Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Infamous Ratsos Are Not Afraid by Kara LaReau and illustrated by Matt Myers

Today's post is contributed by Stacey Rattner, the "leaping librarian" at Castleton Elementary School, just outside of Albany, NY. For the past two years she has run a 10 week Mock Geisel project with a collaborating first grade teacher and looks forward to doing it again this year. You can follow her on Twitter @staceybethr or

Louie and Ralphie Ratso, the brothers who debuted last year in the Geisel Honor Winner The Infamous Ratsos, return for another exciting tale for the more confident readers at the upper limits of the Geisel age range.   This time around they devise a master plan to set up the “Big City Fun Time Arcade” in an old lot filled with junk.  It’s a win-win for them since they love junk and arcades. The catch is that the lot is adjacent to a house rumored to be haunted.  When a bell from one of the games goes flying next door, it is Louie who faces his fears and discovers that the house’s resident is not as frightening as he might seem.

Then there’s Stinky Stanko.  Could anyone be more smelly than her?  Brother Ralphie doesn’t seem to think so.  But wait?! Did Ralphie walk Stinky home from school?  It certainly appears that way from the bathroom wall. As beginning readers explore themes of kindness, judgement and the risks of jumping to conclusions, they will be surprised when they discover the truth.

Even though Louie and Ralphie are rats, young readers will be able to relate to their feelings, desires and dilemmas.  The simple black and white illustrations demonstrate the story being told in this chapter book that young people won’t want to put down.

I struggle to recommend this as a true Geisel contender. On the one hand it seems too advanced for the readers the award is promoting.  On the other hand, the Geisel award, according to terms and criteria, is given to books targeting readers in grades preK-2. This is the perfect book for 7 year olds.  Many second graders have moved out of the emerging readers and are begging for more.  This unbiased book will appeal to all kids, boys and girls, young and old of any ethnicity and they will feel successful as they read a “big kid” chapter book.

I love the perseverance of Ralphie and Louie.  I laughed out loud at some of the humor (one of the prizes at the arcade is a balloon that reads, “Happy Rat Mitzvah”) and young readers will enjoy sharing the lessons learned with friends, family and teachers.  The book is multi-layered, woven together beautifully between the text and Matt Myers’s simple but distinguished black and white illustrations.  If reading aloud or sharing in groups, it definitely lends itself to great discussion. 

Geisel or not? I could go either way. I feel that this is  “YES! A definite contender,” and yet at the same time, “I hesitate. Not sure. Too long and challenging for my youngest learners.” Once you’ve read it on your own and decided for yourself, please come back and let me know in the comments. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Groovy Joe: Dance Party Countdown by Eric Litwin and Tom Lichtenheld

Groovy Joe is a dance party of one, but as more and more dogs show up to join the fun, does he get upset? Goodness no! There's always room for more.

This book is sure to be a hit with kids: it has bright, dynamic illustrations, a rollicking, rhyming text, and the star power of the author who brought us Pete the Cat. (Of course, to the Geisel Committee, that last point is immaterial.) When viewed as a Geisel contender, this book has both strengths and weaknesses.

First of all, it does a lot of things very well. The text uses a great deal of repetition, so new vocabulary (for example, "disco") generally appears often enough for readers to gain confidence reading those potentially unfamiliar words. The font size is generous, line breaks are in helpful places, and sentences are never carried over a page turn. Instead, there is often a question on one page, and the answer to the question after the page turn – which is an obvious way of creating a "page-turning dynamic." Moreover, this book plays with simple math concepts that beginning readers may also be exploring in school. Both numerals (e.g. "4") and the printed names of numbers (e.g. "four") are used. And, as mentioned above, this is a fun book that kids will enjoy reading.

Of course, for a beginning reader, it's not perfect. For one thing, I'd take exception with the title: this book counts up, not down! Beyond that, there are a couple of instances of challenging vocabulary, but the main issue that I see is the inclusion of special fonts: block letters with funky shading, fonts with little squiggly bits that could be confusing to inexperienced readers, and words that go sprawling across the page, interacting with the illustrations in a way that makes for the occasional chaotically busy page. There are even a few words in loopy cursive, likely to pose a challenge to any young reader. And, while some of these artistically rendered words (including the cursive ones) could be skipped without impacting understanding of the story, others are necessary to the reading experience.

Is this a deal-breaker for Groovy Joe? Only this year's Geisel Committee can know for sure. If this title were suggested, I would expect the font issue to feature prominently in their discussions, but the committee might find that the book's strengths outweigh its weaknesses. Either way, Groovy Joe is sure to enliven countless preschool story times: Disco party bow wow!

