Sunday, October 30, 2016

Geisel-Worthy Nonfiction: Past and Present

Today's guest blogger is Kahla Gubanich. Kahla is a children’s and maker librarian at Carroll County Public Library in Maryland.

Since the formation of the Geisel Award in 2006, three informational books have been selected as honor recipients. Vulture View by April Pulley Sayre, illustrated by Steve Jenkins, and Hello, Bumblebee Bat by Darrin Lunde, illustrated by Patricia J. Wynne, were both selected as Geisel Honor books in 2008; and Wolfsnail by Sarah C. Campbell, with photographs by Sarah C. Campbell and Richard P. Campbell, was a 2009 Geisel Honor. The Geisel criteria clearly state that nonfiction books are eligible for the award. Yet since those initial honors, no other work of nonfiction has been selected by a Geisel committee. This means there is a gap waiting to be filled!

In this post, I’ll consider the merits of the three honor winners, then compare them to three informational titles published this year that share similar qualities of excellence: Best in Snow by April Pulley Sayre, How Much Does a Ladybug Weigh? by Alison Limentani, and The Blobfish Book by Jessica Olien.

Honor Recipients

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In Hello, Bumblebee Bat, the narrator (or reader) asks a bumblebee bat a question, and the bat responds with information about itself. Illustrations support the text; on the first page, we learn that bumblebee bat is “small, like a bee”, and the illustration depicts the bat flying next to a bee, demonstrating the comparison.

Image from Hello, Bumblebee Bat by Darrin Lunde, illustrated by Patricia J. Wynne 
Each spread contains one page of text to the left of the illustration, and explanatory back matter is in a large enough font that beginning readers can read the extra information on their own rather than having to relinquish the book to a grown-up at the very end.

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In Vulture View, readers are introduced to the carrion-eating vulture as it soars through the air searching for a wonderfully rotten meal. Rhyming text allows the reader to anticipate sounds and work through letter combinations that might prove challenging. Jenkins’ trademark cut paper illustrations reflect the action of the text, even in more complicated scenes with multiple verbs.

Image from Vulture View by April Pulley Sayre, illustrated by Steve Jenkins
Repetition of phrases like, "Up, up!" and "No, no" create regular points for a beginning reader to gain confidence. Unlike Hello, Bumblebee Bat, the condensed back matter is clearly meant to be read to a beginning reader rather than by them.

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Wolfsnail pairs concise text with macro photographs of the snail on the hunt. Sentences are contained on a single page, with one notable exception to build suspense when the wolfsnail finally catches its prey.

Image from Wolfsnail by Sarah C. Campbell, with photographs by Sarah C. Campbell and Richard P. Campbell

2016 Contenders

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Geisel Honor author April Pulley Sayre has a new nonfiction book, Best in Snow. Like Wolfsnail, Best in Snow pairs crisp photographs of snowflakes, ice crystals, and the occasional forest animal with equally crisp text.

Image from Best in Snow by April Pulley Sayre

The repetition of sounds within the rhythmic text creates a consistent framework. Sentences are short and simple, and are generally contained within the page spread. As with Wolfsnail, the exceptions emphasize specific points in the narrative. The photos vary between full bleed double page spreads to multi-panel spreads. Some readers my find the panel layout distracting, particularly when the white text sits atop a lighter background. Yet the narrative progression from a freeze through a melt and into another freeze offers a predictable pathway through these sections.

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How Much Does a Ladybug Weigh? poses a simple question and provides a simple, if unexpected, answer. The concept of this book is straightforward; animals are compared by weight, beginning with the information that "10 ants weigh the same as 1 ladybug." Like Hello, Bumblebee Bat, the large, bold font against a solid background cleanly delivers engaging content.

Image from How Much Does a Ladybug Weigh? by Alison Limentani

The numbers count down; the next page reveals nine ladybugs next to one grasshopper, then eight grasshoppers next to one stickleback fish, and so on. This repetition of more challenging words like "stickleback" and "squirrel" is particularly useful as a confidence builder, much like the repetition in Vulture View functions. The text builds to a colorful finale, in which it is revealed that 1 swan weighs as much as 362,880 ladybugs. The endpapers provide additional facts in simple sentences and a large enough font that a beginning reader could read this back matter on their own. Some readers may be disappointed by the lack of any sources, but the book serves as an engaging introduction to the subject.

