One-Minute Book Reviews

May 30, 2008

Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read – ‘The Backward Day’ by Ruth Krauss With Art by Marc Simont

“Ruth [Krauss] broke the rules and invented new ones, and her respect for the natural ferocity of children bloomed into poetry that was utterly faithful to what was true in their lives.”
— Maurice Sendak in The Horn Book

The Backward Day. By Ruth Krauss. Illustrated by Marc Simont. New York Review Children’s Collection, 32 pp., $14.95. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Ruth Krauss isn’t as well-known today as Margaret Wise Brown, her contemporary and fellow member of the Writer’s Laboratory at the Bank Street School in New York City. But like Brown, Krauss helped to change the path of children’s literature, partly by incorporating more naturalism into a field dominated by fairy and folk tales. One of her most appealing books is The Backward Day, recently revived in a series of classics from New York Review Children’s Collection.

In a wholly nondidactic way, this brief story reminds us — and children — of the joy of activities that cost nothing. A young boy wakes up one morning and decides that it’s “backward day,” an occasion that some children call “opposite day.” He puts his underwear on over his coat and suit and his socks over his shoes. Then he walks backward down the stairs to the breakfast table, where he turns a chair around. When his parents and younger sister arrive, he tells each of them, “Goodnight.” Without so much as a “Don’t be silly!” they go along with him – and keep going along — until he announces “BACKWARD DAY IS DONE” and everything returns to normal.

Simple as it is, this story speaks to – and vicariously fulfills – children’s yearning for power over others, and does so in a realistic and believable way. Its young hero needs no magic wand or potion to get others to do his bidding, which must make it all the more thrilling to many children. Marc Simont’s appealing drawings of a late 1940s family have an ageless elegance leavened with wit. And in an era of oversized picture books that are way too big for many 3-year-olds to handle comfortably, this is the rare hardcover book that has a scale that’s right for small hands.

Recommendation? This book is smaller than most used for library story hours — it’s about the size of Goodnight Moon — but it could still be a great story hour book for a small group, because it offers so many opportunities for audience participation. Children could turn around at some point during the reading, for example, or the leader could “read” the book upside down.

Best line: “Over his suit, he put on his underwear. He explained to himself, ‘Backward day is backward day.’” This line shows Krauss’s understanding of how children think and reason, a hallmark of her books.

Worst line: None.

Published: 1950 (first edition), 2007 (New York Review reprint) www.nyrb.com.

Furthermore: Krauss also wrote A Very Special House, a Caldecott Honor Book, and A Hole Is to Dig, both illustrated by Maurice Sendak. She won another Caldecott Honor for The Happy Day, which has pictures by Marc Simont.

Other titles in the New York Review Children’s Collection include E. Nesbit’s The House of Arden, Rumer Godden’s An Episode of Sparrows, Lucretia P. Hale’s The Peterkin Papers and Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson’s Wee Gillis.

This is the latest in an occasional series of posts on classic picture books every child should read. Reviews of books for children and teenagers appear on Saturdays on One-Minute Book Reviews. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing these posts.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Last Lecture’ by Randy Pausch

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Last Lecture’ by Randy Pausch

10 Discussion Questions
The Last Lecture
By Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that would like to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

After learning that he had terminal pancreatic cancer, Randy Pausch gave an upbeat valedictory lecture at Carnegie Mellon University, where he teaches computer science. He called his talk “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” and explained in it how he had accomplished most of what he set out to do in life. Enlivened with humor and showmanship, his lecture drew millions of visitors to its posting on YouTube and made Pausch a star on the Internet. His talk also inspired The Last Lecture, a collection of short essays written with Wall Street Journal columnist Jeffrey Zaslow, which became a No. 1 bestseller on the New York Times “Advice, How-To and Miscellaneous” list.

Discussion Questions

Please note that the page numbers below come from the large-type edition of The Last Lecture (Thorndike, 2008), the only one available when this guide was prepared.

1. When someone asked what he wanted on his tombstone, Pausch said: “Randy Pausch: He Lived Thirty Years After a Terminal Diagnosis.’” [Page 247] If you were to write his epitaph, what would it say?

2. Summing up a theme of his lecture and book, Pausch writes: “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.” [Page 32] This is one of many clichés he admits he loves and uses liberally in The Last Lecture. Did he succeed in making any old ideas fresh? How did he do it?

3. Pausch began his lecture “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” by saying he wasn’t going to deal with big questions of religion or spirituality, and he sticks to that pattern in The Last Lecture. How does the book benefit or suffer from his decision?

4. The Last Lecture recycles much of what Pausch said in his valedictory lecture at Carnegie Mellon and expands some of it. Should people who’ve watched the talk also read the book? Why? What does the book give you that the lecture doesn’t?

5. Pausch could have called his book The Last Lectures, because he structures it as a series of mini-lectures instead of one long lecture. How well does this technique work?

6. The Last Lecture balances general advice such as “dream big” with specific tips – for example, about how to work well in small groups. “Instead of saying, ‘I think we should do A, instead of B,’ try ‘What if we did A, instead of B?’” [Page 190] Which, if any, of the tips struck you as most helpful?

7. Many cancer patients are bombarded with the advice to “be optimistic” or “think positively.” This approach has led to a medical backlash alluded to in the chapter “A Way to Understand Optimism.” Pausch says his surgeon worries about “patients who are inappropriately optimistic or ill-informed”: “It pains him to see patients who are having a tough day healthwise and assume it’s because they weren’t positive enough.” [Page 249] What is Pausch’s view of this? Is he appropriately or inappropriately optimistic? Why?