Friday, October 6, 2017

A Pig, A Fox, and Stinky Socks by Jonathan Fenske

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

It would seem that no friendship is complete without a bit of good-natured pranking. In Jonathan Fenske's A Pig, a Fox, and Stinky Socks, the titular characters are just such friends. Playful Fox has some stinky socks, and is determined to trick Pig in this three part story. First he tries gifting Pig the socks in a box, and when that doesn't go as planned, he steps things up a notch and hides the stinky socks in Pig's bowl of slop. Unfortunately for Fox, Pig is too practical to be easily tricked and the joke backfires, leaving Fox a stinky mess.

Each of the three parts follows a pattern that allows readers to anticipate some of the action and benefit from the repetition of dialog. In each part, Pig and Fox introduce themselves to the reader on the first page and share a little something about themselves. "'I am Fox.' 'I am Pig.' 'I am little.' 'I am big.'" The pattern is inverted slightly in Part 2, when Pig and Fox introduce one another rather than themselves, but the story arc repeats: Fox has some more stinky socks and tries to prank Pig, but ultimately the joke is on Fox. By the second time, the repeated action of Fox stashing the socks for Pig to find, and then seeking out a hiding spot allows the reader to anticipate the joke's fallout. Of course, this makes it all the more satisfying that Part 3 begins with the same chorus of introductions, only to abandon the established pattern altogether on the final page. Instead of ending up once more covered in stinky socks and slop, Fox now marches off to take a bath.

The illustrations are uncluttered, with bold outlines and solid blocks of color. Each image mirrors the accompanying text, providing beginning readers solid visual clues to help them decipher the words. As Fox narrates what he is doing, the illustrations helpfully zoom in or out to focus on the action.

Fenske skillfully reveals the characters’ emotions and personalities through subtle visual clues: Fox's sly glances and sneaking steps contrast Pig's big movements and clear transition from anticipation to frustration as he realizes he has been tricked. The sectioning of most pages into panels also serves as an introduction to a graphic novel layout. The rhyming text is a helpful guide to navigating panels, preventing readers from getting lost on the page spreads.

Fox's escalating tricks clearly upset Pig, but the anger doesn't last. The friendship withstands Fox's pranks, as we see Pig accompanying the now-smelly Fox, holding out his bath towel. The humor builds through both the text and illustrations, providing the comfort of an established pattern along with a final twist so the story ends on a strong, unexpected note. A Pig, a Fox, and Stinky Socks is a light-hearted mix of humor and friendship that will delight existing fans of Pig and Fox and new readers alike.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Egg (and In the Middle of Fall) by Kevin Henkes

Today's guest contributor, Robbin Friedman, is a children's librarian at the Chappaqua Library. She writes reviews for School Library Journal, serves on ALSC's Excellence in Early Learning Digital Media committee and will soon begin as a member of the 2019 Newbery Committee. 

Two-time Geisel honoree Kevin Henkes returns this year with two accessible offerings: In the Middle of Fall, illustrated by his wife, Laura Dronzek, and Egg, with Henkes’s own paintings. In the Middle of Fall complements the duo’s When Spring Comes with a gentle exploration of the colors of autumn. Gorgeous and contemplative, the book perfectly captures the look, the feel, the sounds of fall as it tips into winter; it practically smells like woodsmoke and leaf matter. But while the book shines as an autumn read-aloud, the hushed beauty of changing seasons doesn’t quite propel emerging readers through the pages.

Image from Egg by Kevin Henkes
The candy-colored Egg, on the other hand, uses limited text to tell a suspenseful and humorous story, melding picture book and comics formats to great effect. Opening with four different-colored eggs, the pink, yellow, and blue quickly crack to reveal charming pastel birds, leaving only the green egg to sit intact. For pages. And pages. Early readers will enjoy the visual humor of the stubbornly unbroken egg; chances are, they’ll also have learned the word "waiting" by the seventeenth repetition around page 12. Presumably tired of all this waiting, the perplexed hatchlings from the first three eggs return to examine the green oddity and coax the inhabitant out. Spoiler alert: egg number four does NOT produce a bird. 

As an introductory comic, Egg nails the format. The straightforward presentation of one, four or sixteen panels per page allows for variety in the storytelling but ensures early readers can follow the plot without struggle. Henkes also embraces the format’s strengths for visual narrative: a sense of time conveyed by repetitive panels, the impact of a full-page picture after a series of smaller images, the sense of movement depicted as characters appear to exit the frame. And he avoids some of the potential complications by skipping speech bubbles and limiting the text--in a clean, non-serif font--to the bottom of each frame. This accessible version of sequential art allows a complete story to emerge from a text that uses only fifteen different words (for all it uses peck 63 times). That limited vocabulary features a couple of challenges, but Henkes expressive animal faces and repetition of both words and sounds--plus the decoding oases of wordless spreads--will usher readers through the tricky parts. 

