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Friday, September 13, 2019

The Little Guys by Vera Brosgol

Cover of The Little Guys
by Vera Brosgol 
Vera Brosgol’s The Little Guys opens upon a woodland panorama with bears, a trotting fox, and a snoozing owl, and a nod to "the strongest guys in the whole forest". But it's not who you think! We zoom in to discover that the strongest guys are, in fact, the littlest: a band of acorn-esque creatures with courage in spades. And together, they can get everything they need.

At first, we can’t help but appreciate the Little Guys’ independence: They can cross the deep water, even where they can't see the bottom; they don't fear the dark forest; they can find enough food for all of them. It's a piece of cake! But gradually the reader begins to notice what the Little Guys don’t see: Their actions are upsetting the other denizens of the forest, who are tumbled out of their homes as the Little Guys tip logs and shake branches. Before long, the Little Guys graduate from self-sufficiency to outright aggression, beating up the biggest animal they can find (a hapless bear just bringing a fish home to the cub) and taking everything for themselves. Nothing stops the Little Guys! Until, of course, something does, and suddenly the Little Guys find themselves in need of a little help from a few big friends.

image from us.macmillan.com
As a picture book, the quality of both story and illustrations is top notch. As a Geisel contender, The Little Guys isn’t perfect, but it has a lot going for it. The vocabulary is fairly simple, and the repetition of certain chunks of text—”We are the Little Guys” and “Yes, we are small. But there are a lot of us”—is certainly beneficial to a reader looking to build confidence. Some illustrations clearly add context for the text, particularly as they lift logs and climb trees. However, some parts of the text don’t have any help from the illustrations, such as “Easy peasy” and “A piece of cake for the Little Guys”. There are a few spreads where busy backgrounds may require an extra second to locate the text on the page, but for the most part, the text stands out against the background, making it easier for early readers to decipher. This is especially true as the text itself grows larger with each page turn, mirroring the Little Guys’ collective ego.

image from us.macmillan.com
The kid appeal of this one also seems high, both for content and aesthetic. The Little Guys are cute, there’s no doubt about it! And the illustrations leave plenty of space for young readers to visually decode the consequences of the Little Guys’ actions that go unremarked upon in the text. This results in a simple text with rich layers of meaning, ideal for a beginning reader. One particularly dramatic page turn results in a 90° rotation of the book, visually marking the high point for the Little Guys and making the book itself more engaging.

All in all, though The Little Guys may not be the best fit for a young reader’s first solo read, it fills a space between those who are just starting to learn to read and those who are ready for the slightly longer, chaptered beginning readers. Will it stand out as the strongest Geisel contender this year? What do you think?

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Geisel - Reconciling the Man, the Award, and the Legacy

Today's post was co-written by Robbin Friedman and Danielle Jones. Robbin is a children's librarian at the Chappaqua Library. She writes reviews for School Library Journal, serves on ALSC's Budget Committee, and reads a lot of science fiction. Danielle is a youth and teen librarian in Portland, Oregon. She has served on the 2018 Sibert Committee and the 2016 ALSC Notable Children’s Books Committee. 

You all know the story. Theodor Seuss Geisel, writing under the goofy pen-name Dr. Seuss, produced nearly 60 children’s books, one unbeloved adult book, and hundreds of cartoons during his decades-long career in publishing. After several successful books, his publisher challenged him to write an early reader primer that would offer entertainment and a limited vocabulary. The 1957 publication of The Cat in the Hat has been seen as revolutionizing early readers with the possibility that they could be engaging while supporting early literacy. 

The Geisel Award—funded through an endowment from the San Diego Foundation’s Dr. Seuss Fund—was first presented in 2006 and is administered by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) to be given annually “to the most distinguished American book for beginning readers.” Concentrating on the factors that made the Seuss’ Beginning Readers so popular for generations learning to read, the criteria emphasize the ways a book fosters engagement and motivates readers. 

Recently, ALSC has been reevaluating the organization’s prestigious awards' namesakes. Responding to growing concerns that racist content in the namesakes’ books doesn’t align with ALSC’s mission, an Awards Program Review Task Force was created. Notably, they found the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to have an “inconsistency between Wilder’s legacy and ALSC’s core values.” In 2018, after research, a survey of the division’s membership, and a recommendation from the task force, the ALSC board voted to rename it the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. The task force continued to collect information on additional award names, including the Newbery, Caldecott, Sibert, and, yes, the Geisel. 

For these awards, the concern remains: Do the messages conveyed by the work of honoree-in-name align with ALSC’s mission and goals? Do award books “demonstrate integrity and respect for all children’s lives and experiences?” How do we apply these questions to Seuss? 

