Cybils & Beginning Chapter Books

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

This post is the second part of the 2016 Cybils nominees. To read the first post click here.

Beginning chapter books can be a little bit more difficult to identify. Though many books have chapters (including a lot of middle grade novels), only those books designed for beginning readers belong in this category. As compared with easy readers, chapter books are a bit longer (up to 160 pages or so), and they have fewer illustrations. Instead of full-color pictures on every page, they may have just a few black and white line drawings sprinkled throughout the text. Unlike novels, however, beginning chapter books use large print, short chapters, and simple plots, and they rely heavily on dialogue. Popular beginning chapter books include the following series: Ivy & Bean, Marty McGuire, and Magic Tree House.

*Where Are You Going, Baby Lincoln? by Kate DiCamillo - Third in the Tales from Deckawoo Drive series, this book is a spin-off from the popular Mercy Watson series by the same author/illustrator. Fortunately it works as a stand-alone volume, which is helpful for the uninitiated. Baby Lincoln, whose real name is Lucille Abigail Eleanor Lincoln, dreams of being on a journey and is startled to be jolted back to a reality of mouse-traps, to-do lists, and an overbearing older sister. In a moment of clarity, Baby Lincoln decides to take a necessary solo journey and finds herself at the train station, purchasing a ticket to Fluxom. Older readers might recognize elements of The Phantom Tollbooth and The Little Prince, while it provides beginning readers with a strong plot, interesting characters, and a smattering of black and white images to propel the story forward. I liked it. Both for its simplicity and satisfying strength that its daring protagonist seems to gather while on her journey. Definitely worth a read.

*Weekends With Max and His Dad by Linda Urban - A refreshing mostly-male book. Three weekends, told as three stories, each with five chapters a piece. A manageable format for new readers. This was probably the most text heavy of all the early chapter books. But the narrative of a young boy, Max, figuring out what his weekends with his Dad look like, was a subtle take on divorced families, and what that scenario might look like. In fact, I especially appreciated that the book focused only on the Dad and son relationship, bringing in neighbors and a best friend as supporting characters. With more complex syntax, the book even alludes to this through one of its characters, Ms. Tibbets. Who uses words like retribution, fully expecting that her audience knows what she means. This book was touching without being sentimental. With likable characters and a spy thread, it made for an entertaining and age-appropriate read. Recommended ages 6-9.

The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Hoarde by Shannon Hale - The third book in a series, this works as a stand-alone story, although I think previous books must have expanded character development of Princess Magnolia and her unicorn, Frimplepants, who can alter their identity to The Princess in Black and her pony, Blacky, simply by riding through a secret cave. Which is necessary whenever they duo must dash to the rescue. In this case during an infestation of rabid rabbits. Short chapters, large text, dialog intermingled with plot development, and vibrant color images make this a strong chapter book. In truth, I have seen it touted as a fantastic series by many bookstagramers. To me, however, the plot never really developed beyond the fact that the Princess found the bunnies charming and wasn't the least bit worried about getting rid of them, that is until Blacky realizes that they actually want to eat the Princess and convinces them to leave of their own accord. After that the book seemed to end rather abruptly. In truth, I think the story could have been a little longer, with more conflict.

Juana and Lucas by Juana Medina - A chapter book that reads a bit like a graphic novel and travel guide combined. Each chapter features an aside with a particular character or place that is Good or Not-So-Good and Here's Why. Juana is much like any other third-graders and just wants to have fun with her friends/dog, enjoy her pastimes (reading and playing soccer), and avoid things she dislikes (itchy uniforms, math problems, and learning English). The trouble is all the faraway places that are important to her Abue (grandfather) require her to learn English. This semi-autobiographical take on childhood in Bogota, Columbia and learning English is peppered with Spanish words throughout. Which makes knowing a bit of Spanish useful when reading this book—a possible difficulty for younger readers. Whimsical color illustrations create an upbeat atmosphere, while variations in text size play to the strength of this chapter book. A couple places seem to struggle with phrasing, but overall I found this a refreshing newcomer to the early chapter book genre.

Dory Fantasmagory: Dory Dory Black Sheep by Abby Hanlon - Another third book in a series, this comes from a previous Cybils winner. Beginning readers will certainly relate to Dory living in two worlds: one real and one imaginary. One of the longest books in the early chapter books category, this story is about Dory struggling with learning to read, another relatable bit of information young readers will connect with. Black and white illustrations capture a great deal of emotion, perfectly depicting young Dory's spunk and dramatic flair, most notable in the text, which seems to have a great deal of yelling (illustrated both with exclamation points and all caps). Something that parents might want to take note of. The intermingled worlds might resonate with young readers, but I found some of the imaginary scenarios pretty outlandish and was a bit disappointed by the non sequitur ending.

