Friday, December 29, 2017

Elephant and Piggie Like Reading: It’s Shoe Time! by Brian Collier and The Good For Nothing Button! By Cherise Mericle Harper

Note: One of today's titles, It's Shoe Time! has been covered on this blog already, but we included it here as well for comparison's sake.

With the selection of We Are Growing! by Laurie Keller as the 2017 Geisel Medal Winner, the understandably high expectations for Mo Willems’ Elephant & Piggie Like Reading! imprint solidified into something weighty. Will one (or both) of the 2017 additions to this imprint prove worthy under the lens of Geisel scrutiny and impress this year’s committee?

Both The Good for NOTHING Button! and It’s Shoe Time! include several of the design elements we’ve come to expect from a book endorsed by Piggie and Gerald. Color coded word balloons to distinguish who is speaking, use of repetition as a key component of the humor, and a respectably large font size are all choices that support the success of a beginning reader. Stylistically, the serif font that uses both typeface a’s and g’s and the leading and line breaks appear to be chosen for more fluent readers than the font size would suggest, but largely the formula this imprint draws from the techniques perfected by the Elephant & Piggie series creates the opportunity for successful reading experiences. 

It’s Shoe Time! by Bryan Collier brings to beginning readers the incredible talents of Bryan Collier – a six time recipient of the Corretta Scott King Award and a four time recipient of both Coretta Scott King and Caldecott Honors. #WeNeedDiverseBooks for beginning readers, and while It’s Shoe Time! is centered on the experiences of the shoes on the cover, the two human characters are a confident Black girl and her father portrayed with Bryan Collier’s remarkable artistic style. The human family is featured in approximately a quarter of the book, with the rest focused squarely on our wisecracking shoes. 

Strengthening the appeal for those second graders at the top of the Geisel age range is a preponderance of wordplay throughout. Many second graders enjoy wordplay (think knock-knock jokes) as they build their reading confidence, and the Sneakers in particular deliver throughout the text with groaners like “We are afraid . . . KNOT!”, “That was sneaky!”, and “They got left behind. Get it?” all while providing their own laugh track of Hees and Has scattered across the pages. Use of all caps and italics emphasize the puns in these lines, but those stylistic choices as well as the many scattered Hees and Has indicate that this is a read for a more fluent young reader. An emergent reader may need to read each of those Hee Hees and Has individually, slowing the pace of the book, as they cannot at a glance determine that they are all the same word in the way an older reader would. There are new vocabulary words introduced without an accompanying illustration to serve as a key, as is the case with “I HOOF TO KNOW!” during a Piggie and Gerald interlude midbook. Collier’s art style appears to have been simplified for this audience, which is a strength when evaluated from a Geisel perspective – the illustrations are in balance with the text while still recognizably the artist’s work.
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From the opening spread, The Good for NOTHING Button! supports the emergent reader. Where It’s Shoe Time opens in the darkness of the closet with only the PAT! PAT! sound of approaching feet and a variety of word balloons to set the scene for readers, The Good for NOTHING Button! immediately introduces every character in the book (the three birds, the button, and the worm providing commentary) and squeezes repetition into the 1,2, and 3-word sentences on the page. The simplicity of the tableaus is very reminiscent of the strengths of the Elephant & Piggie titles on some pages, with minimal backgrounds and plenty of white space. The repetition, introduces on the very first page, is a strong component of the text here on scales large and small. In one instance “Nothing” is included 4 times across a single page turn (from pages 7-9), and longer sentences are often mitigated by large amounts of exact repetition. (page 10) “May I press the button?” “Yes, Blue Bird. You may press the button.” Even the structure of the story includes some repetition to help young readers follow the plot, with the repeated conclusions that “ ______ is NOT nothing”. 

