Saturday, July 30, 2016

Go, Otto, Go! by David Milgrim

Image from
Elisa Gall is today's guest contributor. She's the Director of Library Services at an independent school in Chicago serving children in preschool through high school. Find her on Twitter: @gallbrary.

When people hear beginning reader, they often think two things—or rather, people. Yep. You know who (*cough*DickandJane*coughcough*). There is a well-known story about Dr. Seuss—the creator after whom the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award is named—writing his first reader after a challenge by William Spaulding (inspired by John Hersey) to break the “boring” Dick and Jane mold and make something both helpful and engaging for young readers. (More about that can be found here.)

David Milgrim’s Go, Otto, Go!—about a homesick robot creating and flying a jetpack to find his faraway family—succeeds in accessibility and appropriateness for beginning readers, with short sentences, hefty white space, a large font size, patterned language, and supportive illustrations. But look closely: do you notice any similarities between the language of Go, Otto, Go! and this page from a reader of yesteryear?

Image from Go, Otto, Go! by David Milgrim (photos by Elisa Gall)
Image from Rare Book School from Mancini, Mark. "15 Fun Facts About 'Dick and Jane'" Mental Floss. N.p., 16 Sept. 2015. web. 07 July 2016.  

Those familiar with the ALSC awards will note that I can’t compare Go, Otto, Go! to Dick and Jane. I can only compare it to other eligible books published this year. So I’m going to own that this comparison would be shushed in jury deliberations and stop there.

What I find remarkable about Go, Otto, Go! is that despite its predictable and repetitive format, Milgrim’s text works in tandem with bold, heartfelt illustrations to make the story the opposite of boring. The images also keep the story interesting by adding characters and objects visually (a telescope, for example) without overwhelming the text.

The placement of page turns also does wonders for the plot and for readers. On the first page, we “See Otto,” frowning at a picture. After a page turn, we “See Otto look,” the portrait enlarged for assumptions to be made that the picture is of Otto and his family. On the recto page, we “See Otto look at his home” through a telescope. The following page turn and double-page spread (showing Otto looking up at the stars, family portrait in hand) builds suspense and paces the story so young readers can sit with the information and check for understanding. We then see Otto working, pals by his side, to build a jetpack and fly it up, down, left, right, here, there, and nowhere—until he recognizes that despite his setbacks, he has a home with his loyal buddies. For added humor, Otto’s pals look in dismay at his mishaps, with nothing but an exclamation mark coming out of Otto’s word balloons. These user-friendly balloons and one-syllable sound effects (POPs and POWs, which explode out of Otto’s jetpack) carry meaning while also keeping readers engaged.

I am still reflecting on whether the scaffolding is strong enough when Otto is “here” (a desert), “there” (Antarctica), and “nowhere” (back where he started). As part of a series, the question of whether the book is dependent on other media might also come up, up, up. (I couldn’t help myself there, but rest assured: it stands on its own.) Go, Otto, Go!’s greatest achievement might just be that it is simple, but not too simple. It is accessible, but not condescending. I’m on board the Geisel train for this one, as are the handful of kids I know who have read it independently. How about you? Go, you, go! and read this one with children. I’m interested to hear what you all think.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

What It's Like to be on the Geisel Committee #1

One of our recurring features on this blog will be reflections by previous Geisel committee members on their experiences. If you've served on the Geisel Committee in the past and would like to share your experiences, please contact one of the blog administrators.

Today's guest columnist is Sarah Stippich, Early Literacy Coordinator for the Free Library of Philadelphia. She is a longtime children’s librarian and proud member of ALSC, currently serving on the Every Child Ready to Read Oversight Committee and Early Childhood Programs and Services Committee. She is currently reading Hundred Percent by Karen Romano Young. Sarah, thanks for sharing your experiences with us!

Congratulations! You’ve been appointed to the Geisel Award Committee, one of the most distinguished literary awards for children’s literature. You are now part of a secret club of librarians whose task is to deeply evaluate books for beginning readers. You will bestow a prestigious honor upon an author and an illustrator, and your work will be national news. Uh… what now? 

