Saturday, December 31, 2016

Cast Your Ballot for Guessing Geisel's Mock!

Now's your chance to cast your ballot for Guessing Geisel's Mock! As they do on the real committee, we'll be weighting the responses with 4 points for each first choice vote, 3 points for each second choice vote, and 2 points for each third choice vote. This ballot will stay open Jan. 1st-7th. If needed, a second ballot will be posted Jan. 8th-14th. Please, complete only one ballot per person.

It's not required that you have read all books to participate, although we recommend reading as many as possible, and reading reviews here and elsewhere.

For more information on how we will conduct the first Guessing Geisel Mock Election, check out our recent post describing the process.

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Friday, December 30, 2016

Pig In A Wig Books by Emma J. Virján

Jenna Friebel is a Materials Services Librarian at the Oak Park Public Library. She was on the 2016 Geisel Award Committee and has been elected to the 2018 Printz Award Committee. She’s on twitter @jenna_friebel.

Cover image from
A Pig in a Wig is back! 2016 gave us two new installments of this early reader series by Emma J. Virján that started last year. What This Story Needs is a Hush and a Shush is a bedtime story that leaves our Pig in a Wig unable to sleep because of all the other animals joining her in bed, making noise, and taking up space. In What This Story Needs is a Munch and a Crunch, the Pig in a Wig is having an outdoor picnic with lots of food and some friends and games until it begins to storm.
There are a lot of strong elements in these books: simple and repeated words, rhyming, no more than a few lines per page, and illustrations that match the text. There is no doubt that these are solid early reader books worthy of their places in classrooms and libraries. But! We are not here looking for good early readers; we are looking for excellence. So it’s time to take a much closer look and get nit-picky.
Both titles include a mix of single page illustrations and double page spreads. The double page spread illustrations are filled in all the way to the edges whereas the single page illustrations have a white border (with the exception of the first one in both books- I’m not sure of the reasoning behind this inconsistency). The white borders help guide readers through the different scenes of the story.
Cover image from
As for the illustrations themselves, the flat colors combined with thick black edges are very child friendly. In Hush and a Shush, Pig in a Wig has some fun face expressions. Just a few lines make her surprised, angry, and exhausted. In Munch and a Crunch, close readers will notice the clouds becoming gray before the storm hits. However, in both books the illustrations sometimes become too busy.
The font is a good size (although it uses the typeface “a” and “g” that doesn't mimic how children write them—c’mon early reader publishers!) and alternates between black and white depending on the background color. The text placement varies from page to page which can disrupt the flow of reading, particularly on pages with busy illustrations. This is more of a problem in Munch and a Crunch. There are several single page illustrations in a row with just a few words per page, and the placement of these words jumps all over creating a risk that the reader might completely miss a few words.
Speaking of words, let’s take a look at the word choices. In this regard, Munch and a Crunch is the stronger of the two. It has accessible words easily depicted in the illustrations. Hush and a Shush is filled with animal sounds. While most of these can be sounded out, it is a little trickier for the reader who really needs the illustrations for help. The animals making the sounds on each page are at the window, but with more and more animals on the bed on each page, it can be overwhelming.
Overall, these are both really good early readers that are worth consideration. However, I did have some concerns with both of them. Are my quibbles enough to knock these titles out of the running or are they small enough to be overlooked when considering all the strengths?

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Snail & Worm: Three Stories about Two Friends by Tina Kügler

Hi there! It's Amy, sneaking in one last post before the end of the month. Travis Jonker mentioned this title in his 2017 Geisel Award Prediction post on 100 Scope Notes. So I thought it merited some exploration here on Guessing Geisel. 

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In the tradition of many classic beginning readers, Snail & Worm focuses on two loyal friends in three short and gently humorous episodic stories. In the first story, the two friends meet and play an imaginative game of tag. In the second, Snail finds a very, very tall flower and attempts to climb it with lots of support from Worm. In the final story, the friends introduce each other to their unexpected, but lovable pets. 

