos.

Image from Chick and Brain: Smell My Foot! by Cece Bell

Fortunately, the first book—Smell My Foot!—shares more DNA with Tedd Arnold or Ethan Long than with Zerna Sharp (two points to anyone who already knew the author of "Dick and Jane").

Using a straightforward comics format broken into four short chapters, Bell introduces her protagonists: Chick, a fastidious yellow bird with a commitment to manners, and Brain, a white human with stick limbs, heart-print boxers, and a brain-like poof of hair atop his head. Bell has mastered the visual elements of comics for early readers, reveling in the intense goofiness of her subjects here.

Simple backgrounds, adequately-sized speech bubbles, and a clean, serif font pair well with the humor of Bell’s oddly-proportioned duo. Characters regularly break the confines of the basic two to four panel pages, but the visual story proceeds smoothly enough that errant feet or beaks won’t confuse beginners. In fact, Bell uses the spatial perspective of the panels beautifully to convey emphasis and tone, as in this page when Brain’s insistent demand grows too large for the panel next to Chick’s consistent denial.
Image from Chick and Brain: Smell My Foot! by Cece Bell

The story—as silly as it sounds—allows for ample word repetition. Brain’s foot smells great! Everyone should smell it! Chick wants to hear please and thank you before agreeing to anything. But once Spot, a hungry dog, has said the magic word, Chick merrily agrees to lunch. Both Brain and the reader recognize that Spot wants to eat Chick. Brain arrives to save Chick and makes Spot pass out because guess what? His other foot smells really bad! Early readers will finish this book experience confidently tackling words like smell, foot, please, sniff, and you’re welcome, some of which will absolutely come in handy again.

With visual support and reinforced vocabulary, this book may offer smooth sailing for some readers looking to branch out from Mo Willems. For certain readers, though, Bell’s quirky Brain may introduce a hiccup. Brain responds to social niceties differently than Chick (and most readers) expect, and while therein lies the fun for some folks, other readers might find the non sequiturs confusing.

Chick corrects Brain and gets the dialogue back on track. But for readers looking to the narrative to confirm they’re reading accurately, Brain’s unusual style may cause them to wonder if they’ve gotten something wrong.

For readers unfazed by Brain’s approach, Cece Bell has brought us something peculiar and effective, presented in a masterful comics package. If the Geisel Committee is looking for a change from more traditional, earnest early readers, they might want to take a big sniff of this one.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Duck & Goose: A Gift for Goose by Tad Hills

Cover of A Gift for Goose
by Tad Hills
Duck has a gift for Goose! He plops it into a box, then proceeds to decorate the box with paint, ribbon, and a handwritten card. But silly Goose, upon receiving the package, believes the box itself is the gift. A few pages proceed during which Goose is full of excitement at how wonderful the box is, while Duck quietly attempts to interject with the information the reader already knows: the gift is inside the box! Goose runs off to get his special things, and returns with wings full of crayons, hats, and yarn to put into his new box. Duck finally finds the moment to explain that the box is, in fact, not Duck’s gift. The next page turn is priceless, revealing Goose’s sad dismay as he misunderstands.

Image from A Gift for Goose by Tad Hills
The misunderstanding is quickly cleared, however, and Goose discovers the real gift: a box for his special things!

A Gift for Goose has all the trappings of a quality beginning reader: large font set against ample white space, simple sentences that are contained on the page spread, and repetition of key words. The bright, uncluttered illustrations clearly reflect the text, giving young readers plenty of clues to help them decipher the text.

The plot is simple, but effectively strikes an emotional chord that will resonate with many children. One friend does something for the other, there is a misunderstanding followed by some brief hurt feelings, then all is resolved. The pacing pulls the reader through the story as they anticipate the moment when Goose will finally figure out that the box is not the gift. The joke is well-delivered, and following the image of Goose’s misunderstanding as it does, delivers a quick jolt of humor at the perfect moment.

