Sometimes I just have to admit it: I would dearly love to hear a committee discuss a picture book where the medium is photography. When I served on the Coretta Scott King Committee, we honored the photography of Charles Smith in My People and that was the first time photography had been honored in the illustrator category. It was then that I realized how rare it is for photography to get any respect. When Step Gently Out arrived at my house, I tucked it aside and waited.
I waited to read it to my
test subjects second graders until a few days ago. I like to see their reactions to a book when it is brand-spanking-new to them. Now that they are starting to understand the criteria and parts of a book, it’s interesting to note their first reactions. Though this is a very simple book, filled with easy-to-decode words and rhythm and rhyme, it was the images that captured them.
When I slipped off the cover, they noticed the yellow-green cover with a single solitary ant embossed on it. “Ooohh,” commented a boy. I moved on to the endpages–my habit is to show both the opening and the closing endpapers before we start. Someone said, “Sun to night. This better start in the morning and end at night!” (Hell hath no fury like a second-grade critic.) Once the initial expectations were out the way, I read the book. They were captivated, not even breaking the spell for the “I caught fireflies on the beach” sharing that is so common. Afterwards, I asked them to try to figure out why I thought this book might be discussed by the Caldecott Committee.
Here is what they said:
–I like how you really just look at the bugs. The other stuff in the picture is soft but you just want to look at the bug.
–It did go from morning to night. (and then…)
–But, it said “morning dew” at the end. I wonder if the endpages are showing the sun coming up? (much discussion on this point)
–I like the “fact pages” at the end and I liked that the pictures were there again.
–The bugs were really really close. I don’t know how he did that. (much discussion on how hard it is to get a clear picture of something little and close up)
–I liked how it rhymed. (There was a good deal of talk about the words and they agreed that younger kids could read it too, though adults would have to read the “fact pages” to them. Until I read it aloud, I had not even considered it as a potential Geisel Award winner…now I do.)
Photography is a natural choice in many nonfiction books about nature. The reader can see every detail of the insects, the surrounding branches and the flower parts in these glorious full-bleed pages. The typeface, big and clear, will be easily read, and the type is artfully placed and never distracts the reader from the images. The poem tells a story of slowing down, looking carefully, and appreciating the natural world. The oversized insects allow the reader to imagine what it would be like to be one. The flyleaf tells the reader that Rick Lieder is a photographer, painter and illustrator. And many of us know, from her previous books, that Helen Frost is one heckuva poet.
I hope the committee will step gently out of the box and consider this one.