Thursday, September 28, 2017

Welcome! Ears on the Odyssey: A Mock Odyssey Award Blog

Lizzie Nolan
Lizzie Nolan is a Senior Librarian in the San José Public Libraries. She is member of YALSA and ALSC. She has served on the 2017 Odyssey Committee. As a performer of Improv and a dyslexic, Lizzie understands both the power and the fun of outstanding audiobooks.

Leon was a ten-year-old who came in religiously after school to use the computers to play video games. When we would talk about books and reading, he would gush about his love of boxing and show great excitement when I would hand him books about the greats like Muhammad Ali. But Leon would lose focus after a few pages and go back to playing video games. Leon was a major multitasker. He could play games, listen to music, chat with his friends, and draw pictures all with ease. Leon’s constant need for stimulation made him the perfect candidate for audiobooks. Instead of asking him simply about the things he was interested in, I asked him why these things interested him. Leon loved boxing because it made him feel independent. He alone could take credit for his victories and failures. Leon said something like “it is all me” in the ring. As we browsed the audiobooks he choose something that surprised me - Pippi Longstocking. It didn’t take long to for Leon fall in love with Pippi’s autonomy and pluckiness.

I think about Leon often when discussing and reviewing audiobooks. Audiobooks offer another avenue to open up new and exciting ways of engaging with stories, especially for the busy, the distracted, the overstimulated, and the reluctant. Great audiobooks pair nicely with the multitasking listener who needs to literally shadow box like Leon while he listens. But audiobooks also offer a much needed respite to information overload.

It is no surprise then that the audiobook market has exploded. The Audio Publisher's Association in its’ yearly survey states there was an 33.9% increase in audiobooks sold in 2016. This boom has lead audiobook producers into creating more and more high quality audios with high production values and outstanding narrators in wide variety of formats. As the audiobook librarian champion Mary Burkey notes “The act of reading is evolving. Today’s readers can experience the same story as they toggle between audiobooks in the car, ebooks on the tablet, and paperbacks at home, and young people in particular are naturals...The ability to shift seamlessly from image to text to sound will be part of every young person’s transliteracy education.”

Logo designed by Sergio Perez, 2017

So what makes a great audiobook? Enter the Ears on the Odyssey blog. The Odyssey Award has been given each year since 2008 “to the producer of the best audiobook produced for children and/or young adults, available in English in the United States.” The Ears on the Odyssey Blog unpacks the specific aspects of audio production of great listens, as well as the kind of critical evaluation that goes into picking an Odyssey winner, and our thoughts on why this all matters. In the mold of other great mocks before it (.... like this great one you are reading RIGHT NOW), Ears on the Odyssey hopes to shed light on the process of how librarians think critically and choose award winning titles.

Check us out:
Follow us on Twitter: @EarsOdyssey

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

King and Kayla Series by Dori Hillestad Butler and Nancy Meyers

Brian E. Wilson works as a Children’s Librarian at the Evanston Public Library and served on the 2015 Odyssey and 2017 Caldecott committees.  Follow him on his blog Mr. Brian’s Picture Book Picks:
One of the most delightful new easy reader series to appear in 2017 star King & Kayla, a Golden Retriever and his mystery-solving human. Written by Dori Hillestad Butler and illustrated by Nancy Meyers, the books sparkle with charm and good humor. The Geisel Committee this year has three titles starring this duo to consider, and this essay will determine which one I personally feel meets the criteria best. Nothing in the rules says that more than one can receive Geisel attention, but I will limit myself to one.
First, a quick overview of the series. All three books follow the same formula. In four quick chapters and 48 fast-paced pages, each book has first person narration from King as he tells how he and Kayla suddenly have to solve a lighthearted mystery. Joining them in are Kayla's friend Jillian who has an adorable (even when he's biting King's ears) puppy named Thor. In the first offering, King & Kayla and the Case of the Missing Dog Treats they try to figure who took three bone-shaped peanut butter treats Kayla baked for Thor. In King & Kayla and the Case of the Secret Code, they try to decipher a note written in a letter-scrambling code. And King & Kayla and the Case of the Mysterious Mouse shows King believing that a mouse has somehow taken his favorite blue ball.
Each book has plenty of white space. Butler's writing is lively and engaging throughout, keeping the language simple. A running joke about King saying that various things are his favorite things in the world allow for an enjoyable repetition of some key words. Meanwhile, Meyers' warm illustrations help the emerging reader follow the action; she is especially good at King's facial expressions that convey the dog's range of emotions from excitement to sadness, from happiness to incredulousness (the human world perplexes him). Each book has a great page-turning element as Kayla lists three things they note about each case, and three things they do not know (I love that we see King's more id-like inner-thoughts serving as a comical counterbalance).
So which book in my eyes fits the Geisel criteria the most? Please keep in mind, I love all three books. However, if I were a member of the Geisel committee I would go for Mysterious Mouse. I dismissed Secret Code as a contender because the code, while a fun game, might discourage some early readers. Plus, the text keeps referring to a refrigerator that we never see in the illustrations. Missing Dog Treats is a very close second place. It's a funny book that introduces the characters. However, I found the resolution not as satisfying (no one notices the cat under the couch?). Although Mysterious Mouse refers to an event that happens in Missing Dog Treats, it still stands alone. The action, with King trying desperately to find his ball, is easy to follow, with the illustrations offering visual clues. Plus, the ending offers a major surprise that will tickle readers.
All in all though, this series is a wonderful addition to easy readers shelves.