Nothing is a sophisticated concept. The idea of zero as it relates to math skills is introduced in numerous ways to young learners, so it’s delightful to see the concept centered in this humorous book for beginning readers. The emotional awareness modeled in the text aligns with skills that preschoolers and kindergartners are developing. As an adult reader I particularly appreciated that it was the fellow birds pointing out the emotional impact of the button based on their observations, even when the button-pusher was not yet aware of their own response. 

The humor in this title seems to particularly reflect the influence of Mo Willems’ work - from the presence of highly emotive birds to friends engaging in repetitive silliness (see pages 45-47 for “Funny!Funny! Funny!/Button!Button!Button!/Crash!”).
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Of the two titles, were I on the committee I would be more inclined to include The Good for NOTHING Button! as one of my nominations for this year. Logistically speaking it has been out for much of the year so I would have been more likely to see beginning readers interact with it, and of the two I would expect it to work better for a wider range of less fluent readers. However, I’d be very eager to see how more confident readers handle the wordplay of It’s Shoe Time! and would be open to incorporating both if I saw compelling evidence that it works for its intended audience – there’s enough variance in their presentation, content, and intended age range that I think each stands out as a distinct contribution to the field.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Annie and Simon: Banana Muffins and Other Stories by Catharine O’Neill

In three stories for confident independent readers, siblings Annie and Simon have everyday adventures together. First, the siblings make banana muffins. Simon follows the recipe, but Annie manages to slip in some delicious chocolate chips anyway. Then, Annie helps Simon babysit little Theo from next door. Can the siblings figure out what’s making the baby cry? Finally, Annie and Simon search for butterflies at Pinecone Rock. 

Although this is O’Neill’s third book of Annie and Simon stories, it functions beautifully as a standalone title. The Geisel criteria states that, “the text of a book, which must be directed at readers from pre-K through Grade 2. Annie and Simon definitely aims for the upper part of that range with chapters over 15 pages each and some sentences up to a dozen words long (although most are around 8-10 words). Illustrations sprinkled through create pausing points within stories, while the satisfying conclusion of each chapter provides readers with the chance for a longer break. 

The accompanying watercolor illustrations create a soft, welcoming atmosphere. There are illustrations on every page, some with visual context clues. As befits a book at this reading level, the illustrations provide overall context, rather than providing a visual introduction for every new idea or concept. 

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The design of the book is thoughtful. There are wide margins and generous white space allowing the text to shine. Sentences are never split up across page turns, and the illustrations are placed logically within the text. 
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One thing that really sets this book apart is the supportive and loving relationship between young Annie and ever calm, reliable and patient teenage Simon. It’s rare to find a beginning reader title with siblings so close, yet far apart in age. 

Overall, I think this is a strong contender for the upper range of the award criteria. The content and design balance supportive features and gentle humor deftly and compellingly.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

I Won’t Eat That by Christopher Silas Neal

Cats are notoriously picky eaters, and the yellow cat in Christopher Silas Neal’s I Won’t Eat That is no exception. Our feline friend shuns dry, dull, and boring cat food. But if Cat won’t eat cat food, what will it eat? Using a repetitive and cumulative structure, Cat seeks dietary advice from a variety of animals (Turtle, Fox, Chimp, Lion, Elephant, Whale), but nothing is appetizing. Cat is about ready to give up when Mouse asks turns the question around on Cat, “What does a cat eat?” Suddenly, Cat is sure it knows the answer!

The thoughtfully constructed guessing game structure creates an excellent page-turning dynamic with helpful visual context clues on the same page as the text. Additionally, the expressive and humorous mixed media illustrations are detailed and employ eye-catching variety. Most importantly, visual supports are always easy to spot on the thick, creamy pages.

Word repetition is strong throughout, due mostly to the cumulative nature of the story. There are just two words that present a bit of a sticky wicket: bioluminescent phytoplankton. That’s 10 syllables in just two words! While it’s a great concept to explore and discuss as a read aloud, it could prove much more intimidating for an independent reader.

