Thursday, October 26, 2017

Holiday House I Like to Read series

This post is contributed by Jamie Holcomb, a reference librarian at the Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales branch of Denver Public Library. She recently co-presented on reader's advisory for beginning readers at CAL's 2017 conference.

This year, Holiday House is adding several new titles for its I Like to Read series. New with items appearing later in the year is a Guided Reading Level printed on the cover. This move is helpful for differentiating titles in the series from each other--they have always varied in the level of difficulty--but will be controversial.

For the purposes of this review, I’ve divided the titles into two groups: the very first reads; and slightly more advanced entries.

Four different titles have been released as Guided Reading Level A, the starting place. When a child has only a handful of sight words, anything more than a few repeated words is likely to cause frustration. It may be helpful to know “start here.”

All the titles share strong supportive characteristics. There is ideal repetition--just one phrase, with only the last word changing. Picture support is concrete and clear, and, like all I Like to Read works, they use kid-friendly “ball and stick” As and Gs. Some, though, offer up more in the way of motivation and page-turning dynamic.

I Like the Farm: Full-page photographs draw in young readers, and since they are on a separate page from the text, they do not distract from the words. They have been learning farm animals since before they could walk, so the subject is likely to inspire confidence. Oh, a cow! I know about cows! The alternation between mother animals and baby animals is fun, and the diverse group of children shown snuggling with the animals is engaging. There is, however, a lack of plot; the animals appear in no logical order aside from the mother/baby pattern.

I Hug: Here, there is something more of a plot; at least, the story moves toward night time. The muted, old-fashioned drawings, however, offer little to motivate little readers to keep turning the pages.

I See a Cat: A dog waits by the back door, watching animals go by. Finally, he sees a boy, and gets to go outside that chase that pesky squirrel he’s been watching. The illustrations are colorful and attractive and fill the whole page; they offer motivation to keep going. Children may also relate to the appearance of the boy (a child like themselves) as the highlight of the story.

I Can Run: Another strong very-first reader. With just three words on the page--”I can” and a concrete verb--this tale manages to contain an entire plot. A squirrel, serving as the I narrator, is menaced by a hawk! I can see! I can run! I can hide! Squirrels are very familiar to young children, who are often fascinated by them, and the full-page photographs draw them right into the story and keep them coming back.

There are three titles in the slightly harder range (still for very early readers), one with a Guided Reading Level D and two that were unleveled.

Pip Sits: In arguably the weakest of this group, a young bear is asked to sit on a duck nest, but doesn’t quite know what to do when the ducklings hatch and follow him.The old-fashioned drawings do not engage young readers effectively, nor does the plot. Pip and the ducks flail around a bit and then they are all rescued by their respective mothers.

Pizza Mouse (level D): A mouse navigates the perils of a major city, stumbling across a slice of pizza that he brings home to baby mice who happily greet their daddy. Colorful, enticing pictures offer lots of motivation for small readers. Pizza! Mice! These are familiar and appealing subjects. There is some supporting repetition, but more variation from page to page as befitting a next-level reader. With the pictures covering almost the full two-page spread, though, finding room for the words was a challenge, and occasionally they are hard to see. The most difficult words (subway and pizza) are not repeated.

Peeper and Zeep: A baby bird and young alien find themselves stranded after bad falls; they seek help from a frog and make themselves comfortable until their families arrive to take them home. The two title characters have names that are very fun to say, and the sci-fi plot is more interesting and complex than is often conveyed with just one short sentence on a page. Helpful repetition and strong relationship between words and pictures supports young readers. The kid-friendly page layout includes interesting full-cover pictures, reminiscent of an animated film, that help hold interest over repeated readings. Again, unfortunately, the most difficult words (spaceship and everyone) are not repeated.

This year’s Holiday House titles are sensible additions to your beginning reader section serving the relatively underserved very-new-reader segment. While none of them have the spark of originality that sets apart an award winner from a merely interesting book, some of the stronger entries may be “honor book” contenders.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Princess in Black and the Mysterious Playdate by Shannon and Dean Hale

The Princess in Black has plans -- mysterious plans. As her mild-mannered alter-ego, Princess Magnolia, she is off to a playdate with Princess Sneezewort. It should be a fun and relaxing afternoon, far away from her monster-fighting responsibilities. But when a cry for help is heard just outside of Princess Sneezewort's castle, the Princess in Black must spring into action once again. With a little help from a mysterious friend, the Princess in Black vanquishes her sneakiest foe yet.

