There were three Elephant & Piggie books published this year: I BROKE MY TRUNK, SHOULD I SHARE MY ICE CREAM?, and HAPPY PIG DAY! The series in general and these books in particular continue to delight young (and not so young) readers. We’ve looked at some of these books in the past for Newbery consideration, but perhaps we have made assumptions–wrong assumptions!–about how they would fare given the brevity of the text and the abundance of illustrations.
One of the jacket quotes for this series comes from a Bulletin review: “These books will take their place alongside Seuss and Eastman as classics in the beginning-reader genre.” This is an apt comparison because while Elephant & Piggie are easy readers, their youngest audience does not read nearly as fluently as the audience for, say, Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books or James Marshall’s George and Martha books (although they definitely share that classic friendship theme). No, Elephant & Piggie are for readers just beginning–emergent readers–who are learning the basics: print motivation (being interested in books), print awareness (knowing how to track print, and turn the page), letter knowledge (knowing the names and sounds of the alphabet), phonological awareness (recognizing the smaller sounds in words), vocabulary (knowing the names of things), and narrative skills (telling a story).
Emergent literacy is a process that begins at birth and continues until the reader becomes fluent (for most people this falls between the ages of 5-8). Incidentally, while ALSC just voted this past year to extend their range of service to include birth through eighth grade, the age range for the Newbery Medal has always been birth to 14. We’ve been wrangling recently about CHIME and the fourteen-year-old reader, but now I ask you: what of the four-year-old reader? What does distinguished literature for preschool children, for toddlers, even for babies, look like?
Well, that Bulletin blurb starts with some great suggestions, and now I’m going to take Martha Parravano’s question–Which was the most distinugished contribution to American literature for children: IT’S LIKE THIS, CAT or WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE?–and apply it to these easiest of easy readers. Which was the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children: The 1958 Newbery Medal winner, RIFLES FOR WATIE, or THE CAT IN THE HAT? Which was the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children? The 1961 Newbery Medal winner, ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS . . . okay, okay, most of us would probably choose that, but ONE FISH, TWO FISH, RED FISH, BLUE FISH; GREEN EGGS AND HAM; and ARE YOU MY MOTHER? were all published in that year and none of them netted so much as an Honor? How about the 1962 Newbery Medal winner, THE BRONZE BOW, versus GO, DOG. GO!? Perhaps another tough call, but we know which of all these books are still read fifty years later. Hint: it ain’t the novels, folks.
So what happens when the emergent reader meets the beginning easy reader? Magic! That’s what. Here’s a two-year-old girl reading I LOVE MY NEW TOY. And a four-year-old girl reading TODAY I WILL FLY. An older boy reading PIGS MAKE ME SNEEZE. And another older, autistic boy reading I LOVE MY NEW TOY. (This is just a small sampling of the young readers you can find on YouTube. Feel free to do your own search for Elephant & Piggie or individual titles.)
I am asking you to listen to these readers, to observe how they engage with the text. What kind of emergent reader behaviors are they exhibiting? Are they memorizing, improvising, tracking print, turning pages, decoding? Then I am asking you to consider what a distinguished text looks like for each one of of these particular readers–the two-year-old girl, the four-year-old girl, the slightly older boy, and the slightly older autistic boy–a text that not only displays respect for their understandings, abilities, and appreciations, but one that does what it sets out to do as well or better than books for older readers. Is not Elephant & Piggie the very definition of this?
I have looked closely at these three titles, and I think that I can make the best Newbery case for I BROKE MY TRUNK! Next time we will see whether there are sufficiently distinguished features in the text–and the text alone–to warrant Newbery recognition. I’m inclined to think there are, but I encourage you to track this one down so that you can participate in the conversation.