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In The Blobfish Book, the reader meets Blobfish, an exuberant deep sea dweller that guides the reader through an expository book all about other denizens of the deep. Like Wolfsnail, the reader is treated to fascinating close-up photos of animals. Yet superimposed over the photos, a cartoon Blobfish dramatically opines on the information provided.

Image from The Blobfish Book by Jessica Olien

Blobfish eagerly awaits an official introduction within the pages. When the time comes, Blobfish is rather upset to learn that "the blobfish was once voted the world's ugliest animal," and dissolves into tears. Thankfully, the other deep sea creatures understand being misunderstood, and all ends well on a note of self-acceptance. Olien deftly pairs the informational text with the cartoon narrative, distinguishing between the two through the use of both image and text.

Each of these three titles is distinguished in its own way, filling a need for quality nonfiction that engages the unique interests and needs of beginning readers. I would love to hear what others think! What nonfiction books do you find distinguished this year?

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Could The Princess in Black win the Geisel?

This year there are not just one, but two entries to this series – a series that I recommend at every possible opportunity, and often to readers that I would still consider to be beginners. But are they “beginning readers” in the eyes of the Geisel Criteria? Let’s take a look. 

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

Is The Princess in Black series creative, imaginative, and engaging?  Absolutely!

Is it for “beginning readers”? Well, that depends on your definition of a beginning reader, doesn’t it? Let's read on . . .

Does it provide “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”? This bit of the criteria is one of the reasons it is so crucial to see children actually read these books. Did that child reader have a successful reading experience? Were they motivated from start to finish? Let’s give these two titles to all the children and find out – if it meets our other criteria, of course . . .

Are the authors and illustrators citizens or residents of the United States? Yes, the Hales hail from Utah, and LeUyen Pham from San Francisco. These two titles are also published for the first time in the United States during 2016, while we're at it.

"Contribution to the body of children’s literature that encourages and supports the beginning reader" indicates the text of a book, which must be directed at readers from pre-K through Grade 2. So, is the text of this series directed at readers that fall from pre-K through Grade 2? Now we're at the crux of the matter. We know that readers from grades pre-K through Grade 2 may actually be at a variety of stages in developing their literacy skills. There are precocious five-year-olds reading quite fluently, and second graders who struggle. It’s one of the reasons we encounter so many leveling systems – guided reading, Accelerated Reader, Lexile - attempting to pin down where a reader is on their particular journey to reading fluency.

Which pre-K through Grade 2 readers should we be considering when determining Geisel eligibility? The average reader? The “grade level” reader? Only the reader who is truly just beginning to decode? ALSC awards with less tightly defined audiences (*cough*Newbery*cough*) have established the precedent that a title does not have to serve all the children within its range, as long as its audience falls somewhere within that 0-14 span. Does that precedent apply here, with our much more specific audience? Can we recognize a book that will more often be suitable to second graders than to a pre-K audience?

There is some evidence from the Geisel canon that we may. In the second year of the Geisel, Mercy Watson Goes for a Ride  written by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by Chris Van Dusen was awarded an honor. The title has 72 pages,14 chapters, and vocabulary that includes “caromed” and “prodigy”. Did the 2007 committee establish a precedent with this choice? Or was it an anomaly, selected before the criteria had fully been developed and the award had really found its footing?
Page 2 of TPiB and the Hungry Bunny Horde

Does the Princess in Black “contain illustrations, which function as keys or clues to the text”? It does. LeUyen Pham’s delightful illustrations grace each two-page spread, although there is occasionally a single page unbroken by text or a chapter heading. (In both The Princess in Black Takes a Vacation and The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Horde, the first page of nothing but text arrives on page 16). Do these prevalent illustrations function as keys to the text? Often they do. On page 2 of The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Horde for example, we see all the new vocabulary for brunch options illustrated. The other text on the page “Brunch with Princess Sneezewort meant . . .” is repeated three times over.

