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. 
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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?

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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? 

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