All in all, Duck & Goose: A Gift for Goose is a solid contender for this year’s Geisel Award. Will the committee agree? What do you think?

Monday, December 9, 2019

#WNDB - Still Important

As we’ve discussed in previous #WNDB posts, the world of beginning readers is incredibly homogeneous. And what’s more, there are more books about animal and inanimate object protagonists than there are about human kids from diverse backgrounds. This year alone there are beginning readers featuring: 

  • Mice 
  • Fish 
  • Hedgehogs 
  • Squirrels 
  • Rabbits 
  • Hot dogs 
  • Beans 
  • Robots 
  • Invertebrates 
  • A brain with smelly feet 
  • Pasta 

Not to mention the plethora of beginning readers that feature protagonists that are assumed white.   

I’m not saying any of these books shouldn’t exist. There are reasons to love each and every one of them individually. But when we look at them as a whole, it’s obvious that #WeSTILLNeedDiverseBeginningReaders. Because what we don’t see (or see very little of) in this year’s Geisel contenders are representations of characters with diverse abilities, family structures, socio-economic situations, cultural backgrounds, as well as any representations of LGBTQIA+ characters and hardly any #ownvoices books. 

Why is this so important? In two words, reading motivation. As Gigi Pagliarulo wrote in a post from earlier this year, “This reading motivation comes from several areas, including choice and personal relevance. Kids who can self-select books that reflect their interests and life experiences demonstrate more reading motivation. This is where diversity and equity in beginning readers come into play.” Being able to hand a kid a book with a character that reflects their experience is affirming and validating. And for kids from dominant cultures, reading a book with a protagonist from a non-dominant culture widens their view of the world and subverts the idea that stories/life are centered around dominant culture experiences and stories. 

One book/series about a particular diverse representation isn’t enough. We need lots of books with diverse representations at all stages of the learning to read process. As Amanda Foulk wrote in a post from last year, “There’s room on our shelves for so many more types of readers to see themselves reflected at every age and stage of learning to read.” We need to be able to give kids stacks of books that provide windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors. We cannot and should not expect a handful of books to pull that weight. 

I appreciate books like Charlie & Mouse, King & Kayla, Ana & Andrew, Katie Woo, Ling & Ting, Meet Yasmin (although this last series is sadly not eligible for the Geisel). And I encourage our readers to champion for more diverse beginning reader titles. As Danielle Jones said in an earlier post, “The Geisel Award should be for all children, but a book has to be published for it to have a chance. Many children have yet to see themselves represented in this format. This has to change.” 

Wondering what you can do to champion this cause? Take a look at the three actionable steps Gigi laid out in her post.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Fox + Chick: The Quiet Boat Ride and Other Stories by Sergio Ruzzier

Image of Ellysa Stern Cahoy.
Courtesy of Ellysa Stern Cahoy.
Ellysa Stern Cahoy was a member of the 2019 Geisel Award Committee. She is an Education Librarian and the Assistant Director of the Pennsylvania Center for the Book in the Penn State University Libraries, University Park, PA. At the Pennsylvania Center for the Book, Ellysa serves on the jury for the Baker’s Dozen: Thirteen Best Books for Family Literacy, and administers the Lynd Ward Graphic Novel Prize. 

Fox + Chick: The Quiet Boat Ride
and Other Stories by Sergio
Ruzzier book cover
Sergio Ruzzier is back with a second Fox + Chick book, The Quiet Boat Ride and Other Stories! As in the first entry in this series (The Party), Fox and Chick are friends with very different personalities. Fox is contemplative and thoughtful. Chick is disruptive and devilish! Ruzzier shares three tales of the two friends -- The Quiet Boat Ride, Chocolate Cake, and The Sunrise. The Quiet Boat Ride is anything but -- Chick sees danger -- pirates, shipwreck, and sea monsters around each corner. Fox patiently abides the vagaries of Chick, his voyaging companion. In the second story, a gifted chocolate cake presents a quandary -- how will Chick eat the entire thing by himself? Luckily, Fox is there to help out. And in the final story, The Sunrise, Chick’s disarray and disorganization mean a missed sunrise viewing, but the two friends find something even better (and just as beautiful) to enjoy together.