There’s much to appreciate in this attractive book. The cover is cheerful and shows readers that the two friends will have fun together. The trim size is closer to that of a traditional beginning reader, yet it’s a bit wider, allowing for more expansive illustrations. 

The text is printed in a large font and most sentences are short and declarative. There are a few that are in question form, however the text gives clues even before the final question mark. For instance, “Can you catch me?” and “Are you talking to a rock?”, begin with words that signal a question. The word repetition within in each episodic is strong, allowing readers to become confident with new words. 

The sentences in the first story are particularly thoughtful in length (no sentence is longer than five words) and design. There’s plenty of white space and most sentences are printed on one line. Unfortunately, this format does not continue in the other stories, which include long sentences (some as long as ten words), and line breaks that interrupt the natural flow of the sentences. 

The bright and whimsical illustrations are laid out in sequential panels that keep the pacing brisk. There are times when the illustrations crowd the text, forcing those aforementioned awkward line breaks, as well as eliminating vital white space. 

Image from Snail & Worm: Three Stories about Two Friends by Tina Kügler

Some spreads have strong combinations of text and supporting visual context clues. Take a look at these panels showing Worm and Snail discussing the attributes of Worm’s pet. This is a great example of visual context clues corresponding with the text and followed up with word repetition.
Image from Snail & Worm: Three Stories about Two Friends by Tina Kügler

Unfortunately, there are many more spreads where the connection between the illustrations and text are less obvious. This very issue is apparent on the very first two page spread. The words "play" and "catch" are introduced on this page, but there's nothing in the illustrations to clue in readers. 

Image from Snail & Worm: Three Stories about Two Friends by Tina Kügler

Although there are some design elements that could be more thoughtful, there’s a lot to appreciate in this story of friendship. What do you think?

Monday, December 26, 2016

Mr. Putter and Tabby Hit the Slopes by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Arthur Howard

This week's contributor is Gigi Pagliarulo, a librarian for the Denver Public Library. Gigi is especially interested in youth services, early literacy, and issues of diversity and multiculturalism within children's literature and programming, and has served on the steering committee of Colorado Libraries for Early Literacy.
Cover image from
In the Mr. Putter and Tabby series, Geisel award-winning author Cynthia Rylant has created a charming set of characters in a gently curmudgeonly man and his cat. This elderly pair tend to favor the quiet life until…enter zany, energetic next-door neighbor Mrs. Teaberry and “her good dog Zeke,” who always bring a new adventure. In Mr. Putter and Tabby Hit the Slope, adventure comes to save a slow winter day in the form of a high-speed sled ride that helps Mr. Putter relive his youth and and sends poor Tabby straight up a tree!

One might think that after so many volumes in a series, so many series in a career, these titles could feel formulaic. Instead, Rylant’s special talent lies in consistently creating endearing characters and keeping their stories fresh and recognizable to each year’s crop of new readers. Let’s delve into Mr. Putter and Tabby Hit the Slope to see if it’s a distinguished enough entry to be in the running for a Geisel award!

Distinguished, in a Geisel award criteria nutshell, means “Providing a stimulating and successful reading experience for the beginning reader containing the kind of plot, sensibility, and rhythm that can carry a child along from start to finish.” Engaging subject matter, carefully measured pacing and placement of words and sentences, and of course, entertaining and expressive illustrations motivate children to start a story, persevere through any reading challenges, and successfully finish the book.

In Mr. Putter and Tabby Hit the Slope, the silliness of two old folks and their pets zipping down a hill on sleds is funny and novel, and some unexpected surprise plot twists also keep pages turning. The rhythm of the text is satisfying, mixing simple, descriptive narration with small bits of dialogue and vivid action passages, all in doses a tender new reader can handle. Mr. Putter’s distinctive voice and dry sense of humor are evident throughout the text, providing the kind of sensibility of language that demonstrates to children the pleasure of reading good writing.

New vocabulary words are introduced in a deliberate manner throughout the course of the book, and Arthur Howard’s playful paint-filled line drawings hilariously illuminate the story, backing up the text with clear visual context clues. Dear, long-suffering Tabby’s itchy sweater, twitchy tail, and distinctly displeased demeanor are the highlight of text and illustrations both, and highly giggle-worthy.  