Clocking in at 90 pages, this book falls just inside the Geisel page-count criteria. Is this more of a chapter book than a book for beginning readers? I was just catching up on some professional reading, and read the excellent Horn Book article by Summer Clark, "What My First Grader Taught Me About Reading." Near the end of that article, she mentions giving her son, now fluently reading books at a first-grade level, a more challenging text to read, and watching him stumble over the more difficult vocabulary and syntax. She concludes that "fluency learning isn’t something that occurs and is then finished; it happens in stages, and it depends on the context." Perhaps that is why books like last year's The Infamous Ratsos are still, rightly, honored by the Geisel committee -- because learning to read goes far beyond that first exciting moment when a beginning reader discovers that they know what that first word on the page means. Which brings us back to The Princess in Black. 

Is The Princess in Black and the Mysterious Playdate a book intended for fluent readers? Or does it have a place in the spectrum of books for beginning readers? Yes, and yes. Some fluency is required to be able to tackle the more challenging vocabulary presented in this book, but the book's text, illustrations, and design work hard to help readers along. In the first few pages, readers encounter words like "mysterious," "drawbridge," and "squatted," among others. Some of these words may already be familiar to readers at this level of fluency, while others may require some puzzling out. However, many of them are repeated in the text, and whenever possible, they are underscored by LeUyen Pham's eye-catching full-color illustrations that accompany each page. Moreover, the generous font size, spacing, and leading give each word plenty of space on the page. And finally, The Princess in Black and the Mysterious Playdate wins at child appeal, as the entire book presents an appealing package that readers with an interest in the subject matter (princesses! monsters! adventure! disguises!) will be motivated to pick up and read. There's plenty here for Geisel discussion, that's for sure.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Infamous Ratsos Are Not Afraid by Kara LaReau and illustrated by Matt Myers

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

Louie and Ralphie Ratso, the brothers who debuted last year in the Geisel Honor Winner The Infamous Ratsos, return for another exciting tale for the more confident readers at the upper limits of the Geisel age range.   This time around they devise a master plan to set up the “Big City Fun Time Arcade” in an old lot filled with junk.  It’s a win-win for them since they love junk and arcades. The catch is that the lot is adjacent to a house rumored to be haunted.  When a bell from one of the games goes flying next door, it is Louie who faces his fears and discovers that the house’s resident is not as frightening as he might seem.

Then there’s Stinky Stanko.  Could anyone be more smelly than her?  Brother Ralphie doesn’t seem to think so.  But wait?! Did Ralphie walk Stinky home from school?  It certainly appears that way from the bathroom wall. As beginning readers explore themes of kindness, judgement and the risks of jumping to conclusions, they will be surprised when they discover the truth.

Even though Louie and Ralphie are rats, young readers will be able to relate to their feelings, desires and dilemmas.  The simple black and white illustrations demonstrate the story being told in this chapter book that young people won’t want to put down.

I struggle to recommend this as a true Geisel contender. On the one hand it seems too advanced for the readers the award is promoting.  On the other hand, the Geisel award, according to terms and criteria, is given to books targeting readers in grades preK-2. This is the perfect book for 7 year olds.  Many second graders have moved out of the emerging readers and are begging for more.  This unbiased book will appeal to all kids, boys and girls, young and old of any ethnicity and they will feel successful as they read a “big kid” chapter book.

I love the perseverance of Ralphie and Louie.  I laughed out loud at some of the humor (one of the prizes at the arcade is a balloon that reads, “Happy Rat Mitzvah”) and young readers will enjoy sharing the lessons learned with friends, family and teachers.  The book is multi-layered, woven together beautifully between the text and Matt Myers’s simple but distinguished black and white illustrations.  If reading aloud or sharing in groups, it definitely lends itself to great discussion. 

Geisel or not? I could go either way. I feel that this is  “YES! A definite contender,” and yet at the same time, “I hesitate. Not sure. Too long and challenging for my youngest learners.” Once you’ve read it on your own and decided for yourself, please come back and let me know in the comments. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Groovy Joe: Dance Party Countdown by Eric Litwin and Tom Lichtenheld

Groovy Joe is a dance party of one, but as more and more dogs show up to join the fun, does he get upset? Goodness no! There's always room for more.

This book is sure to be a hit with kids: it has bright, dynamic illustrations, a rollicking, rhyming text, and the star power of the author who brought us Pete the Cat. (Of course, to the Geisel Committee, that last point is immaterial.) When viewed as a Geisel contender, this book has both strengths and weaknesses.

First of all, it does a lot of things very well. The text uses a great deal of repetition, so new vocabulary (for example, "disco") generally appears often enough for readers to gain confidence reading those potentially unfamiliar words. The font size is generous, line breaks are in helpful places, and sentences are never carried over a page turn. Instead, there is often a question on one page, and the answer to the question after the page turn – which is an obvious way of creating a "page-turning dynamic." Moreover, this book plays with simple math concepts that beginning readers may also be exploring in school. Both numerals (e.g. "4") and the printed names of numbers (e.g. "four") are used. And, as mentioned above, this is a fun book that kids will enjoy reading.

