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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

I Broke My Trunk!


Is I BROKE MY TRUNK! a picture book or an illustrated book?  If you cover the words and read the book, you do get the gist of the plot, especially in the few flashback scenes, but it’s nearly impossible to infer the nuances of the dialogue in most of the story.  On the other hand, if you cover the pictures and read the words alone, you miss the facial expressions and body language of the characters (which are terrible things to miss, admittedly), but you still have a full grasp of all of the literary elements of the story (as we shall see below).

The front cover is a case in point.  The picture of Gerald with his bandaged trunk is amusing, but if I were to read the story without the words, I would probably describe the trunk as hurt, jammed, or sprained, none of which are nearly as funny as the word “broke” which plays off the absurdity of breaking something which doesn’t have a bone.  Thus, it is the word that delivers the humor; the picture merely supports it.  I BROKE MY TRUNK!, then, is essentially a textual experience.


Mo Willems and Hyperion have generously allowed us to reprint the entire text of I BROKE MY TRUNK! here on this blog.  Please note a couple of things.  I cannot exactly replicate here the way the words sit on the page (e.g. how many syllables–or words–per line, or the different font sizes).  Also, I have chosen to represent a page turn with a series of asteriks like this . . .


I have not seen Gerald today.  Why?


Gerald!  What happened to your trunk


I broke my trunk.

How did you break your trunk?


It is a long, crazy story.

Tell it!  Tell it!


Well . . . I was playing with Hippo.


Then, I had an idea!  I wanted to lift Hippo onto my trunk!






So, I lifted Hippo onto my trunk.


But, a hippo on your trunk is heavy.


Is that how you broke your trunk?

No.  There is more to my story.


Then, Rhino showed up . . .


Rhino wanted a turn.

What did you do?


I lifted both of them onto my trunk!


But, a hippo and a rhino on your trunk are very heavy.


Is that how you broke your trunk?

No.  There is more to my story.


Then Hippo’s sister showed up!

Hippo has a sister?


A big sister . . .


Did she want a turn, too?



She also wanted to play her piano.


Two hippos, one rhino, and a piano on your trunk are very, very heavy.


Is that how you broke your trunk?


This is a long, crazy story . . .




Well, I was so proud of what I had done . . .

that I ran to tell my very best friend about it!


But, I tripped and fell . . .



. . . and broke my trunk.

You broke your trunk running to tell me your story?


That is a crazy story!

That is a funny story!


I want to tell someone your crazy story!



Piggie!  What happened to your snout?!

It is a long, crazy story . . .



From the text, we have a very good grasp of these characters.  Here Gerald is impulsive, long-winded, and proud; Piggie is impatient, exasperated, and flattered.  These characteristics are enhanced by the illustrations, but they originate in the text.  The illustrations tend to convey a range of emotions, captured in the illustrations with facial expressions and body language, but are emotions synonymous with characterization and character development?  I don’t think so; the essence of these characters is more fully conveyed in the text.


There are many distinguished features, but I want to draw your attention to four.  First, please consider not only the lightning-fast pacing, but the key role that the suspense of the page turn plays, and how that suspense is generated not in the pictures, but in the text.  Second, please also consider the use of flashbacks, something that is generally assumed to be an absolute no-no in books for young readers, let alone the youngest of readers.  Of course, Willems reinforces the flashback visually, but again it’s set up in the text.  Third, the introduction of the squirrel on the final spread, asking: “Piggie!  What happened to your snout?!” extends the story beyond the pages of the book, as the reader anticipates the conversation between the squirrel and Piggie.  Richard Peck was fond of saying that the young adult novel ended, not with The End, but rather with The Beginning–and we get that same thing here.  And, finally, Willems incorporates repetition and predictability in a very natural fashion, but then we get that wonderful surprise ending, an ending that is wholly unexpected but inevitable in hindsight. 


In the last post, we discussed not only the characteristics of emergent literacy, but also the characteristics of easy readers.  These Elephant & Piggie books depart from that tradition in one important regard: the use of speech balloons in lieu of quotation marks and dialogue tags (e.g. Gerald said, Piggie said).  This is significant because it means that there is no narrator–first person, second person, third person–telling the story: the characters themselves are performing it.  Since very young readers read books aloud, it is a natural leap for them to assume the parts of the characters as they read the text, and as they do so they read with great expression.

So, in one sense, these books are easy readers, but in another sense they are play scripts, and Willems has crafted them accordingly.  Notice his abundant use of exclamation points, questions marks, ellipses, italics, capitals, and font size to cue the reader on how to read the lines with animation and expression.  His use of these elements is not typical of most easy readers–actually, they are not typical of any other easy reader series.  Seen in this light, the illustrations function as stage directions with concise nonverbal cues in lieu of verbs and adverbs.  And these plays take place not in a black box theater, but in its literary equivalent: white space.  That white space–the lack of a setting–gives emergent readers one less thing to attend to on the page, but it also liberates them to create their own setting in their imagination.  Earlier I yanked your chain by describing I BROKE MY TRUNK! as essentially a textual experience, but I’d revise that slightly now.  It’s essentially a dramatic experience (drama, of course, being both a visual and textual medium); its only antecedent in the Newbery canon is GOOD MASTERS! SWEET LADIES!