Many have begun to debate Dr. Seuss’s prominence in the field of children’s literature. Advocates point to Geisel’s long history of racist tropes in children’s books and political cartoons. Scholars including Philip Nel, Katie Ishizuka, and Ramon Stephens have written extensively about white supremacist images and ideas in Dr. Seuss’s work, including the anti-black minstrel background of the Cat in the Hat and anti-Asian depictions appearing over decades. 

Does our society’s continued reverence of his work perpetuate racist ideas among the youngest readers? Do these images and tropes exclude some readers from his buoyant universe and take space from positive, inclusive representations? Celebrations like the National Education Association’s Read Across America Day (held on March 2, Geisel’s birthday), have de-emphasized his importance in their mission, focusing instead on diversity. 

Others argue Seuss holds a special position among writers of beginning readers for his ability to pair entertainment with early literacy, and some assert that intergenerational love for his work carries its own weight and value. As with the Wilder debate, some proponents caution against historical revisionism, arguing we must live with our history and teach the context. Geisel Honoree Grace Lin contends that Dr. Seuss evolved in his thinking and his later work reflects attempts to make amends for earlier bigotry. Lin celebrates the artist’s growth as a human being, as demonstrated in later beloved books, and proudly stands by the award with his name and image. 

So, Guessing Geisel community, what does the medal mean to you? How do you think we should honor our most distinguished books for beginning readers? 

As a reminder, Guessing Geisel is in no way affiliated with nor reflective of the views of this year’s Real Committee for the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award, whose selections will be announced at the ALA Midwinter Meeting Youth Media Awards. Opinions stated here do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of ALSC, SLJ, Booklist, or any other institutions with which the authors are affiliated. Our thoughts on eligibility or the strength of a contender are entirely speculation.

Monday, September 9, 2019

King & Kayla and the Case of the Found Fred by Dori Hillestad Butler, Illustrated by Nancy Meyers

Photo of DaNae Leu, courtesy of DaNae Leu
DaNae Leu is an elementary school librarian at a K-6 school in Kaysville, UT. For the past few years she has conducted a Mock Geisel for her first and second grades and is impressed with their passion for evaluating the books created just for them. 

The Edgar Award winning early chapter book series, The Buddy Files has long been a favorite with my students. Years ago, its first title, The Case of the Lost Boy was placed on our Battle of the Books list. But before Buddy was Buddy, he went by King and before he Lost a Boy, he lived with a girl named Kayla. King & Kayla and the Case of the Found Fred is the fifth installment of this early-reader chapter book series, already honored twice by Geisel (The Missing Dog Treats, honor title, 2018 & The Case of the Lost Tooth, honor title 2019). As a prequal to the meatier Buddy Files, the King & Kayla installments lose none of their ability to sketch out a mystery, drop down the clues, toss in a few red herrings, and bound toward a satisfying reveal, tails waving high all around. 

King & Kayla and the Case of Found Fred 
by Dori Hillestad Butler, illustrated 
by Nancy Meyers bookcover
That detective duo, Kayla and King are on vacation at Grandma’s lake house. As usual, golden retriever King is thrilled to be there, but then again, King is supremely thrilled about most everything. While the two are out rollicking in the sunshine they come across a small, white dog, Fred, who seems to have lost his way. Between a mix of human deduction and canine ingenuity, Fred is ultimately reunited with his family. 

This book deftly straddles the difference between human and dog understanding, while keeping the reader fully briefed on all sides. Butler is clever in her delivery of how King shares his insights with Kayla and Grandma, she puts quotation marks around his dialogue but immediately lets the reader know the humans have not understood a word. 
Image of King the dog jumping on Grandma's lap from 
King & Kayla and the Case of Found Friend 
by Dori Hillestad Butler, illustrated by Nancy Meyers
Also, there are times when the dogs’ view of the world is skewed from humans. This often allows the reader to be smug about knowing more than the characters and is frequently used humorously. 
Image of Fred the dog telling King the dog about the scary fireworks from King & Kayla and the Case of Found Friend by Dori Hillestad Butler, illustrated by Nancy Meyers
King is a force of optimism in the world. Not only does his peppy personality show through in Butler’s dialogue but is perfectly calibrated in Nancy Meyers’s expressive illustrations. The illustrations do double duty both in decoding new vocabulary and giving clues to the mystery at hand. 
Image of dogs, King and Fred, leaving paw prints on lost and found dog posters from 
King & Kayla and the Case of Found Friend by Dori Hillestad Butler, illustrated by Nancy Meyers

The Case of Found Fred is a perfectly calibrated early-reader chapter book. It meets emerging readers right at their level of understanding and allows them to feel just a little bit smarter than the characters. Over the summer I had a rising second grader read and evaluate it. She claimed there was nothing she didn’t like about it and the only word to give her pause was ‘Ditective’. This is the type of format that I see my second-stage readers return to over and over. Once they master the most rudimentary picture books, they seem to find comfort in revisiting comfortable characters. 