First of all, before serving on an award committee, do your time and walk the walk. It is a huge honor to be appointed to an award committee, and many of us dream of serving on the Caldecott, Coretta Scott King, Newbery, Geisel, etc. But you do need to make yourself known to the ALSC powers that be. Spend time on a process committee and get to know your fellow ALSC members. Help publish a booklist or article or blog series. My time on the School-Age Programs and Services Committee was fun and rewarding, and I met so many talented colleagues. And I can’t stress enough how eye-opening my experience with the Morris Seminar was. Spending a day hearing from experienced reviewers and learning to defend my point of view about fabulous books was monumental for me, and ALSC leadership considers this experience when making appointments to award committees. 

Second, learn to love spreadsheets. Each member of each award committee has their own record-keeping style. But let’s face it: we’re librarians and we love organizing things! For me, an intricately color-coded Google spreadsheet with lots of tabs and columns was just the thing. I have heard of different methods involving Post-Its, complicated shelving schemes, super-secret binders, and hand-written reviews. Whichever way you choose, make sure you plan it well and keep up with it consistently. When those books come pouring in, you’ll thank yourself. 

Third, borrow some kids. One of the most interesting things about the Geisel Award criteria is that kid appeal is built right into it. It must motivate children to read. I adopted a local second grade class whose teacher was thrilled to have me visit weekly with a crate of books for my Junior Geisel Committee. I created a review worksheet for students to fill out after reading, allowing them to rate the book on humor, illustrations, and readability. Their reviews were hilarious! It was really fun to share books with them (of course they nearly screamed when I gave them a first look at the brand new Elephant & Piggie book), but I did have to take their input with a huge grain of salt. Child appeal is important to the Geisel, but not every book can be about Spider-Man. Their teacher was a great partner in this process, telling me which books they re-read, and which were simply too difficult for them.

Photo courtesy of Claire O'Leary Arnold
Last and most important, get ready to change your mind. Sharpen your debating skills, and be ready to not just HEAR, but LISTEN. It will be your task to prove to six smart, savvy professionals that your favored books meet the Geisel Award criteria in the best ways possible. Each of you has a wealth of experience to offer, and you will not always see eye to eye. And no matter how much you prepare your ideas and scour each page for flaws, one insightful comment from another committee member will completely blow your argument out of the water. There will always be a page turn or word choice or illustration that slipped by you, and now you can’t un-see it. On the flip side, you will see something that no one else on your committee sees. If you can convince them, “your” book might just advance in the selection process. Your time on the Geisel Committee will be invigorating, chaotic, and will completely change how you share books with new readers. Good luck!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Get a Hit, Mo! by David A. Adler and Sam Ricks

Today's guest blogger is Liesel Schmidt. Liesel is a Children's Librarian at Denver Public Library. As a former preschool teacher, Liesel is excited about books that get young children reading.

Liesel here to take on Get a Hit, Mo!, the sequel to last year’s winner. Last year’s Don’t Throw it to Mo! charmed the Geisel judges with its plucky protagonist, Mo Jackson, vibrant illustrations, and approachable text. This year, author David A. Adler and illustrator Sam Ricks bring Mo back for another shot at athletic glory. This time around, Mo is playing baseball and he’s giving it all he’s got.

Does the story “carry a child along from start to finish”?
Image from
Get a Hit, Mo! revisits many of the themes that we saw in Don’t Throw it to Mo! Mo is still smaller and younger than the other players on his team. As in the previous book, the reader is again drawn through the action to discover whether or not Mo will succeed in his efforts to help his team win, this time by getting a hit in the baseball game. At the outset of the book, things look grim. Mo will “bat last. I always bat last, Mo thinks.” The “page-turning dynamic” is built right into the action of the baseball game. It all comes down to the final hit. Will Mo save the day?

Does the text support a beginning reader’s needs?
Without getting too “inside baseball” about it, the book accurately captures the intricacies of a ball game in short, declarative sentences. Mo watches the other team’s batters let balls pass them if they are too high or low. “When the ball is just right, they swing and hit the ball. That’s what I’ll do, Mo thinks.” Sports terminology provides a natural support for beginning readers. The frame of a baseball game lets Adler convey lots of action with few words, including “ball”, “strike”, and “hit”.The baseball terms used in the book are repeated throughout to give readers a chance to become comfortable with the text.