As we have already discussed, preschool children just learning to read exhibit many emergent reader behaviors.  Pretend play is another developmental feature of this age group; it allows them to grow socially, emotionally, linguistically, and cognitively.  Pretend play allows young children to develop the skills they will need to get along in the real world: going to school, making friends, and carrying on conversations with people.

Needless to say, friendship is a classic theme in these Elephant & Piggie books and that theme is conveyed through dialogue or conversation.  Moreover, when children pretend to become different characters (in this case, Gerald and Piggie) it helps them move past an egocentric viewpoint to understanding and empathy.  As I said before, taken together, theme is a strength of the series, even though it may seem slight in each individual volume.  I think the theme is stronger in SHOULD I SHARE MY ICE CREAM? and HAPPY PIG DAY!, but I BROKE MY TRUNK! is stronger in all of the other elements.

For me, the especial genius of Mo Willems is that these books sit at the confluence of reading and playing and while emergent readers do become fluent readers and pretend play leads to other flights of fancy, the spell these books have cast lingers on, and older children return to them for pleasure reading.  They continue to check out to third and fourth graders at my sites.


For an audience of children between the ages of, say, 2 to 8, for children such as Kiki, Kaden, and these sisters, I BROKE MY TRUNK! is undoubtedly, unquestionably, the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.  It is strong in all the literary elements–plot, character, (lack of) setting, style, and theme–and there is textual evidence for all of them.  Moreover, the concept of these books–that they are written to be performed by children–is truly boundary-breaking and pushes it into the category of most distinguished contribution for all of American literature for children.  The more time I spend with this one, the higher it rises in my estimation.  It’s definitely one that I’d spend a nomination on, and probably one that I would currently rank in my top three if I had to vote today. 

Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at


  1. You got me at ” essentially a dramatic experience” and “reading and playing.” What I loved so much about Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! was the performance aspect and I love the idea of other books being recognized for that as well.

    That this book has the potential to provide such a kinesthetic reading experience was not one I’d thought of — you did a fabulous job of demonstrating how it is. And that it expands, age-appropriately, imaginative play — brilliant!

    And bravo too for putting the whole text up alone. I had thought the text was more dependent on the art, but clearly it isn’t. Well done, well done!

  2. I can’t speak as much for I BROKE MY TRUNK because we are currently immersed in repeated readings of Frog and Toad (Newbery!). I can say that ELEPHANTS CANNOT DANCE was such a dramatic experience and so demanded to my son that it be acted out that we eventually had to hide it at night because it was derailing bedtime. There had to be a tutu and he had to do all of Piggie’s dance moves while reciting the lines and it was absolutely amazing. But not bedtime material. Though we let him sleep in the tutu.

  3. Much as I love the books (and agree that for the most part, you don’t need an image for the “story”), because of the “dramatic” element (which, again, I personally love), a reader still needs the illustrations to know who is saying what; or that one person is an elephant speaking and the other a pig. Whether that factors into Newbery or not, I can’t say except to point it out.

  4. A picture book that doesn’t depend on the illustrations and that I believe has a text worthy of the Newbery is PASSING THE MUSIC DOWN, by Sarah Sullivan, illustrated by Barry Root (Candlewick). Have you seen it, Jonathan?

  5. You know that the one with a trunk is an elephant, and the one with a snout is a pig (or at least, a creature w/a snout, so not another elephant).

    I’m sold by your analysis. Vote it in!

  6. This is a fascinating discussion, and your passion almost carried me, Jonathan. Almost, but not quite.

    You begin with “Delineation of Characters.” I have never seen any of the E&P books, so I came to this text without preconceived notions from the pictures. Without the pictures, I can’t tell who is speaking to Gerald. Furthermore, I can’t even discern how many characters are speaking to Gerald. Not until the close to the end do I realize that Gerald (whom I infer to be an elephant because he has a trunk) is speaking to his best friend. Not until the very end do I know that his best friend is Piggie (because he is named and has a snout).

    I like the characterization of the story as a dramatic experience—the fact that it’s entirely dialogue is essential to that. But I listened to GOOD MASTERS, SWEET LADIES without ever having seen it, and the text alone made it clear who was speaking. Here, the text does not: as Liz B. notes, the pictures are essential to understanding who (and what) is speaking when. If I have to have the pictures to know how many characters there are, then the text does not stand alone, no matter how distinguished it is.

  7. Also, I have not read the book, so I am convinced solely on your posting the text and discussion of it. No illustrations needed (though I’m sure they enhance it).

  8. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I think I may have confused you, Liz and Rebecca. My intention in providing the text sans illustrations is not to prove that the text stands independently of the illustrations. They do not, nor are they required to do so under the Newbery criteria. Rather, I isolated the text because I wanted you to consider the distinguished qualities of the text without being swayed by the excellent illustrations.

    While the Newbery committee does not consult the Geisel criteria, I think it is helpful to do so in order to recognize some of the features of a distinguished easy reader.

    “Contribution to the body of children’s literature that encourages and supports the beginning reader” indicates the text of a book, which must be directed at readers from pre-K through Grade 2. The book must also contain illustrations, which function as keys or clues to the text.

