Beginning readers aren’t awarded Caldecott Medals or Honors. Not really.
Arnold Lobel did win a Caldecott Honor way back in 1971 for Frog and Toad Are Friends, and the past ten years have seen Caldecott recognition of picture books that also function as beginning readers: Kevin Henkes’s Waiting (2016); Jon Klassen’s This Is Not My Hat (2013); Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s Green (2013) and First the Egg (2006). But what I’m talking about is honest-to-goodness, limited vocabulary, repetitive story structure, supportive illustrations, I Can Read–style beginning readers. Those don’t win — at least not since 1971.
And to me, it makes sense that they don’t win. Beginning readers are workhorse books that are purposeful, often predictable, and inherently restrictive. An author and illustrator can’t just do whatever they want with a beginning reader — that sort of freedom is reserved for picture books. It is clear that recent Caldecott committees value the “individually distinct” component of the award’s criteria — think The Invention of Hugo Cabret (novel/historical fiction), The Lion & the Mouse (wordless fable), and This One Summer (YA graphic novel). This bend toward the atypical seems to put beginning readers at a significant disadvantage for Caldecott recognition. However, there are (and have been) beginning readers out there that are well beyond typical.
While it is true that Mo Willems’s Elephant & Piggie beginning reader series is officially over with this year’s The Thank You Book, we will continue to see cameos from the two pals in a new spinoff series: Elephant & Piggie Like Reading. The new series provides young readers with an opportunity to read some of the duo’s favorite stories. For the first two titles, Willems has tapped Laurie Keller for We Are Growing! and Dan Santat for The Cookie Fiasco.
And — no surprise — both books function very much like an Elephant & Piggie story. A singular (overblown) conflict is eventually resolved through clever dialogue and theatrical, stage-like character performances. Both titles, however, extend beyond the E&P formula in ways that should attract the attention of this year’s Caldecott committee.
Most notably, both books feel thoroughly illustrated; that is, they are brimming with color and dynamic images on every page. In The Cookie Fiasco, Santat stages four brightly colored, mathematically challenged animal characters against a diffused yellow-orange watercolor-esque background. Santat creates a sense of physical space by regularly shifting between wide-angle, close-up, and even overhead shots. We Are Growing! — literally a story about grass growing — alternates between pages with spot art on white backgrounds and green-and-blue pages that reinforce the story’s outdoor setting. Keller’s greatest accomplishment in this verbose beginning reader is her command of visual text features. Color, position, size, and shape of word balloons, thought bubbles, and sound effects are manipulated to guide understanding without diminishing appeal. The “BUZZ” of a departing lawnmower bleeds off of the page, and the twisty speech-balloon tail of the curly-topped blade-of-grass character seems necessary but could have easily been omitted by a less skilled illustrator. Perhaps the most distinct feature between the two books is Santat’s decision to represent his characters’ thoughts with three-dimensional puppets and actual cookies. The result is somewhat weird, but effective and exciting.
Can you find skillfully crafted, full-color multi-angled layouts, creatively rendered sound effects, and 3D puppets in other 2016 beginning readers? Not readily. We Are Growing! and The Cookie Fiasco are visually a step above their counterparts. Hopefully the Caldecott committee is taking a close look at these titles alongside all of the picture books eligible for the 2017 Caldecott Medal.