Friday, September 22, 2017

What's It Like to Be on the Geisel Committee #3

Today's post comes from Jackie Partch. Jackie is a School Corps librarian at Multnomah County Library, where she does outreach to K-12 students. She was a member of the 2012 Geisel Committee.

In January 2011 I arrived at the first meeting of the 2012 Geisel Committee, feeling a mix of elation and nerves. It was my first experience on an ALSC award committee, something I'd been curious about for years. That day I met my fabulous fellow committee members and learned about the Geisel criteria. As I mentioned in a previous blog post on Guessing Geisel, I felt pretty confident judging literary quality and child appeal, but evaluating the elements of book design was totally new to me.

After the conference, I started reading previous Geisel winners in detail. In the past, I'd been curious why particular books won. Sometimes my favorites weren't recognized, and books that I didn't enjoy as much were winners. After immersing myself in the criteria, I found it easier to see why many of the books had been honored, even if they weren't my personal favorites.

At ALA Annual conference, our group practiced book discussion. I've been fortunate to be in a children's literature book group with other librarians, teachers and children's book aficionados for years. We use the CCBC Book Discussion Guidelines to simulate the way ALSC committees discuss books, so I felt prepared in that sense. But I realized that the notes I'd been taking on my books weren't arranged in the best order. I kept having to scan the pages to find that great comment I remembered writing, and I felt like my contributions weren't always oriented to the award criteria. So between Annual and Midwinter, I revised my note-taking scheme. I tried to arrange the notes by specific criteria and include sections for positive and negative comments.

In the fall, once I had a good selection of eligible books, I needed to get some opinions from kids themselves. Since I regularly do school outreach as part of my job, I arranged to work with two second-grade classrooms. I can't stress how important this was! There were many books that I loved that didn't grab the kids at all. The demographics of the two schools I worked with were very different, so when I found a book that both classes loved, I knew I had found a hit!

Finally, it was time to pick our winning titles at Midwinter 2012. As I'm sure Guessing Geisel readers already know, committee discussions are confidential, so I can't share details about those. However, I can say that it's important to enter into the discussions with an open mind. We all have our favorite books for whatever reason: we find them humorous, they make great read-alouds, or they resonate with us personally. But in committee discussions, you're most persuasive when you show how your favorite books meet the award criteria. And other committee members may have seen something you missed. When it was all over, we had a winner, Tales for Very Picky Eaters, and three honor books: I Broke My Trunk, I Want My Hat Back, and See Me Run. Serving on this committee was a fantastic experience and one of the highlights of my professional career.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Interview with a Reading Specialist

Today's post is by Elisa Gall. She works as Youth Collection Development Librarian at Deerfield Public Library in Illinois. She can be found on Twitter at @gallbrary.
Tracy Woelfle
Photo courtesy of Tracy Woelfle
Members of ALSC (Association for Library Services to Children) can range from librarians to classroom teachers to consultants to everything in between, and the makeup of the Geisel Committee is no different. That being said, I’ve felt at times that when we’re talking about all-things-beginning readers in the library world, the perspective of a reading specialist can go unheard. Luckily for us, Tracy Woelfle, a Reading Specialist with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working before, was willing to let me pick her brain. She has a Reading Specialist Masters and an Elementary Education degree from Indiana University. She has taught first grade, second grade, and she is currently the Reading Intervention teacher at an elementary school in Evanston, IL.