    I want to point out that the Geisel Medal is first and foremost an award for distinguished **TEXT** but it must also contain *pictures* and the two *must* be interdependent, otherwise, it’s not a distinguished easy reader. The Geisel committee is also charged with considering the following–

    Subject matter must be intriguing enough to motivate the child to read; The book may or may not include short “chapters”; New words should be added slowly enough to make learning them a positive experience; Words should be repeated to ensure knowledge retention.; Sentences must be simple and straightforward; There must be a minimum of 24 pages. Books may not be longer than 96 pages; 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.

    Now onto the Newbery committee. Here are the relevant criteria–

    The committee is to make its decision primarily on the text. Other components of a book, such as illustrations, overall design of the book, etc., may be considered when they make the book less effective.

    Since the illustrations do not make the book less effective, but rather more effective (as they should do in a distinguished easy reader) we may not consider the illustrations as the basis of this book’s merit for the Newbery Medal. The criteria further tell us specifically what to look for in the text–

    Interpretation of the theme or concept
    Presentation of information including accuracy, clarity, and organization
    Development of a plot
    Delineation of characters
    Delineation of a setting
    Appropriateness of style.

    But they also offer a caveat–

    Because the literary qualities to be considered will vary depending on content, the committee need not expect to find excellence in each of the named elements. The book should, however, have distinguished qualities in all of the elements pertinent to it.

    All of the identied criteria can be found in the text of I BROKE MY TRUNK! (except setting which is not pertinent to it–in fact, I have argued the lack of setting is what makes it distinguished). Now whether they are found at a distinguished level or *most* distinguished level is the real question that we should be debating here. They are certainly not found at a middle grade novel level or a chapter book level, but because “THE LITERARY QUALITIES TO BE CONSIDERED WILL VARY DEPENDING ON CONTENT” they do not have to. They are distinguished for the level of an easy reader text, and they are most distinguished in the fashion I have described.

  9. I confess to such adoration of E and P that I cannot be biased in any discussion regarding them :-). I grew up on Frog and Toad and George and Martha; Elephant and Piggie are the first characters to crowd into the room with those other best friends. I hope they’ll all happily enjoying their little party together (but of course Elephant isn’t dancing). As a mom of two 4-year-olds and one 6-year-old/new reader, I can attest to the sheer genius of these books!!!!!

  10. I’m impressed: I know these books are brilliant and would love to see them get the recognition, but I wasn’t sure how well the text could stand on its own, either. But I haven’t seen this one yet, so all I’ve got is the text here, and it IS wonderful!

    But I did not, for example, realize that Piggie was talking to someone new (let alone a squirrel) at the end. I could have been happy enough with my interpretation of the story that had Piggie coming back to Gerald to speak these lines, but it wouldn’t have been the CORRECT interpretation, so I don’t know how important that would be to considerations.

  11. But the criteria don’t really state that everything has to be conveyed in the text. Jonathan’s separation of the text from pictures is extremely helpful in identifying distinguished elements, but the text does not need to stand on its own. The pictures may identify the characters, but the words develop them in a potentially distinguished way. Same goes for the plot. Not having seen the book yet, I imagine that the scenes of Elephant’s loaded trunk are very funny. But the picture I have in my head right now of: “she also wanted to play her piano” is very funny on its own. Maybe as funny as anything I’ve read this year.

  12. Excellent Jonathan! I wish I had looked at this post before responding in the previous thread.

  13. Nina Lindsay says:

    Yes yes… and let’s keep saying it, because it’s a fine line:

    We judge only the text, but
    the text need not stand alone.

  14. Dean Schneider says:

    I’m a big fan of the Elephant & Piggie books, too, and know how many kids at my school have learned to read because of them. And, Jonathan, I like your explication of the criteria using Willems’ text. However, when the text is analyzed by the Newbery Committee behind closed doors, it’s awfully hard for such a minimal text to stand up against the richer, full-bodied prose of some of the best novels of the year. Elephant & Piggie versus DEAD END IN NORVELT, OKAY FOR NOW, SECRETS AT SEA, BLUEFISH? Certainly you can make a case for most of the Newbery criteria played out in an Elephant & Piggie text, but, still, doesn’t that text seem anemic when weighed against books like these? Certainly, this is one reason books for the youngest readers don’t fare well in the Newbery deliberations, but they do well in Geisel.

    Jonathan, your post has spawned a Mo Willems love fest. I know how much fun the Elephant & Piggie books are, and even how important they are to kids learning to read, and they may well be some of the best literature for that very young age group. But, up against the best of the best novels for an older age group, I don’t see how I BROKE MY TRUNK stands a chance.

  15. This discussion is happening at the Elephant & Piggie post too, but I want to ask, why the throwing up of hands to say that this, or another short illustrated text, just wouldn’t measure up against something like OFN, or that there’s not enough there???? Newbery honors HAVE gone to short illustrated texts in the past, albeit very few.

    There seems to be a sense that the award is given for mass of distinguishedness, rather than the “most” distinguished…”in all the elements pertinent to it.”. The trick is to compare the effect of the writing in OFN on say a fourteen year old, versus the effect of the writing of I Broke My Trunk on a six year old. I see a contest.