*Mango & Bambang: The Not-a-Pig by Polly Faber - Mango Allsorts is the sort of girl who is good at a lot of things. We meet her as she is returning from a karate lesson, waiting to cross the street. However, traffic has obstructed her route. Or, rather, a tapir laying in the middle of the street has created a bit of a traffic muddle. Summoning her knack for smoothing over muddles, Mango gently coaxes the nervous animal to safety and invites him home with her for a breakfast of banana pancakes. Follow these two through a series of four mini-adventures, which involve swimming, hats, a rather prickly upstairs neighbor, and a clarinet concert. Young readers will appreciate the tri-colored illustrations and the way words move in a playful way across the page, while simultaneously enjoying the engaging dialog and plot. Readers may encounter some unfamiliar words, however that should not deter anyone from this dynamic duo. The first book in a series of three.

*Indicates my favorite books in the beginning chapter books category. Read this post for more about Cybils and the Easy Reader nominees. 

Cybils & Easy Readers

Over the past six weeks I, along with numerous others throughout the country, have been reading nonstop. Reading everything from graphic novels to poetry to picture books. All to award another round of Cybils (Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards). Which were announced today. Since this was my first time as a Cybils judge, I wanted to share a little bit about my experience.

Last fall a friend from graduate school let me know about the open call for judges. Which I thought was exciting, but promptly forgot about. Then, another woman I know from Instagram mentioned needing additional judges. Weeks passed and I put off applying until the last possible minute. Luckily, I got it together in time to submit my application before the deadline.

Selecting Judges
The call for judges generally opens around early September and anyone can apply to be a judge. The application process strongly encourages a blog and some relationship to reading and/or writing book reviews, although that is not an absolute requirement. During your application you can select a desired genre of interest and whether you want to be a first or second round judge. The main difference between first and second round judges is that the first group of judges reads more, since their job is to cull all entries down to a manageable list of a dozen or so finalists. Luckily, the application process is all online and is relatively easy to navigate.

First round judges read all nominated books during November and December. So it's definitely an eyes-wide-open type of commitment during one of the busiest times of the year. This year, the first round of judges for the Easy Readers /Early Chapter Books category had a total of 64 titles to review. No small task. They narrowed it down to 12 titles (six per category), for us second round judges. Which was something I thought about often. Asking myself What did the first round judges see in this title? and What made them select it as a finalist?

Nominating Books
After judges have been selected an open call for book submissions is announced and anyone can nominate a book to one of the numerous Cybils categories. The caveat is that books must be published within that designated year and should be published in the United States. After open submissions end, publishers are invited to make submissions before the submission period is permanently closed.

What are Easy Readers?
This category covers the whole spectrum of titles for early elementary kids who are learning to read, from the very basic books for emergent readers to longer, illustrated titles for kids who are not quite ready for novels. Easy readers are typically 32-64 pages in length and can usually be identified by their large type, simple sentence structure, and colorful illustrations on every page. Well-known easy readers include series like Bink & Gollie, Henry & Mudge, and Frog & Toad.

At first I thought I wanted to be a picture book judge, because I love reading and reviewing that format. However in hindsight, I'm really grateful I was selected to work on a category that my budding reader will reach in no time. And in truth, we've already started reading easy readers and early chapter books aloud as part of our regular reading routine. Remember this post?

Over the last couple weeks we discussed each book as a group and selected a winner by consensus. Here I've broken down each of the six Easy Reader finalist and given a brief overview, along with my opinion of the book. Early Chapter books will be discussed in a separate post.

We Are Growing! by Mo Willems - The Elephant & Piggie like Reading series has certainly received a lot of press lately. Probably because it is new and likely because its predecessors are beloved characters from an equally cherished series in the children's book world. This spin off is an interesting approach, because presumably, Elephant and Piggie are acting as guides, taking a beginning reader from the passive listener phase of reading to becoming self-sufficient as an active readers; much like Go Dog, Go! did for previous generations. Meaning that the imitable duo introduces, then eventually closes each story, acting as though they were right there reading with you all along. But other than those cameos, Elephant and Piggie are not actually part of the story. Which may disappoint some readers. The characters in We Are Growing are eager blades of grass, each showcasing a particular talent for being the -est at something (e.g., tallest, curliest, greenest). All except one little guy. Under the watchful eye of his peers, he is pressured into revealing what he is best at, but is saved by the last-minute whirl of an approaching lawn mower. While I appreciate that the book showcases individual "strengths," if they can even be called that, the subtle message of competition is woven into the story's core. Indicating that, clearly we can't be content just being. We must be something more than someone else. A message that, however true or untrue and very likely for children to encounter on their own, isn't one necessarily worth promoting. In truth, this book disappointed me.