Our conversation is included below. I loved hearing Tracy’s insights and I believe her opinions give us—no matter our job titles or areas of expertise— something about which to think.
EG: The purpose of the Geisel Award is to recognize the creators of a book for beginning readers, “who, through their literary and artistic achievements demonstrate creativity and imagination to engage children in reading.” To you, what makes a great book for beginning readers?
TW: Early readers are not always the most engaging books on the shelf. That is why there are so many character driven books and series for early readers. Familiar characters ensure kids will continue to pick them up. The words need to be simple, repetitive and easy to decode. Yet, the story still needs to grab a reader’s attention. Elephant and Piggie books, Fly Guy, and Dr. Seuss do just that. My favorite early reader is P.D. Eastman’s Go, Dog, Go!
EG: When selecting the winning titles, committee members consider the following criteria:
  • Subject matter must be intriguing enough to motivate the child to read
  • The book may or may not include short "chapters"
  • 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
  • There must be a minimum of 24 pages
  • Books may not be longer than 96 pages
  • The illustrations must demonstrate the story being told
  • The book creates a successful reading experience, from start to finish
  • The plot advances from one page to the next and creates a "page-turning" dynamic
Based on your experience working with children, Is there anything that you would change, clarify, or add to this criteria?
TW: This sounds like good criteria. Criteria I often follow: Length, Layout, Structure and Organization, Illustrations, Words, Phrases and Sentences, Literary features, Content and Theme. I know that early reading books need to have a clear font, the vocab should be limited to sight words or words that can be easily decoded, there should be simple sentences, and the stories and images should appeal to ages 5-8. The pictures should give clues, so it's easier for a new reader to decode unfamiliar words. I'm excited to see what new books will be chosen. There are so many wonderful pieces of literature out there and it's a hard to task to sort through them to highlight the best!
EG: What do you wish more grown-ups (including librarians) knew about learning to read?
TW: I'm sure most grown-ups and librarians already know this, but these are rules I like to follow and share with my student's parents:
  • Let your child see you reading! Set a good example by letting children see you reading books, magazines, newspapers, etc. This shows you value reading.
  • Make time to read EVERY DAY with your child for 15-20 minutes.
  • Limit the amount and type of T.V. you and your child watch. Spend more time reading! The time and attention you give them has many benefits and will help them be successful in school.
  • Have a variety of reading materials available.
  • Visit the library often. Get your child their own library card.
  • Buy books as gifts.
  • Make sure children always have something to read in spare time (waiting for appointments, trips, etc.).
  • Reading is everywhere: point out printed words in the home and community.
  • Help kids learn words from signs, menus, food product labels, etc.
  • Verbally label familiar and unfamiliar objects as you talk to your child. This helps expand their vocab.
  • Talk to your child when you play and do daily activities. Explain what you are doing and how things work.
  • Read many stories with rhyming words and lines that repeat. Invite kids to join in on these parts.
  • Read aloud to your children and help them select material to read that match their passions.
  • To focus on comprehension, ask questions before, during, and after a book.
  • Help children build their reading stamina.
EG: Are there any professional books or resources you’d recommend to someone wanting to learn more about the learning-to-read process?
Reading Strategies and Writing Strategies by Lucy Calkins
Every Young Child a Reader by Sharon Gibson and Barbara Moss
Jennifer Serravallo’s Reading Strategies and Writing Strategies books
EG: Librarians often face pressure from administrators and caregivers to restrict student choice based on levels (see this recent position statement on leveling from the AASL). Can you speak to the strengths and/or limitations of leveling systems? Is there a particular system that you find more helpful than others?
TW: Becoming a good reader means having access to good teaching and to materials that will support the development of a self-extending system. Three things need to happen at school each day:
  1. Reading aloud to help children understand the structure of written language, expand their knowledge of words and learn new ways of using language.
  2. Individual reading to help them become independent, get more practice and choose books for themselves.
  3. Instructional reading, which involves a carefully designed program to help readers expand their skills and strategies.
Students have opportunities to read "at their level" to build stamina and continue their reading growth in an upward trend toward grade level competencies and beyond.
A leveled book has several advantages:
  • An organized set of books makes it easier to select books for groups of children.
  • Having a gradient of text provides a way to assess progress over time.
  • A leveled book collection allows for a variety of text that provides opportunities to increase reading power.
As a reading Teacher in Evanston, I follow Fountas and Pinnell Guided Reading Levels. Honestly, I often use Lit Leveler app on my phone to tell me the book level. It's important to read books on your level to grow, but it is incredibly important to continue your love of reading by attempting and looking through harder books of interest and being read to by an adult. All of this needs to take place!
EG: What are some of your favorite beginning readers (or authors) to share with students?
  • Mo Willems
  • Dr. Seuss
  • Adventures of Otto by David Milgrim
  • The Bella and Rosie series
  • Some of my favorite recommended easy chapter books include Poppleton, Henry and Mudge, Mercy Watson, Flat Stanley, Cam Jansen, and Freckle Juice.
Thank you, Tracy!

