Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Elephant in the Room

It’s time to talk about the elephant in the room.

We mean Gerald, of course.

For some ALSC awards, there are those in the field who have so encapsulated what that award represents that you could easily nickname the award after them. For the Carnegie Award, it’s the work of Weston Woods that continually sets the bar for excellence. For the Geisel Award, it’s the work of Mo Willems and the ground-breaking Elephant and Piggie Series.

As of this writing, the Geisel Medal has been presented eleven times. Elephant and Piggie books have been eligible for nine of those years. Here’s their scorecard so far:

Photo by Susan Kusel
Geisel Medal

  • There is a Bird on Your Head (2008)
  • Are You Ready to Play Outside? (2009)

Geisel Honor
  • We are in a Book! (2011)
  • I Broke My Trunk (2012)
  • Let’s Go For a Drive (2013)
  • A Big Guy Took My Ball (2014)
  • Waiting is Not Easy (2015)

 That’s two medals and five honors: or seven phone calls Mo Willems has received from the Geisel committee. The only years that the Geisel committee didn’t call were 2010 and 2016  (although Mo Willems and Weston Woods won the Carnegie Medal both those years- so he didn’t go home empty handed.) 
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 With Piggie and Gerald, Mo has expanded our expectations for what an easy reader can be. You can see the Elephant and Piggie influence in new series’ like Bob Shea’s Ballet Cat and Emma Virjan’s Pig in a Wig. With the launch of the new Elephant and Piggie Like Reading series, it’s hard not to see parallels to all those books bearing a logo with a certain cat in a hat and the legacy of Geisel himself.

Whether The Thank You Book will bring a third gold to Mo’s collection is the subject of another post, but it is impossible to deny the impact of Piggie and Gerald on the easy reader shelf. 

Looking at the series through the lens of the Geisel criteria, it becomes obvious that it sets a high standard. Kevin Delecki, chair of the 2015 Geisel Committee, says that Elephant and Piggie is effective most of all because of its simplicity, even while incorporating something new into each book in the series. “They use easy to interpret, easily visualized words that allow even the most beginning of readers to have a successful reading experience. Plus, they're funny, and have an engaging plot - something missing from most *very* beginning readers.”
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While Elephant and Piggie aren't the first easy readers to introduce humor and comic style, the humor and engaging plot come up repeatedly when discussing what the series has accomplished.  Amy Seto Forrester, member of the 2016 Geisel Award Committee and a host of this blog believes that “this guarantee of laughter as a reward can be a great motivator for emerging readers.” Nate Halsen, member of 2017 Batchelder Committee shares that “just yesterday a dad was asking me why they were so hard to get (our shelves are often empty of them). I pointed to their popularity and he agreed, saying they are just perfect for keeping his kids’ attention on the words and making them laugh even when they are struggling to read one or two.” 

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Elephant and Piggie have undoubtedly raised the bar from a design standpoint, incorporating deliberate choices with regard to font size, white space and illustrations gloriously informed by Mo Willems’ relationship to cartoon animation, and the comic inspired speech balloons. When 2014 Geisel Committee Chair Penny Peck shares A Big Guy Took My Ball! with classes of children “there are always children who point out the background color is the same as the character - pink for Piggie and gray for Gerald.” That detail alone thoughtfully supports the needs of a beginning reader while also serving as a cue for readers of all ages sharing these stories. It is difficult to look at the white space in an easy reader, or the indications as to which character is speaking and with what emphasis, without comparing it to the standard set by Elephant and Piggie. And the illustrations excel at supporting a child reader. Nate Halsen notes that The emotions and actions are so well depicted that decoding becomes simpler. If a child gets stuck the images are great at allowing them to move past a word they may not know without losing too much of the story.”

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Elephant and Piggie themselves, like their good friend The Pigeon, have attained children’s literature celebrity status. Justin Azevedo, member of the ALSC Intellectual Freedom committee, observes that their dialogue is simple while still feeling entirely natural and that they each have distinct voices. Amy Seto Forrester appreciates that Gerald and Piggie invite the reader into their strong friendship by breaking down the fourth wall. Kevin Delecki noted that in 2015’s Honor Book Waiting is Not Easy the reader is as surprised as Gerald by the stunning two page vista that ends the story. This strong character development and inclusion of the reader within each book and throughout the series, has resonated with readers of all ages.

And for every reader, there seems to be another way to share Elephant and Piggie with their target audience. Kevin Delecki says “both of my boys 'read' for the first time at 3 years old by memorizing the dialogue of an Elephant & Piggie book and telling it back while turning the pages.” Justin Azevedo “loves using the books as a model for how comics can be used to teach literacy, as the books essentially follow the graphic novel format with the story being told solely in dialogue and contextual clues in the art.” Penny Peck reads A Big Guy Took My Ball! to classrooms on "Read Across America" Day in celebration of Dr. Seuss and the Geisel Award because “this entry in the series makes a great classroom read-aloud; the plot is very strong and easy to relate to, for kids who spend any time at recess.” Nate Halsen has given Elephant and Piggie titles to well over a hundred first readers who “eagerly come back for another, inspiring their first series addiction (and we all know how great that is for someone just starting to decode).”

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It’s easy to see what has convinced many of the Geisel committees of the past decade that Gerald and Piggie “demonstrate creativity and imagination to engage children in reading” above all or most other contenders. This year’s committee faces the challenge of evaluating the final title in this series (and of course, they must evaluate it on its own merits compared to the other titles this year, without considering the rest of the series). But beyond shiny gold and silver medals, there remain the readers, some now well into their teen years, whose first memories of truly reading a beloved book featured Elephant and Piggie. Will those teens grow into parents, teachers, and librarians who pass their love of this series down to their children, the way readers have long shared the iconic works of Dr. Seuss? Keeping its legacy alive, even as Gerald and Piggie move on to new projects?

It may be some time before we see another author/illustrator with such a consistent showing in the Geisel. Who do you think the next author/illustrator to earn a third Geisel award will be? 
Photo by Susan Kusel
Speaking of those new projects, Elephant and Piggie aren’t ready to hang up their pink and grey speech balloons yet! They appear as the emcees in Elephant and Piggie Like Reading, and we’ll examine the first two titles in that series in an upcoming post.

Many thanks to Kevin Delecki and Penny Peck for sharing insights into their committees’ choice to award a Geisel Honor to an Elephant and Piggie title, and to Nate Halsen, Amy, and Justin Azevedo for weighing in with thoughts on the series’ strengths.  

Today's post was collaboratively written by Susan Kusel and Amanda Foulk.
Susan Kusel is a librarian, children's book buyer and selector at an independent bookstore, and the owner of a children's book consulting company. She blogs at Wizards Wireless. Her favorite Elephant & Piggie story is "We Are In A Book". 
Amanda Foulk is a fan of Elephant and Piggie. Her favorite Elephant & Piggie story is "My New Friend is So Fun".


  1. I happened upon this post among my bookmarks: I love Jonathan's point about the lasting contributions of Newbery Winners in the years that Seuss was publishing some of his best beginning reader titles.

    1. Those comparisons are fascinating and I think he makes a very valid point. I recommend Go, Dog, Go all the time, but never The Bronze Bow. I also love the videos he links to. I could watch kids discover the joy of reading all day long!

    2. Those comparisons are fascinating and I think he makes a very valid point. I recommend Go, Dog, Go all the time, but never The Bronze Bow. I also love the videos he links to. I could watch kids discover the joy of reading all day long!


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