Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Stinky Spike books by Paul & Peter Meisel

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 chair of the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee. She blogs at Wizards Wireless.
Image from Bloomsbury US Kids
Stinky Spike the Pirate Dog and Stinky Spike and the Royal Rescue are fun additions to the world of beginning readers. By father and son team Paul and Peter Meisel, the books follow the story of a stinky dog named Spike who gets taken in by a group of silly pirates. Spike’s best gift is his nose, which he uses to help the pirates in the first book, and the Princess Petunia in the sequel.

The books are very appealing to kids: Garbage! Dogs! Pirates! Stinky cheese! I would certainly recommend them as library purchases.

The question is, for the purposes of this blog, would I recommend them to the Geisel committee?

That is trickier to answer.

The subject matter is definitely intriguing. The beginning reader I read it with couldn't wait to find out what happened next. The plot kept moving forward and the story developed. The illustrations are clear and reflect what is happening in the story. They also provide visual clues to the text.

All of that meets the Geisel criteria. So, why am I hesitating?

It’s because of the words.

Although these are obviously books for more advanced readers, they fit the Geisel page requirements. The font size and spacing indicate they are books for children learning to read.

Clearly, the words are going to be harder in these books (they are what most publishers would probably categorize as a Level 3 book) than in something more basic like Elephant and Piggie.

Yet, given that, the words are still too hard. Uncommon words such as: pricklefish, methinks, blimey, blundering, etc. are real challenges to kids at this reading level. The sentences are difficult and unclear. A lot of the challenging words are only used once, without repetition to help the reader learn the words.

All of this adds to the charm and flavor of the books, and makes them work for many other reasons, just not in the Geisel context.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

SLJ Looks at Leveling and Nonfiction Beginning Readers

Looking for more information about beginning readers? Take a look at two recent articles published by SLJ. These articles are available online, as well as in the August issue of the print journal.

In Thinking Outside the Bin: Why Labeling Books by Reading Level Disempowers Young Readers SLJ's reviews director, Kiera Parrott delves into the difficulties of reading levels. She includes school and public librarians perspectives, as well as input from reading experts.

Mary Ann Scheuer and Alyson Beecher look at important supporting elements, including font size, layout, vocabulary, and more in their article Beyond Reading Levels: Choosing Nonfiction for Developing Readers.

Are there other excellent blogs or articles out there about reading levels for beginning readers? We'd love to know about them! Leave us a link in the comments below.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Snail & Worm Again by Tina Kügler

Book cover for Snail & Worm Again by Tina Kügler
Today's post is written by DaNae Leu. DaNae is an Elementary School Librarian in Utah. She remembers reading and rereading Stan and Jan Bernstein’s Inside, Outside, Upside Down, her first cover to cover book, to anyone who dared walk through the room, where she lay in wait, eager to show off her new found super power.
Good easy readers beg to be read again and again. Little hands will rummage back through pages to relive favorite bits and jokes. The best easy readers delight the child and have a little something to tickle any captive adult.

Snail & Worm Again, has the straightforward format of two friends appearing in three brief stories. Snail is aspirational, reaching for glamor and distinction. Worm is a solid and grounded (underground) friend; supportive, but often questioning Snail’s whimsy. Also, it must be disclosed, neither is terribly bright. Amusement ensues. In each story Snail reaches to expand her sense of specialness. First, an opportune bit of detritus has her ready to defy biology and take flight. Next, she is enraptured by her Presidential reflection in a misleading “mirror”. Finally, she is sad to find her shell less than extraordinary. In each instance, Worm is there to give support. Also, to dutifully point out difficulties that Snail has overlooked: he will be sad if she flies away, her reflection sports a beard, ears, and chin, which Snail clearly lacks, her shell holds all the qualities she admires in others. Each section ends with warmth and a giggle.

Snail & Worm Again, works well for young readers. The dialogue between our characters is clipped, clear and repetitive. But not repetitive to the point of fatigue. Two challenging words – handsome and reflection – are used multiple times for emphasis. There is clear affection expressed between the two distinct characters, drawing the reader into their world. The illustrations are expressive and distinct. A wordless, two-page spread – showing the two sad mollusks – is simply divine. The use of a penny as a plot device is familiar and does not require undue prior knowledge. Knowing the identity of the face in the refection is not necessary.

