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Monday, July 24, 2017

Agnes and Clarabelle Celebrate! by Adele Griffin and Courtney Sheinmel


Cover from Bloomsbury.com

Beginning readers populate a literary landscape of distinguished duos – Elephant and Piggie, Frog and Toad, Bink and Gollie, etc. This casting choice fits the genre particularly well for a reason – the joys and struggles of navigating friendships make up a large part of the lives of beginning readers, as learning to read coincides with the start of formal schooling for many children. Books that explore the intricacies of growing friendships will speak to the interests and experiences of children across many ages, with the playful pairs in beginning readers serving as introduction to this theme. 

Back cover copy declares for us that Agnes and Clarabelle are best friends (a particular category of friendship about which our beginning readers often have very definite opinions). They “love to celebrate holidays” – another commonly appealing subject for young readers, although not a topic known for regularly inspiring the most distinguished content (with some notable exceptions, of course). Nevertheless, the appeal of “holiday books” cannot be denied – particularly by we librarians who struggle with how to label and shelve these titles in ways that best serve our readers. 

Geisel criteria asks us to put aside considerations of shelving challenges, of course, and focus on what this title does well. Does this pair and their appreciation for holidays rise to the level of distinguished? 

Each of the four chapters that make up this 73-page book are named for the holiday being celebrated: May Day, Fourth of July, Halloween, and New Year’s Eve. The font choice and full pages of text facing an illustration tip us off right away that this title is intended for a more confident beginning reader. Throughout the course of the first story alone, the reader will be introduced to vocabulary that includes “garlands”, “allergic”, and “practicing”.  And in “Halloween”, readers will  make their way through two litanies of fictional candy names. Are these words “repeated in an easily recognizable pattern to ensure knowledge retention”, and “added slowly enough to make learning them a positive experience”? 

Sara Palacios, Pura Belpre Honor-winning illustrator, includes quite a bit of action in her pencil and watercolor spot illustrations, capturing the movement of baton twirling during the Four of July story. Geisel criteria expect that the illustrations will demonstrate the story being told, but we’ve seen with past winners that this can be interpreted quite literally or given more leeway depending on the proficiency of the intended reader.  In this story, the illustrations do not always illustrate the action described in the text, so readers looking to illustrations for help decoding the text might struggle. For example, the line breaks may occur over a page turn, as they do when “garlands” appears on page 3 and are pictured on page 4. Committee members will undoubtedly take note to see how these line breaks or illustration placements affect the comprehension of young readers.

The strengths to be found in Agnes and Clarabelle Celebrate! are in its friendship theme, and in a certain nostalgic appeal for adults who might recommend it. But to rise to the level of distinguished, the familiar must still “demonstrate creativity and imagination”. Agnes and Clarabelle Celebrate! will have a difficult time standing out as the most engaging or creative in the field when compared to other strong titles this year.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Big Little Hippo by Valeri Gorbachev

 Today's reviewer, Katya Schapiro, is a Senior Children’s Librarian at the Bay Ridge branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. She is neither big nor little, but medium-sized, and served on the 2016 Geisel Committee. 

Cover from sterlingpublishing.com
Learning to read is a power move. Reading unlocks not only information but independence, and when you’re the smallest person around, it can literally make your world a bigger place. No wonder then, that the theme of being a small person in a big world, eagerly awaiting growth, is a popular children’s book and early reader trope, and always a compelling one. Several previous Geisel honorees have grappled with issues of relative size and perception, notably You are (Not) Small, Don’t Throw it to Mo, and A Big Guy Took My Ball.

Big Little Hippo, Valeri Gorbachev’s endearing new entry into the ‘little-guy-grows-in-spirit’ genre, reads like a fable, predictable and satisfying. Little Hippo is the smallest in his family, and feels like the smallest, period. When he offers a helping hand to a tiny beetle, he experiences a dual feeling of growth—taking responsibility for someone more helpless, and a realization about comparative sizes. With a new name to reflect his more complex understanding, he feels ‘just the right size.’

As noted above, feeling small and wanting to grow is a universally intriguing theme, and Gorbachev’s expressive and gently old-fashioned ink and watercolor illustrations welcome the beginning reader. The text is classically paced (‘X was bigger, Y was much bigger, Z was much MUCH bigger), drawing the reader through the page turns, and uses mostly simple, easily sounded out words, and the rhythm is consistent in both the rising and falling action. Although on the small side, the text is clearly visible on each page and never obscured by the illustration.

While the plot is simple, the text/illustration correlation clear, and the vocabulary fairly controlled, this is a book for an improving reader, not a rank beginner. While all rarer words are in context, a few (‘neighbor’, ‘helplessly’) seem gratuitous and may discourage less confident readers. The page-turns are clear, with no dangling concepts from spread to spread, but the line breaks are a bit random on the pages with more text. The text also incorporates italics, quotations, and all caps usage, which will require a bit more sophistication from the reader. The illustrations, in addition to being adorable, are almost all supportive of the text, although one ‘running’ spread caused my test reader to think that that another little hippo had joined the first. Throughout, Gorbachev adds a subtle additional size commentary in the form of peripheral animals smaller than Little Hippo (a tiny fish, a hummingbird), and while this adds a delightful layer to the telling, it has the potential to confuse readers relying heavily on the pictures.

In conclusion, a delicious and adorable title, with many rewards and increased confidence for a reader who has already begun their journey with some tools in hand.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Pig and Goose and the First Day of Spring by Rebecca Bond

Today’s post is by Kahla Gubanich, a children’s and maker librarian at Carroll County Public Library in north-central Maryland.


