You Be the Judge: the Irma Black Award and the Cook Prize

My friend Sue Beckmeyer, who is the instructional media specialist at the K-8 school my kids attend, recently told me about two children’s book awards that are voted on by elementary school students: the Irma Black Award and the Cook Prize.  Both of these awards were created by the Center for Children’s Literature at the Bank Street College of Education in New York.

I was excited to learn about the awards because I read to two classes of second graders every other week, and they LOVE to vote for their favorites.  Sue was especially excited about the Cook Prize because it focuses on STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) related picture books, which are a big part of the new Common Core curriculum.  She asked me to share the books with the third and fourth grade classes, and collect their votes.  Here are the books:

ada

Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine by Laurie Wallmark; illustrated by April Chu

This is a fascinating story about a brilliant mathematician who was a century ahead of her time.  Ada Byron Lovelace was the daughter of the notorious poet, Lord Byron, although she barely knew her father.  Her childhood was devoted to math and invention, especially after a bout of measles left her crippled for several years.  As a teenager, she met the famous inventor, Charles Babbage, who showed her his plans to build a “Thinking Machine,” essentially the first computer.  Lovelace recognized that the thinking machine would need detailed instructions to run, and so she set out to write them.  Even though Babbage never built the actual machine, Lovelace’s code is still considered the world’s first computer program.  The two third grade classes I shared this with so far were intrigued by the idea of a computer program that predated computers, and this one got a large number of votes, mostly from girls.

horseshoe

High Tide for Horseshoe Crabs by Lisa Kahn Schnell; illustrated by Alan Marks

This was the favorite by far of both classes I have read to.  It describes the annual event in Delaware Bay, when millions of horseshoe crabs crawl ashore to lay their eggs in the sand, followed by millions of hungry sea birds.  The kids loved the diagram of the very alien-looking crabs on the inside cover, and seemed really intrigued by the radio tags, and the goopy green eggs.  Nature writing at its best.

mesmerized

Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled all of France by Mara Rockliff; illustrated by Iocapo Bruno

This was the most challenging of the three books in terms of the concepts it was trying to convey, but it’s a great story.  It describes Benjamin Franklin’s trip to Paris to garner the support of the French aristocracy during the American Revolution.  While in Paris, he found that everyone was abuzz with news of a man named Dr. Mesmer.  Dr. Mesmer claimed to possess a mysterious force that could make people experience strange sensations, or even cure them of various ailments.  But when Dr. Mesmer tried his powers on Franklin, nothing happened.  Franklin suspected that the force was in the patient’s mind.  In order to test his theory, he enlisted the help of Mesmer’s assistant, asking him to use his powers on people who were blindfolded.  As he suspected, when the patient could no longer see Mesmer’s assistant, they would experience sensations even when he was no longer in the room, or feel heat in a different part of the body than he was targeting.  Mesmer was disgraced, but Franklin’s experiments led to the discovery of the placebo effect, which has been an important tool in modern medicine.  The book design and illustrations are eye-catching, and the text includes side bars outlining the different parts of the scientific method Franklin employed.  This book got a number of votes as well.

The Irma Black Award

On Wednesday, I got to share the finalists for the Irma Black Award with two classes of second graders.  This award is chosen by first and second graders, and is for the best read-aloud picture books.  Here are the four finalists:

bert

You Can Do It, Bert by Ole Konnecke

This is the shortest of the four finalists: a cute book about a bird bracing himself to try something new.  He walks out to the edge of his branch, then back again, then has a snack, then finally jumps…down into the water.  The kids liked the surprise that instead of learning to fly, Bert is taking his first plunge from the high dive.  This one got several votes.

stanley

It’s Only Stanley by Jon Agee

I love Jon Agee, especially because he did an excellent author visit to the school when my son was in second grade.  My favorite books of his are My Rhinoceros and Milo’s Hat Trick.  In this rhyming story, the Wimbledon family keeps getting woken up by the antics of their dog, Stanley, who howls at the moon, makes catfish stew, fixes their old TV, and finally launches their whole house to the moon.  The kids loved that the space poodle Stanley meets up with showed up on the TV earlier in the book.  This one got several votes as well.