Do the illustrations “function as keys or clues to the text”?
As in Don’t Throw it to Mo!, the illustrations here complement and support the text. Text is printed simply and uniformly, and paired strategically near illustrations that visually express Mo’s enthusiastic efforts. When the new word, “umpire” is introduced, there is the umpire’s face filling the page, holding his mask. Onomatopoeic sound effects hover near Mo’s bat at appropriate moments to draw the reader’s focus toward the action-- “Whoosh! Strike one.” And, although the vocabulary used is straightforward, readers can get a sense of Mo’s complicated feelings of excitement, nervousness, and dismay by looking at Ricks’ depictions of Mo waiting for his turn to bat.

Get a Hit, Mo! is another great contribution to the needs of beginning readers. For beginning readers who loved Don’t Throw it To Mo!, this new sports adventure will be a hit. If we are in the business of “Guessing Geisel”, I would look elsewhere to new stories breaking new ground, but I will be glad to see more of little Mo Jackson and his big dreams. Keep this series in mind for young readers looking for books with simple text and exciting sports action.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

My House, by Byron Barton

Image from
Today's post comes to us from Katya Schapiro, Senior Children's Librarian at the Bay Ridge Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. She served on the 2016 Geisel Award committee, and has just joined the Quicklists Consulting Committee.

Hello Geisel Guessers! This is Katya, of the 2016 Geisel Award Committee, here to discuss My House by Byron Barton.

Barton’s richly saturated digital illustrations and simple declarative prose have made his picture books justly beloved for many years. From My Car to My Bike, he has explored homey, perennially interesting subjects through easy-to-digest first-person narration.

In My House, the narrator is Jim, an orange cat. Jim shows the reader through his house (bright yellow and magenta) and introduces his bed, his litter box, and his friend, Jane. Jim wraps up with his love for his house, his home, and that’s it. In twenty short sentences, none longer than seven words, Barton takes the reader through a satisfying journey of recognition and comfort.

Barton uses large font text as a visual element, contrasting brightly colored letters with equally bright backgrounds. Beginning readers are often docked points for a lack of white space, which helps the uncertain reader distinguish between text and illustration, but in My House, the large font on colorful backgrounds provides an alternate way for the text to pop out to the viewer’s eye. This is a plus for the early reader, who can have trouble distinguishing smaller fonts or more complicated text placement. Some of the color combinations, such as yellow on a variegated green, might cause issues for colorblind readers, but most readers will welcome the eye-popping contrasts.

A quick walk through the Geisel criteria:

Excellence in quality: Unquestionable. From the first full page spread (none of that pesky publishing info interfering with the story text) to the final conceptual lift as ‘house’ is elevated to ‘home’, this is a carefully thought out and beautifully made title.

Individually distinct: Barton’s fully saturated pages cannot be mistaken for the work of any other creator, and his unique style is consistent throughout.

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: Absolutely. The repetition of ‘this is, these are, I am’ carry the reader through the new vocabulary as different parts of the house are introduced. The book isn’t big on plot, but the pleasure of recognition and the gentle, straightforward friendliness will carry readers through and keep them turning pages. Barton is very careful about vocabulary choice as well—most of the words are contextual or illustrated, and all are easy to sound out. The two stairway spreads “Upstairs is the bedroom” and “I hear a noise downstairs” cannot be entirely decoded using visual context clues, but with such a simple story the minor challenge to the reader is a positive. Literal minded kids and children on the spectrum will appreciate the real world practicality of the story, and everyone will love Jim’s house right along with Jim.

When considering simple picture books for the Geisel award, it can be easy for us storytime mavens to get sidetracked into their excellent qualities as read-alouds, and to assume that those qualities will translate to benefits for the independent reader. While there is certainly overlap, this can be a dangerous assumption, as some great read-alouds prove too simple, too complex, too punctuated, or too otherwise daunting for the kindergartner who laughed and laughed at storytime. Some, though, make the transition flawlessly—usually through a combination of strong child appeal and an attention to detail. Based on my class visit experience where early readers enjoyed hearing it read aloud AND grabbed for it after the session, I can firmly say that My House succeeds in both categories, and will be an enjoyable and successful reading experience for many young real estate lovers.