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Monday, August 26, 2019

Hey, Water! by Antoinette Portis

Photo of Betsy Bird. 
Courtesy of Betsy Bird. 
Betsy Bird is the Collection Development Manager of Evanston Public Library and the former Youth Materials Specialist of New York Public Library. She writes for the Fuse #8 Production blog hosted by School Library Journal and reviews for Kirkus. Betsy has written several books and her latest, THE GREAT SANTA STAKEOUT, is out this year. She also runs a picture book podcast called Fuse 8 n’ Kate. Find Betsy at betsybirdbooks.com or on Twitter @FuseEight. 

Hey, Water! by Antoinette Portis
book cover
The Geisel Award is not a particularly old award. Yet in its scant 13 years it has managed to encompass a wide range of styles (both written and artistic) and reading levels. And, as with other literary awards like the Newbery or the Caldecott, it inclines towards fiction more often than fact. Informational books aren’t unheard of Geisel winners (2009’s Wolfsnail by Sarah C. Campbell proves as much), but they seem to crop up only once in a blue moon. 

Until now? 

Hey, Water! by Antoinette Portis begins with our guide, a brown-skinned girl named Zoe, calling out, “Hey, water! I know you! You’re all around.” She proceeds to list all the different ways you can encounter this essential resource. It’s in your home. In large bodies of water. In a teardrop falling from your eye. There’s steam and fog, snowmen and fish, even your own body! What’s the best thing to say after all of that? “Hey, water, thank you!” 

Now I’m coming at this book from a children’s librarian standpoint, and you know what we children’s librarians love? New STEM related books for our thematic storytimes! That’s part of the joy of this book. For the kids just learning to read there are short sentences peppered throughout. For the youngest squirmy types, each image shows a single simple word for them to see and comprehend. Tackling big ideas (like the water cycle) with simple words and images is one of the hardest jobs to do in this business. Oh, and did I mention it’s gorgeous? The Geisel Award terms and criteria state that the awards go to creators that, “through their literary and artistic achievements, demonstrate creativity and imagination to engage children in reading.” Not much more is said about those “artistic achievements” but as they are alluded to, I’d like to recommend that folks take them into consideration. 

Image of child running through the sprinklers on the left. On the right, a child standing in the shower. 

It’s not perfect, of course. For example, at one point the book likens an iceberg to a rock, joking that it’s a rock that can float, or a rock you can skate on. I could see some scientifically minded gatekeepers not caring much for that, saying that it misleads children into thinking that ice and rocks are one and the same. Another concern involves the repetition of words. The Geisel Award criteria is fairly clear that, “Words should be repeated to ensure knowledge retention.” The book is almost too simple to repeat many words, though I did notice that “water” does crop up from time to time. 

Image on left of a teapot steaming on the stove. On the right, three birds flying below a cloud. 

The Geisel Award criteria does not preclude nonfiction, nor does it encourage it. As with all things, it is up to the discretion of the committee itself to determine whether or not a book meets with its standards. Even so, I can hope that a book this joyous in its willingness to teach, not just language skills, but science as well, will earn the respect of all gatekeepers. Fun, funny, and desperately smart, this is a book to keep your eye on.

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