King & Kayla have taken home two Geisel Honors, will Found Fred be the one to grab the gold? I, for one, wouldn’t be at all surprised.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Can You See Me? by Bob Staake

Can You See Me? 
by Bob Staake 
book cover
A fair skinned, blonde child and a dark skinned, brown haired child observe the shenanigans of a dinosaur-esque creature as it cavorts around town changing colors and patterns to blend into the surroundings. The rhyming text zips along as the creature turns blue to swim in a pool with a kangaroo, white to hide in the curve of a cloud, and so on until it catches a red balloon and it’s off to the moon. “But I’ll return soon” it shouts as it floats away. 

There’s much to appreciate in this book that’s reminiscent of Robert Lopshire’s Put Me in the Zoo (but without the bizarre ambition of a marvelous creature begging to be locked up in the zoo). The stellar attributes are the rhyming text paired with helpful visual context clues. For instance, in this spread the creature is hiding in a tree with text that reads, “Can you find me / in this tree? / I’m leafy green / and hard to see.” 

Image of creature hiding in a circular tree while two children look on from Can You See Me? by Bob Staake

Many of the sections also give readers a chance to work on letter sounds and blends, such as this spread that repeats the “ink” suffix. “Now I’m pink. / Now I am / as black as ink!” 


Image of a pink creature hiding against an exterior building wall and a black creature hiding in the asphalt of a road from Can You See Me? by Bob Staake

The text is mostly written in first person, from the animal’s perspective, although twice the children chime in a chorus, “We can see you / hiding there! / We can see you / ANYwhere!” 

Image of a yellow creature hiding inside a grocery store from Can You See Me? by Bob Staake

On the other hand, there are a few elements that might throw off new readers. Although rhyming lines can help readers predict words,in this case the scheme creates line breaks in illogical and potentially unhelpful places. New readers may also find the sophisticated punctuation (ellipses, dashes, and parentheticals) unfamiliar and challenging. There’s also the vocabulary; there’s a lot of it! The clues in the illustrations are thoughtful, yet the number of unfamiliar words (“checkered”, “wheat”, “daredevil pilot”) and the lack of word repetition may frustrate new readers. 

Image of a purple creature flying in an airplane and a blue creature holding a red balloon from Can You See Me? by Bob Staake

All in all, this title has a lot of cover appeal, as well as a supportive rhyme scheme and visual context clues. However, there are a few weaker elements that may well keep this Seuss-alike title from garnering a Geisel nod from the Real Committee.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Beginning Reader Survey: What do you call them? How do you shelve them?

Hi, Geisel Guessers! I hope many of you are looking forward to a relaxing weekend, but please take a minute right now to answer this three-question survey about how beginning reader books are shelved and leveled in your library. Feel free to answer this survey even if you're not the one making these decisions (for instance, if you are a library patron, you can describe  how the library you use shelves these books). If you're a teacher, you can answer for your classroom library, or the library in your school, or the public library you visit most often. We'll be back next week with a post about the results we get, so encourage your friends and colleagues to participate, as well!

Create your own user feedback survey

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Harold & Hog Pretend For Real! by Dan Santat

photo credit to Nikko Custodio
Sylvie Shaffer served on the 2018 Geisel Committee. She’s the preK-8 librarian at the Capitol Hill Day School in Washington, DC and is active in several overlapping kidlit-focused communities including ALSC and Capitol Choices. She is currently serving on the Sydney Taylor Book Award and is busy parenting her own six year old emerging reader with help from her wife in Takoma Park, Maryland where she also serves on the Board of the Friends of her local library. You can find her online at www.SylvieJuliet.Shaffer.com.

Harold & Hog Pretend for Real!
by Dan Santat cover
Harold and Hog Pretend for Real is the brain-bending story of Gerald and Piggie reading the story of Harold (an elephant who looks quite a bit like Gerald) and Hog (a pig resembling Piggie) pretending to be Gerald and Piggie, who are reading the book Harold and Hog Pretend for Real. Things get hectic (in typical Elephant and Piggie style) when, after realizing that Hog is too careful to effectively pretend to be carefree Piggie, and exuberant Harold has trouble tempering his verve enough to play staid and nervous Gerald, the porcine/pachyderm pair comes to the conclusion that if they can’t even pretend to be best friends...maybe they can’t BE best friends, either! As in other “Elephant and Piggie Like Reading” entries, and in “Elephant and Piggie” books, the story is told entirely in color-coded dialogue bubbles, and the book’s all-over design—cover, endpapers, trim size, page count, font—looks like an "Elephant and Piggie" title. It’s very smart, very funny, and very, very meta.