The Quiet Boat Ride and Other Stories follows the same format as The Party, with colorful endpapers that hint at elements in the story and a layout (including a table of contents and chapter headers) that is easily accessible to new readers navigating their first chapter books. The format is a hybrid of a graphic novel and an early reader, with the action shown in comic panels that are easy to follow. 

Ruzzier’s pen, ink, and watercolor illustrations perfectly depict the humorous depths of each story. When Chick imagines sea monsters, they materialize on the following wordless page as fantastic creatures -- a winding eel with a horn for a nose, a lemon shaped fish, a menacing creature with a foot for a tail. Chick’s house is a small tower (with accompanying miniature outhouse), perilously perched on a singular tree branch. Fox and Chick wander through muted landscapes of lilac, chartreuse, and Tuscan orange that feature rolling hills, fanciful trees, and the occasional cacti. 

Panels of Fox and Chick going on a not so quiet boat ride from 
Fox + Chick: The Quiet Boat Ride and Other Stories by Sergio Ruzzier

The text is structured entirely as dialogue between Fox and Chick to help the reader tell the story dramatically -- Chick yells in all caps, and Fox speaks gently and directly to his friend. The layout is consistent and the font is large and almost always enclosed within speech bubbles (an exception is when Chick ‘smooch’es the ground when he reaches land and Fox’s alarm clock ‘riiiiiing’s in the morning). Even these onomatopoeic sounds provide an opportunity for the reader to apply sound effects to the story! 

Panels of Fox and Chick going on a not so quiet boat ride from
Fox + Chick: The Quiet Boat Ride and Other Stories by Sergio Ruzzier
The pages are numbered, and at 46 pages, meet the minimum number of pages required for Geisel consideration. The dialogue contains a mix of simple and unusual words, such as plunder, shipwreck, worried, salami, and hammer. Many of the more challenging words are repeated multiple times in the text. The funny stories, imaginative illustrations, and unique friendship of Fox and Chick combine to make a very enjoyable experience for the reader. 

Sergio Ruzzier received a Geisel Honor in 2019 for The Party and Other Stories. Full disclosure: I served on the 2019 Geisel Committee, and I love the originality and accessibility of Ruzzier’s art and stories! Perhaps these winning friends will march forward for Geisel recognition once again this year!  

What are your thoughts? Will Fox + Chick once again gain Geisel attention?

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Noodleheads: Fortress of Doom by Tedd Arnold, Martha Hamilton, and Mitch Weiss

Cover image of Noodleheads: Fortress of Doom
Oh, those Noodleheads! Fans of this series will be glad to see the bumbling duo back for more fun. In this volume, the Noodleheads go to the library to acquire knowledge. They come away with a book of jokes and a book about the Fortress of Doom, both of which inspire their afternoon adventures. A pile of lumber in the back yard becomes their own Fortress of Doom, and when neighborhood bully Meatball shows up, they engage in a tall tale contest for possession of the Fortress.

Jokes, folklore, and tall tales form the basis of these funny stories. As with other books in the series, the format is in the style of comic books, with panels and speech bubbles. While not suited for the very beginning reader, the reader who has gained some proficiency will find success with this book, particularly as it employs good repetition of potentially tricky words ("knowledge," "fortress"). The humor will appeal to young readers, and the short chapters give a pleasing feeling of accomplishment.  

Noodleheads See the Future was a Geisel Honor in 2018 – will Noodleheads: Fortress of Doom gain recognition in 2020?

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Penny and Her Sled by Kevin Henkes

Today's guest contributor, Benji Martin, is a librarian and educator from Montgomery, Alabama. He serves as the elementary school librarian at Saint James School, and blogs at Tales of an Elementary School Librarian. You can find him on Twitter at @mrBenjimartin.

