Most Marvelous Companions

My favorite book of the year didn’t win the Newbery Award and it didn’t win the Caldecott Award. It could have, in my opinion, but it was given the Geisel Award.  And what an appropriate honor! Named for Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, this award is given to the author(s) and illustrator(s) of the “most distinguished American book for beginning readers”. “Brilliant, playful, and always respectful of children”, Dr. Seuss has helped generations of children learn how to read.

The criteria for the award are specific. From the ALA website: “Subject matter must be intriguing enough to motivate the child to read . . . New words should be added slowly enough to make learning them a positive experience . . . Words should be repeated to ensure knowledge retention . . . The illustrations must demonstrate the story being told; The book creates a successful reading experience, from start to finish; The plot advances from one page to the next and creates a ‘page-turning’ dynamic.”

This is not easy! Page-turning dynamic? Just the limitations of vocabulary would be a challenge, but to “motivate” and “ensure knowledge retention” for an audience of Kindergarten through 2nd grade readers could befuddle any writer or artist. Some of the best examples of these criteria were produced by Arnold Lobel well before the inaugural Geisel Award in 2006.

The Frog and Toad books are stellar, including Frog and Toad Are Friends, a 1971 Caldecott Honor book and Frog and Toad Together, a 1973 Newbery Honor book. The establishment of the award not only recognizes the contributions of Dr. Seuss, but also the immense importance of reading and learning to read.

Bink and Gollie by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee upholds the tradition of good humor and friendship that is a hallmark of the best beginning readers, in addition to the distinguishing criteria. Frog and Toad or Elephant and Piggie may be very different, but there is nothing but love and respect between them.

For Bink and Gollie the differences may be found in fashion and film choices, but when Gollie feels threatened by Bink’s friendship with her goldfish, Fred, Bink sets her straight: “Gollie,” said Bink, “use your gray matter. Don’t you know that you are the most marvelous companion of all?”

In three short stories, the world of these girls is revealed as familiar and comfortable, full of imaginative play and shared fun. Here is one last quote from the book — my very favorite: “Hello, Gollie,” said Bink. “Do I smell pancakes?” “You do not,” said Gollie. “Will I smell pancakes?” said Bink.

This year’s Geisel Award Honor books are worthy additions to this canon, as well. Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same by Grace Lin and We Are in a Book! by Mo Willems uphold the tradition, meet the criteria and offer the reader friends that can accompany them into the world of reading with grace and joy. How wonderful to be learning to read with these “most marvelous companions”.

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