Image from Egg by Kevin Henkes
Some emerging readers may be surprised as the final sunset morphs into an egg and hints at a continuing narrative, evoking the cyclical nature of life and storytelling. But this mild detour into the surreal shouldn’t bother most readers, even if the dreamlike illustrations don’t quite support the few remaining words of text (an inevitable trade off for introductory surrealism). Either way, most readers will find themselves completely satisfied by the friendly resolution among the hatchlings and happy to coast through the final pages. And then they’ll likely start this Geisel contender again.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Fergus and Zeke by Kate Messner, Illustrated by Heather Ross

Today's post is from Paige Bentley-Flannery. Paige is a Community Librarian at Deschutes Public Library. She is a former Chair of the ALSC Notable Children’s Book Committee and ALSC Digital Content Task Force. Twitter @chapterpaigeone

What do you look for when selecting easy readers or picture books for children? Do you think about past Geisel Award winners? Favorite authors? Favorite characters? When Kate Messner’s new book, Fergus and Zeke arrived on my desk I was excited about the format, museum story and two new best friends. The reading experience from beginning to end follows a wonderful rhythm and “provides a stimulating and successful reading experience” for children pre-K through Grade 2, as they say in the Geisel Award criteria.

In four short chapters, Miss Maxwell’s class is in full swing learning team work, listening at story time, solving math problems and creating new projects. Fergus, Miss Maxwell’s class pet, loves school and loves his favored status. But when Fergus finds out his whole class is going on a field trip to the Museum of Natural History and he has to stay in the classroom, he tries any means to get to go! But how? He hides in Emma’s backpack and the adventure begins! Butterflies! Dinosaurs! Stars! The school field trip to the Museum of Natural History provides the perfect plot with a variety of favorite topics including shiny rocks and minerals! The length, 52 pages fits right in the middle of the criteria (a minimum of 24 pages but no longer than 96 pages). Messier provides an intriguing look inside the museum including a dinosaur’s mouth!

Image from Fergus and Zeke
by Kate Messner, illus. by Heather Ross
Fergus and Zeke encourage the beginning reader with a wonderful introduction to favorite and fun new words. Right away, I noticed the word “room.” being repeated over and over. We follow the story from room to room - a classroom or a museum room. Think about all of things you might want to see? The phrase, “I want to see…” is repeated over and over. But my favorite repetitive word in the story is “buddy.” Fergus’s buddy is a banana! In Chapter 2, look back at the illustrations, Fergus is so happy! The word “buddy” throughout the story discusses the importance of having a buddy but also, adds joy with Fergus’s buddy being a banana.  Bus, buddy and the phrase “he wanted to…” are also included in Chapter 2.

Following the criteria, the bright colorful illustrations “demonstrate the story being told” from Fergus’s jazzy dance with the butterflies to the stars in the planetarium. The illustrations also provide clues to the text. In Chapter 3, the first sentence - “The first exhibit hall was full of rocks and minerals” is matched with multiple sizes of rock illustrations on display. The mice are filled with fun expressions - pretending to be a lion on page 28 and tigers on page 30.  Messner’s heart-filled story is filled with friendships, collaboration and adventure. Children will appreciate Fergus’s personality and favorite school activities.

Fergus and Zeke might be your new favorite book to book talk, share with teachers, families and more. Will it capture the Geisel committee’s attention? Grab your backpack and go on a field trip with Miss Maxwell’s class.


Thursday, September 28, 2017

Welcome! Ears on the Odyssey: A Mock Odyssey Award Blog

Lizzie Nolan
Lizzie Nolan is a Senior Librarian in the San José Public Libraries. She is member of YALSA and ALSC. She has served on the 2017 Odyssey Committee. As a performer of Improv and a dyslexic, Lizzie understands both the power and the fun of outstanding audiobooks.

Leon was a ten-year-old who came in religiously after school to use the computers to play video games. When we would talk about books and reading, he would gush about his love of boxing and show great excitement when I would hand him books about the greats like Muhammad Ali. But Leon would lose focus after a few pages and go back to playing video games. Leon was a major multitasker. He could play games, listen to music, chat with his friends, and draw pictures all with ease. Leon’s constant need for stimulation made him the perfect candidate for audiobooks. Instead of asking him simply about the things he was interested in, I asked him why these things interested him. Leon loved boxing because it made him feel independent. He alone could take credit for his victories and failures. Leon said something like “it is all me” in the ring. As we browsed the audiobooks he choose something that surprised me - Pippi Longstocking. It didn’t take long to for Leon fall in love with Pippi’s autonomy and pluckiness.

I think about Leon often when discussing and reviewing audiobooks. Audiobooks offer another avenue to open up new and exciting ways of engaging with stories, especially for the busy, the distracted, the overstimulated, and the reluctant. Great audiobooks pair nicely with the multitasking listener who needs to literally shadow box like Leon while he listens. But audiobooks also offer a much needed respite to information overload.