Design Discussions with Grace Maccarone, Executive Editor at Holiday House and Author Paul Meisel

For our third Design Discussion post, Grace Maccarone, Executive Editor at Holiday House, and author Paul Meisel share the development of Paul’s beginning reader I See a Cat from submission through publication.

Grace has long been passionate about beginning readers, and it’s thanks to her that Holiday House’s I Like to Read® books were born. “My daughter is a brilliant visual thinker with a language processing disability,” Grace said. “When she was learning how to read, she needed good books that were easy to read. Easier than Frog and Toad, which was difficult for her for quite some time.” When Grace started at Holiday House, editor-in-chief Mary Cash asked her to start a series of beginning readers. Grace explained, “I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to duplicate the books that were already available. I wanted to publish good books for the newest readers. And for struggling readers who need easier books. And for kindergarteners, who are now learning to read.”

Grace Maccarone and Paul Meisel
Courtesy of Grace Maccrarone
The development of I See a Cat began on January 10, 2014 when Paul sent Grace a submission based upon his beloved dog Coco’s passion for squirrels. (You can see Coco chasing a ball on Paul’s website.) Grace told me that manuscripts and dummies are sent to her. “Only rarely have I approached an artist with a concept. I often find that if I approach someone with a concept, what I get back is unoriginal and bland. Stories that come from the heart and the need of the author are best.” Looking back to receiving Paul’s manuscript, Grace said, “I liked the premise but felt the story, written in the first-person voice of the dog, needed to be fleshed out, and I suggested to Paul that he add more characters and develop the story as an I Like to Read® book.”

Some editors provide their authors with design guidelines or word lists. Grace prefers not to give her authors any limitations. “I don’t give people word lists. Again, word lists are restrictive. Words in word lists tend to dictate the story. It’s better to have a story that comes from the heart.” However, Grace notes that I Like to Read® books always use simple fonts and large type. Specifically, they prefer the “stick-and-ball” “a.”

Paul fleshed out the story and added more characters (a cat, a mouse, a bee, and a rabbit) and sent Grace a revised manuscript with sketches. The narrative also changed from first to third person. “The original story is about the dog wanting its owner to let it out to chase squirrels, and the dog’s anxiety about being ignored and not being able to go out,” Paul explained. “In the final story, the idea of chasing squirrels remains a constant although other animals are added for variety and a better reading and learning experience.” Grace was especially attracted to the mysterious and intriguing front endpapers, just why was that dog barking up the tree?

Nearly all I Like to Read® titles are authored and illustrated by the same person. I asked Grace if this is a conscious choice. “Yes,” Grace confirmed. “The visuals are doing the heavy lifting in these books. In our example, I See a Cat, it’s the interplay between text and art and the visual execution that makes the book exciting to read.”

Example of Paul’s original sketches (from January 2014) - Courtesy of Holiday House

Example of Paul’s final art (November 2016) - Courtesy of Holiday House
September, 2014 rolled around and Grace requested a contract with Paul. Grace and Paul began considering how to position the book: Should this book be a companion to See Me Run (a Geisel Honor Award Book) and See Me Dig (a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2013)? The question floated around and then dissipated. The sketch dummy was also reviewed by the copyeditor (for typos, and grammar, etc., and for art continuity), as well as the art director—Kerry Martin—and Grace (for everything).

