Thursday, June 30, 2016

Let's Start at the Very Beginning

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 a member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee. She blogs at Wizards Wireless.

There’s a genre of books for children learning to read. They are usually (but not always) a certain size and shape. They are often leveled.

What should we call this type of book? 

I often hear the term Easy Readers, which implies that these books are easy to read. They aren’t easy for the children reading them for the first time. Calling them easy diminishes the work of a new or struggling reader. 

I would call them Beginning Readers, which is what the Geisel Award criteria calls them. Everybody starts at the beginning. These are the books used when starting to read. I have met so many parents and kids who take the levels printed on the books very seriously. They tell me they can only read Level 2 books, for example and they resist books at other levels. The tricky thing about the levels, and why it is important not to get tied to them, is that they vary completely by publisher. A reading level marked Level 2 by one publisher could be marked Level 3 by another. 

Where to shelve these books? Typically they get their own section, in both libraries and bookstores. I think the way that makes it easiest for readers to find them is to create beginner, intermediate and advanced categories. This system ignores the levels and helps to place books that have no levels. 

One of the wonderful things about the Geisel Award is all the non-traditional Beginning Readers that have been honored. A book doesn’t have to look like a reader in order to be a helpful tool for children learning to read. Take a glance at previous Geisel winners and you’ll see books of poetry, non-fiction, graphic novels and picture books. 

The Geisel criteria states that the award recognizes winners with “literary and artistic achievements that demonstrate creativity and imagination to engage children in reading.”
That’s the key. Good, well written and illustrated books that help children learn to read.

That’s a very good place to start.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Big Cat by Ethan Long and Nate Likes to Skate by Bruce Degen

Welcome, Amanda here today. Let's take a look at two of the latest entries in a series clearly designed with beginning readers in mind. 
Image from
Big Cat is an obvious choice to consider for the Geisel award, as its creator Ethan Long took home the gold in 2013 for Up, Tall, and High! Here Long pairs his bold cartoon illustrations with sentences that couldn't be more simple or straightforward. In describing the trials of Big Cat as first one child and then the next involve the cat in their play despite its best efforts to avoid them, Long employs a repeated sentence structure, finishing the sentence "Big Cat can ___" on each two-page spread.

The Geisel criteria asks us to consider the simplicity of these short, declarative sentences and the use of repetition in an easily recognizable pattern. We can also find excellence in the appropriate size and style of the typeface in this and other books from the I Like to Read® series, which eschew traditional typeface "a"'s and "g"'s of in favor of a look that is more similar to the way a child learns to shape letters. The sentences are short enough that no line breaks are necessary, which is appropriate for the earliest of readers.  
When looking at the criteria on design excellence, the line about "an uncluttered background that sets off the text" might give us pause. These are full-bleed illustrations, leaving very little white space. And does our opening sentence, "Big Cat can nap" create the page-turning dynamic that we're looking for to motivate our beginning readers?

Image from
Nate Likes to Skate by Bruce Degen is for a more confident beginning reader than Big Cat, varying its sentence length and the number of lines on the page. The Nate of the title has a friend Kate, who prefers hats to skating. After a brief conflict over this difference, Nate inadvertently knocks some sense into himself by falling off his skateboard. A reconciliation occurs, after which they pursue their interests together. Sentences are short and declarative and most words have 5 letters or fewer. The text is often set against a white background despite the frequently full-bleed colored pencil illustrations. Thoughtful attention is paid to the line breaks, which fall between the short sentences in almost every case as in "Kate says, 'Look, Nate!/ I can skate. Wheeee!'"

Degen advances the plot from one page to the next with skill. On one spread, Nate inquires "'Kate, do you skate?'" and our young readers must turn the page to see that "Kate says, No, Nate./I hate to skate./Do you like my hat?'" Does he like her hat? We have to keep turning these pages to find out! (Spoilers: he hates the hat. "It's a great big bat.")