It is no surprise then that the audiobook market has exploded. The Audio Publisher's Association in its’ yearly survey states there was an 33.9% increase in audiobooks sold in 2016. This boom has lead audiobook producers into creating more and more high quality audios with high production values and outstanding narrators in wide variety of formats. As the audiobook librarian champion Mary Burkey notes “The act of reading is evolving. Today’s readers can experience the same story as they toggle between audiobooks in the car, ebooks on the tablet, and paperbacks at home, and young people in particular are naturals...The ability to shift seamlessly from image to text to sound will be part of every young person’s transliteracy education.”

Logo designed by Sergio Perez, 2017

So what makes a great audiobook? Enter the Ears on the Odyssey blog. The Odyssey Award has been given each year since 2008 “to the producer of the best audiobook produced for children and/or young adults, available in English in the United States.” The Ears on the Odyssey Blog unpacks the specific aspects of audio production of great listens, as well as the kind of critical evaluation that goes into picking an Odyssey winner, and our thoughts on why this all matters. In the mold of other great mocks before it (.... like this great one you are reading RIGHT NOW), Ears on the Odyssey hopes to shed light on the process of how librarians think critically and choose award winning titles.

Check us out:
Follow us on Twitter: @EarsOdyssey

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

King and Kayla Series by Dori Hillestad Butler and Nancy Meyers

Brian E. Wilson works as a Children’s Librarian at the Evanston Public Library and served on the 2015 Odyssey and 2017 Caldecott committees.  Follow him on his blog Mr. Brian’s Picture Book Picks:
One of the most delightful new easy reader series to appear in 2017 star King & Kayla, a Golden Retriever and his mystery-solving human. Written by Dori Hillestad Butler and illustrated by Nancy Meyers, the books sparkle with charm and good humor. The Geisel Committee this year has three titles starring this duo to consider, and this essay will determine which one I personally feel meets the criteria best. Nothing in the rules says that more than one can receive Geisel attention, but I will limit myself to one.
First, a quick overview of the series. All three books follow the same formula. In four quick chapters and 48 fast-paced pages, each book has first person narration from King as he tells how he and Kayla suddenly have to solve a lighthearted mystery. Joining them in are Kayla's friend Jillian who has an adorable (even when he's biting King's ears) puppy named Thor. In the first offering, King & Kayla and the Case of the Missing Dog Treats they try to figure who took three bone-shaped peanut butter treats Kayla baked for Thor. In King & Kayla and the Case of the Secret Code, they try to decipher a note written in a letter-scrambling code. And King & Kayla and the Case of the Mysterious Mouse shows King believing that a mouse has somehow taken his favorite blue ball.
Each book has plenty of white space. Butler's writing is lively and engaging throughout, keeping the language simple. A running joke about King saying that various things are his favorite things in the world allow for an enjoyable repetition of some key words. Meanwhile, Meyers' warm illustrations help the emerging reader follow the action; she is especially good at King's facial expressions that convey the dog's range of emotions from excitement to sadness, from happiness to incredulousness (the human world perplexes him). Each book has a great page-turning element as Kayla lists three things they note about each case, and three things they do not know (I love that we see King's more id-like inner-thoughts serving as a comical counterbalance).
So which book in my eyes fits the Geisel criteria the most? Please keep in mind, I love all three books. However, if I were a member of the Geisel committee I would go for Mysterious Mouse. I dismissed Secret Code as a contender because the code, while a fun game, might discourage some early readers. Plus, the text keeps referring to a refrigerator that we never see in the illustrations. Missing Dog Treats is a very close second place. It's a funny book that introduces the characters. However, I found the resolution not as satisfying (no one notices the cat under the couch?). Although Mysterious Mouse refers to an event that happens in Missing Dog Treats, it still stands alone. The action, with King trying desperately to find his ball, is easy to follow, with the illustrations offering visual clues. Plus, the ending offers a major surprise that will tickle readers.
All in all though, this series is a wonderful addition to easy readers shelves.

Friday, September 22, 2017

What's It Like to Be on the Geisel Committee #3

Today's post comes from Jackie Partch. Jackie is a School Corps librarian at Multnomah County Library, where she does outreach to K-12 students. She was a member of the 2012 Geisel Committee.

In January 2011 I arrived at the first meeting of the 2012 Geisel Committee, feeling a mix of elation and nerves. It was my first experience on an ALSC award committee, something I'd been curious about for years. That day I met my fabulous fellow committee members and learned about the Geisel criteria. As I mentioned in a previous blog post on Guessing Geisel, I felt pretty confident judging literary quality and child appeal, but evaluating the elements of book design was totally new to me.

