As a public children’s librarian, my ultimate test of a book’s quality is during story time. Sure, I can assess the book on my own; its artistic and literary merits, the quality of writing, and so on. But it all comes together, often in surprising ways, when I have a bunch of kids in front of me. Either it works or it doesn’t.
There’s a long-standing, often controversial search for balance when it comes to Caldecott winners. Yes, the award goes to “most distinguished American picture book for children.” But our criteria differs, and even the most uniquely beautiful book might bomb during story time or one-on-one reading with a child.
For me, there are some Caldecott winners that I would hesitate to share during a group story time, either because of length or my own personal preferences. But some are preschool storytime gold: Where the Wild Things Are, The Snowy Day, Kitten’s First Full Moon. And the following three, recent story time hits in my library with the school-age crowds.
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig (1970 Winner)
There’s something about William Steig’s writing that can capture the attention of an elementary-aged child so well. Maybe it’s the way that he never wrote down to his audience. After all, Steig’s writing of Doctor DeSoto’s bicuspids, Sylvester’s fetlock, and Shrek’s festering wens all somehow work seamlessly into their text. Maybe it’s in the deceptively simple, droll illustrations – Sylvester’s mother, although a donkey, wears that housedress so well! But one thing that Steig’s books always do is entertain children and adults alike. In Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, we are asked: If you could have one wish, what would it be? And then, somehow, we are enraptured by a story in which the main character, for most of the book, is a silent, unmoving rock.
Favorite part of 3rd grade story time: When they are all wiggling in suspense during Sylvester’s oblivious parents’ picnic on his back.
The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick (2008 Winner)
I’m lucky in that many of my afterschool patrons are students at a large elementary school a couple of blocks away. For our weekly afterschool Movie Matinee, I try to pick movies that are based on books, share the original books before the movie, then afterward, take a vote about whether the book or movie is better. Now, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a whopper of a book, clocking in (pun intended) at a hefty 500-some pages, so there is no way I would read the whole book out loud, nor would I want to. The magic of the book is in experiencing the illustrations up close and personal, at your own pace. But that first chapter… the suspense, the way the cinematic expanse of the illustrations envelops you in the story, Hugo’s thievery. It makes you want to read more.
Favorite quote, 4th grader: “Yo, that’s decent!” upon seeing Hugo’s eye peeking out of the face of the clock.
A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead, illustrated by Erin E. Stead (2011 Winner)
A rowdy bunch of first graders is chaperoned into the library, holding hands with their line buddies. They are trying so hard to use their library voices, but the weather is gorgeous, and their walk to the library was loud and chaotic, and after all, they’re six years old! So here they are, thirty of them, wiggling on the storytime rug, and you need to capture, and keep, their attention the best you can. Sometimes a book can set a tone for your story time, all on its own, and A Sick Day for Amos McGee is one of those books. A gentle, quirky, quiet story, illustrations with a pallette which perfectly matches the tale and, very importantly, great page breaks. I love the wordless pages where the animals wait at the bus stop and then board the #5 bus. Then: “Hooray! My good friends are here!” Sweet and gentle, and always leaves the kids smiling.
Favorite quote during story time, by a first grader: “That elephant’s gonna bust the tires of the bus!”
For more ways to celebrate 75 years of the Caldecott medal, visit http://www.ala.org/alsc/Caldecott75