One-Minute Book Reviews

September 7, 2007

Chris Van Allsburg’s A-Plus Alphabet Book, ‘The Z Was Zapped’

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:20 pm
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One of America’s greatest illustrators finds 26 kinds of drama in letters

The Z Was Zapped: The Alphabet Theatre Proudly Presents … A Play in Twenty-Six Acts. By Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin, 56 pp., $18.95. Ages 2 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Great chefs often test their would-be assistants by asking them to make an omelet. Why? It’s harder to hide your mistakes when you’re working with just a few ingredients. And the good cooks don’t need more than a few to show what they can do.

In that sense Chris Van Allsburg is the Nobu Matsuhisa of picture books. If you want to understand why critics regard him as one of the greatest living author-illustrators, compare The Z Was Zapped with any other alphabet book at your library or bookstore.

Alphabet books typically illustrate letters with nouns, an approach that has drawbacks. One is that it can lead to clichés such as, “A is for apple.” Another is that because nouns are not “action” words as verbs are, they can result in inert — or just dull — books.

Van Allsburg avoids both problems by casting his letters as actors in a stage play in which they face mishaps illustrated by strong verbs and black-and-white drawings that have an air of mystery about them. He doesn’t tell us why “The K was quietly Kidnapped” or two gloved hands are lifting the K off the stage. This encourages children to create their own explanations for the strange goings-on. And the black-and-white drawings have the subtle but great advantage of drawing attention to the shape of letters (which is essential to learning the alphabet) instead of the color (which is irrelevant). Some alphabet books blaze with so much color that you wonder: How can children focus on the letters when there are so many distractions?

The Z Was Zapped has a structure that is no less original. Most alphabet books introduce a letter through words and pictures on a single page or spread. Van Allsburg shows a letter on one page, then makes you turn the page to learn its name and fate. This prompts children to try to guess the letter and what’s happening to it. It also fosters vocabulary-building and creativity, because at times more than one description might apply. Van Allsburg tells us that “The S was simply Soaked,” but “Splashed” would fit, too. If the F is “firmly Flattened,” children are more likely to be “fully Fascinated.”

Best line/picture: The picture for the letter B (“The B Was badly Bitten”) shows the snout of the bull terrier that is Van Allsburg’s signature and appears in each of his books.

Worst line/picture: You could argue that in “The H was partly Hidden,” the “partly” is imprecise. You can hardly see the H, so “mostly” or “largely” might have been more accurate.

Recommendation? A great gift for ages 2–4, likely also to appeal to many older children.

Published: October 1987 (hardcover), October 1998 (paperback) www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com. A review of Van Allsburg’s latest book, Probuditi! (Houghton Mifflin, $18.95) appeared on this site on Jan. 21, 2007 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/01/21/.

Furthermore: Chris Van Allsburg www.chrisvanallsburg.com won Caldecott Medals from the American Library Association www.ala.org for Jumanji and The Polar Express and a Caldecott Honor for The Garden of Abdul Gasazi.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of The Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. She also wrote The Accidental Bride (St. Martins, 1999), a comedy of Midwestern manners, and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004), a comedy of New York manners www.janiceharayda.com.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Does Ian McEwan Deserve the Man Booker Prize or a Bad Sex Award for Writing Like This? You Be the Judge

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:53 pm
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The judges for the 2007 Man Booker Prize have named the six finalists for the award, and — no surprise — Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach is among them. But does McEwan deserve that prize or the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, given annually by the Literary Review www.literaryreview.co.uk for his tale of a young couple’s disastrous 1962 wedding night? Reader, you be the judge. Here’s a sample of the writing about sex in On Chesil Beach www.randomhouse.com:

“Like most young men of his time, or any time, without an easy manner, or means to sexual expression, he indulged constantly in what one enlightened authority was now calling ‘self-pleasuring’ … How extraordinary it was, that a self-made spoonful, leaping clear of his body, should instantly free his mind to confront afresh Nelson’s decisiveness at Aboukir Bay.”

What’s the prose like when it isn’t about pre-sexual-revolution onanism? A sample:

“Because the instrument was a cello rather than her violin, the interrogator was not herself but a detached observer, mildly incredulous, but insistent too, for after a brief silence and lingering, unconvincing reply from the other instruments, the cello put the question again, in different terms, on a different chord, and then again, and again, and each time received a doubtful answer.”

The other titles shortlisted for the Man Booker www.themanbookerprize.com are: Darkmans by Nicola Barker, The Gathering by Anne Enright, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones and Animal’s People by Indra Sinha. The winner will be announced Oct. 16. A review of On Chesil Beach (“A Mitch Albom Novel With a Higher IQ?”) www.randomhouse.com appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on August 10 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/08/10/.

Tomorrow in the Saturday Children’s Corner on One-Minute Book Reviews: A review of Chris Van Allsburg’s underrated The Z Was Zapped www.chrisvanallsburg.com and www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Thank You All! One-Minute Book Reviews Among Top 10 Book Review Sites on Google

Filed under: Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:38 am
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I don’t thank all the visitors to this site nearly enough, and here’s proof: Just saw that One-Minute Book Reviews is ranked 7th in the world among book review sites on Google www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/. I have no idea how Google arrives at these rankings. But to all of you who have helped with your clicks, I need to say immediately (via Sebastian in Twelfth Night):

I can no other answer make but thanks,
And thanks; and ever oft good turns
Are shuffled off with such uncurrent pay …

Bless you all.

Jan

(By the way, if you expect to be writing a lot of thank-you notes for wedding or holiday gifts soon, that’s a great quote to save for the moment when your inspiration fails you as you look at that butter dish shaped like a raccoon or — dare I say it? — that book about the history of bungee-jumping in northern Saskatchewan.)

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