Both of these titles exhibit excellence in technical elements named in the Geisel criteria. But are they engaging, demonstrating creativity and imagination that rises to the level of "most distinguished"? How do your beginning readers fare with these books? If you were on this year's committee, would either of these make your list? 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Ballet Cat: Dance! Dance! Underpants! by Bob Shea

Image from Books.Disney.Com
Hi there! Amy here to take a look at Ballet Cat: Dance! Dance! Underpants! by Bob Shea, a book  that corners the market in cover appeal. The bright colors and sparkles fairly scream to young readers, “read me!”

Ballet Cat, introduced in last year’s Ballet Cat: The Totally Secret Secret, is ready to do some super-high leaps with her friend Butter Bear. Unfortunately, there’s a secret that’s making Butter Bear shy away from this pinnacle of balletic fun. What could it be? Underpants, of course! It’s very worrisome to think that others will laugh at Butter Bear’s underpants while she does her super-high leaps. Naturally, Ballet Cat forges ahead to save the day. Amid showers of applause and roses she exclaims, “Hooray! Ballet conquers all!”

Let’s take a look at the Geisel Award criteria. How does the latest Ballet Cat adventure stack up?

“Page-Turning” Dynamic
The criteria indicates that a plot that advances with “page-turning” dynamic is one marker of beginning reader excellence. In other words, does the plot engage the reader and are they encouraged to turn the page for more? I think Ballet Cat excels in this area. The page turns are well-timed for humor and pacing. The cartoonish illustrations use thick outlines, eye-catchingly bright colors, and comical facial expressions, drawing the reader into the story.

Word repetition is another award criteria. In this title there are many instances of repetition, “cereal” shows up three times and “underpants” is repeated a whopping eleven times. However, some unusual words only appear once, such as “conquer” and “dangerous.” New readers may find these words difficult to sound out because they have unfamiliar sounds (the q in “conquer” is quite intimidating) or because of their length (“dangerous” has 9 letters).

Another factor is sentence length. The need for “simple and straightforward” sentences is listed as an award criteria. Some sentences in this story are quite long and include several newly introduced words. Ballet Cat’s declaration, “If you dance with all your heart, the only thing they will see is the beauty of ballet” is eighteen words long and it’s the first time words “heart” and “beauty” appear in the text.

The criteria calls for illustrations to “function as keys or clues to the text.” These visual context clues can help readers with new words. Although the illustrations in this title add to the kid appeal, the lack of visual context clues for words such as, “orange juice”, “practiced”, and “lazy,” is disappointing. The off-page dialogue could be problematic as well, as there aren’t any visual clues to the unseen action.

Another element to consider is the choice, color, size, and placement of the font. This book has a nice large, bold, black  font well-chosen to stand out on the colorful pages. Like Willems’ wildly popular Elephant and Piggie books, Shea makes great use of color coded speech bubbles--pink for Ballet Cat and yellow for Butter Bear. This design choice helps new readers follow the dialogue even as they sound out new words. On the flip side, many sentences are divided in order to squeeze all the text into the speech bubbles and this can create some problematic line breaks. Butter Bear speech bubble reads, “No wonder I am so / tired. I must go to / sleep for the winter.” It’s a shame each sentence could not have been printed on it’s own line.

In conclusion, with great repetition and color-coded speech bubbles, there are some very strong elements in this engaging, energetic story. The font is easy on the eye and the page turns are well-placed. The eye-catching cover and humorous story have clearly been designed to create maximum kid appeal. Unfortunately, there are some weaknesses as well. The presence of so many difficult new vocabulary words, lack of visual context clues, and long sentences could make this a frustrating reading experience for a new reader.

What do you think? Have you read this book with kids? What did they have to say about it?

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

SLJ Column and Titles to Watch List

Amanda here to let you know that in addition to our posts here at Guessing Geisel, SLJ has graciously given us column space for taking a look at the Geisel Award. The first of these columns looks into what sets the Geisel apart from other ALSC Awards and includes a roundup of some of the titles we’re looking forward to discussing this year.

It’s always a challenge to come up with a short list for a mock award. We cannot know what the real committee is seeing, so we do our best by looking at new work by previous winners, scouring starred reviews, and watching for any titles getting a lot of early buzz. 

Here at Guessing Geisel, we welcome your suggestions. We have a good list of potential titles for future posts, but we’d love to know what has caught your eye so far. What titles are you looking forward to discussing in your Mock Geisels this year? Which new releases are you eager to put into the hands of a beginning reader?