The only concern I have about the content is the closing joke, in which snail wishes to ride a bicycle. It’s a bit more sophisticated than the rest of the book and may confuse young, literal minds.

All in all, Snail & Worm Again is a solid mid-level Geisel choice. There is nothing about it that screams, “Stamp the medal, no need to look further”, but it ticks lots of boxes. I will be keeping it in mind come January, when I create the short list for my Mock Geisel. Will it find a place in our Mock's big eight? Will it rise high enough to gain a medal - real or Mock? Time, and other titles, will tell.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Mouse and Hippo by Mike Twohy

Mike Twohy surprised us by snapping up a 2017 Geisel honor for Oops, Pounce, Quick, Run! -- will he repeat that feat with his most recent effort?

In Mouse and Hippo, an artistic mouse sets up his easel on what he supposes to be a rock.  When the "rock" has an itch, dumping mouse in the lake, it's revealed that the mouse was actually standing on a hippo. Hippo rescues Mouse from his watery fate, and the two become fast friends. They paint each others' portraits, to great comic effect (Hippo is so large that Mouse's paper is a wash of gray, while Mouse appears as a tiny dot on Hippo's page). Both are pleased with the results, and it appears to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

This is another example of a book that is clearly intended as a picture book, but has some strengths when viewed through the eyes of a beginning reader. The text in this story is entirely dialogue, indicated not by the typical speech tags ("said Mouse," "he replied"), but with font style and color.  Mouse "speaks" in a thin reddish-brown serif font, while Hippo's bolder sans serif font is shaded dark gray.  Though neither is a typical choice for beginning reader books, both fonts are generously sized, and text is placed within the book's abundant white space.  Sentences are typically short and straightforward. The book's casual writing style means that not all sentences are complete; there are several sentence fragments.  While there's some potentially challenging vocabulary, many of the words (portrait, easel, etc.) are repeated, and the illustrations often help to clarify the meaning.

How will this book fare with beginning readers?  Will they trip over the differing font styles, or appreciate how the change in color and style indicates who's speaking?  Will they stumble over new vocabulary, or catch enough clues in the illustrations to sail right through?  Either way, I suspect that they will appreciate the book's humor, the new-found friendship between the characters, and the way the story moves briskly to its pleasant conclusion.  All in all, it's a book well worth examining in light of the Geisel criteria.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Design Discussions with Siobhan Ciminera, Editorial Director for Simon Spotlight, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing

Hi Guessers,

Image courtesy of
Siobhan Ciminera
For this month’s Design Discussions, I had the pleasure of interviewing Siobhan Ciminera, Editorial Director for Simon Spotlight, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing. Simon Spotlight oversees all titles in the Ready-to-Read program, including the 2006 Geisel Award winner (Henry and Mudge and the Great-Grandpas by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Suçie Stevenson) and last year’s Go, Otto, Go! by David Milgrim, which won a Geisel Honor.

Design elements are very important to the Ready-to-Read line, and are discussed early on. Siobhan told me, “I would say we start discussing design elements as early as pre-acquisition. We need to have a clear idea of how we will proceed with the look of the book as we are working on the text.” Throughout the process, Ready-to-Read editors work hand in hand with the designers, authors, illustrators, and licensors on how the book will look.

Siobhan shared with me that Ready-to-Read books adhere to strict guidelines for each level. The lower the level, the stricter the measures. Here are some of the elements covered:
  • Word count
  • Word choice
  • Number of letters on a line
  • Number of lines on a page
  • How closely illustrations and text match up
  • Font size

Henry and Mudge and the
by Cynthia Rylant,
illus. by Suçie Stevenson
Additionally, all Ready-to-Read titles use a specified font and adhere to design and illustration guidelines. Guidelines are also constantly reviewed to make sure they align with the current reading standards.

Two elements from the guideline list that are paramount to Siobhan are word choice and syntax. “Sometimes the difference between a Level 1 and a Level 2 is simply in the synonyms used and whether clauses are broken up into two separate sentences or flowed together.” For the lower levels (PreLevel 1, Level 1, and the new Ready-to-Go! level for kids learning sight words), Siobhan feels it’s especially important to provide picture support on each and every page.