Is the “subject matter intriguing enough to motivate a child to read”? Princesses and ponies and monster fighting? Yes.

“The book may or may not include short “chapters””. Well, we definitely have chapters here. The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Horde has 12 chapters and 85 pages. The first chapter is 7 pages long. The Princess in Black Takes a Vacation has 13 chapters and 88 pages. The first chapter is a heavily illustrated 11 pages long. Is an 11- page chapter short? Does the definition change when that chapter contains 13 illustrations, and four of those pages have only 1-2 sentences?  Both titles slip in on the higher end of the allowable 24-96 page range.

 “The plot advances from one page to the next and creates a "page-turning" dynamic.” On the very first page of The Princess in Black Takes a Vacation the paragraph ends with those compelling ellipses as “She was almost asleep when . . .” How could we not turn that page? Again on page 11, we see “Just then, someone pulled the monster’s tail.” While this is an example of text that is not illustrated on the same page, it does present us with a compelling reason to turn the page. (And the payoff is fantastic – we meet “the Goat Avenger” who looks an awful lot like The Princess in Black’s friend, Duff. “But it couldn’t be Duff. Duff did not wear a mask.” p.15)

“New words should be added slowly enough to make learning them a positive experience. Words should be repeated to ensure knowledge retention. Sentences must be simple and straightforward.” This is an area of the criteria where TPiB really shines. Shannon and Dean Hale tell humorous, compelling stories with simple, direct sentences that vary in length and avoid contractions. They make use of the repetition that is crucial for a beginning reader to support the humor in their stories, repeating both new vocabulary and sentence structure. In The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Horde p.31 we see this in the description of Blacky’s solution to a hungry bunny after his tail:
Page 31 of TPiB and the Hungry Bunny Horde

"Blacky swished his tail. The bunny did not let go.
Blacky pranced about. The bunny did not let go.
Blacky sat down. On his tail.
The bunny let go. The bunny crawled away."

It is also worth noting that while this is the first time Blacky “swished”, Frimplepants the unicorn began to prance way back on page 3, and in that instance there is a supporting illustration to help decode this new word.

 The list of criteria concludes by pointing out that “Not every book relies equally on every element.  The committee need not find excellence in every element listed above.  The book should; however, have distinguished qualities in all of the elements pertinent to it.”

The Princess in Black series offers creative, engaging tales suitable for a reader just beginning to read chapter books. Both the illustrations and the writing have qualities that distinguish these titles from the field of beginning readers. Are these strengths enough to motivate readers past those pages of full text and provide the successful and satisfying reading experience central to the purpose of the Geisel award?

Do you think that The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Horde or The Princess in Black Takes a Vacation will find a place on the Geisel table this year? Do they fall within your definition of a “beginning reader”?

For me, they do. While they may not take home the gold or silver this year, I hope that one or both of these titles finds itself under consideration at the Geisel table. I’m sure members of this year’s committee will enjoy sharing these titles with the first or second graders who are ready for them.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

What's it like to be on the Geisel committee? #2

A recurring feature 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.

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.
Picture provided by Jenna Friebel

Hello, my name is Jenna, and I was on the 2016 Geisel Award Committee. I still think this is the coolest statement I can make about myself. I am so proud of this award and all the work my committee did. There’s truly nothing like being in *the room where it happens.* But of course, the majority of the work happens outside of that room. It happens throughout the committee year reading book after book and listening to kid after kid.

Picture provided by Jenna Friebel
But wait, let’s back up. Before I was appointed to the Geisel Committee, I participated in the ALSC Bill Morris Book Evaluation Seminar at ALA Midwinter 2014. Fun fact: 5 members of the 2016 Geisel Award Committee participated in the 2014 Morris Seminar together. 3 of those members are the co-creators of this blog! Suffice it to say, the Morris Seminar draws in awesome people and leads to amazing opportunities.

Okay, back to my Geisel year. There was definitely a learning curve for me. I realized that although I had a lot of knowledge about children and about children’s lit, I didn’t know a lot about how kids learn to read. I hadn’t spent much time looking at early readers through the lens of how it would be for the intended audience. Reading and re-reading all the previous Geisel winners and honors was immensely helpful. I became more confident in my ability to judge what a good early reader is and threw myself into evaluating.

And then I realized my confidence was a bit misplaced. I learned my evaluations could completely change after hearing a child read the book. There were books I was confident would end up with stickers on them come January but after hearing them actually being read to me, I realized major flaws I failed to notice during my own readings. There were scenes and punchlines that children just did not understand. On the flip side, there were also books that I was indifferent to only to realize how well received they were by children and how confident they made them feel as readers.

At first, I second guessed myself. Maybe I just wasn’t good at this? And that’s why my initial evaluations were so off? But no. I learned this is part of the process. This is why we listen and seek out different voices. This is why we read and re-read and re-read again, trying to look at each book from many different angles. This is why the committee meets for hours and hours to discuss before the final votes are taken. It is all part of the process, and we are all on a learning curve.

Serving on the Geisel Committee was eye-opening and exciting. I am beyond pleased with our winner and honors. It was a year of awesome books and new friends, and I’m still sad that it’s over. But alas! Now it is time for me to wave hello to the 2018 Printz Committee! Wish me luck!

Picture provided by Jenna Friebel

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Rabbit & Robot and Ribbit by Cece Bell

Image from
Hi there! Amy here, ready to take a look at Cece Bell’s Rabbit & Robot and Ribbit, the long awaited sequel to the 2013 Geisel Honor book, Rabbit and Robot: The Sleepover.

This hilarious book, aimed at more confident first and second grade readers, focuses on the universal difficulty of sharing your bestie with a new friend. Rabbit makes a surprise visit to Robot, only to discover Robot’s new frog friend Ribbit is already there. Through a game of checkers, an episode of Cowboy Jack Rabbit, and a rousing game of make believe, Rabbit resists all attempts to become friends with Ribbit. But when Robot’s “Emotion Decoder” overheats, Rabbit and Ribbit work together to rescue their friend.

From cover to cover, there’s much to appreciate in this humorous book. Actually, let’s start with the cover and title. Together they introduce all three characters with visual clues to their relationships. This establishes story context, allowing readers to open the book confidently. The story is divided into four chapters (all titled “Ribbit”), each one leaving the reader dangling on a cliff hanger creating a wonderful page turning dynamic.

Word repetition is quite strong as well. New concepts and words are introduced slowly, supported by helpful visual context clues and strong repetition. The word “Engrossed” is used frequently throughout. It’s probably an unfamiliar word for most new readers, however, Bell has chosen it well. Not only is it phonetic (en-grossed), but it also becomes the focus of a repeated pun. It’s easy to imagine the joy and satisfaction of a young reader learning a new word and then being able to understand how it’s used in humorous wordplay.

There’s plenty of white space to keep the focus on the text, with sentence lengths alternating between short and long. The punctuation is clear and intentional. As befits a more confident emerging reader audience ellipses, quotation marks, and dashes are included. Italics are used sparingly, but quite effectively to show emphasis.

Also, there’s a robot in the title and on the cover. That gives the book about 500 kid appeal points, at least with the kids at my library.

There are also a few possible concerns when looking at this book through a Geisel criteria lens. One possible challenge for new readers could be Ribbit’s translated jokes. Robot uses his “Built-in Frog Glossary” to print the jokes onto long strips of paper. The text of the joke, only seen in the illustration, flips sideways and upside down, and even crosses the gutter. Additionally, some words are incomplete as a sentence disappears into a loop.
Image from Rabbit & Robot and Ribbit by Cece Bell (photo by Amy Seto Forrester)

A similar problem arrives later in the story when Robot prints out single word emotions using his “Emotion Decoder.” These words also change direction from the standard left to right and are only seen in the illustration. These are fabulous words, but they are rather difficult without intentional repetition. One could argue that a reader could enjoy the story without these two sets of text, but is the story less satisfying without them?