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Good Night, Owl by Greg Pizzoli

Hello, Misti here! Today, let’s take a look at the many distinguished elements in Good Night Owl by Greg Pizzoli.

As the story begins, it’s time for bed, but Owl can’t sleep – there is a noise in his house.  Every time Owl gets comfortable in bed, he hears a squeaking sound.  In pursuit of the noise, Owl empties his cupboard, tears up his floorboards, removes his roof, and eventually demolishes the walls of his house.  In the end, Owl discovers the source of the squeaking: a little gray mouse that the reader has known about all along.  Mystery solved, both Owl and his noisy new friend can finally get some sleep.

The first criterion listed for the Geisel Award is that the book should be intriguing enough to motivate the child to read.  Owl’s over-the-top reactions to his squeaky visitor are sure to delight young readers, who will no doubt be anxious to see exactly how much damage Owl will do to his house in order to locate the noise – and will he ever get to sleep?  This book exemplifies the “page-turning dynamic,” and it does so without dragging a sentence out over a page turn.  For beginning readers, this is a real boon, as it allows them to easily scan back if they’re having trouble parsing a sentence or finding their place. When sentences do break, either onto a new line or onto a facing page, the break is intentional and logical. The text is also well-placed in this book, generally right below or above the illustrations on an illustrated page, or centered on the solid-color pages without illustrations.  There is always enough contrast between the text and the background, and the font is large.  Instances of challenging vocabulary, like “floorboards,” are repeated to good effect, and accompanied by illustrations which support difficult words and concepts.

Of course, no book is perfect, and there are a few areas of concern when considering how well this book works for beginning readers.  Some sentences are long and complex.  For example, early in the book we see, “It was a tiny sound, no louder than a whisper; a funny noise he hadn’t heard before.” That’s seventeen words, a semicolon, and a contraction! Also, several sentences start with “And,” “But,” or “So.”  This conversational style is more casual than one usually observes in books for beginning readers.  The casual style also extends to the mouse’s vocalizations – it always says “Squeek!” rather than the less visually appealing, but technically correct, “Squeak.” And, speaking of that mouse, though it’s prominent in the illustrations, it is never actually identified in the text.

Still, there’s so much to appreciate about this book.  Pizzoli’s deliberate color palette and humorous illustrations give the book undeniable visual appeal as well as supporting and enhancing the text.  The plot is compelling and funny, and there are plenty of delightful details, from Owl’s pink bed jacket to his cabinet full of curios, some of which look suspiciously familiar to readers who have experienced this author’s earlier works!  Though there are a few areas where beginning readers may struggle, the narrative flow should carry them on to the conclusion, resulting in a successful reading experience.
If you’ve read this book, we’d love to hear your thoughts – and if you’ve shared it with beginning readers, let us know how they handled it!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Welcome to Guessing Geisel: A Mock Geisel Blog

“The Theodor Seuss Geisel Award recognizes the author(s) and illustrator(s) of a book for beginning readers who, through their literary and artistic achievements, demonstrate creativity and imagination to engage children in reading.”

Guessing Geisel was inspired by the experiences of the 2016 Geisel Award committee. At the conclusion of ALA Midwinter in Boston, committee members Amy, Misti, and Amanda discovered a shared eagerness to discuss the contenders in the upcoming year, no longer committed to secrecy on any potentially eligible titles. They could review picture books again, and could post to Goodreads and personal blogs. But even more than that, they wanted to spark conversations that would expand understanding of the award criteria, provide assistance to those planning Mock Geisels across the country, and celebrate good books for beginning readers.

Guessing Geisel is an opportunity to explore award criteria that is both more specific and less well known than the Newbery or Caldecott. It’s a place to celebrate more great books for beginning readers than any one committee is able to honor. It's an exploration into what constitutes excellence for an audience at a critical stage where a child is building the reading skills and relationship with the written word that will serve them all their life. It’s a resource for anyone who might be interested in serving on the committee for this award, or interested in holding a Mock Geisel in their community. 

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. All thoughts on eligibility or the strength of a contender are entirely speculation.