Go, Otto, Go!
by David Milgrim
Although working within these guidelines can be challenging, Siobhan finds the process fun. “We often liken working on a beginning reader to working on a jigsaw puzzle. Yes, it’s hard finding the right piece to fit in the right place—the right word, the right syntax—but once you do, it’s extremely satisfying, especially when you know this is going to go in the hands of a beginning reader.”

Yes, the leveling guidelines are important, but the overarching element of importance for Siobhan is whether or not it’s a fun and engaging read for children. “If it’s not fun to read then nothing else really matters.” She says that just like there’s satisfaction in sorting out the puzzle pieces of a beginning reader, it’s a joyful puzzle to choose what to publish with the goal of having a “robust program, but one that ensures that each book is distinct from others on our list and from what’s already out there.”

Of course, I had to ask about beginning reader pet peeves (‘fess up, I’m sure you have a few too!). Siobhan mentioned books that use a beginning reader trim size (6” x 9”) that claim to be a certain level, but have too much text that would intimidate a very beginning reader. Her goal is for readers, no matter their interests or reading level, to come away feeling accomplished. She worries that a text-heavy early level can leave kids frustrated and ultimately turn them off of reading.

Mitchell is Moving
by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat,
illus. by Jose Aruego & Ariane Dewey
I also asked about her all-time favorite beginning reader. Siobhan chose Mitchell is Moving by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat and illustrated by Jose Aruego and Ariane Dewey. She told me, “this story about friendship starring two adorable dinosaurs is so sweet, funny, and relatable. Lots of white space and simple yet descriptive illustrations make this reader originally published in 1978 feel fresh and modern today.”

It’s easy to see that Siobhan takes great pride in the books her team creates for young readers. “At the end of the day, we’re helping kids learn to read and feel proud of being able to do so, no matter their reading level. And that is a really cool job. It certainly helps this night owl get out of bed every morning!”

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Let's Go to the Moon! by Erica Silverman and Jess Golden

Today's post is contributed by Stacey Rattner, the "leaping librarian" at Castleton Elementary School, just outside of Albany, NY. For the past two years she has run a 10 week Mock Geisel project with a collaborating first grade teacher and looks forward to doing it again this year. You can follow her on Twitter @staceybethr or 

I cannot wait to get Let’s Go to the Moon! by Erica Silverman and illustrated by Jess Golden into the hands of my first grade Mock Geisel Committee members this fall.  As they soar into the story, I know they are going to feel “over the moon” as they successfully read it aloud or quietly to themselves.

Lana wants to go to the moon but can’t find anyone in her family to join her, even her dog, Furry.  Instead of giving up, she retires to her room to build her own rocket. When she finally lands on the moon she meets moon man, moon woman and two moon boys, Super-Nova and Ninja-Nova. Only after a full day of moon fun (and that’s an understatement), does Lana realize she misses being home. Where else can you bake moon cookies with your family? Yum!

With a page turning plot and repetitive text throughout, I think this is a likely contender for the Geisel award. The second page alone has “moon” written four times.  

When I talk about the Geisel award with my students, I ask them to describe at least one page where the illustrations help tell the story. Silverman’s light water color pictures help move the story along and certainly work to aid our young readers with the text.  It starts as quickly as you can read page 1. “Mama and Papa were raking the leaves.”  Having trouble with figuring out the words “raking” or “leaves”?  Let your eyes wonder just a bit and there’s Mama and Papa busy with their yard work And while you are at it, make sure to check out Mama’s cute flowered gloves.

The sentences are short and always stay on one page, which really helps our emerging readers.  Are there some challenging words?  Sure—trampoline (although the illustration helps), gravity, Earth (perhaps?), Ninja (but that might be a word kids just know now), are just a few.  I don’t think that’s enough for this not to be a serious contender for the Geisel award.

We also ask our students if the book is a page turner?  Did you want to read more?  Absolutely!  Poor Lana cannot find someone to join her on a moon excursion. Thankfully that doesn’t stop her!  She is resourceful and imaginative and puts those traits to work. DO try this at home, friends.  How can YOU build a rocket in your bedroom? The possibilities are endless.

