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.

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