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Ann Cannon: Picking the best books for children

Published January 7, 2014 8:46 am

Interview • Provo City librarian offers insights about the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award — and its winners.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It's that time of year when librarians from around the country convene to decide which recently published books for young readers deserve special recognition. Many people are familiar with the Caldecott and Newbery medals, honors that carry a cachet similar to the Oscar in the world of film. Fewer, perhaps, have heard of the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award. In the following interview, Carla Morris — author, Provo City librarian and chairwoman of the 2013 Geisel Committee — answers questions about the award and its significance.

What can you tell us about the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award?

The Theodor Seuss Geisel Award is given annually to the author and illustrator of the most distinguished contribution for beginning readers published in English in the United States during the preceding year. The winner receives a bronze medal, and the Honor Book authors and illustrators receive certificates, which are presented at the American Library Association Conference each January.

The first award was presented in 2006 and is named in honor of Theodor Seuss Geisel. The award is funded by the San Diego Foundation's Dr. Seuss Fund and is administered by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association.

Which titles have won in the past?

Past winners include "Henry and Mudge and the Great Grandpas" by Cynthia Rylant, "Zelda and Ivy: The Runaways" by Laura McGee Kvanosky, "Benny and Penny in the Big No-No!" by Geoffrey Hayes, "Bink and Gollie" by Kate DiCamillo, "Tales for Very Picky Eaters" by John Schneider and "Up! Tall! And High!" by Ethan Long. (Mo Willems can be considered the unofficial Seuss Geisel king. He has been honored for "There's a Bird on Your Head," "Are You Ready to Play Outside" and "Let's Go for a Drive.")

Tell us about your involvement with the awards committee.

I was honored to serve as chairman of the 2013 Geisel Committee. The Geisel Committee consists of six members and one chair who are appointed by the president of the ALSC (Association for Library Service to Children). In most cases, the chairman has previously served on an ALSC Award Committee. In my case I served on the 2004 Caldecott Committee, which gave me experience with the operating, reporting and voting procedures strictly adhered to by ALA. Our committee awarded the medal to Ethan Long for "Up! Tall! And High!"

What was the selection process like?

Our committee was responsible for looking at all of the early-reader books published during the year of 2012. We each received about 300 books from various publishers who felt their books were candidates for the award. We also had the mandate to seek out books from local authors and publishers, as well as self-published books.

From the 300-plus titles received, each member nominated three titles twice during the year. Members were also encouraged to suggest additional titles at the beginning of each month throughout the year. All books (suggested and nominated) were discussed in the final deliberation meeting. We ended up with 57 books. Our mission was to choose from these titles a winner and possible honors.

The voting ballot has three lines on each sheet of paper — first, second and third place. The winning book must receive five first-place votes with a 5-point lead ahead of the next book. The committee discussed each book and then voted. This process continued on until the winner emerged.

The final meeting schedule always begins at 8 on a Friday morning and continues on until the Sunday morning deadline at 10 a.m., at which time press releases on the winning titles are due. Many committees argue, vote and revote late into Saturday evening. All of this leads to a heightened excitement when the book awards are announced on the Monday morning.

Meetings and discussions throughout the year are highly confidential. Even after the decision is made, the short list of books discussed will never be divulged.

What criteria did you use to make your selections?

The criteria we looked for [were] very specific and [are] as listed in the Committee Manual:

• The subject matter must be intriguing enough to motivate a child to read.

• The book may or may not include short "chapters."

• New words are added slowly enough to make learning them a positive experience.

• Words are repeated in an easily recognizable pattern to ensure knowledge retention.

• Sentences are simple and straightforward.

• There is a minimum of 24 pages but not longer than 96 pages.

• Illustrations demonstrate the story being told.

• Design of the book includes attention to size of typeface, uncluttered background, appropriate line length, placement of illustrations.

• Plot advances from one page to the next and, together with the illustrations, creates a "page-turning" dynamic.

• The book creates a successful reading experience from start to finish.

• The book is respectful and of interest to children.

• The book shows excellent, engaging and distinctive use of both language and illustration.

What happens after the committee makes its selections?

Authors, illustrators and publishers await "the call," which takes place early Monday morning preceding the official announcements. What does "the call" mean to an author/illustrator's career? Besides notoriety — big sales. Every school and public library will purchase the award-winning books. The ALA award winners are pretty much guaranteed to stay in-print forever.

What was your personal takeaway from the experience?

I have been able to make long-lasting friendships and connections. I will always remember the insightful and rich discussions centering around books for children. The insight into the writing process and the chance to meet authors and illustrators has also been a truly unique and rare opportunity. These experiences have forever changed the way I look at picture books and early readers.

What advice would you give parents to help their children become readers?

Parents can encourage their children to read by reading books themselves and by having their children see them read. Children need to see their parents laughing or maybe even crying when reading a book. They need to visually see the impact, joy and satisfaction parents have when they are reading.

Besides reading themselves, parents must read aloud to their children. Provo City Library is kicking off a program for parents of children 1-5 years in January. The program is called "1,000 Books Before Kindergarten." When parents read to their children, they are increasing their literacy skills, vocabulary, which prepares them for kindergarten.

Parents should continue reading to their children, no matter how old they are. I have read to grown children, sitting on the edge of their beds and a reading a few lines just before they drift off to sleep. —

More online

O For more information about the Geisel, Newbery and Caldecott awards, visit http://www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia.