Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Navigating the Challenging World of Reading Levels

Today's guest contributor, Danielle Jones, is a youth and teen public librarian in Portland, OR. Find her on Twitter @DanielleBookery.

The Geisel Award honors the best books that children use to build their independent reading skills. One of most rewarding and hardest jobs is matching the right book, at the right time, to those readers.
There are a variety of reading level assessments available for educators to use, and teachers will often use one system to guide their students. The leveling systems used can vary from school to school or even classroom to classroom. This can be a challenge for librarians that are working in tandem with classroom teachers to keep up with what book falls where in this varying playing field of levels, especially as most books aren’t marked with all the variations. Often, caregivers and children come into the library seeking books that fall into a certain level range. This can be difficult because some teachers can be very specific about what level they want the student to be focusing on.

Some of the most common assessment systems used are:
Guided Reading - This system uses letters A-Z to mark different reading levels.
DRA (Developmental Reading Assessment) - Reading levels are marked A1 through 80.
Lexile - A scale that measures readability in a numeric range from 200-1690.

So when it comes to doing reader’s advisory and matching the right book to a reader’s ability it can be a challenge whether we know what reading level they are at or not. If a child is coming in knowing exactly where they are on one of these reading levels, one tool that helps me get started, and helps put that level in context is Scholastic’s Book Wizard site.

Screenshot from

This gives you a variety of options to search for titles using different assessment levels, and can help put a level in context to see some familiar titles that fall in that specific range.

Bookmark created by Danielle Jones. 
Most times though, children don’t come into the library with the assessment level in mind. They just want a book to read. The five finger test has been a handy tool to determine if the book is a good match with a child's reading level.  It is something that is easy to teach other library staff to use, and also it is easy for them to teach to parents and caregivers. I have seen it be empowering to young readers who use it on their own when sorting through a stack of books to find something that will be a good fit for them.

It can be good to dissuade them from using the back cover for the test, as it can often have quotes from people that aren’t writing for the reader of the book, but for those making the choices for the child, whether it is a librarian, teacher, parent, or caregiver. Also, never underestimate the power of a child’s motivation for the subject or content of a book. If a book is falling in the the 3-4 finger category, but it is something that the child is really interested in, it can push a child to struggle through some of the more difficult words.

Looking to share the five finger test with your staff and patrons? Feel free to download the bookmark and print as many copies as you need. Thanks to Danielle for creating such a wonderful resource!  

Monday, November 21, 2016

Can I Tell You A Secret? by Anna Kang

Today's guest blogger is Robbin Friedman. Robbin is a children's librarian at the Chappaqua Library. She chairs ALSC's School Age Programs and Service committee, serves on the Carnegie Medal/Notable Children's Videos committee, and writes reviews and other what-have-you for School Library Journal.

Geisel Award-winning duo Anna Kang and Christopher Weyant (You Are (Not) Small) team up for another dialogic charmer. An anxious frog peers out from the cover, wide-eyed and eager to share a secret. With a series of lines suggesting a conversation with the reader, Monty the frog divulges that (gulp) he’s afraid of water and cannot swim. As he talks his predicament through with the audience, the frog tries one, twice, three times to reveal the secret to his parents. The confessional opener followed by the suspense of Monty’s situation decidedly fulfill the award criteria of a “page-turning dynamic”and readers will find reassurance in his parents’ supportive response.

More challenging than Kang and Weyant’s previous two books, Secret suits a somewhat more sophisticated audience, both in vocabulary and structure. The story switches several times between Monty’s address to the reader and exchanges between the frog and his parents; this requires readers to follow the shifts and recognize asides, even when both forms of dialogue occur on the same page. The vocabulary also steps up in complexity from the repetitious debates of the creators’ earlier books, featuring humdingers such as "fantastic" and "exhausting." Even with less repetition of new words, Kang keeps a close eye on most of her more unwieldy vocab and offers subtle support in the text. Eliciting a promise from the reader early in the text pays off later when Monty’s parents employ the word to reassure him. And the author builds to some of her other new verbiage, surrounding likely challenges with context: "Are you sure? POSITIVE?/You wouldn’t lie to me, right?"

Monty’s ingratiating face dominates most pages, surrounded by ample white space, and Weyant includes just enough background imagery to situate the story around Monty’s pond-side cottage. Charming details will engage readers of all levels, though some of the illustrations may not fully support the text for newer readers. Will readers connect dodging raindrops with "hard work?" Or consider clinging to an irate heron "exhausting?"

Kids will surely cheer Monty’s triumphant entrance to the pond and they will happily return to the book for additional rounds. But beginning readers hoping for a repeat of the duo’s Geisel winner will either need to press their thinking caps on a little harder, or screw up the courage to ask for help.

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Thank You Book by Mo Willems

Picture from

This year’s committee has quite a task before them. They will consider the final book in the Elephant & Piggie series, The Thank You Book. We’ve previously discussed the legacy of this series, which has earned recognition for seven different titles during the decade that the award has been around. But of course, the committee must do its best to judge the book solely on its own merits, disregarding the successes of the series. 

The criteria says:
“The committee in its deliberations is to consider only the books eligible for the award” and further clarifies that “the phrase only the books eligible for the award specifies that the committee is to consider only eligible books, not an author’s body of work or previous accolades.”

How does a committee begin to do this? Penny Peck, chair of the 2014 Geisel Award Committee says "There was no surprise that we had at least one Elephant & Piggie book to consider our Geisel year, but none of our committee members took it for granted - either assuming one of the series would be on our list or dismissing it because of past wins for the series.” Of course, we know that the outcome of their deliberations was an honor for A Big Guy Took My Ball!

The committee accomplishes this by adhering closely to the criteria in their suggestions, nominations, and in their January discussion. 

So how does The Thank You Book fare when examined through the lens of the criteria? 

Last we checked, Mo hasn’t taken up permanent residence in Paris, and we can also pretty easily deduce that this meets the other geographic, page count, and target age criteria. (Yes, even though adults have been eagerly anticipating this final book, it isn’t just for us. It does still serve PrK-2 sensibilities.) On to the more subjective criteria:

Does it "contain illustrations, which function as keys or clues to the text?" Look at that white space. That amazing, glorious, actually white, white space. We know how important that white space is for the eyes of our beginning readers, for giving them a visual rest. I suspect that The Thank You Book will have as much or more white space as any other book under consideration this year. Mo’s illustrations fill that white space with just the right amount of Gerald, Piggie, and friends. The illustrations have a cartoon style, complete with color coded thought and dialogue balloons that provide the reader with guidance as to which character is thinking or speaking. These thought or dialogue balloons also provide clues as to the tone of the speech, deepening in hue and developing sharp edges when Piggie is frustrated, and becoming smaller when Gerald is quiet. And there’s the broad range of emotion conveyed by the depictions of Piggie and Gerald, with their depiction providing clues to their confidence, contrition, enthusiasm, skepticism, joy, frustration, and contentment. While initial illustrations do not provide clues to decoding “lucky” or “Thank-o-rama”, once Piggie is engaged in her quest the character names like “Squirrels” or “Pelican” appear on the same page or spread as that character’s depiction. 

Is it "distinguished?" Distinguished is further defined in the manual as:
·         Marked by distinction: noted for significant achievement;
·         Marked by excellence in quality;
·         Marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence;
·         Individually distinct;
·         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.

The terms “individually distinct” and “conspicuous” are always interesting to consider when evaluating a title in a series, particularly in years when an author has more than one title eligible, as has often been the case for Elephant & Piggie. But even when a series title is the only one in its year, it is the challenge of each committee to identify how this entry to the series demonstrates individual distinction, rather than just the excellence in quality that we have come to expect from this series. Could this be a factor in why the Elephant & Piggie series has not taken the Geisel gold since 2009, despite its very consistent showing at the top? 

Observing a child reader is key to truly knowing if it provides that “stimulating and successful reading experience” that is a mark of distinction in the genre. Is the subject matter intriguing enough to motivate the child to read? Does the plot advance from one page to the next and create a "page-turning" dynamic?" We can see on page 11 as Piggie leaps out-of-frame that we should turn the page, but is the dramatic tension between Gerald’s insistence that she will forget someone and her refutation of that assertion enough to carry a first-time reader through the multiple vignettes of Piggie thanking her many friends?

There will undoubtedly be many fans watching for this title during the Geisel announcement this year. If you were on the committee, would it have a place on your ballot?

Monday, November 14, 2016

They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel

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
They all saw a picture book. I saw a beginning reader. 
Image from

I love when picture books are awarded Geisel medals and honors. Every year, I try to figure out which one will be next. Last year, I was fascinated by the beginning reader potential of Waiting by Kevin Henkes and was overjoyed to see it be recognized by the Geisel committee.

This year, I’m focused on They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel.

While this book will surely be discussed for Caldecott possibilities (and other posts contain those sentiments), I hope it will also be part of the Geisel conversation. The text is perfect for a beginning reader and the book design and illustrations further enhance the experience.

We start on the first page, surrounded by glorious white space: “The cat walked through the world with its whiskers, ears, and paws… (page turn) and the child saw A CAT.”

This pattern is repeated with eleven different animals:
And the dog saw A CAT
And the fox saw A CAT… etc.

Each new animal is a new word, which is in italics and gives the reader a visual clue that something in the pattern is different. The new words are introduced slowly and repeated multiple times. The pattern reoccurs enough times that if there are any words a reader has difficulty with, it can be mastered by the end of the book. Also helpful is that the animals are repeated in a list at the end, on a page that features a visual of every animal.

All the sentences are not completed on the page they start on, but I like that. I think it gives each sentence space to be contemplated and appreciated slowly, word by word.

The words are very simple and easily decodable. Almost every word in the book is a single syllable, with the exception of only three that contain multiple syllables: whiskers, water and imagine.

The design of the book is another real asset. Beautiful white space is present on many pages. No matter the mixture of color or the elaborate backgrounds on any given page, the words themselves are nearly always printed on a solid color. The pictures never crowd the words and there is more than enough space for each line of text. Fonts are always crucial in beginning readers, and this one doesn’t disappoint. Set in Baskerville Pro, the font is large and clear enough for someone learning to read. 

Beyond mechanics, I think it’s important to talk about the rhythm of this book. It is absolutely overpowering, and propels each turn of the page. They All Saw A Cat has one of the most powerful rhythms I’ve ever encountered in a non-rhyming book.

And then there are the illustrations, of course. They offer a different view from each animal that I think would intrigue any child.

This book teaches us that it’s all about perspective.

What’s your perspective? Is this a picture book? A beginning reader? Or both?

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Real Poop on Beginning Reader Comics

Today's guest contributor is Patrick Gall. Patrick works as a librarian for children in preschool through eighth grade at the Catherine Cook School in Chicago. He served on the 2015 Newbery Award Committee and is a guest reviewer for The Horn Book Magazine.

Beginning reader comics make great Geisel books. Seriously. Comics can be defined, according to Scholastic’s A Guide to Using Graphic Novels with Children and Teens, as “a combination of words and pictures in a sequence across the page” that usually contain “text, images, word balloons, sound effects, and panels.” Look familiar, Guessing Geisel readers? It should. Past Geisel Medal Winners that fit into this definition for comics include: You Are (Not) Small, The Watermelon Seed, Up, Tall and High!, Benny and Penny in the Big No-No!, Are You Ready to Play Outside?, and There Is a Bird on Your Head. 

So why have beginning reader comics (or, in the very least, beginning readers with comics elements) been so heavily honored by past Geisel Committees? Arguably, the qualities of both a Geisel Award-winning book and an effective comic for beginning readers are one and the same! Let’s take a look at Kevin McCloskey’s informative beginning reader comic from TOON Books – The Real Poop on Pigeons! – through a Geisel lens.

The Real Poop on Pigeons! is about…pigeons. Pigeons are not, at least in our school library, a particularly high-interest topic; however, McCloskey’s use of comics norms, coupled with his quirky paintings, create a distinctly engaging read. After introducing readers to a pigeon-hating protagonist and a crew of pigeon-loving kids set on changing his mind via interesting scientific facts, McCloskey shifts his focus towards the often begrudged birds’ historical significance. In particular, Picasso’s relationship with pigeons is addressed across a two-page spread:

Image from The Real Poop on Pigeons by Kevin McClosey
These two pages may look unassuming, but in actuality they are a prime example of how comics can function as effective beginning readers. By dividing the left-to-right spread into what amounts to four implied panels (by centering each pigeon kid under a Picasso bird painting, along with the talking Picasso bird to the far right) McCloskey has packed multiple “page-turn-like” transitions into one continuous image. These transitions are quick and largely unperceived by the reader, thus creating momentum. This structural dynamic also reinforces the relationships between the text and images. McCloskey’s purposeful placement of word balloons under each Picasso bird painting directs readers to look for context clues in the nearest image. Being that each painting is essentially the same (a face with a pigeon), the results become predictable. “I see a pigeon” in the first panel and “I see a face” in the second panel logically become “I see a pigeon and a face” in the third panel. This immediate relationship between text and image is achieved through a paneled comics structure ideal for new readers, who can find success not just with each page turn, but multiple times on each page.

One of the best things about beginning reader comics is that once you start looking for them, they are everywhere. Looking back through the small but mighty Guessing Geisel archive reveals multiple examples, including: Ballet Cat: Dance! Dance! Underpants!, every Elephant & Piggie book, Is That Wise, Pig?, and Noodlehead Nightmares. And since there are many more examples of strong beginning reader comics this year, I would not be surprised if the winning tradition continues.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Owl Sees Owl by Laura Godwin, illustrated by Rob Dunlavey

Image from
Hi Guessing Geiselers! Amy here. Ready to take a look at Laura Godwin and Rob Dunlavey's picture book, Owl Sees Owl

Under the cover of night, a little baby owl sets off on an adventure to see its reflection in a pond and then returns to the safety of sister, brother, and mother. Quiet, calm, and reassuring, this is possibly the most comforting picture book on our list of Geisel contenders. Let’s take a look at first the text and then the illustrations.

The text uses just 29 unique words, many of which are sight words. Each two page spread shows four capitalized words. There’s no punctuation, just descriptive words that narrate the owl’s journey. Readers encounter all 29 words once on the owl’s journey to the pond and then a second time in reverse order as the owl flies home. The white text is printed in a large, easy to read font that stands out against the dark, nighttime backgrounds. There's plenty of white space around and between text, too.

Another element to consider is the lack of punctuation paired with the capitalization of all words. Does this poem-like format create a successful reading experience for beginning readers? In some cases, single words on their own are very strong. Such as in this spread with the text, “Fall / Leaves / Red / Yellow”:

Image from Owl Sees Owl by Laura Godwin, illustrated by Rob Dunlavey
However, there are places where it could be helpful to know when two words relate to one another (I say this with the complete awareness that this would take away from the minimalist reverso poem format). Take this spread for example, which includes the words, “Stars / Twinkle / Mice / Scamper”: 

Image from Owl Sees Owl by Laura Godwin, illustrated by Rob Dunlavey
It could be helpful to have some punctuation or design clues for readers to know that the words “stars” and “twinkle” are a pair, followed by a second pair of related words, “mice” and “scamper.”

The illustrations, rendered in watercolor, colored pencil, ink, collage, and digital media, feature many strong visual context clues. Take a look at this spread showing the words “Tree / Nest / Hop / Look”: 

Image from Owl Sees Owl by Laura Godwin, illustrated by Rob Dunlavey
The tree and nest are placed on the left page, then the eye follows the hopping dashed line, and finally there's the owl, looking down. This helps readers by following the left to right convention of reading in English.

Although most visual context clues are strong, there are a few confusing spreads. For instance, this spread shows the owl flying with the four words, “Moon / Beam / Eyes / Gleam.”

Image from Owl Sees Owl by Laura Godwin, illustrated by Rob Dunlavey
Unfortunately, there’s no moon in the illustration and the word “gleam” may be unfamiliar to many new readers. However, a strong sense of the rhythm and rhyme of the text has been established, so perhaps this will help readers navigate this passage.

When considering text and illustrations combined, it seems this quiet bedtime story lacks urgency. It’s not clear why owl takes off on an adventure or why it flies away from the pond. This, in part, is due to the owl’s demeanor. Without clear body language or facial expressions, it's hard to get clues to strong feelings. For these reasons, I feel this book falls short when it comes to the Geisel criteria of having a strong page-turning dynamic.

Finally, I wonder if some new readers will consider the cover and contents of this book too “babyish.” Will they stop at the cover before they even have a chance to explore the book? What do you think? Have you read this book with kids? How did they react?