red

Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall

I was happy to see this one on the list, because it is one of my daughter’s favorites.  The kids were intrigued from the moment they noticed the discrepancy between the book’s title (Red) and the clearly blue crayon on the cover.  The story is about a crayon who is labelled “Red,” but somehow can’t figure out how to draw anything red.  Everyone has a theory: he needs to try harder, his label’s too tight, he’s not warm enough.  But nothing helps.  Until one day, a new crayon asks him to draw a blue ocean for her boat, and he discovers he is really good…at being blue.  This was the second most popular book in both classes.

ragweed

Ragweed’s Farm Dog Handbook by Anne Vittur Kennedy

This was the clear favorite for both classes (and my favorite as well).  Ragweed the dog explains how to be a farm dog by taking you on a tour of the farm.  Along the way, he explains the jobs of the other animals: the rooster wakes the farmer.  That’s his job.  That’s not your job.  You will really, really want to wake the farmer, but don’t wake the farmer.  If you do wake the farmer, you can get a biscuit just to go away.  Every animal has a different job that Ragweed finds appealing, but Ragweed’s job is still the best.  His job is: to get biscuits!  The kids especially love the part where Ragweed says if you eat grass, you won’t get a biscuit.  “But you will throw up a biscuit, and you can eat that one again.”  This one is a blast to read aloud, and a hit for all ages.

I really enjoyed reading both the Irma Black and the Cook Prize finalists to the different classes, and am looking forward to trying out the Cook Prize voting with fourth graders this week to see if they make different choices.  Voting for both awards ends on April 17.  There’s a convenient form for online voting on the Bank Street web site.

UPDATE: I finished reading the Cook Prize finalists to the third and fourth grade classes yesterday.  Although all three books got votes, the fourth graders seemed to prefer Mesmerized.  The third graders tended to prefer High Tide for Horseshoe CrabsAda Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine was a close second for both grades.  The teachers were impressed with all three books, and so was I.  Even though I read them to five classes, I enjoyed reading them each time.  They are a nice mix of science, history, and nature, and all three are very well written.  Kudos to Bank Street for their selections!

UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: The results are in!  The winner of the Cook Prize was Mesmerized, the book that the fourth graders preferred.  And It’s Only Stanley won the Irma Black Award. This wasn’t the favorite of the second grade, but it did get several votes, and I’m happy to see Jon Agee receive a prestigious award.

 

 

The Results Are In! Reading the 2014 Caldecott Award Winners

locomotive

This past Monday, I woke up early to catch the ALA Youth Media Awards online.  I was most curious about the Caldecott Medal because I had promised to read the medal winner and the Caldecott honor books to two classes of third graders later that morning.

I’ll confess that I was a little dismayed by the results.  Yes, they were all wonderful choices, but the winning book was extremely wordy, and all three of the honor books were wordless, or nearly wordless.  Sharing wordless books with a large group is a bit of a challenge. But a promise is a promise, so I shared all four books with both classes that day, and with two classes of second graders later that week.

I was especially nervous about reading the Medal winner, Locomotive by Brian Floca.  It’s a mini-history lesson that recreates a trip from Omaha, Nebraska to Sacramento, California by train in the 19th century.  Floca packs an enormous amount of detail into the text, including how the railroad was built, how the train was operated, and the range of landscapes it passed through.  It’s too long to share with the toddler and preschool groups I usually read to, so I had never read it aloud to a group, and wasn’t sure if it would hold the kids’ interest.  I was relieved to find that it did.