I’ve read this book (with roaring success) to preschool through first graders. But I’m curious, has anyone given this book to an emerging reader? How did they react to those tricky 10 syllables?

Thursday, December 21, 2017

I Got a New Friend by Karl Newsom Edwards

In this new pet picture book, a brown-skinned, curly-haired little girl and a big-eared, brown spotted puppy meet each other and learn about the fun they can have together.  It's standard fare for its category, with a few points that elevate it in terms of usefulness as a book for beginning readers.

The font is large and clear, though of course it uses the curly "a" and "g" (and, for that matter, "t") that this reviewer doesn't love when looking at books for beginners.  Most sentences are relatively short, though one does stretch to 15 words.  The syntax is usually simple (e.g. "My friend likes to play outside"), and though sentences often stretch across a two-page spread, they don't carry over a page turn. There's one instance where the second half of a sentence might get lost in the illustrations, but generally the lettering is dark blue on a white background.

This book's cleverest conceit is that it's unclear who is narrating the story -- judging from the pictures, each statement could apply equally to the girl or the dog (except, perhaps, for the "She's stinky, but that's okay" spread, where the girl is sitting on the toilet and the dog is standing on the rug, and it's not obvious why the dog might be considered "stinky" in that context).  Even the final declaration, "She's my little girl!" might tip the scales in favor of the dog narrating, except that (assuming that the dog is female), that still might be something a child would say about a puppy.  While this ambiguity has certainly been utilized to great effect in other picture books (Emma Kate by Patricia Polacco comes to mind), it's nice to see it used in a book with such succinct phrasing.  Young readers who get the joke will be delighted at the interplay between text and illustrations. And they are adorable illustrations -- dog lovers will certainly be motivated to read this book!

How does it measure up to other books in consideration this year?  Well, it has a few issues that might hamper it in committee discussions, but it also has its strengths. I'd be surprised, but not astonished, to see it recognized by the Real Committee.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Snow Scene by Richard Jackson, illustrated by Laura Vaccaro Seeger

Lizzie Nolan is our guest blogger for this post. She's a Senior Librarian in Youth Services at the San José Public Library. Under the great inspiration of this very blog she helped start a mock Odyssey award blog for great childrens’ audiobooks at Ears on the Odyssey

Snowny sights melt into springtime scenery in Richard Jackson’s and Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s picture book guessing game. With sparse rhyming text and lush and thickly textured illustrations, Snow Scene offers a delightful experience for a lap reader, but is it Geisel award worthy? 

This a dynamic pairing of publisher and illustrator; Neal Porter Roaring Brook Press and Laura Vaccaro Seeger are previous Geisel winners. Author Richard Jackson is also publisher turned writer and has previously worked with award winning illustrators such as Jerry Pinkney and Kevin Hawkes.  

The strongest aspect of this read is its “page-turning” dynamic. The guessing game setup that dominates this book is paired with illustrations that peak ever so subtly on the corners of the right hand side. This also makes for simple question and response construction which is an easy one for young readers to follow. The illustrations are also demonstrative of the text. The drawings of “Snowmen” “Red Ear” “Frosty Hair” are large and exacting. Even when the more abstract concepts like the months of the year appear the illustrations are descriptive: April is showers, May is flowers. The illustrations also match the text as they subtly morph from winter to spring. The visual joke at the end of a snow-capped mountain being a “winter’s hat” is a rewarding surprise that could easily hook readers into re-reading this book again. 

Furthermore, the text is only 71 words long with many sight words and rhymes. There are sight words within the line rhymes (“here/ear” there/hair”) and also sight words within internal rhymes (“slight white” “night white”) There are not oddly, any repeated words. However, there are some more challenging rhymes. The rhyme pattern breaks at the very end of the book with lines: “Come see this. And this. And this.” 