Of course, for a beginning reader, it's not perfect. For one thing, I'd take exception with the title: this book counts up, not down! Beyond that, there are a couple of instances of challenging vocabulary, but the main issue that I see is the inclusion of special fonts: block letters with funky shading, fonts with little squiggly bits that could be confusing to inexperienced readers, and words that go sprawling across the page, interacting with the illustrations in a way that makes for the occasional chaotically busy page. There are even a few words in loopy cursive, likely to pose a challenge to any young reader. And, while some of these artistically rendered words (including the cursive ones) could be skipped without impacting understanding of the story, others are necessary to the reading experience.

Is this a deal-breaker for Groovy Joe? Only this year's Geisel Committee can know for sure. If this title were suggested, I would expect the font issue to feature prominently in their discussions, but the committee might find that the book's strengths outweigh its weaknesses. Either way, Groovy Joe is sure to enliven countless preschool story times: Disco party bow wow!

Friday, October 6, 2017

A Pig, A Fox, and Stinky Socks by Jonathan Fenske

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

It would seem that no friendship is complete without a bit of good-natured pranking. In Jonathan Fenske's A Pig, a Fox, and Stinky Socks, the titular characters are just such friends. Playful Fox has some stinky socks, and is determined to trick Pig in this three part story. First he tries gifting Pig the socks in a box, and when that doesn't go as planned, he steps things up a notch and hides the stinky socks in Pig's bowl of slop. Unfortunately for Fox, Pig is too practical to be easily tricked and the joke backfires, leaving Fox a stinky mess.

Each of the three parts follows a pattern that allows readers to anticipate some of the action and benefit from the repetition of dialog. In each part, Pig and Fox introduce themselves to the reader on the first page and share a little something about themselves. "'I am Fox.' 'I am Pig.' 'I am little.' 'I am big.'" The pattern is inverted slightly in Part 2, when Pig and Fox introduce one another rather than themselves, but the story arc repeats: Fox has some more stinky socks and tries to prank Pig, but ultimately the joke is on Fox. By the second time, the repeated action of Fox stashing the socks for Pig to find, and then seeking out a hiding spot allows the reader to anticipate the joke's fallout. Of course, this makes it all the more satisfying that Part 3 begins with the same chorus of introductions, only to abandon the established pattern altogether on the final page. Instead of ending up once more covered in stinky socks and slop, Fox now marches off to take a bath.

The illustrations are uncluttered, with bold outlines and solid blocks of color. Each image mirrors the accompanying text, providing beginning readers solid visual clues to help them decipher the words. As Fox narrates what he is doing, the illustrations helpfully zoom in or out to focus on the action.

Fenske skillfully reveals the characters’ emotions and personalities through subtle visual clues: Fox's sly glances and sneaking steps contrast Pig's big movements and clear transition from anticipation to frustration as he realizes he has been tricked. The sectioning of most pages into panels also serves as an introduction to a graphic novel layout. The rhyming text is a helpful guide to navigating panels, preventing readers from getting lost on the page spreads.

Fox's escalating tricks clearly upset Pig, but the anger doesn't last. The friendship withstands Fox's pranks, as we see Pig accompanying the now-smelly Fox, holding out his bath towel. The humor builds through both the text and illustrations, providing the comfort of an established pattern along with a final twist so the story ends on a strong, unexpected note. A Pig, a Fox, and Stinky Socks is a light-hearted mix of humor and friendship that will delight existing fans of Pig and Fox and new readers alike.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Egg (and In the Middle of Fall) by Kevin Henkes

Today's guest contributor, Robbin Friedman, is a children's librarian at the Chappaqua Library. She writes reviews for School Library Journal, serves on ALSC's Excellence in Early Learning Digital Media committee and will soon begin as a member of the 2019 Newbery Committee. 

Two-time Geisel honoree Kevin Henkes returns this year with two accessible offerings: In the Middle of Fall, illustrated by his wife, Laura Dronzek, and Egg, with Henkes’s own paintings. In the Middle of Fall complements the duo’s When Spring Comes with a gentle exploration of the colors of autumn. Gorgeous and contemplative, the book perfectly captures the look, the feel, the sounds of fall as it tips into winter; it practically smells like woodsmoke and leaf matter. But while the book shines as an autumn read-aloud, the hushed beauty of changing seasons doesn’t quite propel emerging readers through the pages.