Floca knows his audience well.  Amid all the facts about the train and the railroad, he throws in little details to grab kids’ attention.  All four classes were gleefully disgusted by the idea that the toilet dumped out onto the tracks, and that you could tell if a switchman (the man responsible for hitching the engine to the train) was new to his job if he still had all his fingers.  Floca also portrays visually the rickety terror of the narrow wooden trestles, the darkness of the rough-hewn mountain tunnels, and the dangers that could befall a train with a careless engineer.

By the time I read to the second grade, I was actually looking forward to sharing the journey.  I told the kids we were going to go on a train ride.  I showed them the map on the inside cover, illustrating how the track was built in two parts that met in Promontory Summit in Utah.  And then I read the book.  Along the way, we talked about the different landscapes, and what it would have been like to travel them by wagon before the railroad was built.  We talked about the telegraph, and what it meant to be able to send messages quickly across the country.

The kids seemed truly engaged by the book, exclaiming over the details, and asking questions about the illustrations and the current state of the railroad (I just read that most of the original track is gone, but parts of it are still in use.  Here’s a wikipedia article with a lot more detail).  But I wasn’t sure how the book had gone over until yesterday, when I ran into the mother of one of the second grade boys.  She said, “My son said you read the best book to his class!  Something about a locomotive.  He never tells me anything that happens in school, so it must have really made an impression on him.”

So kudos to Brian Floca for making history so exciting that kids even want to talk about it after school!

journey

I did “read” the Caldecott Honor books to the classes as well, and they loved them.  They exclaimed over every page of Journey by Aaron Becker, a beautiful wordless story about a girl’s adventure with a magical red crayon.  I loved that in every class, around the fourth or fifth page, the light would dawn across the group, and they’d all start saying things like: “This is like…” “This reminds me of…”  “That book!”  “The kid with the purple crayon!”  And I’d have to stop while they put the pieces together, until finally someone would shout out, “Harold and the Purple Crayon!”  It was so much fun to see them making connections, and getting excited about the story as it unfolded.

My favorite part was when the bird brings the captured girl her red crayon, and she draws a rectangle on the floor of her cage.  “What is she drawing?” I asked.  “An escape hatch!” someone would shout.  “A door!” And then I’d turn the page, and as a class they would exclaim, “A flying carpet!” and you could hear the wonder and excitement in their voices.  Sharing this book made me feel like a magician.  I loved every minute of it.

flora

Since the kids had been sitting for a while by now, for Molly Idle’s Flora and the Flamingo I had them stand up and try to emulate the motions of the flamingo, the way the little girl in the book does.  This got lots of giggles, especially when they had to put their heads between their legs, the part that makes the little girl fall down. This is a charming book, especially for fans of ballet, and several kids (admittedly mostly girls) said it was their favorite.

wuffles

All four classes loved Mr. Wuffles by David Wiesner.  I explained that David Wiesner had won the Caldecott Medal three times already (for Tuesday, The Three Pigs, and Flotsam) and a Caldecott Honor for Sector 9.  Clearly he knows what he’s doing.  Mr. Wuffles is a comic book-style story about a spaceship full of tiny green aliens who nearly fall prey to a big black-and-white cat named Mr. Wuffles.  The portrayal of the cat, who disdains all of his actual toys, but torments the poor aliens, is spot on.  The kids loved the confab between the aliens and the ants, who plot out an escape plan together.  And it’s fascinating to think about an ant civilization, complete with history that they record on the walls.  I wasn’t sure if I would be able to convey the story to such a large group, since there is so much tiny detail in the illustrations, but they loved it.

At the end of the classes, I asked them to vote on the book they liked the best.  All the books had several votes, but Mr. Wuffles was the clear winner.  Granted, I had read that one last, so it was freshest in their memories.  But I figure David Wiesner is kind of the Meryl Streep of the Caldecott Awards.  We all know everything he does is award-worthy, but they can’t give him the award every year.

Anyway, in spite of my trepidation at sharing what seemed like four challenging books, the kids loved all of them, and I ended up having a blast.  Many thanks to the members of this year’s Caldecott Award Selection Committee!