  16. For the Newbery to truly be an award for birth to age 14, the committee has to legitimately consider books at the younger end of the range. The only way I think they can do that is to consider how well those books work for those in the intended age group. As such, there should not be a problem for a truly distinguished easy reader to stand up against a truly distinguished book for older children – the question would be which books were the most distinguished of the year for their age group. If not, how would you consider poetry such as Dark Emperor when up against a middle-grade novel? Yet the Committee considered the sparer language of the poems and granted the book an Honor. The same is true of Good Masters, Sweet Ladies! With Willems, you simply have to adjust your view to consider how well it works and whether it is distinguished, considering its content. Just because it isn’t 200 pages doesn’t mean it can’t compare in its distinguished qualities.

    Frog and Toad is the perfect example — a Newbery Honor with beautifully crafted story, language, and characters. How does it compare with The Upstairs Room, which won an honor the same year? The Committee clearly felt that it did, and that its lack of length did not make the text anemic in comparison. Rather, every word had to count, there was no room for error, and every word was indeed carefully chosen to develop the story and characters and theme in a short, spare book.

    I love Okay For Now, The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, and The Penderwicks at Point Mouette, and believe they are among the best books of the year for their age groups. But I am ready to say that I Broke My Trunk is as distinguished as they are, or possibly more so, for its intended audience.

  17. “Because the literary qualities to be considered will vary depending on content, the committee need not expect to find excellence in each of the named elements. The book should, however, have distinguished qualities in all of the elements pertinent to it.”

    The literary qualities will vary depending on content. When the content is around 200 words, the literary qualities will vary such that the committee will have to consider the distinguished qualities presented in those words as intended for the intended age group. In no way are these words lacking in delineating character, plot, theme, or style. While the characters are not delineated with the same level of detail as those in a novel where they can have paragraphs devoted to them, they are still delineated clearly in just those few words. While the plot is not as convoluted as that in some novels, it’s a strong and funny plot that surprises and illuminates the characters. Writing it in just those few words demonstrates tremendous talent, used well to create a truly distinguished book for ages 2 to 6 or 8, a book that provides young readers with a tremendous literary experience.

    “Committee members must consider excellence of presentation for a child audience.”

    “Children are defined as persons of ages up to and including fourteen, and books for this entire age range are to be considered. ”

    How does one consider books for ages birth to 6 if they are all to be deemed too lacking in text when compared to middle-grade novels? In order to read the criteria as meaning what they say, one must consider books for youngest readers by analyzing their literary qualities for the type of content in they contain, i.e. as many words total as might be in a couple pages of a novel.

  18. A well-formulated argument, friend. My only hesitation is in the memorable-ness of individual titles within this distinguished series. I have read all of the E&P books, and, barring literary analysis such as we’re seeing above, have a hard time recalling one from the next. Not so with other Newbery winners and/or other easy readers that work particularly well on their own.

    To paraphrase a line from the TV show The Big Bang Theory: “If there’s ever a church of Jonathan Hunt, it begins here.”

  19. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I’m also somewhat perturbed by both the defeatist and dismissive comments. The criteria are rife with direct and implicit admonitions to consider easy readers–

    “There are no limitations as to the character of the book considered . . .”

    “The book displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations.”

    “Children are defined as persons of ages up to and including fourteen, and books for this entire age range are to be considered.”

    “Because the literary qualities to be considered will vary depending on content, the committee need not expect to find excellence in each of the named elements.”

    “The book should, however, have distinguished qualities in all of the elements pertinent to it.”

    “Frog and Toad Together, by Arnold Lobel, was a Newbery Honor Book in 1973,
    despite the young age of its intended audience.”

    “Yes; but it can be given an award only if it does what it sets out to do as well as or better than other, younger books that are also eligible.”

    The question, indeed, is what does distinguished writing for a four- to six-year old look like? What does full-bodied prose for a four- to six-year-old look like?

    Well, let’s start with some of my favorite full-bodied prose from one of my all-time favorite novels, LES MISERABLES by Victor Hugo–

    Jacob wrestled with the angel but one night. Alas! how many times have we seen Jean Valjean clenched, body to body, in the darkness with his conscience, and wrestling desperately against it.

    Unparalleled struggle! At certain moments, the foot slips, at others, the ground gives way. How many times had that conscience, furious for the right, grasped and overwhelmed him! How many times had truth, inexorable, planted her knee upon his breast! How many times, thrown to the ground by the light, had he cried to it for mercy! How many times had that implacable light, kindled in him and over him by the bishop, irresistibly dazzled him when he desired to be blinded! How many times had he risen up in combat, bound to the rock, supported by sophism, dragged in the dust, sometimes bearing down his conscience beneath him, sometimes borne down by it! How many times, after an equivocation, after a treacherous and specious reasoning of selfishness, had he heard his outraged conscience cry in his ear: “A trip! wretch!” How many times had his refractory thought writhed convulsively under the evidence of duty. Resistance to God. Agonizing sweats. How many secret wounds, which he alone felt bleed! How many chafings of his miserable existence! How many times had he risen up bleeding, bruised, lacerated, illuminated, despair in his heart, serenity in his soul! and conquered, felt himself conqueror. And, after having racked, torn, and broken him, his conscience, standing above him, formidable, luminous, tranquil, said to him: “Now, go in peace!”

    And since our model of Elephant & Piggie has now expanded to include drama, what of the numerous Shakespearean soliloquies where he puts his characters on the horns of a dilemma?