Mr. Putter and Tabby Hit the Slope is an entertaining new title that zips readers down a snowy hill with an engaging plot, interesting new vocabulary words, and humorous illustrations. An overarching fine use of language to create character, mood, and plot development sets it apart from most titles for this age group. Clearly, Rylant is an author who is still very much at the top of her beginning reader game. Though perhaps not individually distinct enough for the medal itself, Mr. Putter and Tabby Hit the Slope is truly a solid entry into the field and a fine candidate for a Geisel honor book. 

Friday, December 23, 2016

Will Young Fans Like Elephant and Piggie Like Reading?

Hi all, Amy here to take a look at the first two titles in the new Mo Willems’ Elephant & Piggie Like Reading! series. 

Image from
Image from
This year there are three Geisel eligible titles bearing the name Mo Willems (Well, technically four, if you’d like to make a case for Nanette’s Baguette). It’s hard to ignore Mo, iconic game-changer that he is. Here at Guessing Geisel we've already had a post on the final Elephant and Piggie book, as well as a post addressing the elephant in the room.

Now, let’s take a look at these new series titles: We Are Growing! by Laurie Keller and Mo Willems and The Cookie Fiasco by Dan Santat and Mo Willems. Both include humorous introductions and closing remarks by the dynamic elephant and pig duo. As readers have come to expect, there’s a funny, friendship-centered twist at the end of each story, along with color-coded speech bubbles, playful, plot-driven word repetition, and mostly dialogue text printed in large and easy to read fonts.

Image from We Are Growing! by Laurie Keller and Mo Willems

We Are Growing! is a hilariously melodramatic story about several shoots of grass (and one surprise dandelion) who grow and ponder their existence and their special talents. Each blade knows it’s strength, except Walt. He’s not the pointiest, tallest, silliest, or even the crunchiest. There are some tricky words--“pointiest”, “curliest”, “crunchiest”--but there are plenty of visual context clues in the cartoonish illustrations. The layouts are thoughtful, although spreads don’t have quite as much white space as a traditional Elephant and Piggie book. All in all, this is a visually attractive and textually engaging title.

Image from We Are Growing! by Laurie Keller and Mo Willems

In The Cookie Fiasco, four friends face a dilemma of epic portions: there are four friends, but only three cookies. That means someone will not get a cookie! As the characters become increasingly fraught, the urgency builds, creating a very strong page turning dynamic. There are some helpful visual context clues, especially as the cookies are divided into halves and then quarters. However, Santat’s illustrations, although full of wonderfully exaggerated facial expressions and humor, often take over the page. Consequently, the speech bubbles are squished, sentences are broken up awkwardly by line breaks, and white space is even less than we see in We Are Growing!

Image from The Cookie Fiasco by Dan Santat and Mo Willems

Another problematic element is the vocabulary. Although more difficult words are repeated often throughout the story, they lack visual context clues when first encountered. For instance, the words “disaster” and “fiasco” are probably unfamiliar and challenging for a new reader to sound out. And how exactly would one illustrate those words within the context of the story?

Image from The Cookie Fiasco by Dan Santat and Mo Willems

Personally, I think We Are Growing! is the stronger of the two titles. But most of all, I’m curious to see how young readers react to these titles. Will they get that the stories, although endorsed by Piggie and Gerald, aren’t really about them? Or will they be disappointed or confused? Have you read either one with a child? What was their reaction?

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

What's Up, Chuck? by Leo Landry

Images from
Sculptor Chuck Wood has won first prize in the Best of the Forest art contest for three years running, and he expects to continue the trend. When new artist Scooter Possum moves to town, Chuck is initially welcoming, but begins to feel threatened by Scooter’s skill at creating Jackson Pollack-style abstract paintings. Can the two remain friends, or will the competition drive them apart?