Image from Rabbit & Robot and Ribbit by Cece Bell (photo by Amy Seto Forrester)

Image from Rabbit & Robot and Ribbit
by Cece Bell (photo by Amy Seto Forrester)
There is the occasional awkward line break, such as the page to the right. It’s regrettable that the line breaks interrupt the sentences in such unnatural, illogical places.

I’ve noticed that some new readers are easily tripped up by words that only differ by a letter or two.I love the alliteration of Rabbit, Robot, and Ribbit, but I wonder if visually the words look too similar. However, this book is definitely for a more confident emerging reader, so perhaps this won’t matter.

All in all, I feel that this title is a strong contender. The subject matter, format, and length are well-suited to a second grade reading level, the upper range of the Geisel criteria. The overall package, especially the humorous illustrations, is attractive and enticing. Although there are some concerns, I’d really like to see how kids interact with this book. Have you read it with kids? Have they found it to be a successful, satisfying reading experience?

Friday, October 7, 2016

Noodlehead Nightmares by Tedd Arnold, Martha Hamilton, and Mitch Weiss

Today's post is from Carrie Wolfson. Carrie lives and works in Denver, Colorado, where she's a Children's Librarian for the Denver Public Library.

Image from Noodlehead Nightmares by Ted Arnold,
Martha Hamilton, and Mitch Weiss
Noodlehead Nightmares is a beginning comic about Mac and Mac, two brothers who are literally noodles. Sourced from folklore, the story unfolds in three chapters, each drawn from popular motifs from world cultures across time. Noodleheads is both a goofy romp for young readers and a distinctive book that connects children to a wider culture of storytelling.

In Chapter One, What a Nightmare! Mac and Mac opt to sleep outside instead of making their beds, only to get their feet tangled in the dark. Chapter Two, The Best Dream sees the noodleheads swindled by their neighbor, Meatball, who cons them out of a pie during a nap. The final chapter, Bedtime for Noodleheads, sees Mac and Mac deploying some seriously flawed logic to solve their sleep.

Throughout the book, action-oriented images and thoughtfully selected text scaffold readers’ confidence. Noodleheads Nightmares’ language is primarily simple, straightforward dialogue; when longer words do appear, the text carries readers through on a tide of short, repeated words. Check out this sequence that builds readers up to decipher “untangled,” a three-syllable doozy:
Image from Noodlehead Nightmares by Ted Arnold,
Martha Hamilton, and Mitch Weiss
Image from Noodlehead Nightmares by Ted Arnold,
Martha Hamilton, and Mitch Weiss
When Mac and Mac’s legs become tangled, the story uses variation on a theme to empower readers. The authors also introduce words early in the book that anchor later chapters, preparing readers for success with more complex storytelling and wordplay. For instance, in the sequence above, Mac declares “I have an idea!” In Chapter Two, after mom has baked an apple pie, the noodleheads’ friend Meatball turns that phrase into the pun, “I have a pie-dea!,” a linguistic leap that could trip up many readers.

In addition to the well-considered text, the book shines with illustrations that balance absurdity with wide-eyed charm. Casting the noodleheads as two children (rather than foolish adults or gullible animals as they can appear in folklore) brings the story closer to home for reluctant young readers and adds gentleness to three old tales that are, after all, jokes at the expense of the main characters. Author and illustrator Tedd Arnold recieved Geisel honors in 2006 and 2010 for books in the Fly Guy series, and co-authors Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weiss are seasoned oral storytellers. These creators know how to hook an audience with laughs. Physical comedy propels this book’s tight, witty plotting, from tangled legs to stolen pies to going to bed wearing hats and mittens.

Image from Noodlehead Nightmares by Ted Arnold,
Martha Hamilton, and Mitch Weiss
As a Geisel contender, Noodleheads falters slightly around design; while much of the book uses panelling and speech bubbles that provide just enough white space, some sequences feel overcrowded. Cramped speech bubbles here and there may fatigue new readers, and the final chapter features a dreamscape with a texture similar enough to the waking moments that deciphering the storyline may frustrate readers.

Whether it winds up on the Geisel list or not, Noodlehead Nightmares is a witty, satisfying comic that this librarian will share widely.