Image from Egg by Kevin Henkes
The candy-colored Egg, on the other hand, uses limited text to tell a suspenseful and humorous story, melding picture book and comics formats to great effect. Opening with four different-colored eggs, the pink, yellow, and blue quickly crack to reveal charming pastel birds, leaving only the green egg to sit intact. For pages. And pages. Early readers will enjoy the visual humor of the stubbornly unbroken egg; chances are, they’ll also have learned the word "waiting" by the seventeenth repetition around page 12. Presumably tired of all this waiting, the perplexed hatchlings from the first three eggs return to examine the green oddity and coax the inhabitant out. Spoiler alert: egg number four does NOT produce a bird. 

As an introductory comic, Egg nails the format. The straightforward presentation of one, four or sixteen panels per page allows for variety in the storytelling but ensures early readers can follow the plot without struggle. Henkes also embraces the format’s strengths for visual narrative: a sense of time conveyed by repetitive panels, the impact of a full-page picture after a series of smaller images, the sense of movement depicted as characters appear to exit the frame. And he avoids some of the potential complications by skipping speech bubbles and limiting the text--in a clean, non-serif font--to the bottom of each frame. This accessible version of sequential art allows a complete story to emerge from a text that uses only fifteen different words (for all it uses peck 63 times). That limited vocabulary features a couple of challenges, but Henkes expressive animal faces and repetition of both words and sounds--plus the decoding oases of wordless spreads--will usher readers through the tricky parts. 

Image from Egg by Kevin Henkes
Some emerging readers may be surprised as the final sunset morphs into an egg and hints at a continuing narrative, evoking the cyclical nature of life and storytelling. But this mild detour into the surreal shouldn’t bother most readers, even if the dreamlike illustrations don’t quite support the few remaining words of text (an inevitable trade off for introductory surrealism). Either way, most readers will find themselves completely satisfied by the friendly resolution among the hatchlings and happy to coast through the final pages. And then they’ll likely start this Geisel contender again.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Fergus and Zeke by Kate Messner, Illustrated by Heather Ross

Today's post is from Paige Bentley-Flannery. Paige is a Community Librarian at Deschutes Public Library. She is a former Chair of the ALSC Notable Children’s Book Committee and ALSC Digital Content Task Force. Twitter @chapterpaigeone

What do you look for when selecting easy readers or picture books for children? Do you think about past Geisel Award winners? Favorite authors? Favorite characters? When Kate Messner’s new book, Fergus and Zeke arrived on my desk I was excited about the format, museum story and two new best friends. The reading experience from beginning to end follows a wonderful rhythm and “provides a stimulating and successful reading experience” for children pre-K through Grade 2, as they say in the Geisel Award criteria.

In four short chapters, Miss Maxwell’s class is in full swing learning team work, listening at story time, solving math problems and creating new projects. Fergus, Miss Maxwell’s class pet, loves school and loves his favored status. But when Fergus finds out his whole class is going on a field trip to the Museum of Natural History and he has to stay in the classroom, he tries any means to get to go! But how? He hides in Emma’s backpack and the adventure begins! Butterflies! Dinosaurs! Stars! The school field trip to the Museum of Natural History provides the perfect plot with a variety of favorite topics including shiny rocks and minerals! The length, 52 pages fits right in the middle of the criteria (a minimum of 24 pages but no longer than 96 pages). Messier provides an intriguing look inside the museum including a dinosaur’s mouth!

Image from Fergus and Zeke
by Kate Messner, illus. by Heather Ross
Fergus and Zeke encourage the beginning reader with a wonderful introduction to favorite and fun new words. Right away, I noticed the word “room.” being repeated over and over. We follow the story from room to room - a classroom or a museum room. Think about all of things you might want to see? The phrase, “I want to see…” is repeated over and over. But my favorite repetitive word in the story is “buddy.” Fergus’s buddy is a banana! In Chapter 2, look back at the illustrations, Fergus is so happy! The word “buddy” throughout the story discusses the importance of having a buddy but also, adds joy with Fergus’s buddy being a banana.  Bus, buddy and the phrase “he wanted to…” are also included in Chapter 2.

Following the criteria, the bright colorful illustrations “demonstrate the story being told” from Fergus’s jazzy dance with the butterflies to the stars in the planetarium. The illustrations also provide clues to the text. In Chapter 3, the first sentence - “The first exhibit hall was full of rocks and minerals” is matched with multiple sizes of rock illustrations on display. The mice are filled with fun expressions - pretending to be a lion on page 28 and tigers on page 30.  Messner’s heart-filled story is filled with friendships, collaboration and adventure. Children will appreciate Fergus’s personality and favorite school activities.

Fergus and Zeke might be your new favorite book to book talk, share with teachers, families and more. Will it capture the Geisel committee’s attention? Grab your backpack and go on a field trip with Miss Maxwell’s class.