Most troublesome is probably the rhyme: “What now?” “Icy Bough”: 

Bough is a pretty high-level word to decode with that tricky -ough ending that makes oh so many sounds in English language. Bough, a large branch of tree, is a very descriptive word that most children and adults might only be familiar from the Rock-A-Bye Baby lullaby. (“...When the Bough breaks… The Cradle will fall”) 

Lastly, the book’s font is big and clear, but found on lots of different areas of the page throughout the book. In the “Of crows” “What now?” page, readers have to read the lines of text upwards and across (instead of down and across) to understand the rhyme. For a child still learning the flow of the written word this might be confusing. 

Snow Scene’s evocative illustrations and page turning pace make this a highly enjoyable text to read with a child, but beginning readers might find a few moments of challenge if trying on their own.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

It's Shoe Time! by Bryan Collier

Today's post comes to us from Keary Bramwell. Keary is the Youth Collection Librarian at the Mount Prospect Public Library. She has served on a number of ALSC committees, including the Notable Children’s Books Committee from 2014-2016.

It’s Shoe Time! by Bryan Collier is the newest title in the Elephant and Piggie like Reading! Series created by Mo Williams. Another title in the series, We are Growing! by Laurie Keller, won the Geisel last year. Can Collier do it too?

It’s Shoe Time! tells the story of a girl picking out shoes to wear to meet her father. Will she choose fancy shoes? Flip-Flops? Boots? Sneakers? To the surprise of all the shoes, she picks two shoes that don’t match. The two left behind mismatched shoes set off after her to correct the mistake. When the shoes finally catch-up to the girl, they see that her father also has on mismatched shoes for their daddy-daughter day.

There’s a lot to love in the text with great repetition and humor. Much of the humor plays out in the text, like when the sneakers call something “sneaky” or the slippers are “always slipping in a joke.” Using a pair of shoes is a great way to get repetition in without it seeming overdone or redundant. Here the right shoe can say something then the left shoe repeats it.
Let's turn from the text to just the illustrations. The illustrations are done in darker shades than most beginner readers. You usually see bright colors with white or solid color backgrounds, but here there are black or textured backgrounds creating a more mature look to the illustrations. Without the white outline, the colored speak bubbles would be difficult to locate. While the darker illustrations don’t distract from the reader’s experience, they are worth noting.
The Geisel criteria says, “the book must also contain illustrations, which function as keys or clues to the text.” And “the illustrations must demonstrate the story being told.” Let’s focus on that second one for a moment. The shoes are all made to look cartoony and the girl is a more realistic style. It almost looks like they belong in different stories. Or are they a mismatched pair like in the story that work together?
So the question is how much of an impact do the illustrations have on the award? There must be some illustrations according to the criteria. But how to judge those illustrations? Do you only take the illustrations into account when they distract or are less effective as clues to the text? I’m sure these are questions the committee is contemplating. What do you think? Are Collier and the Geisel the perfect pair?

Oh, and did you catch the Pigeon on page 50-51? He makes an appearance in all of the Elephant & Piggie Like Reading! titles.

Friday, December 15, 2017

We Need More Nuts by Jonathan Fenske

Liesel Schmidt is a children's librarian at Denver Public Library's Central Library. She enjoys exploring the wonders of the world alongside all sorts of kids.

How many nuts are enough for two hungry squirrels? Find out in Jonathan Fenske's goofy counting book, We Need More Nuts! An exuberant squirrel tosses nuts into their friend's mouth and, as the friend's cheeks fill with "One nut. Two nuts. Three nuts. Four nuts," the happy squirrel proclaims, "Fun. Fun. Fun! These nuts are great!" The friend catches all the nuts tossed their way, with ever-expanding cheeks, leaving readers to guess: Will they ever reach the point of too many nuts?

Fenske, who won a Geisel Honor in 2016 for A Pig, a Fox, and a Box, merrily addresses many of the needs of a beginning reader. This is a counting book that, unusually, goes all the way up to twenty-four, guiding readers through the tricky teens and into the twenties. The text is entirely made up of the squirrels' speech, presented in speech bubbles. Vocabulary is repeated frequently throughout the text with lots of clues to build confidence, although a few contractions may throw learners for a loop.