After the conference, I started reading previous Geisel winners in detail. In the past, I'd been curious why particular books won. Sometimes my favorites weren't recognized, and books that I didn't enjoy as much were winners. After immersing myself in the criteria, I found it easier to see why many of the books had been honored, even if they weren't my personal favorites.

At ALA Annual conference, our group practiced book discussion. I've been fortunate to be in a children's literature book group with other librarians, teachers and children's book aficionados for years. We use the CCBC Book Discussion Guidelines to simulate the way ALSC committees discuss books, so I felt prepared in that sense. But I realized that the notes I'd been taking on my books weren't arranged in the best order. I kept having to scan the pages to find that great comment I remembered writing, and I felt like my contributions weren't always oriented to the award criteria. So between Annual and Midwinter, I revised my note-taking scheme. I tried to arrange the notes by specific criteria and include sections for positive and negative comments.

In the fall, once I had a good selection of eligible books, I needed to get some opinions from kids themselves. Since I regularly do school outreach as part of my job, I arranged to work with two second-grade classrooms. I can't stress how important this was! There were many books that I loved that didn't grab the kids at all. The demographics of the two schools I worked with were very different, so when I found a book that both classes loved, I knew I had found a hit!

Finally, it was time to pick our winning titles at Midwinter 2012. As I'm sure Guessing Geisel readers already know, committee discussions are confidential, so I can't share details about those. However, I can say that it's important to enter into the discussions with an open mind. We all have our favorite books for whatever reason: we find them humorous, they make great read-alouds, or they resonate with us personally. But in committee discussions, you're most persuasive when you show how your favorite books meet the award criteria. And other committee members may have seen something you missed. When it was all over, we had a winner, Tales for Very Picky Eaters, and three honor books: I Broke My Trunk, I Want My Hat Back, and See Me Run. Serving on this committee was a fantastic experience and one of the highlights of my professional career.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Interview with a Reading Specialist

Today's post is by Elisa Gall. She works as Youth Collection Development Librarian at Deerfield Public Library in Illinois. She can be found on Twitter at @gallbrary.
Tracy Woelfle
Photo courtesy of Tracy Woelfle
Members of ALSC (Association for Library Services to Children) can range from librarians to classroom teachers to consultants to everything in between, and the makeup of the Geisel Committee is no different. That being said, I’ve felt at times that when we’re talking about all-things-beginning readers in the library world, the perspective of a reading specialist can go unheard. Luckily for us, Tracy Woelfle, a Reading Specialist with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working before, was willing to let me pick her brain. She has a Reading Specialist Masters and an Elementary Education degree from Indiana University. She has taught first grade, second grade, and she is currently the Reading Intervention teacher at an elementary school in Evanston, IL.

