Thursday, December 15, 2016

You Are NOT a Cat! by Sharon G. Flake

Photo from

In the best tradition of silly impersonation tales, You Are NOT a Cat takes us along as Duck and Cat debate the propriety of Duck’s expressions of identity. With clear comparisons to be made with the 2013 Elephant and Piggie series title I Am a Frog, this humorous read aloud prompts a second look for beginning readers.

The text of the book is set against white word bubbles, carving space out of the full bleed ink wash, pen, and pencil drawings. The text is a reasonable size for a beginning reader, the lines are short – generally 3-7 words - and feature sight words. The nature of the debate lends itself to some repetition – there are quite a few quacks and meows. 

As a picture book, You Are NOT a Cat contains direct and humorous illustrations. Duck’s leaf “ears” on the cover are a nice touch, and I enjoy Duck’s parrot imitation. But looking at the criteria, the presence of illustrations is insufficient – these illustrations must “demonstrate the story being told” and “function as keys or clues to the text”. The very plot rests on the tension between what is observably true – that Duck is a duck – and what is being stated – that he is a cat. But this kind of tension does not necessarily serve our beginning reader well. Instead of providing a clue to our reader, the illustrations are often directly contradicting what is being stated, starting on the very first page when Duck declares himself a cat. 

But wait – you might say – wait just a moment, “cat” is a three-letter word, a sight word, and there IS a cat on the page, after all. Aren’t we being a bit harsh? 

Let’s read on, I would reply. Because on the page describing a “long, straight tail” there is none present. Which is the entire point, of course. And while there are “whiskers” on the following page, just how well is the illustration providing clues to “tickle the air”? None of those new words will be repeated anywhere in the story.  Similarly, “makes nice music” and “parrot” and “rooster”and “cock-a-doodle-doo” go relatively unrepresented. To be fair Duck IS imitating a rooster when he uses those last two words, so were I on the committee I would defer to the beginners reads I was observing to see if Duck’s imitation is a sufficient clue for them. None of these things detract from the story’s humor or effectiveness as a read aloud, of course. But when evaluating it using the Geisel criteria, we must consider how the illustrations support the successful reading experience.

Similarly, the criteria state that “sentences must be simple and straightforward”. The presence of so many questions - “Now you’re a parrot, I suppose?” and “And tomorrow?” for example, may challenge the comprehension of our beginning reader. A beginning reader may struggle to read these questions with the appropriate expression, as they will not perceive the question mark until they’ve reached the end of the sentence. The committee would need to determine if the ten question marks in this story impact the successful experience of the beginning reader. 

Despite several elements supportive of the beginning reader, the effectiveness of the illustrations as clues to the text would hold me back from supporting You Are NOT a Cat! at the Geisel table. But I would only be one of seven votes - would it have a place on your ballot?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for covering this book, Amanda. I agree, there's a lot in this book that might take it off the table for the Geisel Committee. However, I'd like to put forth this title for "best beginning reader font" award of the year. It especially shines when it comes to those "a's" and "g's." :)