Sunday, October 30, 2016

Geisel-Worthy Nonfiction: Past and Present

Today's guest blogger is Kahla Gubanich. Kahla is a children’s and maker librarian at Carroll County Public Library in Maryland.

Since the formation of the Geisel Award in 2006, three informational books have been selected as honor recipients. Vulture View by April Pulley Sayre, illustrated by Steve Jenkins, and Hello, Bumblebee Bat by Darrin Lunde, illustrated by Patricia J. Wynne, were both selected as Geisel Honor books in 2008; and Wolfsnail by Sarah C. Campbell, with photographs by Sarah C. Campbell and Richard P. Campbell, was a 2009 Geisel Honor. The Geisel criteria clearly state that nonfiction books are eligible for the award. Yet since those initial honors, no other work of nonfiction has been selected by a Geisel committee. This means there is a gap waiting to be filled!

In this post, I’ll consider the merits of the three honor winners, then compare them to three informational titles published this year that share similar qualities of excellence: Best in Snow by April Pulley Sayre, How Much Does a Ladybug Weigh? by Alison Limentani, and The Blobfish Book by Jessica Olien.

Honor Recipients

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In Hello, Bumblebee Bat, the narrator (or reader) asks a bumblebee bat a question, and the bat responds with information about itself. Illustrations support the text; on the first page, we learn that bumblebee bat is “small, like a bee”, and the illustration depicts the bat flying next to a bee, demonstrating the comparison.

Image from Hello, Bumblebee Bat by Darrin Lunde, illustrated by Patricia J. Wynne 
Each spread contains one page of text to the left of the illustration, and explanatory back matter is in a large enough font that beginning readers can read the extra information on their own rather than having to relinquish the book to a grown-up at the very end.

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In Vulture View, readers are introduced to the carrion-eating vulture as it soars through the air searching for a wonderfully rotten meal. Rhyming text allows the reader to anticipate sounds and work through letter combinations that might prove challenging. Jenkins’ trademark cut paper illustrations reflect the action of the text, even in more complicated scenes with multiple verbs.

Image from Vulture View by April Pulley Sayre, illustrated by Steve Jenkins
Repetition of phrases like, "Up, up!" and "No, no" create regular points for a beginning reader to gain confidence. Unlike Hello, Bumblebee Bat, the condensed back matter is clearly meant to be read to a beginning reader rather than by them.

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Wolfsnail pairs concise text with macro photographs of the snail on the hunt. Sentences are contained on a single page, with one notable exception to build suspense when the wolfsnail finally catches its prey.

Image from Wolfsnail by Sarah C. Campbell, with photographs by Sarah C. Campbell and Richard P. Campbell

2016 Contenders

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Geisel Honor author April Pulley Sayre has a new nonfiction book, Best in Snow. Like Wolfsnail, Best in Snow pairs crisp photographs of snowflakes, ice crystals, and the occasional forest animal with equally crisp text.

Image from Best in Snow by April Pulley Sayre

The repetition of sounds within the rhythmic text creates a consistent framework. Sentences are short and simple, and are generally contained within the page spread. As with Wolfsnail, the exceptions emphasize specific points in the narrative. The photos vary between full bleed double page spreads to multi-panel spreads. Some readers my find the panel layout distracting, particularly when the white text sits atop a lighter background. Yet the narrative progression from a freeze through a melt and into another freeze offers a predictable pathway through these sections.

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How Much Does a Ladybug Weigh? poses a simple question and provides a simple, if unexpected, answer. The concept of this book is straightforward; animals are compared by weight, beginning with the information that "10 ants weigh the same as 1 ladybug." Like Hello, Bumblebee Bat, the large, bold font against a solid background cleanly delivers engaging content.

Image from How Much Does a Ladybug Weigh? by Alison Limentani

The numbers count down; the next page reveals nine ladybugs next to one grasshopper, then eight grasshoppers next to one stickleback fish, and so on. This repetition of more challenging words like "stickleback" and "squirrel" is particularly useful as a confidence builder, much like the repetition in Vulture View functions. The text builds to a colorful finale, in which it is revealed that 1 swan weighs as much as 362,880 ladybugs. The endpapers provide additional facts in simple sentences and a large enough font that a beginning reader could read this back matter on their own. Some readers may be disappointed by the lack of any sources, but the book serves as an engaging introduction to the subject.

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In The Blobfish Book, the reader meets Blobfish, an exuberant deep sea dweller that guides the reader through an expository book all about other denizens of the deep. Like Wolfsnail, the reader is treated to fascinating close-up photos of animals. Yet superimposed over the photos, a cartoon Blobfish dramatically opines on the information provided.

Image from The Blobfish Book by Jessica Olien

Blobfish eagerly awaits an official introduction within the pages. When the time comes, Blobfish is rather upset to learn that "the blobfish was once voted the world's ugliest animal," and dissolves into tears. Thankfully, the other deep sea creatures understand being misunderstood, and all ends well on a note of self-acceptance. Olien deftly pairs the informational text with the cartoon narrative, distinguishing between the two through the use of both image and text.

Each of these three titles is distinguished in its own way, filling a need for quality nonfiction that engages the unique interests and needs of beginning readers. I would love to hear what others think! What nonfiction books do you find distinguished this year?

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