Our conversation is included below. I loved hearing Tracy’s insights and I believe her opinions give us—no matter our job titles or areas of expertise— something about which to think.
EG: The purpose of the Geisel Award is to recognize the creators of a book for beginning readers, “who, through their literary and artistic achievements demonstrate creativity and imagination to engage children in reading.” To you, what makes a great book for beginning readers?
TW: Early readers are not always the most engaging books on the shelf. That is why there are so many character driven books and series for early readers. Familiar characters ensure kids will continue to pick them up. The words need to be simple, repetitive and easy to decode. Yet, the story still needs to grab a reader’s attention. Elephant and Piggie books, Fly Guy, and Dr. Seuss do just that. My favorite early reader is P.D. Eastman’s Go, Dog, Go!
EG: When selecting the winning titles, committee members consider the following criteria:
  • Subject matter must be intriguing enough to motivate the child to read
  • The book may or may not include short "chapters"
  • 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
  • There must be a minimum of 24 pages
  • Books may not be longer than 96 pages
  • The illustrations must demonstrate the story being told
  • The book creates a successful reading experience, from start to finish
  • The plot advances from one page to the next and creates a "page-turning" dynamic
Based on your experience working with children, Is there anything that you would change, clarify, or add to this criteria?
TW: This sounds like good criteria. Criteria I often follow: Length, Layout, Structure and Organization, Illustrations, Words, Phrases and Sentences, Literary features, Content and Theme. I know that early reading books need to have a clear font, the vocab should be limited to sight words or words that can be easily decoded, there should be simple sentences, and the stories and images should appeal to ages 5-8. The pictures should give clues, so it's easier for a new reader to decode unfamiliar words. I'm excited to see what new books will be chosen. There are so many wonderful pieces of literature out there and it's a hard to task to sort through them to highlight the best!
EG: What do you wish more grown-ups (including librarians) knew about learning to read?
TW: I'm sure most grown-ups and librarians already know this, but these are rules I like to follow and share with my student's parents:
  • Let your child see you reading! Set a good example by letting children see you reading books, magazines, newspapers, etc. This shows you value reading.
  • Make time to read EVERY DAY with your child for 15-20 minutes.
  • Limit the amount and type of T.V. you and your child watch. Spend more time reading! The time and attention you give them has many benefits and will help them be successful in school.
  • Have a variety of reading materials available.
  • Visit the library often. Get your child their own library card.
  • Buy books as gifts.
  • Make sure children always have something to read in spare time (waiting for appointments, trips, etc.).
  • Reading is everywhere: point out printed words in the home and community.
  • Help kids learn words from signs, menus, food product labels, etc.
  • Verbally label familiar and unfamiliar objects as you talk to your child. This helps expand their vocab.
  • Talk to your child when you play and do daily activities. Explain what you are doing and how things work.
  • Read many stories with rhyming words and lines that repeat. Invite kids to join in on these parts.
  • Read aloud to your children and help them select material to read that match their passions.
  • To focus on comprehension, ask questions before, during, and after a book.
  • Help children build their reading stamina.
EG: Are there any professional books or resources you’d recommend to someone wanting to learn more about the learning-to-read process?
Reading Strategies and Writing Strategies by Lucy Calkins
Every Young Child a Reader by Sharon Gibson and Barbara Moss
Jennifer Serravallo’s Reading Strategies and Writing Strategies books
EG: Librarians often face pressure from administrators and caregivers to restrict student choice based on levels (see this recent position statement on leveling from the AASL). Can you speak to the strengths and/or limitations of leveling systems? Is there a particular system that you find more helpful than others?
TW: Becoming a good reader means having access to good teaching and to materials that will support the development of a self-extending system. Three things need to happen at school each day:
  1. Reading aloud to help children understand the structure of written language, expand their knowledge of words and learn new ways of using language.
  2. Individual reading to help them become independent, get more practice and choose books for themselves.
  3. Instructional reading, which involves a carefully designed program to help readers expand their skills and strategies.
Students have opportunities to read "at their level" to build stamina and continue their reading growth in an upward trend toward grade level competencies and beyond.
A leveled book has several advantages:
  • An organized set of books makes it easier to select books for groups of children.
  • Having a gradient of text provides a way to assess progress over time.
  • A leveled book collection allows for a variety of text that provides opportunities to increase reading power.
As a reading Teacher in Evanston, I follow Fountas and Pinnell Guided Reading Levels. Honestly, I often use Lit Leveler app on my phone to tell me the book level. It's important to read books on your level to grow, but it is incredibly important to continue your love of reading by attempting and looking through harder books of interest and being read to by an adult. All of this needs to take place!
EG: What are some of your favorite beginning readers (or authors) to share with students?
  • Mo Willems
  • Dr. Seuss
  • Adventures of Otto by David Milgrim
  • The Bella and Rosie series
  • Some of my favorite recommended easy chapter books include Poppleton, Henry and Mudge, Mercy Watson, Flat Stanley, Cam Jansen, and Freckle Juice.
Thank you, Tracy!

Design Discussions with Grace Maccarone, Executive Editor at Holiday House and Author Paul Meisel

For our third Design Discussion post, Grace Maccarone, Executive Editor at Holiday House, and author Paul Meisel share the development of Paul’s beginning reader I See a Cat from submission through publication.

Grace has long been passionate about beginning readers, and it’s thanks to her that Holiday House’s I Like to Read® books were born. “My daughter is a brilliant visual thinker with a language processing disability,” Grace said. “When she was learning how to read, she needed good books that were easy to read. Easier than Frog and Toad, which was difficult for her for quite some time.” When Grace started at Holiday House, editor-in-chief Mary Cash asked her to start a series of beginning readers. Grace explained, “I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to duplicate the books that were already available. I wanted to publish good books for the newest readers. And for struggling readers who need easier books. And for kindergarteners, who are now learning to read.”

Grace Maccarone and Paul Meisel
Courtesy of Grace Maccrarone
The development of I See a Cat began on January 10, 2014 when Paul sent Grace a submission based upon his beloved dog Coco’s passion for squirrels. (You can see Coco chasing a ball on Paul’s website.) Grace told me that manuscripts and dummies are sent to her. “Only rarely have I approached an artist with a concept. I often find that if I approach someone with a concept, what I get back is unoriginal and bland. Stories that come from the heart and the need of the author are best.” Looking back to receiving Paul’s manuscript, Grace said, “I liked the premise but felt the story, written in the first-person voice of the dog, needed to be fleshed out, and I suggested to Paul that he add more characters and develop the story as an I Like to Read® book.”

Some editors provide their authors with design guidelines or word lists. Grace prefers not to give her authors any limitations. “I don’t give people word lists. Again, word lists are restrictive. Words in word lists tend to dictate the story. It’s better to have a story that comes from the heart.” However, Grace notes that I Like to Read® books always use simple fonts and large type. Specifically, they prefer the “stick-and-ball” “a.”