    One of the classic themes of great literature is the struggle of humankind to do what is right rather than what is convenient. I would hardly expect a four- to six-year-old to appreciate Victor Hugo or William Shakespeare, but much to my everlasting delight Mo Willems has taken this theme and tailored it to this young audience. He has picked a theme that not only speaks to this very egocentric preschool/primary audience, but one that also speaks to older children, teenagers, adults, and the great literary minds of the world–because it is one of the great struggles of our human existence: Do we follow our conscience–or our selfishness? To me, theme in SHOULD I SHARE MY ICE CREAM?–and how it works on a couple of different levels–is as interesting as any of the books for older readers.

  20. Just yesterday, I read Mo Willems’ Zena Sutherland lecture in my current issue of Horn Book Magazine. I found it very pertinent that he says that he looks at his books and if the text stands alone, he says they are TOO MANY WORDS. If the pictures stand alone, he says there are too many pictures.

    So, according to Mo, if the text does stand alone, he failed! That is not what he’s trying to write.

  21. Jonathan Hunt says:

    And here’s the online version of the Zena Sutherland lecture . . .

  22. Jonathan, I admit I commented yesterday before I’d read all the previous comments. I love your comparison of Mo to Victor Hugo and Shakespeare. Because I wrote a similar blog post a couple years ago when I read Are You Ready to Play Outside? A more effective sermon on contentment I’ve never read! And as a former Statistics teacher, I would have LOVED to have Pigs Make Me Sneeze! available to teach college students so effectively that correlation does not imply causation.

    I completely agree with you that his books are eminently distinguished — though I’m not sure a committee will ever be convinced. And I’m not quite convinced that the award is really deserved for the text alone, since the pictures are so brilliant and so fundamental.

    Here are my thoughts on Are You Ready to Play Outside?:

  23. Sondy, I don’t think the award has to depend on the text standing alone. As Jonathan said: ” My intention in providing the text sans illustrations is not to prove that the text stands independently of the illustrations. They do not, nor are they required to do so under the Newbery criteria. Rather, I isolated the text because I wanted you to consider the distinguished qualities of the text without being swayed by the excellent illustrations.”
    And the Newbery criteria says “The committee is to make its decision primarily on the text.” That doesn’t have to mean that the text has to stand alone to win, only that the committee is making its decision based on the text.

    I love your post on Are You Ready to Play Outside?! Very insightful.

  24. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Sondy, I really enjoyed your blog post! Well, this is what it’s going to take for the Newbery committee to recognize something like I BROKE MY TRUNK! First, they all have to acknowledge that this text has distinguished qualities for a four- to six-year-old reader, then they have to read widely in the field of easy readers this year (which means that they will have to hunt them down because many publishers don’t usually think to send easy readers to the Newbery committee), and finally they will have to observe this audience of beginning readers interact with these texts as an independent or guided reading. If they–all fifteen of them–can do this for a variety of easy readers in the Newbery field–then I think they will become just as excited about this book as Ed, Eric, Cheryl, me, and others who see these books work their magic on the youngest of readers. More than anything that we can say here in arguments, the thing that will really convince the Newbery committee is the children. If the Newbery committee can seek out opportunities to observe children, then the children can convince them. I think that’s the key to this book being recognized.

    On a different thread, Mr. H. said: “But if I’m comparing how “distinguished” the characterization of Elephant and Piggie is for a 4-5 year old reader to how “distinguished” the characterization is of Doug for a 12 year old reader, seriously, I have to side with Doug.” Here’s the thing . . .

    First, we know you’re a fifth grade teacher, and we know you read a lot of novels for that age group, so I’m fine with your evaluation of that side, but . . . What makes you qualified to discuss 4-5-year-old readers? You don’t necessarily have to teach these ages or parent them to be qualified to discuss them, but what would you point to that would make us feel that you are qualified to discuss these young readers?

    And second–and this was the whole intent of the 90% of Everything is Crap post–what other easy readers have you read this year? Because when you discuss how distinguished the characterization of Elephant & Piggie is for a four-year-old reader, you’re first comparing it to those other easy reader books that are read by four- to six-year-old readers and *then* you are comparing it to OKAY FOR NOW. So what other easy readers have you read this year? I’m going to say that I haven’t read any myself (and if I’m on the real Newbery committee, I should have read the best easy readers–maybe something along the lines of the Cybils nominations in that category), but I have that easy reader constellation that I talked about. I do “illegally” compare them to Seuss, Eastman, Marshall, and Lobel. I’m sure you, too, may be familar with some of these books. But we both still need to bring this theoretical base of knowledge to the current crop of easy readers *and* we need to have to a practical understanding of how a range of children in the intended audience are responding to the books.

  25. Jonathan Hunt says:

    It’s possible to serve on the Newbery committee and be completely unfamilar with a particular genre–to have a small or nonexistent constellation–but through reading one can quickly build a constellation. In this example, even if you don’t know Seuss, Eastman, Lobel, and Minarik–and cannot place Willems in their company by a direct comparison–you can arrive at the conclusion that he has written the most distinguished easy reader by comparing it to other books in the genre that you read over the course of the year. But I remain firm on my point that in order to compare OKAY FOR NOW and I BROKE MY TRUNK! we need to have multiple points of reference in each of their respective genres.

  26. I think you’ve pretty much convinced me, Jonathan. At least that it should be on the table. (Maybe some day if I get on a Newbery committee….)