What better day to make a new friend than the very first day of spring? Pig and Goose hit it off immediately in Pig and Goose and the First Day of Spring by Rebecca Bond. This set of three vignettes celebrates the season, new friendships, and the things that make us all unique and interesting. The titular characters meet in the first chapter while Pig is walking to her favorite picnic spot. Pig praises Goose’s flying skills, and Goose sees no reason why he can’t teach Pig how to fly, too. What follows is a delightfully energetic scene in which Pig gives flying her best shot. Never mind that she doesn’t achieve lift-off, because there’s still a picnic lunch! In the second chapter the two new friends share lunch in the cool shade of a big oak tree while discussing their mutual love of all the seasons. The final chapter brings the day to a close with Pig’s First-Day-of-Spring Party, where Pig cooks up a delicious dinner for all her friends and charms them with stories both old and new.

There are several elements that make this book a great beginning reader. Certain sentences are repeated at intervals that allow the reader room to gain familiarity and confidence with the text without becoming monotonous. When Pig first spots Goose, he is little more than a white dot in the sky. “The dot got bigger and bigger. The dot came to land right by Pig! The dot was not a dot at all. It was a goose!” Later, after their picnic lunch, Goose hops into the pond for a swim. Again, Pig sees only a small white dot. “The dot got bigger and bigger. The dot hopped out of the water right by Pig! The dot was not a dot at all. It was Goose!” Subtle changes between the two sections keep the text fresh while leaving plenty of familiar ground.



The staccato beat of short, simple sentences is periodically accented with longer, complex sentences that still maintain the steady rhythm. This is demonstrated in the scene where Pig first meets Goose. “Pig packed a big lunch and set off. She began to skip. She began to hum. Then she stopped. Up above, in the clear blue sky, there was a small white dot.” This sentence also reveals some of what makes this beginning reader a great story. The text is dappled throughout with crisp details that enhance both character and setting in subtle but meaningful ways. The setting for their picnic lunch is painted brightly with color and detail. “The shade was deep green. The pond was dark blue. High above, the sun glowed hot orange.” While still fitting decidedly within the established rhythm of the action-based sentences, these simple details add a rich layer to the story.



Soft ink and watercolor illustrations support the action of the text and expand upon the crisp descriptions. Pig’s rosy cheeks and perpetual smile add sincerity to her refrain of, “Goody gumdrops!” Pig’s brief disappointment with her inability to fly is hinted at in the text, but is primarily revealed through an uncharacteristic droopiness of posture and ears. The rustic setting takes lush shape in the illustrations, bounding with fresh greenery and rich, first-day-of-spring colors. A page turn near the end impresses as it transitions from energetic party scenes of storytelling and dancing to a full spread image of the night sky, exploding with stars. Like us, the characters can’t help but stop and stare at the stars, so “bright and white and crisp.”



The heart of the story exists in such quiet moments. Pig and Goose are both thoughtful and observant, and they are quick to recognize and value each other’s talents. Pig may not be graceful, and she may never fly or swim, but she sure can tell a story! Their friendship rings true, full of fast-paced fun but also contemplative silences and a genuine enjoyment in spending time together, no matter what the activity. In short, Pig and Goose and the First Day of Spring manages to tell a story of new friends in which the book itself embodies all the best elements of friendship: the excitement of the first encounter, the comfortable familiarity that develops, and a generous sprinkling of the unexpected.

Friday, July 7, 2017

I Am (Not) Scared by Anna Kang, illustrated by Christopher Weyant, Two Lions

Our guest blogger today is Susan Kusel, a librarian, children's book buyer and selector at an independent bookstore, and the owner of a children's book consulting company. She has served on the Maryland Blue Crab Young Reader Award committee, the Cybils Easy Readers and Early Chapter Book Awards committee, the 2015 Caldecott Medal selection committee, and she is currently chair of the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee. She blogs at Wizards Wireless

When I first picked up this book, it was impossible not to think of the other two books in this series by this husband and wife team. I immediately remembered the beautiful and touching speeches made by Anna Kang and Christopher Weyant when they accepted the Geisel Medal for You Are (Not) Small. I thought about how many, many times I’ve read that book to my son and how much he enjoyed it. I recalled the excitement I had when I read their follow-up book That’s (Not) Mine.

However, if I were sitting in a Geisel deliberation meeting, discussing I Am (Not) Scared, none of that would be relevant. I wouldn’t even be able to mention it. The Geisel criteria state “the committee in its deliberations is to consider only the books eligible for the award.” The handbook elaborates 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.” 

This means that series books, or any other book by an author or illustrator may not be discussed in nominations or deliberations, unless they were published that year. The Association for Library Service for Children (ALSC) gives out a lifetime achievement award. This is not it. Think about the practical implications of that rule. When Elephant and Piggie books were being published, the only ones that could be discussed in Geisel deliberations were the books published that year. 

So, let’s turn our focus back to the book at hand, as the Geisel committee would. I Am (Not) Scared is a delightful book, on a topic that children can relate to. At the beginning, the book does an excellent job of adding new words slowly. Pattern and repetition is very much on display. In the middle, new phrases appear more suddenly and are not repeated. However, each phrase, such as “a pit of hot lava” is very clearly illustrated to help a reader decode it. 
Image from I Am (Not) Scared
by Anna Kang, illustrated by Christopher Weyant

The font is excellent; large, clear and easy to read. There are a few times towards the end while the main characters are riding the roller coaster that a different font is used. While it is a little less clear, it is extremely large, easy to read and conveys the fun happening in the book. The book is filled with white space and provides an uncluttered background. The sentences are short and contain many sight words. The roller coaster illustrations in particular advance the text and create a desire to find out what happens next. I think it’s a high quality book that’s a great addition to the early reader field.

Image from I Am (Not) Scared
by Anna Kang, illustrated by Christopher Weyant