Friday, June 16, 2017

Little Wolf's First Howling by Laura McGee Kvasnosky and Kate Harvey McGee

It’s time for Little Wolf to learn how to howl, and he just can’t wait. His father Big Wolf demonstrates proper howling form, and then it’s Little Wolf’s turn. However, Little Wolf’s irrepressible spirit comes through in his improvisational be-bop style. At first, Big Wolf tries to demonstrate and encourage “proper howling form,” but eventually he, too, gets carried away in the joy of sound, and the two harmonize as the moon rises.

Throughout the history of the Geisel Award, many picture books have been honored alongside books formatted as traditional beginning readers. Of course, those books must display excellence in the Geisel criteria, just as the beginning readers do. Is Little Wolf’s First Howling going to join Good Night Owl, Waiting, and The Watermelon Seed (to name just a few recent examples) on the list of Geisel picture books?

Like many picture books, Little Wolf’s First Howling is vocabulary-rich, peppered with words like zigzagged, outcrop, demonstrate, muzzle, thrilled, admire, express. There are some nice instances of repetition – muzzle and demonstrate, for instance, appear multiple times. It’s also rich in syntax and figurative language. As a read-aloud, this book will certainly shine. But many of these same elements that make for such a rich read-aloud might be stumbling blocks for readers who are not entirely proficient. What will they make of the “dibbity dobbity skibbity skobbity” scat that peppers Little Wolf’s exuberant howls?

Also like many picture books, Little Wolf’s First Howling features beautiful illustrations that do an excellent job of supporting and enhancing the text. For example, on an early page when the wolves are waiting for the time to howl, the illustrations do depict a few stars coming out as the sun sets in the west and the moon rises over the hilltop. Later, when each note of Big Wolf’s howl “rang clear and true and soared to the moon,” the “AAAAAOOOOOOOOO” that swoops across the page from Big Wolf’s muzzle does, indeed, end with the last “ooo” right on the moon. The full-page illustrations are specific in their depiction of the wolves’ Yellowstone scenery, and they do not crowd the text. In most cases, the text is either dark words on a light-colored or white background, or more commonly, light words on a dark or black background. There are a few instances where black text appears on a dark blue sky, which may be challenging for young readers whose vision is still developing. Sometimes the words on one page of a spread are dark on light, while the words on the facing spread are light on dark, and readers who are hurrying along might miss one set or the other.

So, does this picture book have Geisel potential? While it’s strong in some elements, it also provides numerous challenges. This early in the year, it’s hard to say how it compares to other offerings. It’s certainly a lovely book, and it could provoke plenty of discussion among Geisel committee members and Mock Geisel program participants. What do you think?

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