This book, with its eight short chapters and slightly more challenging vocabulary, is on the higher end of the beginning reader spectrum. Readers who are growing more confident in their ability and are ready to take on transitional chapter books will readily embrace a book like What’s Up, Chuck?, especially since books at this level can be just as difficult to find as books for the earliest beginners. The sentence structure here is generally simple, and though some of the vocabulary might be challenging to beginning readers, difficult words are introduced slowly and in many cases repeated throughout the text (“gnawing” is a good example of this, as it is introduced on the first page, but appears twice later in the book). And, while this book has the feel of a transitional chapter book, the page count is a modest 48, placing it well within the Geisel criteria. Like the Princess in Black series (discussed in an earlier post), What’s Up, Chuck? features full-color illustrations on nearly every page, which serve to both underscore elements of the story, and to break up the text into friendlier, more manageable chunks.

But will beginning readers enjoy this reading experience? I believe so. The text includes some great humor, particularly in the form of a couple of groan-worthy knock-knock jokes, and the kids will be able to relate to the characters, especially Chuck and his complicated feelings about his new friend, and about (spoiler alert!) coming in second place in the competition. Chuck’s work appeals to his friends in the forest, and to the judges of the Best in the Forest art contest. Will Chuck hold similar appeal for this year’s Geisel committee? Only time will tell!

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Andy & Sandy Books by Tomie dePaola and Jim Lewis

In When Andy Met Sandy, two lonely children at a playground each consider approaching the other, but decide against it. “I bet she has lots of friends,” Andy thinks, while Sandy supposes, “I bet he wants to play by himself.” When the two encounter a playground element that cannot be used by just one child, they end up playing together and soon become friends. Their friendship continues in Andy & Sandy's Anything Adventure when Sandy comes over to Andy’s house and the two play dress-up, and Andy & Sandy and the First Snow, when they play outside together on a winter day.

As beginning readers, these books contain many elements that will contribute to a successful reading experience. The sentences are short and simple, and no sentence is carried over a page turn. The font is large (though it features my pet peeves, “a” and “g” that do not look like the print “a” and “g” that beginning readers are taught to write), and there is plenty of white space. The illustrations are likely to be a major draw for dePaola’s many fans, and they do a very good job of demonstrating the story and providing support for potentially new or difficult vocabulary. The books also include a fair amount of repetition.

The one point at which these books fail, for me, is plot. Though the books are pleasant enough, I don’t see in them the “stimulating” reading experience or the “page-turning dynamic” called for in the Geisel criteria. Creating dramatic tension in a beginning reader is difficult, and in this case, I do not feel that the authors have been successful. There’s plenty of other stuff to like about these books, and perhaps those markers of excellence will outweigh the weakness of plot.

While I think that these titles are certainly worth a look from both the committee and from readers of this blog, will any of them stand out as the best of the year? My gut feeling is “no” – what do you think?