Bold, cartoony illustrations provide visual clues to the text. In fact, the illustrations carry much of the storyline. While one squirrel cheerfully counts while passing nuts to their friend, the other squirrel's reactions are not written. The reader can see the second squirrel's growing frustration, although that aspect of the story is told exclusively through the artwork. Dynamic illustrations will leave young readers laughing--and motivate readers to keep reading.

As nuts are passed around, the squirrel's speech provides the written word for each number, while the image of the nut itself has the numeral marked on it. In this way, young readers are supported as they connect numeral to written word. For twelve, a number that can be particularly difficult for young learners, extra support is given. "Our old friend twelve," says the squirrel, pointing at the numeral. "Where one...meets two!" Readers who already know how to recite the numbers one through twenty will feel confident pairing the written words with the numerals as the book moves along.

We Need More Nuts! expertly pairs the structure and simplicity needed in a beginning reader with humor. Fenske has given us another silly read that manages to subtly push beginning readers toward greater skill.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Frankie by Mary Sullivan

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 the chair of the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee. She blogs at Wizards Wireless

I adored this book. It was fun, delightful and Frankie is just plain lovable.

The repetition was the star of the show. Done just right and not too heavy handed, it set up a wonderful pattern to follow and predict. The one exception was the phrase ”No Way”, instead of “No.” I was also intrigued that each dog had their own word bubble shape, to make it easier to figure out which dog said what.

The book is a combination of a picture book and a graphic novel. The panels are arranged well and easy to follow. I did have a concern with the font, which almost looks like handwriting, and is challenging for an early reader.

I will admit, though, to being surprised at my son’s reaction. He’s the beginning reader I ask to read all the books I review for this blog, to see what words or concepts trip him up. This time, I was taken off guard as he got quieter and quieter as the book progressed. He felt that Nico was bullying Frankie, and he got extremely sad as Nico took away each item. He was very happy and relieved to find out the two dogs were able to share at the end.

What I thought what a light hearted and silly book brought out real emotions in him.

Overall, I thought it was a really well done book with many strengths.

I’m curious to find out if any other Guessing Geisel readers have tried this with young readers and what their reactions have been. Please share in the comments!
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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Wallace and Grace Times Two

Today's guest contributor, Anna Taylor, is the Assistant Head of Children’s Services and Collection Development Coordinator for Darien Library in CT. She serves on the ALSC/PLA Every Child Ready to Read Oversight Committee and will soon blog for YALSA’s Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers. Find her on Instagram @librarianna

Meet the Night Owl Detective Agency, best friends Wallace and Grace who live in the Great Woods and solve any mystery that comes their way (at least the ones that don’t interfere with their sleep). With bold text by Heather Alexander and bright illustrations by Laura Zarrin, this new young reader series is full of short chapters, new vocabulary, and a wealth of characters.

Wallace and Grace and the Cupcake Caper marks the series’ second book, however this series can be read in any order as they bring on new cases in every story. In Cupcake Caper, Wallace and Grace set out to find “whooo-done-it” when Monty the Chipmunk’s cupcake goes missing while he is sleeping or hibernating. Large words like hibernating, witness, and culprit, are italicized throughout the story along with an explanation by Wallace or Grace on its definition.

Alexander’s third book in the series, Wallace and Grace and the Lost Puppy, begins with a sad, dirty, and smelly lost puppy who got lost looking for an apple thief. The story begins at night and goes through sunrise, daytime, sunset, and back to night and the illustrations do a great job on helping the reader know what time of the day it is by showing sunrises and sunsets of purple, orange, and pink and night skies of velvet blue.