Could Harold and Hog Pretend for Real earn Geisel recognition? Sure, obviously it could. It has all the hallmarks of a winner or honor: Clear, easy to parse design, concise storytelling, controlled vocabulary with lots of repetition, illustrations that support the reader as they decode, humor, and stakes that rise with each page turn, propelling the story to its satisfying conclusion. As a meta-satirical “Elephant and Piggie” title, it’s a textbook example of what’s won in the past: Willems’ "Elephant and Piggie" titles have taken two golden Geisel medals and five honors (not counting the Elephant and Piggie Like Reading titles, as they have different authors/illustrators.)

The 2017 gold medal went to "Elephant and Piggie Like Reading" title We Are Growing by Laurie Keller, which coincidentally shared a release date with The Cookie Fiasco, the only other series entry (to date) penned by Santat and Willems. So there’s precedent for both “Elephant and Piggie” books and for “Elephant and Piggie Like Reading” books to earn Geisel citations. Perhaps it’s also worth noting that Willems’ We Are in a Book, a 2010 Geisel honor, is, like this title, one that stretches the confines of what we expect an easy reader to be and do in terms of storytelling and self-reference.

But whereas We Are in a Book breaks the 4th wall, this book knocks down that wall, replaces it with a mirror, and then sets up another mirror opposite the first, creating a delightful and recursive callback cycle that loops ad infinitum.

Whoa.

Finally, consider the Geisel criteria “demonstrate creativity and imagination to engage children in reading” Huh. Wait—if the premise of this story is Gerald and Piggie reading a book about Harold and Hog pretending to be Gerald and Piggie...doesn’t that mean Harold and Hog Pretend for Real is literally simultaneously about and demonstrating creativity and imagination to engage the book’s reader? I mean, what even is pretending if not creativity and imagination?!

Ouch. I think I broke my brain.


Monday, August 26, 2019

Hey, Water! by Antoinette Portis

Photo of Betsy Bird. 
Courtesy of Betsy Bird. 
Betsy Bird is the Collection Development Manager of Evanston Public Library and the former Youth Materials Specialist of New York Public Library. She writes for the Fuse #8 Production blog hosted by School Library Journal and reviews for Kirkus. Betsy has written several books and her latest, THE GREAT SANTA STAKEOUT, is out this year. She also runs a picture book podcast called Fuse 8 n’ Kate. Find Betsy at betsybirdbooks.com or on Twitter @FuseEight. 

Hey, Water! by Antoinette Portis
book cover
The Geisel Award is not a particularly old award. Yet in its scant 13 years it has managed to encompass a wide range of styles (both written and artistic) and reading levels. And, as with other literary awards like the Newbery or the Caldecott, it inclines towards fiction more often than fact. Informational books aren’t unheard of Geisel winners (2009’s Wolfsnail by Sarah C. Campbell proves as much), but they seem to crop up only once in a blue moon. 

Until now? 

Hey, Water! by Antoinette Portis begins with our guide, a brown-skinned girl named Zoe, calling out, “Hey, water! I know you! You’re all around.” She proceeds to list all the different ways you can encounter this essential resource. It’s in your home. In large bodies of water. In a teardrop falling from your eye. There’s steam and fog, snowmen and fish, even your own body! What’s the best thing to say after all of that? “Hey, water, thank you!” 

Now I’m coming at this book from a children’s librarian standpoint, and you know what we children’s librarians love? New STEM related books for our thematic storytimes! That’s part of the joy of this book. For the kids just learning to read there are short sentences peppered throughout. For the youngest squirmy types, each image shows a single simple word for them to see and comprehend. Tackling big ideas (like the water cycle) with simple words and images is one of the hardest jobs to do in this business. Oh, and did I mention it’s gorgeous? The Geisel Award terms and criteria state that the awards go to creators that, “through their literary and artistic achievements, demonstrate creativity and imagination to engage children in reading.” Not much more is said about those “artistic achievements” but as they are alluded to, I’d like to recommend that folks take them into consideration. 

Image of child running through the sprinklers on the left. On the right, a child standing in the shower. 

It’s not perfect, of course. For example, at one point the book likens an iceberg to a rock, joking that it’s a rock that can float, or a rock you can skate on. I could see some scientifically minded gatekeepers not caring much for that, saying that it misleads children into thinking that ice and rocks are one and the same. Another concern involves the repetition of words. The Geisel Award criteria is fairly clear that, “Words should be repeated to ensure knowledge retention.” The book is almost too simple to repeat many words, though I did notice that “water” does crop up from time to time. 

Image on left of a teapot steaming on the stove. On the right, three birds flying below a cloud. 

The Geisel Award criteria does not preclude nonfiction, nor does it encourage it. As with all things, it is up to the discretion of the committee itself to determine whether or not a book meets with its standards. Even so, I can hope that a book this joyous in its willingness to teach, not just language skills, but science as well, will earn the respect of all gatekeepers. Fun, funny, and desperately smart, this is a book to keep your eye on.