The Cookie Fiasco by Mo Willems - A common dilemma, four friends and only three cookies. This book is a fun approach to math and certainly appeals to the intended age demographic. With bold colors and large text, children are especially amused by the antics of Hippo's logic and nervous habit (breaking cookies apart). The large font clearly indicates a lot of LOUD declarations, emphasizing the drama of the situation. Although, in truth, I thought it was a little excessive and indicated too much yelling. However, young children often thrive off this type of hyperbole, making the book an amusing read for early readers.

*The Great Antonio by Elise Gravel - Born in Croatia, possibly from giant lumberjack parents, Antonio immigrated to Canada when he was 20 years old. Impressive not only by his behemoth size, weighing in at 460 pounds, Antonio became known throughout Montreal for his strength and wrestling abilities. He set world records and on occasion pulled buses by his hair! In fact, his braids were a sense of pride and Antonio used them in all sorts of imaginative ways. He lived outside a donut shop and played with children that were charmed by his gentle giant manners. An amusing account of one of the great strong-men of our day. In characteristic comic-book/graphic novel style, Elise Gravel showcases the funny and absurd aspects of life with aplomb; proving once again, through bold images and typography, that she has mastered the art of storytelling.

Snail and Worm: Three Stories about Two Friends by Tina Kugler - The text and plot seem too simple for an easy reader, but too long for a picture book. The story begins with a game of tag, turned somewhat perplexing when it involves inanimate objects, like a rock and stick. When Worm appears on the scene he seems just as confused by Snails antics. End scene. The second story is a bit more humorous as Snail climbs up a flower and then causes the flower to bend back to the ground. Worm's encouragement in this story creates a solid dialog, one that early readers can easily follow, enhanced by a slight color variation in the text. Finally, the last story is about locating a lost pet and starts like a game of 20 questions. Snail seems fixated that Worm's lost pet is a spider, one Snail is supposedly afraid of. In the end it turns out Worm's pet is a dog and Snail keeps a spider for his pet. The humorous elements in this story will likely appeal to a young audience, but I was not charmed by Snail's daft character flaw. Nor the illustrations. The lack of quotation marks also bothered me, making the exchange between the two characters difficult to follow.

The first four books in the Easy Reader category are indeed intended for very early readers. Large text, simple plots, and a generous amount of images make these books suitable for emergent readers ages 4-8. The next two books are more advanced and straddle the line between easy reader and early chapter books, recommended for ages 5-9.

The Infamous Ratsos by Kara LaReau - Here we have two brothers and a father. Each trying to be tough. Tough guys do tough things and the best way these two hooligans can think of being tough is to make trouble for others. However, each of their attempts ends in unintended acts of kindness. From returning a stolen hat, to shoveling snow, and finally providing a sandwich for the new kid at school. These two can't seem to get it right; or wrong rather. Foiled time after time, the book is somewhat formulaic in its approach. Although humorous, it neglected a natural segue from chapter three to four, which was slightly jarring as a reader and probably my biggest complaint about the entire book. Otherwise, I appreciate that the concluding pages affirm that life is tough enough and that maybe a little more kindness is what is actually needed.
*Rabbit and Robot and Ribbit by Cece Bell - Four chapters all with the same title. An interesting beginning. But I was immediately drawn to the trio of tongue-twisting characters. Kids will likely get a kick out of the ongoing "engrossed/gross" joke throughout the book and will certainly relate to feeling out of place in a third-wheel situation. Robot's Emotion Decoder is both humorous and helpful, as young readers are still developing insight to social cues, helping them decipher the emotions of others. Which they can see in the interactions between Rabbit and Ribbit, who, later, set aside differences, to work together to revive Robot. This story is not only an amusing take on friendship and inside jokes, it portrays accurately punctuated dialog, in a snappy exchange, helping early readers understand sentence structure and acquire language literacy, all while allowing them funny illustrations to coincide with the text. Plus the author's note is definitely worth reading. Overall, a really excellent read.

*Indicates my favorite books in the easy reader category. Click here to read part two.

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