Some wordplay (whooo-done-it) and word designs are incorporated within the text and is comparable to the text style of Doreen Cronin’s Chicken Squad series. This text is complimented by Zarrin’s colorful illustrations which more often than not, tell more of the story than the text. For example, clues are sometimes given in some illustrations which have not yet been discovered by our Detectives, Wallace and Grace, encouraging the readers to become detectives themselves and not just rely on our owl protagonists.

Each story begins with Wallace and Grace in the middle of an activity. Cupcake Caper begins with a game of I Spy, while Lost Puppy shows the two in the midst of a scavenger hunt. Both novels close out their stories with either an end of the activity (finding all the scavenger hunt items) or picking up where they left off (I Spy-ing another thing).

Readers are able to take a look at the table of contents before each story to see all four chapters and their titles. This addition, plus the format of the text are perfect for readers transitioning into traditional fiction novels. In addition, the large, bold text and one or more illustration per page spread allow a nice balance between beginning and intermediate independent readers.

Early reader mystery series are a dime a dozen these days but Wallace and Grace have a lot to offer for the younger reader. I would give this to a child who is between Young Cam Janson and Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew, as well as readers who enjoy animal stories and science/nature. Whether this becomes a Geisel contestant or not, Wallace and Grace deserve a spot on your younger reader mystery series radar!

Friday, December 8, 2017

Fly Guy's Big Family and Noodleheads See the Future by Tedd Arnold

This week's contributor is Danielle Jones, a youth and teen public librarian in Portland, Oregon. She is currently serving on ALSC’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Task Force and the 2018 Sibert Committee.

Tedd Arnold has garnered two Geisel Honors for books in his Fly Guy series  (2006 Hi! Fly Guy and 2010  I Spy Fly Guy).  His keen sense of humor is a match for what beginning readers find hilarious, and he is able to repeatedly deliver books that have mass appeal.

Next in the Fly Guy series is Fly Guy’s Big Family. Buzz, a young boy notices his pet fly, Fly Guy, is drawing picture’s of Fly Guy’s family. Buzz, realizing that Fly Guy is missing his family, decides to hold a surprise party for Fly Guy inviting hundreds of Fly Guy’s closest relatives.

Many factors make this title very Geisel worthy. Humor is a propelling forces keeping the reader engaged. Simple short sentences and use of a controlled vocabulary with plenty of white space leaves room for decoding and comprehension. The illustrations reinforce the text, and there is lots of word repetition. “Surprise” is repeated throughout the story and the word “drawing” is shown both as a verb and a noun. A word like “cousin” that might pose challenging to sound out, is cleverly introduced with Arnold’s use speech bubbles when Buzz meets the first of Fly Guy’s family members to arrive for the party when she introduces herself as “Cuzz.” Cousin is then later repeated several more times.

One double page spread that might create debate among committee members is a double page spread showing Fly Guy reuniting with several family members. Arnold is playing with phonemes rather than using true spellings. Some might find that readers will delight in sounding out the fly pronunciations, while others might see it as challenging reading with introducing improper spelling of words at this stage in reading development.

Also out this year by Arnold is Noodleheads See the Future, the second in his graphic novel Noodlehead  series that pays homage to folklore’s noodlehead stories. Arnold’s pasta shaped characters, Mac and Mac,  and “Meatball” the antagonizer, get the humor rolling in this title where characters often state the obvious, but the two Macs view it as them “seeing the future.” Short chapters build on each other carrying threads of previous stories full circle to a satisfying ending and also offer readers a great "’page-turning’ dynamic.

What makes this a great graphic novel - its use of more rare words (those words that are used mostly in daily conversation, and outside the controlled vocabulary of most readers) - might deter it from being a great early reader. Noodleheads doesn’t maintain the controlled vocabulary that Arnold uses in the Fly Guy series. Words like “bruise” and “piece” are used several times, but the illustrations don’t always give context clues as to their meaning, and if it is a hard word to decode, the reader will miss the joke, and might get frustrated. Established readers however will delight in exploring these funny folk tales in a new way.