Paul then made another set of revisions based upon Holiday House queries and comments, as well as some of his own new ideas. For instance, the rabbit was eliminated; the squirrel made an additional appearance. The text was in first person again. Everyone looked at the revised sketches, and Paul started to work on final art. He decided to use to use watercolors, acrylics, and pencils on Strathmore paper, which he would then scan to make digital enhancements. Paul explained: “I wanted a bold, graphic line, but was hesitant to draw it in Photoshop as I wanted the line to have the same qualities as my line when I draw on paper. So I drew the story in pen and ink on paper and scanned and greatly enlarged the drawings in order to get that bolder look. Working in Photoshop, I was also able to make the line solid black where I wanted it and change it to other colors in places such as the rug, the grass, and the background trees and bushes.”

Meanwhile, Paul continued to tweak the compositions and even make some major changes. The cat became more meaningful to the story. It is fascinated by the dog and serves as a kind of Greek chorus. The bee moved indoors to make for a more interesting design. Grace notes that she communicated with Kerry and Paul constantly about “concerns too numerous to list” right up to right up to the last minute and beyond.

Example of Paul’s original sketches (from January 2014) - Courtesy of Holiday House

Example of Paul’s final art (November 2016) - Courtesy of Holiday House

Paul gave Grace and Kerry some early finished pieces so they could see what the color would look like. Based on some of Kerry and Grace’s concerns, Paul changed the color of a holding line and made adjustments to eliminate a grainy texture.

In September, 2016, Paul delivered the final art. And in October, 2016, Paul, Kerry, and Grace had a celebratory lunch. Grace told me, “Lunch is an opportunity to learn more about a book. An artist might share some special challenges or secrets.” For example, “The rug is a bit of an homage to a favorite artist, Jean Dubuffet,” Paul explained. “He often used the same colors, along with a bold line. And in the grass, although a bit more subtle, you can see an homage to another artist, Jean Arp. I overlapped organic, Arp-like shapes in order to give the grassy areas more interest in a somewhat abstract way. I didn’t attempt to make the grass realistic.”

Example of Paul’s original sketches (from January 2014) - Courtesy of Holiday House

Example of Paul’s final art (November 2016) - Courtesy of Holiday House
Note: The original setting with the dog looking out from inside the house remained the same even as the story line changed.

Even with the lunch past, Paul continued to make a few more changes, such as redoing the door frames to make them less purple. After seeing the proofs in November, 2016, he redid the art to heighten the contrast between the light and the shadows on the floor. Paul explained: “The light and shadow became part of the story without using words. As the day progresses, the direction of the shadow changes along with what one would perceive as the position of the sun. Along with all the animals that pass by, the shadows give the impression that the dog is waiting a long time for the boy to return.” Paul also decided he didn’t like the bird, so he changed it. And he changed the position of the cat on the back endpaper after that. “Whew!” remembers Grace!

I See a Cat by Paul Meisel
Book cover courtesy of Holiday House
Paul also provided two cover sketches to Kerry and Grace, which were shared with sales, marketing, publicity, and upper management. After looking at both, Kerry and Grace asked Paul for a combination of the two. The Art Department had some suggestions on the title type, which was discussed back and forth until they reached an agreement. Grace said: “After cover and interior layouts were complete, we made same-size, full-color photocopies and sent them to an outside reading consultant for a guided reading level. Double whew!”

I asked Grace when and how reading levels are determined for Holiday House’s I Like to Read® books. She shared that all books are sent to Marla Conn at Read-Ability, Inc. “She determines guided reading levels, grade levels, and reading recovery equivalents. We don’t know what level a book is until Marla tells us.”

June, 2017 was exciting. That’s when I See a Cat received its first review, and a starred one at a that! On September 5, 2017, after over three years of work, the book will finally be published. After hearing so much about the book, I can’t wait to see the published book and read it with kids!

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Out! by Arree Chung and Puppy, Puppy, Puppy by Julie Sternberg and Fred Koehler: The Lower Levels of the Geisel Age Range

“Hello, do you have any books for beginning readers?”
“Of course!” *gestures toward their board books*
“Oh, no – I mean books for children just learning to read independently?”
“We have picture books right over there . . .”