    Genevieve, I know the text doesn’t have to stand alone, but the illustrations are so fantastic, it seems a shame to give an award to the book that doesn’t acknowledge them! Does that make any sense? I think I would probably be happier with a Caldecott for the book, but even that wouldn’t acknowledge the outstanding text.

    In a lot of ways, I think it’s a shame that the Newbery and Caldecott awards have held onto the criteria over the years of only awarding the author or the illustrator. I like the awards (like the Printz and the Boston Globe-Horn Book and the LA Times) that give an award to the BOOK, the complete package.

    Genevieve & Jonathan, I’m happy you liked my post! 🙂

  27. Mark Flowers says:

    I’m with Sondy – we really need an award that actually acknowledges the totality of the book. Oh well.

    On another note, I’ve been trying to put this into words for a few days now and I’m not sure I can quite articulate it, but I’ll give it a shot: I really like the argument about “distinguished for a 4 yo” vs. “distinguished for a 12 yo” but I think it misses a piece of the issue. It isn’t just I BROKE MY TRUNK is written for a different audience, it is that it is an entirely different type of writing.

    Here’s an example. The 1932 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction was THE GOOD EARTH, written in 1931. Great book, very distinguished. But was it the “most distinguished contribution to American literature” in 1931? You could make that argument – many people think so. But I would argue that it was “i sing of olaf glad and big” by EE Cummings. THE GOOD EARTH is a 300+ page novel heavy on characterization and broad themes and meaty writing. “i sing of olaf” is a 40+ line poem. How can we even begin to compare characterization and plot? For me, the single line “i will not kiss your f**ing flag” is a more important piece of characterization than all 300 pages of THE GOOD EARTH. Others might disagree.

    My point is that it isn’t just a matter of age level, it is also a matter of what the Newbery criteria calls “Appropriateness of style.” You can’t expect I BROKE MY TRUNK (co-incidentally also 40+ lines long) to use the same tools of characterization as a 300+ page novel like OKAY FOR NOW. Sometimes all you need is a few words to convey your message, and even if OKAY FOR NOW has *more* “good” words, it also might have more “bad” words.

    (all of this is hypothetical, btw – I am agnostic on the question of which book is “better” right now. I just think that the terms of comparison have not yet been thoroughly mapped out). I hope all of that makes somes sense.

  28. Fair enough Jonathan, however I didn’t intend to make anyone believe I was an expert worth listening to in the first place, just offering my two cents.

    My gripe with the Elephant and Piggie books for Newbery still lies with the pictures. You call into question my “expertise” and experience with younger readers . . . Let me give you an example using a different Elephant and Piggie book. SHOULD I SHARE MY ICE CREAM?

    My mother is a librarian in my small hometown. She loves children’s literature and organizes many “story hour” events for the youngins’, trying to build an army of readers. At one such story hour of 4-6 year olds, she was reading aloud to them SHOULD I SHARE MY ICE CREAM? They were completely enthralled with the story . . . but it was primarily because of the pictures! They were standing and screaming and pointing at each flip of the page as the ice cream on the cone became smaller and smaller and smaller. There came a point where they weren’t even listening to the words my mom was reading! That’s my issue.

    I know you explained to me earlier in this thread that there are bigger themes at work in SHOULD I SHARE MY ICE CREAM that are “distinguished” but to me, the entire basic plot of the book is driven by it’s pictures. How a Newbery committee can possibly factor that in is beyond me.

    I know I don’t have a huge reference of early readers at my disposal to compare these books to, just themselves since I’ve now purchased and read nearly half of them (and LOVED by the way). And I know that the book you are championing is I BROKE MY TRUNK and not SHOULD I SHARE MY ICE CREAM . . . but I see a similar problem in all the Elephant and Piggie books when trying to get them an award like the Newbery. You talk about the character development at work in the text of this book yet without the pictures, you wouldn’t even know who’s talking a lot of the times!

    To me, Mo Willems HIMSELF answered this question up above. It’s obvious he doesn’t write to please the Newbery committee. He said himself that if the text can stand alone than he hasn’t done his job. You try and argue that there are distinguished elements to the text alone and I just don’t see it. You say it’s because I’m not experienced enough to understand it’s distinguishedness in regards to other easy readers. So show me! Pull the text from another easy reader this year and compare it to I BROKE MY TRUNK. Show me how Willems pulls this off IN THE TEXT so much more brilliantly than other early readers.

    All I’m trying to say is that in order for those “distinguished” elements in the text to fully work, you must follow along with the pictures of the story. And it sounds as if the Newbery committee can look at the pictures and enjoy them, but NOT factor them into any discussion of the distinguished elements of text. So when Genevieve says above that the text doesn’t have to stand on its own, I’m not sure that’s entirely true. Even your mention of the “squirrel” at the end of the story . . . in the text, we don’t even know who’s speaking at that point in time without the pictures!

    And that’s all just about the pictures. I also see a lot of problems with the fact that these books are part of a series. You bring up the idea of “friendship” in your post and without the other books in the series, I don’t see that at all. The word “friend” doesn’t even appear in the text until the very end. Until the end, one wouldn’t even know if these two characters speaking were friends. But having read other Elephant and Piggie books, you bring a prior knowledge of their friendship to the table. However I can’t see how you can argue that theme as being “distinguished” in this particular text.

