Friday, November 18, 2016

The Thank You Book by Mo Willems

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This year’s committee has quite a task before them. They will consider the final book in the Elephant & Piggie series, The Thank You Book. We’ve previously discussed the legacy of this series, which has earned recognition for seven different titles during the decade that the award has been around. But of course, the committee must do its best to judge the book solely on its own merits, disregarding the successes of the series. 

The criteria says:
“The committee in its deliberations is to consider only the books eligible for the award” and further clarifies that “the phrase only the books eligible for the award specifies that the committee is to consider only eligible books, not an author’s body of work or previous accolades.”

How does a committee begin to do this? Penny Peck, chair of the 2014 Geisel Award Committee says "There was no surprise that we had at least one Elephant & Piggie book to consider our Geisel year, but none of our committee members took it for granted - either assuming one of the series would be on our list or dismissing it because of past wins for the series.” Of course, we know that the outcome of their deliberations was an honor for A Big Guy Took My Ball!

The committee accomplishes this by adhering closely to the criteria in their suggestions, nominations, and in their January discussion. 

So how does The Thank You Book fare when examined through the lens of the criteria? 

Last we checked, Mo hasn’t taken up permanent residence in Paris, and we can also pretty easily deduce that this meets the other geographic, page count, and target age criteria. (Yes, even though adults have been eagerly anticipating this final book, it isn’t just for us. It does still serve PrK-2 sensibilities.) On to the more subjective criteria:

Does it "contain illustrations, which function as keys or clues to the text?" Look at that white space. That amazing, glorious, actually white, white space. We know how important that white space is for the eyes of our beginning readers, for giving them a visual rest. I suspect that The Thank You Book will have as much or more white space as any other book under consideration this year. Mo’s illustrations fill that white space with just the right amount of Gerald, Piggie, and friends. The illustrations have a cartoon style, complete with color coded thought and dialogue balloons that provide the reader with guidance as to which character is thinking or speaking. These thought or dialogue balloons also provide clues as to the tone of the speech, deepening in hue and developing sharp edges when Piggie is frustrated, and becoming smaller when Gerald is quiet. And there’s the broad range of emotion conveyed by the depictions of Piggie and Gerald, with their depiction providing clues to their confidence, contrition, enthusiasm, skepticism, joy, frustration, and contentment. While initial illustrations do not provide clues to decoding “lucky” or “Thank-o-rama”, once Piggie is engaged in her quest the character names like “Squirrels” or “Pelican” appear on the same page or spread as that character’s depiction. 

Is it "distinguished?" Distinguished is further defined in the manual as:
·         Marked by distinction: noted for significant achievement;
·         Marked by excellence in quality;
·         Marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence;
·         Individually distinct;
·         Providing 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.

The terms “individually distinct” and “conspicuous” are always interesting to consider when evaluating a title in a series, particularly in years when an author has more than one title eligible, as has often been the case for Elephant & Piggie. But even when a series title is the only one in its year, it is the challenge of each committee to identify how this entry to the series demonstrates individual distinction, rather than just the excellence in quality that we have come to expect from this series. Could this be a factor in why the Elephant & Piggie series has not taken the Geisel gold since 2009, despite its very consistent showing at the top? 

Observing a child reader is key to truly knowing if it provides that “stimulating and successful reading experience” that is a mark of distinction in the genre. Is the subject matter intriguing enough to motivate the child to read? Does the plot advance from one page to the next and create a "page-turning" dynamic?" We can see on page 11 as Piggie leaps out-of-frame that we should turn the page, but is the dramatic tension between Gerald’s insistence that she will forget someone and her refutation of that assertion enough to carry a first-time reader through the multiple vignettes of Piggie thanking her many friends?

There will undoubtedly be many fans watching for this title during the Geisel announcement this year. If you were on the committee, would it have a place on your ballot?

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