Students hold their own book judging event

Picture books have resonated with Katherine Sokolowski her entire life, and as a language arts teacher she is trying to pass that love and appreciation on to her Monticello Middle School students.

“In middle school there is so much turmoil in other ways, its a way to shut down and relax and not focus on the pressures of being a middle school student,” said Sokolowski, who reads a picture book each week to her students.

“They told me it helps them relax. They say they can be little kids again,” she added.

She remembers that feeling, as it beckons back to her childhood and a time when she first read a picture book as a first grader to her class.

“That’s the first time I wanted to be a teacher,” said Sokolowski, whose favorites as a youth were “The Monster at the End of This Book” and “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble.”

These days, the MMS instructor helps instill that appreciation by walking students through a mock Caldecott exercise, an annual judging effort Sokolowsi has guided for six years. Getting together over three lunch hours, students review their share of books and come up with the ones they feel should win the Caldecott, one of the most prominent awards for authors.

“I was so impressed so many of them voluntarily participated in the discussions over their lunch hours,” said Nicole Stewart, the owner of Hartfield Book Co. in Monticello, an entrepreneurial endeavor she took on last year. She helped with the mock Caldecott, both during some of the lunch hour judging sessions and by helping provide some of the books at a discount.

“I was struck by the things that they noticed and picked up on in the books, as well as their ability to articulate those things,” said Stewart.

And although most picture books feature less text than other fictional counterparts, Sokolowski notes they still require their share of skill to judge.

“What I think it does is allow us to appreciate art in other ways,” she said. “We talked about how the illustrations enhance the book.”

Stewart also observed saw students developing those skills and recognizing the emotional attachment picture books provide.

“In many ways, I think it can be more challenging to review or analyze a picture book because they seem more simplistic than a chapter book or novel. You might have to look below the surface, or describe a feeling that is evoked more subtly by the use of a certain color, image, or style. It was really interesting to hear which books the students were drawn to and why,” she said.

As an example, she pointed to the book “Blue,” written and illustrated by Laura Vaccaro Seegar. It was one of five that students chose as favorites.

“There are only two words per spread, no sentences, but the students responded strongly to it and wrote this in their explanation for selecting it: ‘This book made all of our classes gasp as we got to the end, only to discover the story had been a narrative all along. We enjoyed the die-cuts that were sprinkled throughout the book. The illustrations, created with acrylic paint on canvas, are captivating. They help us celebrate the emotion that the color, blue, can bring,’” said Stewart.

The seventh graders eventually selected “Drawn Together” as their top book. Written by Minh Le and illustrated by Dan Santat, students said they were “captivated by this multigenerational story of a grandfather and his grandson, coming together over a shared love of drawing. While they may not speak the same language, they can communicate through their art.”

Second place locally went to “Otis and Will Discover the Deep” written by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by Katherine Roy. Selected for third place was “The Stuff of Stars.” written by Marion Dane Bauer, illustrated by Ekua Holmes. “Blue” came in fourth.

None was selected by the official Caldecott committee (Association for Library Service to Children), which on Jan. 25 selected “Hello Lighthouse,” written and illustrated by Sophie Blackall, as its Caldecott Medal winner for 2019.

But that wasn’t really the point for MMS students, who learned more about art, literacy, and how subjective it is to choose one volume over another.

Stewart has a window display at her downtown Monticello book store featuring the local winners, including the essays written by students explaining the reasoning behind their selections.

“Hopefully, people passing the store will take a moment to check it out,” she commented. “It’s a nice reminder that we have great schools and great teachers who give freely of their time and energy to create meaningful learning experiences that go beyond classroom time. And, they inspire students to want to do the same!”

Also helping with the exercise was Michigan-based librarian Margie Myers-Culver. MMS students held a Skype session to pick her brain before making their selections.

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