We’ve all had that time when we couldn’t find anyone to play with us.  This book takes that time and turns it positive.  You don’t want to go to the moon with me? Fine, then I will just go myself.  I predict that fans of the Don’t Throw it to Mo format and the Bink and Gollie adventures will travel to the moon with Lana night after night while the 2018 Geisel Committee seriously considers where to put a sticker on the cover.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Little Plane Learns to Write by Stephen Savage

Today's guest blogger is Brian E. Wilson. Brian works as a Children’s Librarian at the Evanston Public Library and served on the 2015 Odyssey and 2017 Caldecott committees. He blogs at

Just as in his 2016 Geisel Honor winner Supertruck, about a bespectacled garbage truck who transforms into a superhero snowplow when crisis arises, Stephen Savage gives the young reader an instantly lovable anthropomorphic vehicle that triumphs on his own terms. In the short but sweet Little Plane Learns to Write, the titular character tries to skywrite but fails when making an "o" because "loopity-loops" cause him to feel dizzy. After two unsuccessful attempts under his flight instructor's watchful eye, the forlorn Little Plane mopes while on a solo nocturnal flight. He then sees the moon and feels a surge of inspiration and confidence, and voila, he creates two perfect "o"s that help spell "moon." Little Plane radiates pride on the final double page spread; young readers share his joy.

So how does Little Plane Learns to Write work as a Geisel contender? It has some flaws, but overall it soars. Young children will find Little Plane’s plight relatable. Savage's vibrant, uncluttered digital art jumps off each double page spread. Although readers will notice that five other planes appear, their eyes will instantly be drawn to the red Little Plane. The large bold font grabs the eye, and only a small number of words (less than 20) appear on each spread. The toughest words (e.g., "instructor") are repeated. The Geisel criteria says that contenders should contain "the kind of plot, sensibility, and rhythm that can carry a child from start to finish," and this inspirational you-can-do-it book certainly honors that request. The story's suspense creates the desired "page-turning dynamic" the committee desires.

As the story unfolds, Savage provides visual clues that help young readers understand the story (another ask of the Geisel criteria). The aforementioned flight instructor (a large gray plane) draws the shape of the arcs, dives, and loopity-loops the planes must practice on a chalkboard. This helps readers comprehend the next two spreads that show the airborne Little Plane excelling at dives and arcs but not quite pulling off the dreaded loopity-loops. The scenes with Little Plane trying to get away with spelling "cloud" and "rainbow" without an "o" work especially well. I have read the book to several preschoolers and they laugh when they see CLUDS instead CLOUDS (the flight instructor adds the "o" to complete the words). Savage puts clouds and a rainbow on these respective pages to serve as visual aids. When Little Plane successfully spells "moon," Savage captures this triumph beautifully by including a lovely full moon.

Little Plane Learns to Write does have a couple of flaws. The ending seems a tad abrupt. Also, my eyebrows went up a little at how one page ends with "He flew around it carefully…" and the next page starts off with a sentence fragment "And made a perfect loopity-loop." This seems off, but perhaps not enough to knock it out of contention. In summary, Little Plane Learns to Write is a fun, compelling story that speaks to the concerns of young beginning readers.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Andy & Sandy and the Big Talent Show by Tomie dePaola and Jim Lewis

When Sandy sees an announcement for an upcoming talent show, she is excited to enter, but Andy doesn’t think he has any stage-worthy talents. After suggesting several options, Sandy settles on the idea of dancing together. Andy struggles, but improves with practice. When the big day arrives, Sandy is struck with stage fright, but Andy’s sweet moves save the day.

This book is written for the earliest beginners, with generously-sized fonts and only a few words per page. The illustrations do an excellent job of supporting the text: when new vocabulary is introduced (“juggle,” “tumble,” “hula hoop”), Sandy is clearly pictured performing those actions. This book also uses some elements we’ve seen in other books this year: there are four pages of wordless spreads showing Andy and Sandy’s dance, and throughout the book pages are divided into comic-book-style panels. There is also some slightly more challenging vocabulary present on signage (“Andy and Sandy Sashay Through the Park”), just as we saw in What’s Your Favorite Favorite?.

This is a useful title that displays several excellent elements. Is it a contender for the Geisel? Well, it could be, depending on the rest of the field. It’s certainly worthy of discussion. Will it appeal to beginning readers and motivate them to keep reading? Perhaps. Talent shows are a perennially popular topic, and dePaola’s art may draw in readers familiar with his other works, which include the earlier titles in this series. Have you tried this book with the beginning readers in your life? What did they think of it?