Sound at all familiar? Most recently, this conversation took place at ALA Annual in Chicago, in a publisher’s booth. What makes this request such a challenge? And when a bookseller, publisher, or librarian points us toward the board books, are they so wrong? After all, we know that getting ready to read begins in infancy, as interactions with caregivers provide context and vocabulary for the world around us. But where is the transition point between early literacy and the beginning reader?

As Mock Geiselers, we can look to the criteria for help.

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.”
People learn to read independently at a wide range of ages. There are, for a variety of reasons, 3rd and 4th graders who labor over the same Elephant & Piggie titles that precocious tots recite with ease. So it’s helpful of the Geisel to give us an age range. We can at least interpret that even if the page restriction – “minimum of 24 pages” and maximum of 96 – didn’t relieve most board books of eligibility, the toddler age range they target puts them outside our consideration.

Or does it? What ages is pre-K intended to represent in our criteria? In my home state of CA, the minimum age for enrollment in Kindergarten is 5 years. Transitional Kindergarten (or Early Kinder) allows for enrollment of 4.5 year old children for that same school year. Preschoolers are typically 3-4 years of age. 

How does our discussion of a book change when we’re considering a 3-year-old preschooler or a 7-year-old second grader as our beginning reader? Particularly when we’re looking at picture books, the question of age applies directly to whether “the book is respectful and of interest to children” and  whether the subject matter is “ intriguing enough to motivate the child to read”. Where interests can be understood to overlap, this is easy enough – dinosaurs, dancers, and dogs? Check. But what about depictions of our main character in a crib, in diapers, exhibiting less independence than typical first and second graders?

Out! By Arree Chung uses only nine different words to tell a “hilarious tale of friendship and mayhem” as Jo Jo the dog tries to protect a boldly exploring baby from mishap, only to have her actions misunderstood by the parental figures. Expressive illustrations sometimes mimic comic style panels, an approach further reinforced with the use of word balloons to frame each word. From the dejection of our trapped baby on the second spread to the panic on Jo Jo’s face as the baby sits poised in the laundry basket at the top of the stairs, with few or no accompanying words the illustrations tell a compelling story of the bond between our two protagonists. 

The 2017 committee honored Oops, Pounce, Quick, Run!: An Alphabet Caper and the 2014 committee honored Ball, so there is precedent for titles with few vocabulary words (and featuring dogs) to be recognized by the committee. Could one with so many wordless spreads in a row be recognized? Is the story here told by the text, or do the illustrations do so much of the heavy lifting that it falls outside the scope of the committee?

Puppy, Puppy, Puppy by Julie Sternberg and Fred Koehler showcases another baby and puppy duo in a multiracial household. Both baby and dog appear younger than in Out! and the text features many more words, in a large font with logical line breaks and good spacing. The story contains quite a bit of repetition in the first pages, creating predictable moments for beginning readers. The formula of Baby does thing, then puppy does thing, then baby says “Puppy” continues for three spreads, until things go awry during bathtime. Even after the text breaks from formula, there is repetition to be found in subsequent spreads. New vocabulary is usually introduced slowly, and with a clear support from the illustrations. For example, in the first pages to feature the words “Mommy” and “Daddy” the text is superimposed on the shirts of these named characters. 

If I were being super picky, I’d question whether the pattern of Daddy’s shirt creates contrast changes here that might be challenging for young eyes. White space, it is not. There’s also the matter of the lines “Every single second. No matter what.” – the exceptions to the otherwise excellent depiction of the text in illustrations. These are considerations that I would bring up during committee discussions if this book were on the table, and I’d be watching and listening carefully when beginning readers approached these pages in the months leading up to the discussion.  

Both Out! and Puppy, Puppy, Puppy shine in some areas of the Geisel criteria, yet these delightful picture books are clearly intended for young audiences. When we’re considering their appeal for our PreK-2nd grade age range, how do we compare them to the titles meant for slightly older readers? Do preschool readers engage with books about babies as readily as they engage in play with baby dolls? Would you put these titles on your ballot?

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Reader's Choice

Today's post comes to us from Katya Schapiro, Senior Children's Librarian at the Bay Ridge Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. She served on the 2016 Geisel Award committee, and is on the Quicklists Consulting Committee.