    That was mighty long . . . and I don’t necessarily want to be “that guy” because I really do love these books. I’m just not seeing this.

  29. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Mr. H, I really don’t know anything about you beyond what you’ve disclosed on the blog: that you are a fifth grade teacher–and that you have a two-year-old daughter. But that doesn’t mean you couldn’t have nephews/nieces, volunteer opportunities, etc. I just wanted to use you as my sacrifical lamb to illustrate my point: that you can say OKAY FOR NOW is better than I BROKE MY TRUNK! and we will understand that in Stevenson speak you could mean a number of things (i.e. better for you, better for fifth graders, better at the text standing alone, better for pleasure reading), but in terms of Newbery in order to say that one book does something better for its audience, we need to have multiple reference points for both the genres and for the audiences.

    One of the remarkable things about Elephant & Piggie easy readers is that they can function as picture books, allowing for lap readings and storytimes. I believe that in both of these instances children may, in fact, respond to the pictures because they have an adult doing the hard work of reading the text. I say *may* in that sentence because when I read these books for storytimes to first and second grade students, I always read them slowly with dramatic emphasis–apparently too slowly because I always have a small quiet chorus of students that are reading it ahead of me, some of them whisper, others just mouth the words. I am not trying to pretend that my experience is universal, but it does illustrate that even storytime reactions will vary.

    However, it is not the picture book experience of Elephant & Piggie that make it distinguished, it’s the easy reader experience, and for that you need to sit down one on one with a student that is decoding the text. Once you do that independent or guided reading with a student, then the evidence for the distinguished text shines through, and you will realize that it is not the pictures alone, or even mostly the pictures that drives their success as easy readers. I have no interest in proving to you that Elephant & Piggie does this better than other easy readers, and I’m sure most of our readers would prefer us to move on to other books in other genres. But if you would like to search out some of the ones that I just posted in the 90% thread then I would be more than welcome to discuss them in comments to these threads.

    You wrote: “So when Genevieve says above that the text doesn’t have to stand on its own, I’m not sure that’s entirely true.” Can we assume that if you cannot provide any evidence to support your position that it is, in fact, ENTIRELY true? In all of these discussions nobody has gone to the manual and said, “Look it explicitly or implicitly says the text has to stand alone.” Sam did a good job of rebutting Ed’s argument about the word “primarily” but Ed didn’t need to be arguing about that word in the first place. So the onus is on you: if you think the text must stand alone then show me where it says that in the terms and criteria.

  30. Well, first of all in the DEFINITIONS:

    “Contribution to American Literature” indicates the TEXT of the book. It also implies that the committee shall consider all forms of WRITING – fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. (No mention of illustrations at all)

    Then later on, in the actual CRITERIA:

    “In identifying “distinguished contribution to American literature,” defined as TEXT, in a book for children, committee members need to consider the following . . .”

    Then after that, still in the CRITERIA (our only mention of illustrations in the terms, definitions, and criteria):

    “Each book is to be considered as a ‘contribution to American literature’ (Which has already been defined as TEXT earlier in the ‘definitions’). The committee is to make its decision PRIMARILY on the text. Other components of a book, such as illustrations, overall design of the book, etc., may be considered when they make the book less effective.”

    The use of the word “primarily” may encourage some, to go ahead and use the illustrations to argue their case FOR a book. A “loophole” of sorts. I don’t see it that way. I think the meaning behind the use of the word “primarily” is revealed shortly after it’s usage in the criteria . . . “may be considered when they make the book less effective.” I think that’s the “loophole” in essence. If a book’s illustrations take away from the text.

    I actually think it’s pretty clear. All other references in the terms and criteria are to TEXT and WRITING. But maybe that’s just me.

  31. Jonathan Hunt says:

    You STILL haven’t quoted anything that says the text must stand independently of the pictures. Rather everything says that the award must be for the text. All of my arguments for I BROKE MY TRUNK! are based on the text. I haven’t been arguing that I BROKE MY TRUNK! is distinguished because of the pictures; that’s what you’ve been saying.

  32. I’m not saying that I BROKE MY TRUNK is distinguished because of the pictures. Never said that.

    What I said, was that I’m having a hard time seeing what you point out as “distinguished” about the text, without referencing the pictures. That’s what I’m saying.

    So in that case, I could not justify giving I BROKE MY TRUNK an award for it’s “text” when its text is heavily dependent upon something I am not supposed to be taking into consideration.

  33. Genevieve says:

    Mr. H, it all depends on what you mean by “heavily dependent.” The text is dependent on the pictures only in terms of clearly identifying who the speaker is (but it’s pretty clear to a reader, just from the text, that the one who broke his trunk is an elephant, and the one with a snout who is called “Piggie” at the end is a pig — the only speaker whose identity isn’t clear is the squirrel, and there’s no joke dependent on it being a squirrel as opposed to any other creature). It’s pretty clear that the speaker at the end is someone other than Elephant, because Piggie says “I want to tell someone your crazy story!” and then “WHOOPS!” just before someone asks her what happened to her snout. And at any rate, the Newbery committee is just supposed to be analyzing whether the text is distinguished, not whether it can stand completely alone from the pictures in the sense of every nuance being understood. (Now, in “Should I Share My Ice Cream?”, I think it’s legit to say that the text isn’t quite distinguished without looking at the picture, because an entire major plot line — that the ice cream is melting — is apparent only from the pictures. But here, it’s apparent that Elephant was lifting increasingly heavy things with his trunk, and the reader thinks that one of the heaviest loads must have broken his trunk, but then it turns out that it was while running to tell his friend about his feats of strength that Elephant broke his trunk — and the pictures presumably enhance that joke, but aren’t necessary to understand it and find it funny and distinguished. You may not learn that they are best friends till near the end, but foreknowledge of that fact isn’t necessary for the text to be distinguished.

