Some of you know that I have served on the Caldecott and Geisel committees—two equally rewarding experiences. The Geisel Award is given annually to “the most distinguished American book for beginning readers published in English in the United States during the preceding year.” It’s a relatively new award, so it’s interesting to see how the different committees interpret what a book for beginning reader is.
Some books straddle both the picture book and early reader worlds—First the Egg won an honor in both categories in 2008—and it will be interesting to see what great books for new readers were published this year and which ones might also be considered distinguished picture books.
Books for new readers tend to have a few characteristics that are not required for picture books. The font is usually clear and readable, so the eye easily knows where to go next. The vocabulary is generally limited to words that are sight words or can be decoded easily using the rules of phonics. Sentences tend to be simple and do not extend over a page turn. The book should appeal to new readers who are about five to eight years old (as opposed to many easy-to-read books with themes that appeal to toddlers and babies). The illustrations are critical in books for new readers and need to directly reflect the text, helping give clues about harder words and tell the story. You see I have used words like “usually” and “generally” and “tend to” when I list off the characteristics of a beginning reader. That’s because it’s impossible to find a truly distinguished book that simply follows a formula. Writing and illustrating an excellent book for new readers is very difficult, even when writers like Mo Willems make it look easy.
When people ask me how the discussions differed on the two committees, I break no rules of confidentiality when I say there was little difference. On both committees we referred to the criteria, examined both the text and the art carefully and considered the child reader. On both committees, we were encouraged to share the books with children, but on Geisel we carefully watched the reader to see if the book was truly easy-to-read or not. But, in the end, it always comes back to the criteria.
There are a number of books on our new list that just might straddle both worlds: Underground, Gingerbread Man Loose in the School and I Want my Hat Back pop to mind.
Just something to ponder as you begin reading through the new titles –which is exactly what I should be doing right now.