Cover image of Penny and Her Sled by Kevin Henkes

I live in Alabama and spent most of my childhood here. It hardly ever snows. Every couple of years, we’ll get a good dusting, and even less often, a “blizzard” with snow that actually sticks.

There’s always that lingering hope, though. Every winter, when it gets cold, children and adults alike pay close attention to the weather, hoping against all reason that snow will fall and everyone will get a day off of work or school. (Everything closes here when it snows, except for hospitals and Waffle Houses.) Usually we are disappointed and when spring comes we forget about snow for a little while.

Because of where I live, I could totally relate to how Penny was feeling in this book. She wanted that snow so badly! Her parents made the rookie mistake of telling her that snow was coming. Don’t they know that a parent’s word is a promise? You don’t ever promise weather! Whenever my kids ask a weather-related question, the answer is always, “I don’t know,” or “We’ll see,” regardless of the forecast.

Reading the book, I kind of expected a very late-winter or early-spring snow just because Penny’s parents said it was coming, and in children’s books, parents are almost always right.

It didn’t snow, however, and her parents used the ol’ distraction method and got her looking forward to the snowdrop flowers that would come with spring.

Interior illustration of Penny looking at some snowdrops

There were lots of things I loved about Penny and Her Sled. It was really refreshing to me that Penny’s parents got it wrong. It’s okay for kids realize early that their parents are fallible. Being people, they’ll make mistakes and they’ll do it often.

I enjoyed the fun ways that Penny played with her sled indoors because it looked sad in the corner of her bedroom.

Interior illustration of Penny playing with her sled indoors

I also enjoyed the fact that it never snowed in the book, but Penny chose to be happy and decided to wait for something else.

Waiting seems to be a big theme in Kevin Kenkes’ books lately. I can’t help but think of his Geisel honor-winning picture book Waiting in which all of the characters are looking out of the window and waiting for something, much like Penny in most of this book.

interior illustration of Penny looking out the window

I guess the whole point of this post is to talk about whether or not I think Penny and Her Sled stands a shot at receiving the Geisel award. I do. It checks all of the Geisel criteria boxes for me. It’s a lovely, distinguished story to my eyes. The illustrations have that classic Henkes feel. The text is just challenging enough for the child learning to read to be supported and encouraged. I think kids reading this book will empathize with Penny and her longing for snow, and will be happy with the resolution, even though Penny doesn’t get her wish.

Penny and Her Marble received a Geisel honor in 2014, and while this doesn’t mean anything for Penny and Her Sled’s 2020 prospects, I think that a new Penny book will definitely be on the Geisel committee’s radar. I feel like there’s a chance that we’ll hear Penny’s name called again this January in Philadelphia.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Whose Footprint is That? by Darrin Lunde, illustrated by Kelsey Oseid

It's always tricky to find those nonfiction titles that might be a good fit for the Geisel -- and a delight when you find one that is!

In Whose Footprint is That?, Lunde and Oseid cleverly create a book that hits all the right notes for beginning readers.  The book is structured so that each new footprint is accompanied by a question ("Whose footprint is that?" for most, though later images of a snake's slithery track and a fossil play with the question a bit) and a clue: a part of the animal peeking around the book's corner, or perhaps some other item, such as a feather, left behind. There's also a one-sentence hint in the text, explaining how the footprint was made.  Then, the question is answered simply with the name of the animal, plus a very brief sentence or two of description. This formatting choice provides admirable repetition, and I can see young readers enjoying guessing what might have made each footprint, scrutinizing the hints on the page and being pleased when they successfully guess the answer.

As with any nonfiction title, some vocabulary may prove challenging, but motivated readers will power through. Plus, Oseid's illustrations are both beautiful and accurate, providing excellent support for the text. The font size is ample, if not generous, and the text placement is predictable. Sentences are short and straightforward, and the subject matter is perennially interesting.

Wondering if this title is a serious contender? Maybe you should make tracks to your local library or bookstore and check it out!