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Some Info on Informative Geisel Books

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.
Geisel Award committees rarely recognize fact-focused books.

Of the 51 total Geisel Medal/Honor recipients (as of 2017) it appears that only 3 books can accurately be classified as “nonfiction” – meaning that they are regarded, first and foremost, as factual (and cataloged accordingly in most libraries). For an analysis of these fact-driven and thoughtfully executed titles see Kahla Gubanich's 2016 Guessing Geisel post Geisel-Worthy Nonfiction: Past and Present.

More interestingly, perhaps, is that many more Geisel awardees can best be described as “informational” (helpfully defined in the Sibert Medal terms and criteria as “written and illustrated to present, organize, and interpret documentable, factual material”). Unlike the 3 previously identified works of nonfiction, the factual content of many informational books is often covert, or rather presented, organized, and interpreted through fictional scenarios. This allows for effective and seamless narratives where blades of grass humorously tackle suffixes; a dog and mouse reinforce letter knowledge during a wily chase; birds and bears contemplate relativism through goofy arguments; an anthropomorphized mouse models getting dressed; and cause/effect dynamics are explored through ingenious cutouts and page turns. These books include We Are Growing! by Laurie Keller (2017 Medal), Oops, Pounce, Quick, Run! by Mike Twohy (2017 Honor), You Are (Not) Small by Anna Kang (2015 Medal), Up, Tall and High! by Ethan Long (2013 Medal), Little Mouse Gets Ready by Jeff Smith (2010 Honor), One Boy by Laura Vaccaro Seeger (2009 Honor), and First the Egg by Laura Vaccaro Seeger (2008 Honor).

When revisiting these informational Geisel awardees it becomes clear that they largely center on English language development and the natural world. This is not to say that superb fact-rich books about other subjects (such as history) for young readers haven’t been published since 2005 – consider Lightship by Brian Floca (2007), Underground by Shane Evans (2011), and Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales (2014) – they just haven’t won. And while Scholastic, DK, National Geographic, and other publishers produce a fairly wide range of factual early reader titles every year, they simply don’t win either.

With that in mind, I searched widely for nonfiction/informational 2018 Geisel contenders that aren’t about language development and nature – yet excellent titles focused on those subjects still rose to the top of my list. They are (so far):

  • Penguin Day: A Family Story by Nic Bishop (Scholastic Press) – Straightforward text, strong design, and exquisite photography come together to depict a day in the life of a rockhopper penguin family. Similar in format and tone to Bishop and author Joy Cowley’s wonderful Red-Eyed Tree Frog (1999) and Chameleon, Chameleon (2005).

  • Wordplay by Ivan Brunetti (TOON) – Compound words (such as playground, bookworm, and eggplant) literally come to life in a young student’s mind – thanks to a clever use of thought balloons and smart panel layouts – resulting in a real compound word workout.

  • Something’s Fishy by Kevin McCloskey (TOON) – An excellent addition to McCloskey’s Giggle and Learn easy-to-read comics series – arguably the best since We Dig Worms! (2015). A gamut of fish facts, from basic (what gills do) to bold (a goldfish can grow a foot long, in the right conditions), are explored via informative captions, word balloon dialog, and the occasional gag.
  • My Awesome Summer by P. Mantis by Paul Meisel (Holiday House) – P. Mantis provides an energetic first-person account of her development from nymph to adult. Friendly, bright, full-page illustrations are regularly accompanied by short updates about who is eating who – including one’s own insect siblings! 

  •  Round by Joyce Sidman (HMH) – This poetic reflection on all things round in nature does much more showing than telling – with purposeful illustrations that, when coupled with the heady text, deliver a great deal of informational content.

  • The Hidden Life of a Toad by Doug Wechsler (Charlesbridge) – The first 3 years of a female American toad’s life – from egg to tadpole to toadlet to breeding adult – are ambitiously documented through original photographs and simple, playful text.

My hope is that we’ll continue to see even more nonfiction/informational 2018 Geisel contenders this fall – especially outside of the established language development and nature subject ranges – and that this year’s committee will recognize and eagerly reward those outsiders.

What titles have I missed, and what are you looking forward to seeing this fall? Please share your thoughts in the comments.