Tuesday, November 23, 2021

“If you can catch it, you can keep it!”

Sylvie Shaffer served on the 2018 Geisel Committee. She’s the preK-8 librarian at the Capitol Hill Day School in Washington, DC and is active in several overlapping kidlit-focused communities including ALSC and Capitol Choices, and has also served on the 2019 and 2020 Sydney Taylor Book Awards. You can find her online at

Starla Jean’s resolve to capture the chicken she happens upon in the park (her dad naively promised “if you can catch it, you can keep it” ) is mirrored by emerging readers’ determination to read this title independently- and like Starla Jean, they gleefully succeed with pride.

At 96 pages, Starla Jean kisses the upper page limit of the Geisel Criteria, and not a page is wasted. The longer format is only one of many reasons this book has been a hit with the first and second grade emerging readers in my school library. Kids feel a terrific sense of accomplishment having read a book just shy of a hundred pages, and the book’s standout design, storytelling, word choice, and illustrations work together to pace a reading experience that provides a perfect balance of stamina-building forward momentum, and welcome pauses. The whimsical and appealing illustrations feel both modern and timeless, and provide support for the handful of challenging or un-decodable words that appear throughout the text (for example, “laughing”, “laundry”, “diaper.”) Other tricky words are repeated to help readers conquer them; “treasure” appears early in the story and is later repeated three times within a few sentences as the story winds down, ensuring the next time a reader encounters the word, they’ll likely recognize it.

The first person narration contains a variety of sentence structures and punctuation, along with plenty of dialogue, providing practice to readers still learning to parse these conventions of text. It also breaks the fourth wall, asking readers “Do you remember how I told you…” doing double duty of keeping readers engaged and offering practice at some reading skills beyond decoding: retelling, prediction, inferring. Design, both of individual pages, and the book’s overall aesthetic play a strong hand in its success. A family portrait facing the first chapter’s header introduces the family, hinting at members' personalities. The pops of red against an otherwise muted palette is brilliant and connects Starla Jean (in red boots and a striped long sleeve shirt, paired with a blue jumper) to the chicken’s comb, wattle, legs and tail feathers- tipped blue to match Starla Jean’s jumper) while the red, handwritten, onomatopoeic interjections (bawk, scritch, meow) beg to be read aloud. Although the text could easily have worked as a longer picture book, dividing it into four neat chapters makes it easy for an emerging reader to tackle this all at once, or a bit at a time as best suits their needs and desires. While not a Geisel Award criteria, there are some terrific messages both overt and subtle that are nested (ha!) here too: grit and determination are often rewarding; when something isn’t working for a member of the household, (chicken poop in the house? yikes!) be proactive in seeking a solution; do one’s best to return lost items; Dads can and should take active parenting roles (folding laundry, biking to the park.) Starla Jean is worthy of a Geisel, and I’m hopeful The Real Committee thinks so, too!

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