Monday, July 24, 2017

Agnes and Clarabelle Celebrate! by Adele Griffin and Courtney Sheinmel

Cover from

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.

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