Paul fleshed out the story and added more characters (a cat, a mouse, a bee, and a rabbit) and sent Grace a revised manuscript with sketches. The narrative also changed from first to third person. “The original story is about the dog wanting its owner to let it out to chase squirrels, and the dog’s anxiety about being ignored and not being able to go out,” Paul explained. “In the final story, the idea of chasing squirrels remains a constant although other animals are added for variety and a better reading and learning experience.” Grace was especially attracted to the mysterious and intriguing front endpapers, just why was that dog barking up the tree?

Nearly all I Like to Read® titles are authored and illustrated by the same person. I asked Grace if this is a conscious choice. “Yes,” Grace confirmed. “The visuals are doing the heavy lifting in these books. In our example, I See a Cat, it’s the interplay between text and art and the visual execution that makes the book exciting to read.”

Example of Paul’s original sketches (from January 2014) - Courtesy of Holiday House

Example of Paul’s final art (November 2016) - Courtesy of Holiday House
September, 2014 rolled around and Grace requested a contract with Paul. Grace and Paul began considering how to position the book: Should this book be a companion to See Me Run (a Geisel Honor Award Book) and See Me Dig (a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2013)? The question floated around and then dissipated. The sketch dummy was also reviewed by the copyeditor (for typos, and grammar, etc., and for art continuity), as well as the art director—Kerry Martin—and Grace (for everything).

Paul then made another set of revisions based upon Holiday House queries and comments, as well as some of his own new ideas. For instance, the rabbit was eliminated; the squirrel made an additional appearance. The text was in first person again. Everyone looked at the revised sketches, and Paul started to work on final art. He decided to use to use watercolors, acrylics, and pencils on Strathmore paper, which he would then scan to make digital enhancements. Paul explained: “I wanted a bold, graphic line, but was hesitant to draw it in Photoshop as I wanted the line to have the same qualities as my line when I draw on paper. So I drew the story in pen and ink on paper and scanned and greatly enlarged the drawings in order to get that bolder look. Working in Photoshop, I was also able to make the line solid black where I wanted it and change it to other colors in places such as the rug, the grass, and the background trees and bushes.”

Meanwhile, Paul continued to tweak the compositions and even make some major changes. The cat became more meaningful to the story. It is fascinated by the dog and serves as a kind of Greek chorus. The bee moved indoors to make for a more interesting design. Grace notes that she communicated with Kerry and Paul constantly about “concerns too numerous to list” right up to right up to the last minute and beyond.

Example of Paul’s original sketches (from January 2014) - Courtesy of Holiday House

Example of Paul’s final art (November 2016) - Courtesy of Holiday House

Paul gave Grace and Kerry some early finished pieces so they could see what the color would look like. Based on some of Kerry and Grace’s concerns, Paul changed the color of a holding line and made adjustments to eliminate a grainy texture.

In September, 2016, Paul delivered the final art. And in October, 2016, Paul, Kerry, and Grace had a celebratory lunch. Grace told me, “Lunch is an opportunity to learn more about a book. An artist might share some special challenges or secrets.” For example, “The rug is a bit of an homage to a favorite artist, Jean Dubuffet,” Paul explained. “He often used the same colors, along with a bold line. And in the grass, although a bit more subtle, you can see an homage to another artist, Jean Arp. I overlapped organic, Arp-like shapes in order to give the grassy areas more interest in a somewhat abstract way. I didn’t attempt to make the grass realistic.”

Example of Paul’s original sketches (from January 2014) - Courtesy of Holiday House

Example of Paul’s final art (November 2016) - Courtesy of Holiday House
Note: The original setting with the dog looking out from inside the house remained the same even as the story line changed.

Even with the lunch past, Paul continued to make a few more changes, such as redoing the door frames to make them less purple. After seeing the proofs in November, 2016, he redid the art to heighten the contrast between the light and the shadows on the floor. Paul explained: “The light and shadow became part of the story without using words. As the day progresses, the direction of the shadow changes along with what one would perceive as the position of the sun. Along with all the animals that pass by, the shadows give the impression that the dog is waiting a long time for the boy to return.” Paul also decided he didn’t like the bird, so he changed it. And he changed the position of the cat on the back endpaper after that. “Whew!” remembers Grace!

I See a Cat by Paul Meisel
Book cover courtesy of Holiday House
Paul also provided two cover sketches to Kerry and Grace, which were shared with sales, marketing, publicity, and upper management. After looking at both, Kerry and Grace asked Paul for a combination of the two. The Art Department had some suggestions on the title type, which was discussed back and forth until they reached an agreement. Grace said: “After cover and interior layouts were complete, we made same-size, full-color photocopies and sent them to an outside reading consultant for a guided reading level. Double whew!”

