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Step Gently Out

step gently outSometimes 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.


Robin Smith About Robin Smith

Robin Smith is a second-grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a reviewer for Kirkus and The Horn Book Magazine and has served on multiple award committees.



  1. I’m kicking myself that we don’t have this one in our house yet. We read lots of poems, and my son is nature obsessed. I’ve got nothing to add to this conversation, but wanted to thank you for the write-up.

  2. The macro photos of the bugs are really fantastic, particularly the praying mantis ones. My 2.5yo was entranced by the close ups. I love that it was a great discussion book for 2nd graders, as I wondered how well the text would hold up for older kids.

    Total side note, as I’m also in Nashville: I am totally blown away by the children’s collections at Nashville public libraries. They’re clearly keeping track of highly regarded books, because they have at least one copy of every book mentioned in the first Caldecott post.

  3. Susan Dailey says:

    First I should say that I know Helen Frost and the text is indicative of her—thoughtful, introspective, with a concern for nature that is lyrically expressed. However, I believe I’d have been blown away by these illustrations even if I didn’t know Helen. The photographs are spectacular and, like Robin said, it is time that the Caldecott Committee recognized photography. (Leonard Marcus addressed this topic in the March/April 2010 issue of “The Horn Book.”) Perhaps this is the book because some of the photos almost look like illustrations, e.g. the honeybee. The photos wonderfully illustrate the text. The ant and praying mantis look like they are stepping out. The almost invisible thread of the web, which makes the spider appear to step “across the air.” There is a unity to the color palette, which is soft and matches the feeling of the text. The exception is the “bathed in golden light” page, which is startling and effective.

    Text placement is a strength of this book. Sometimes the text wraps around the image, the spider page. Other times it is used to balance the spread, e.g. the cricket. As Robin’s students mentioned, the end pages are wonderful. A beautiful book!

  4. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Susan and Kimu, thanks for your comments.

    I should have mentioned the text placement–that rich oversized font could overwhelm the photos, but it never does because the text was placed so carefully.

    And, Kimu, we should meet for coffee! I love hearing from someone from Nashville.

  5. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book; I will have to check it out!

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