Sunday, December 18, 2016

First Mock Geisel on Guessing Geisel

Mock Awards can take many forms. All have varying levels of similarity to the committee experience, and many adhere to the criteria to the degree that they can. We’ve discussed on this blog some of the ways to adapt the mock award experience for working with students, and in the future we'll be covering some of the ways that mock awards can serve as professional development opportunities for librarians and teachers.
The actual Geisel Committee will have two full days to discuss and deliberate face to face in January, and will have spent the previous year reading, rereading, reviewing and assessing, observing beginning readers, and preparing their suggestions and nominations.
For most Mock Awards, participants may not have read all of the titles under consideration. If they are able to gather in person, it is often for no more than an hour or two, or their discussions may be spread out over the course of many weeks or months. If they are not able to gather in person, that component of face to face discussion is missed entirely.
But we’re going to do it anyway, because the more closely we can examine the criteria and mimic the balloting process, the more insight we have into the process. We come to see how only one honor book might be awarded in a given year, or how six honors might be chosen. We see how it could take multiple ballots to determine a winner, or how it might be settled after the first one. Only seven people in the entire country will actually know what happened in the room in any given year, and they will never tell. But by mimicking the experience, we develop a keener sense of how things might develop behind those closed doors.
Not to mention, it’s fun!
Sample Ballot from the Geisel Manual
Our Guessing Geisel Mock Vote will be conducted as follows:
  1. At the bottom of this post is a list of titles, to which we invite you to add your suggestions and nominations. Comment and tell us what excellent contenders are missing from our list. Or, make an argument for your favorites already included.
  2. A first ballot will be live from January 1st–7th. To mimic the voting process of the actual committee, you will have room on your ballot for three titles. A first place vote will be worth 4 points, a second place vote 3 points, and a third place vote will be worth 2 points. It's not required that you have read all books to participate, although we recommend reading as many as possible and reading reviews here and elsewhere. Check out Travis Jonker’s 2017 Geisel Award Predictions post for an additional take on some of our contenders. We are open to the possibility that we, just like the real committee, may have a clear winner after a first ballot, in which case we'll stop there and announce our results.
  3. If the first ballot does not produce a clear winner, we’ll conduct a second ballot from January 7th-14th. The real committee would keep going until they met the criteria for determining a winner, but we will stop after our second ballot and determine our winners.
We invite you to join us for this virtual Mock Geisel, and hope that you’re enjoying this first year of Guessing Geisel as much as we are. 

2017 Mock Geisel Contenders 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

You Are NOT a Cat! by Sharon G. Flake

Photo from

In the best tradition of silly impersonation tales, You Are NOT a Cat takes us along as Duck and Cat debate the propriety of Duck’s expressions of identity. With clear comparisons to be made with the 2013 Elephant and Piggie series title I Am a Frog, this humorous read aloud prompts a second look for beginning readers.

The text of the book is set against white word bubbles, carving space out of the full bleed ink wash, pen, and pencil drawings. The text is a reasonable size for a beginning reader, the lines are short – generally 3-7 words - and feature sight words. The nature of the debate lends itself to some repetition – there are quite a few quacks and meows. 

As a picture book, You Are NOT a Cat contains direct and humorous illustrations. Duck’s leaf “ears” on the cover are a nice touch, and I enjoy Duck’s parrot imitation. But looking at the criteria, the presence of illustrations is insufficient – these illustrations must “demonstrate the story being told” and “function as keys or clues to the text”. The very plot rests on the tension between what is observably true – that Duck is a duck – and what is being stated – that he is a cat. But this kind of tension does not necessarily serve our beginning reader well. Instead of providing a clue to our reader, the illustrations are often directly contradicting what is being stated, starting on the very first page when Duck declares himself a cat. 

But wait – you might say – wait just a moment, “cat” is a three-letter word, a sight word, and there IS a cat on the page, after all. Aren’t we being a bit harsh? 

Let’s read on, I would reply. Because on the page describing a “long, straight tail” there is none present. Which is the entire point, of course. And while there are “whiskers” on the following page, just how well is the illustration providing clues to “tickle the air”? None of those new words will be repeated anywhere in the story.  Similarly, “makes nice music” and “parrot” and “rooster”and “cock-a-doodle-doo” go relatively unrepresented. To be fair Duck IS imitating a rooster when he uses those last two words, so were I on the committee I would defer to the beginners reads I was observing to see if Duck’s imitation is a sufficient clue for them. None of these things detract from the story’s humor or effectiveness as a read aloud, of course. But when evaluating it using the Geisel criteria, we must consider how the illustrations support the successful reading experience.

Similarly, the criteria state that “sentences must be simple and straightforward”. The presence of so many questions - “Now you’re a parrot, I suppose?” and “And tomorrow?” for example, may challenge the comprehension of our beginning reader. A beginning reader may struggle to read these questions with the appropriate expression, as they will not perceive the question mark until they’ve reached the end of the sentence. The committee would need to determine if the ten question marks in this story impact the successful experience of the beginning reader. 

Despite several elements supportive of the beginning reader, the effectiveness of the illustrations as clues to the text would hold me back from supporting You Are NOT a Cat! at the Geisel table. But I would only be one of seven votes - would it have a place on your ballot?