8. Many people who have heard about The Last Lecture may be tempted to give the book to someone who has had a devastating diagnosis, or who is perhaps dying, hoping it will provide comfort or cheer. What would you say to them? Is this a book for the living or the dying?

9. The Last Lecture comes from Mitch Albom’s publisher and literary agent and has a small format similar to that of Tuesdays With Morrie. These similarities – let’s face it – could be a kiss of death for some people, especially critics who see Albom as an icon of saccharine and dumbed-down writing. What would you say to someone who didn’t plan to read The Last Lecture because, “One Mitch Albom is enough”?

10. If you were going to give your own “last lecture,” what would you say?

Vital Statistics:
The Last Lecture. By Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow. Hyperion, 224 pp., $21.95. Published: April 2008.

A review of The Last Lecture appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 30, 2008. If you are reading this guide on the home page of the site, scroll down to find the review. If you are reading this guide on the Internet, click on this link to find it www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/30/.

Watch Pausch’s talk “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” and read an excerpt from The Last Lecture at www.thelastlecture.com.

Furthermore: Pausch posts updates on his health at download.srv.cs.cmu.edu/~pausch/news/index.html.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear on the site frequently but not on a regular schedule. They usually deal with books for which publishers have provided no guides or guides that are inadequate – for example, because they encourage cheerleading for books instead of thoughtful discussion. To avoid missing these reviews, please bookmark the site or subscribe to the RSS feed. If you would like to see the guides continue, it would be extremely helpful if you would link to them.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

Randy Pausch’s ‘The Last Lecture’ – A Book for the Living, Not the Dying

Filed under: How to,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:24 am
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A professor with terminal pancreatic cancer writes about what life has taught him

The Last Lecture. By Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow. Hyperion, 224 pp., $21.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

For years, Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go! has returned to the bestseller lists every June, spurred by its popularity as a graduation gift. As a statement of faith in someone who has just picked up a diploma, its buoyant message is hard to beat: “And will you succeed? / Yes! You will, indeed!”

But many graduates need more guidance than a picture book can offer. And for those who do, Randy Pausch has written what may be the year’s best high school or college graduation gift.

Pausch learned last year that he had terminal pancreatic cancer and, soon afterward, gave a valedictory lecture at Carnegie Mellon University, where he teaches computer science. He called his talk “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” and used it to explain how he had accomplished most of what he set out to do in life. Witty and poignant, the lecture had millions of viewings on YouTube and inspired this collection of brief essays in which Pausch tells what he has learned from life.

For all its popularity, The Last Lecture might give some people pause. It comes from Mitch Albom’s publisher and literary agent and has a format similar to that of Tuesdays With Morrie. And like Albom, Pausch loves clichés or what he calls “old chestnuts.” From The Last Lecture we learn that “Luck is indeed where preparation meets opportunity” and “Whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right.” Summing up the theme of his lecture and book, Pausch writes: “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”

But Pausch is much funnier than Albom. At times. The Last Lecture reads at times like a draft of Dave Barry Meets His Maker. Pausch allows that he’s given some good talks as a professor: “But being considered the best speaker in a computer science department is like being known as the tallest of the Seven Dwarfs.”

Pausch also serves up colorful anecdotes about working as an expert on virtual reality projects with Disney Imagineering and other titans. He tells us that reading journal articles can he so tedious that whenever he sent out a paper for review, he’d send a box of Girl Scout Thin Mints to the reviewer. “Thank you for agreeing to do this,” he’d write. “The enclosed Thin Mints are your reward. But no fair eating them until you review the paper.” When he needed to send a follow-up e-mail, he could keep it to one sentence: “Did you eat the Thin Mints yet?” You believe Pausch when he says that he achieved almost all of his childhood dreams that were within his reach and understand why he did.

That’s partly why The Last Lecture is a book for the living, not the dying. Pausch has been lucky to have been able to accomplish much of what he hoped to achieve, and he knows it. Many people aren’t. They die with large unfulfilled dreams that this book could throw into higher relief. So Pausch clearly found the ideal audience for his upbeat message at Carnegie Mellon. Students and other young people may find his book a wellspring of inspiration for the years ahead. Their grandparents may only regret that they don’t have more time to drink from it.

Best line: “Someone asked me what I want on my tombstone. I replied, ‘Randy Pausch: He Lived Thirty Years After a Terminal Diagnosis.’” And Pausch makes this comment about a football coach named Jim Graham: “Coach Graham worked in a no-coddling zone. Self-esteem? He knew there was really only one way to teach kids how to develop it: You give them something they can’t do, they work hard until they find they can do it, and you just keep repeating the process.”

Worst line: Pausch says he loves football clichés and often repeated them to his students: “I liked my students to win one for the Gipper, to go out an execute, to keep the drive alive, to march down the field, to avoid costly turnovers and to win games in the trenches even if they were gonna feel it on Monday.” Pausch is clearly having some fun here, but still: Isn’t it time to punt a few of those away?

Editor: Will Balliett

Published: April 2008

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Last Lecture was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 30, 2008. If you are reading this post on the home page of the site, scroll up to find the guide. If you are reading this post on the Internet, click on this link www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/30/.

Furthermore: Pausch posts regular updates on his health download.srv.cs.cmu.edu/~pausch/news/index.html. Read an excerpt from his book or watch his lecture at Carnegie Mellon here www.thelastlecture.com.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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