    The distinguishing factors are the ones Jonathan discussed in the body of his post: how the characters are developed (Gerald’s recklessness and willingness to go along with what he’s asked and pride in his strength, Piggie’s impatience to hear the story and pride that her friendship is so important that Gerald ran to tell her first what he had done, etc.), how the plot develops (a tremendous amount happens in those 40 lines, with great pacing, and as Jonathan pointed out, the story extends beyond the end of the book and engages the readers as theater because of the lack of narration), and appropriateness of style (perfect for the emergent reader).

    Why do the pictures need to be referenced for any of that?

  34. I’m just gonna have to bow out respectively at this time. I love these books. I’m rather obsessed with them right now actually. They are the perfect size for my daughter and she loves holding them in her lap, flipping pages, and pretending to read. My wife and I read them to her and she laughs even though we know she doesn’t know what we’re talking about! We have a soft spot for Elephant and Piggie right now.

    As much as I want to go all in with my support, I just can’t for some reason. For the Newbery that is. I’m just not seeing it without the pictures. The text doesn’t stand out enough for me.

    But Jonathan, you’ve made such a passionate, valiant effort here, I’m just going to stop raining on your parade for the time being!

    If it’s any consolation, looking at the Geisel criteria that you listed, I actually think SHOULD I SHARE MY ICE CREAM? is an overall stronger contender for that than I BROKE MY TRUNK! I love the emotional struggle Gerald goes through, as you put it earlier. But then again, I don’t read much of anything (as you’ve already reminded me!) in that genre!

  35. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I have no idea, then, how Colin Firth managed to win the Oscar for best actor. How do I know that it was really his own merit and not simply because he had the best director, Tom Hooper, or the best original screenplay? He also played off best supporting actor nominee Geoffrey Rush and best supporting actress nominee Helena Bonham Carter. Or maybe it was because the film was also nominated for best editing, best sound editing, best costume design, best original score, best cinematography, and best art direction. That certainly made him look good. I mean *anybody* would have won best actor with all that help, right? And it’s just impossible to segregate Firth’s part out of such a collaborative endeavor. It’s silly to give him best actor when his work is so heavily dependent on all those other categories. Maybe the Oscar should have gone to an actor who had far less help?

  36. Genevieve says:

    Mr. H., could I suggest that you read or re-read Frog and Toad Together (by Arnold Lobel), which won a Newbery Honor, and see if that text stands out for you any differently? (It’s longer, so it’s a little more complex, but I think each story in it might be the length of I Broke My Trunk.) Reading Frog and Toad and thinking ‘this was a Newbery Honor’ might have some effect on how you see a Newbery winner.

  37. I personally think you’re making quite the leap, in comparing the text of I BROKE MY TRUNK! to the acting performance of Colin Firth in THE KING’S SPEECH.

    I read an easier reader over the weekend that I could totally get behind . . . THE TROUBLE WITH CHICKENS. Probably rank it #3 behind OKAY FOR NOW and THE TROUBLE WITH MAY AMELIA. I loved it’s detective, black and white, film noir-like style. Pretty good on sentence-level for that age range too.

  38. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I don’t want to get into another protracted argument about I BROKE MY TRUNK!, but the core issue is the same: How do you divvy up credit for something that is inherently a collaborative medium, especially when the success of one element is so integral to the success of the whole. Obviously, with an easy reader you have the author, the illustrator, the editor, the book designer, etc. With film, you have even more collaborative partners involved. As I said, I don’t want to belabor the metaphor, but . . . some food for thought.

    THE TROUBLE WITH CHICKENS is not an easy reader, but a chapter book. It goes in the same bin as SIR GAWAIN, CLEMENTINE, ALVIN HO, and TOYS COME HOME . . .

  39. That’s what I meant. That’s why I said “easier” reader. I just couldn’t think of the right title to give it. I’ve read SIR GAWAIN and thought CHICKENS was definitely better than it. Much more “tight” story, if that makes sense. SIR GAWAIN seemed kinda “loose” and sillier, in an unstructured way. Don’t know how to explain it. Might just be personal taste. Haven’t read the newest CLEMENTINE or ALVIN HO yet to compare . . .

    And I totally understand your metaphor. I think you assumed I didn’t. What I personally don’t agree with is your comparison of Firth’s performance to Willems’ text. But then again, as you’ve pointed out, I really don’t have a constellation of easy readers to compare Willems’ text to.

  40. Have you read CHICKENS, by the way? You haven’t included it here yet and I didn’t know if it was because you hadn’t read it, or you didn’t like it? If you have read it, what’d you think?

  41. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I have read CHICKENS and liked it very much. We discussed it in the comments to Chapter Book Newbery. Wendy really like it a lot, too.

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