As the new school year looms and summer assignments take on a final urgency, we public librarians spend a lot of time assisting frantic parents and children waving summer reading booklists and demanding a pile of level N or H books. Every year, as I guide busy and frustrated people through our alphabetical cataloging system, gently pointing out that their (often misspelled, out of print) lists are meant as suggestions, not rigid requirements, I re-examine my stance on beginning reader cataloging. Aren’t we trying to be helpful to schools? Shouldn’t we just make a few piles or baskets that the inevitable latecomers can grab from without more stress? Who am I helping by being a stickler for reader’s choice when people, many of whom are English language learners, are just trying to get by and do things the right way?

 And then I hear it, over and over:
‘I need a book in my level.’
‘Where are the books for kindergartners?’
‘I’m a level B/N/Q…’

I don’t want to confuse young learners and their parents. I don’t want to contradict hard working teachers. But…

I will never stop telling kids that they are a person, not a level. A person with individual interests, talents, and reading needs. My first question when asked for grade level books is invariably ‘who’s the 4th grader?’ I refuse to see reading as a skill that can be attained without reference to content. I used to wonder if this attitude of mine was elitist. Was I devaluing tools that truly help struggling readers and families, just to prioritize my agenda? I still go back and forth with this, and there are times when I just do a search and hand over the books, without commentary, but ultimately, I’ve come to the conclusion that my responsibilities as a public children’s librarian require me to go beyond leveled reading. One of the first things I tell young school groups is that the library exists for them to pursue their interests, not just the school curriculum, and that we offer room for choice. Even the youngest and newest readers deserve the chance to create their own reading environment.

Guided reading, used in moderation, is a helpful teaching shorthand. When understood in context, it helps students to find books that they can grow on and feel confident with. My job, among others, is to help put this tool back into context, as tool, not goal. In the excellent SLJ article shared here last week, Kiera Parrott does a great job breaking down some of the issues with the ways leveled reading is used in the classroom and how those issues interact with the work of librarians. She echoes many professional discussions that I’ve participated in, where it is frequently mentioned that “Fountas and Pinnell advise against making reading levels known to individual students: 'We level books, not children.'” Since that ship has obviously sailed, how do we handle these shelf-level interactions?

First off, I’m working on decreasing the negative. Instead of ‘we don’t organize our books that way,’ I’m trying out ‘I’m sure we have lots of great books that will work for you.’ I share resources like the Scholastic Book Wizard with families so that they can make sure that the books they choose will work for their assignment. Parrott quotes a parent from Darien, CT about the helpfulness of the leveled reading structure, but then that parent follows up with the statement that “[her kids] both read a huge variety of non-leveled books outside of school.”” Good for that parent’s kids, but sometimes the books I’m putting into kids’s hands are the only ones they’ll read, and I want to make sure that they get what they need. With that in mind, I try to offer as much as possible in a single interaction, while using language that helps the child and parent think about their search strategies. After I’ve made readers and their families comfortable, I can use my excitement about literature and my interest in their choices to model a wider notion of reading goals without giving a tedious lecture. On the advice of a very smart colleague, I always offer a few books at level, alongside one or two below and one or two above. Once they get the books home, it’s up to them.

What does this have to do with the Geisel? As I said above, reading habits are established in the beginning, and even the the earliest readers deserve to have a broad and engaging choice in the books they read, and an understanding that their newfound skills are acquired with a larger goal than advancing to the next level. The Geisel criteria, with its focus on quality and an enjoyable reading experience, has given me the language to speak to parents and children about the qualities that they might seek in a book, and the varied and usually hilarious Geisel winners have provided a wide palette of choices to offer readers.

Wanting all children, even struggling readers, to find opportunities for connection, confidence, and giggles in the books they read is the opposite of elitist. It is a gift of trust, and a complimentary way to approach school efforts. After all, we all have the same goal. We want to raise readers who take joy in reading and gain knowledge.

I spoke to Jill Frutkin, a friend and former special education teacher, about this piece, and her response was: “Honestly, I think everyone should be in special education—as in, education should be personalized.” As someone who has often looked at the resources of special education classrooms and wished that they could be available to all students, I couldn’t agree more. We’re never going to get teaching and learning perfectly right. But, as librarians, it’s our job to make it as personal and as exciting as we can for each individual patron.