I asked Grace when and how reading levels are determined for Holiday House’s I Like to Read® books. She shared that all books are sent to Marla Conn at Read-Ability, Inc. “She determines guided reading levels, grade levels, and reading recovery equivalents. We don’t know what level a book is until Marla tells us.”

June, 2017 was exciting. That’s when I See a Cat received its first review, and a starred one at a that! On September 5, 2017, after over three years of work, the book will finally be published. After hearing so much about the book, I can’t wait to see the published book and read it with kids!

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Out! by Arree Chung and Puppy, Puppy, Puppy by Julie Sternberg and Fred Koehler: The Lower Levels of the Geisel Age Range

“Hello, do you have any books for beginning readers?”
“Of course!” *gestures toward their board books*
“Oh, no – I mean books for children just learning to read independently?”
“We have picture books right over there . . .”

Sound at all familiar? Most recently, this conversation took place at ALA Annual in Chicago, in a publisher’s booth. What makes this request such a challenge? And when a bookseller, publisher, or librarian points us toward the board books, are they so wrong? After all, we know that getting ready to read begins in infancy, as interactions with caregivers provide context and vocabulary for the world around us. But where is the transition point between early literacy and the beginning reader?

As Mock Geiselers, we can look to the criteria for help.

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.”
People learn to read independently at a wide range of ages. There are, for a variety of reasons, 3rd and 4th graders who labor over the same Elephant & Piggie titles that precocious tots recite with ease. So it’s helpful of the Geisel to give us an age range. We can at least interpret that even if the page restriction – “minimum of 24 pages” and maximum of 96 – didn’t relieve most board books of eligibility, the toddler age range they target puts them outside our consideration.

Or does it? What ages is pre-K intended to represent in our criteria? In my home state of CA, the minimum age for enrollment in Kindergarten is 5 years. Transitional Kindergarten (or Early Kinder) allows for enrollment of 4.5 year old children for that same school year. Preschoolers are typically 3-4 years of age. 

How does our discussion of a book change when we’re considering a 3-year-old preschooler or a 7-year-old second grader as our beginning reader? Particularly when we’re looking at picture books, the question of age applies directly to whether “the book is respectful and of interest to children” and  whether the subject matter is “ intriguing enough to motivate the child to read”. Where interests can be understood to overlap, this is easy enough – dinosaurs, dancers, and dogs? Check. But what about depictions of our main character in a crib, in diapers, exhibiting less independence than typical first and second graders?

Out! By Arree Chung uses only nine different words to tell a “hilarious tale of friendship and mayhem” as Jo Jo the dog tries to protect a boldly exploring baby from mishap, only to have her actions misunderstood by the parental figures. Expressive illustrations sometimes mimic comic style panels, an approach further reinforced with the use of word balloons to frame each word. From the dejection of our trapped baby on the second spread to the panic on Jo Jo’s face as the baby sits poised in the laundry basket at the top of the stairs, with few or no accompanying words the illustrations tell a compelling story of the bond between our two protagonists. 

The 2017 committee honored Oops, Pounce, Quick, Run!: An Alphabet Caper and the 2014 committee honored Ball, so there is precedent for titles with few vocabulary words (and featuring dogs) to be recognized by the committee. Could one with so many wordless spreads in a row be recognized? Is the story here told by the text, or do the illustrations do so much of the heavy lifting that it falls outside the scope of the committee?

Puppy, Puppy, Puppy by Julie Sternberg and Fred Koehler showcases another baby and puppy duo in a multiracial household. Both baby and dog appear younger than in Out! and the text features many more words, in a large font with logical line breaks and good spacing. The story contains quite a bit of repetition in the first pages, creating predictable moments for beginning readers. The formula of Baby does thing, then puppy does thing, then baby says “Puppy” continues for three spreads, until things go awry during bathtime. Even after the text breaks from formula, there is repetition to be found in subsequent spreads. New vocabulary is usually introduced slowly, and with a clear support from the illustrations. For example, in the first pages to feature the words “Mommy” and “Daddy” the text is superimposed on the shirts of these named characters. 

If I were being super picky, I’d question whether the pattern of Daddy’s shirt creates contrast changes here that might be challenging for young eyes. White space, it is not. There’s also the matter of the lines “Every single second. No matter what.” – the exceptions to the otherwise excellent depiction of the text in illustrations. These are considerations that I would bring up during committee discussions if this book were on the table, and I’d be watching and listening carefully when beginning readers approached these pages in the months leading up to the discussion.  

Both Out! and Puppy, Puppy, Puppy shine in some areas of the Geisel criteria, yet these delightful picture books are clearly intended for young audiences. When we’re considering their appeal for our PreK-2nd grade age range, how do we compare them to the titles meant for slightly older readers? Do preschool readers engage with books about babies as readily as they engage in play with baby dolls? Would you put these titles on your ballot?