The first lady stumps for John McCain at the Republican National Convention next week and for reading in a picture book about a boy who becomes a convert to literature
Read All About It! By Laura Bush and Jenna Bush. Illustrated by Denise Brunkus. HarperCollins, 32 pp., $17.99. Ages 4 and up.
By Janice Harayda
The good news is: This book isn’t as bad as Millie’s Book, the bestseller that Barbara Bush wrote entirely in the voice of her pet spaniel. The bad news is: It’s a close call.
Read All About It! is a stump speech posing as a storybook. First lady Laura Bush and her daughter Jenna lobby hard for reading in this tale of a boy who prefers freeze tag to books. One day Tyrone decides to pay attention instead of clowning around when his teacher, Miss Libro, reads to his class, and — presto! — his view changes. The characters in books become real to him: “During a story about our Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin stepped into our classroom, flying a kite.” A dragon appears “as the prince was about to save the princess” in a fairy tale, and a ghost and pig turn up when the teacher reads other books.
But the characters vanish when their stories end. Alarmed, Tyrone and his friends search the school for them, talking with people like Ms. Gravy (a cook in the cafeteria) and Ms. Tonedeaf (the music teacher). The students find the missing characters in the library, and on the last page Tyrone begs with the zeal of the newly baptized, “Miss Libro, let’s read here, in the library!”
The theme of Read All About It! is that if you give books a chance, you may enter magical worlds. And who would disagree that reading can seem magical? But there’s a weird similarity between the Bushes’ just-say-yes-to-reading theme and Nancy Reagan’s just-say-no-to-drugs platform. Whether you’re talking about books or drugs, you don’t usually convert kids with moralizing. Apart from the problems a just-say-yes approach might present for students with ADD or learning disabilities, the plot of Read All About It! is too weak to rescue it from its didacticism.
Roger Sutton, editor-in-chief of the children’s literature journal the Horn Book, wrote in the New York Times Book Review that “kids who don’t like stories won’t be persuaded otherwise” by this one:
“As Tyrone would say, it’s not real. The point is laboriously made, the teachers’ names are dorky, the plot is hectic and the suspense and dialogue are artificial.”
Given that Laura studied to become a librarian and Jenna wrote an earlier book, Sutton wondered: “How could such confirmedly bookish types write an I-love-reading book so fundamentally tone deaf as to why reading can inspire love?”
The tone-deafness goes beyond the dippy names of characters. Princesses still exist in fairy tales – and girls still love to read about them – but in modern stories they are much less likely than in older ones to have a prince “save” them as envisioned in Read All About It!. And in textbooks the phrase “Founding Fathers” is giving way to “founders.” The authors seem to be trying to have it both ways – to appeal to liberals by sometimes using “Ms.” and to conservatives by alluding to princes who “save” princesses and by bringing up those “Founding Fathers.” Apart from any external political considerations that are involved, this approach makes for an internally inconsistent story. And you wonder if it’s a coincidence that Miss Libro is on all levels a more attractive character than the presumptive feminists, Ms. Gravy and Ms. Tonedeaf.
Read All About It! gets what little life it has from its spirited color illustrations by Denise Brunkus, illustrator of the Junie B. Jones series. The book also has six brief reading lists of picture books or early readers, which appear on Miss Libro’s blackboard and which children may find useful. Even those call for caution: More than half of the recommended books come from HarperCollins, publisher of Read All About It!.
But the authors’ reading lists mercifully include E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, a children’s novel that exemplifies the spirit of a comment Sutton made in his review of Read All About It! in the New York Times Book Review: “Children’s librarians could tell you: if you want to convince children of the power of books, don’t tell them stories are good. Tell them a good story.”
So if you want to get children excited about reading, you might skip Tyrone and go straight to Fern, the girl who in Charlotte’s Web saves the scrawny last pig of a litter. White once said, when a critic sent him a scholarly disquisition on that modern classic, “It’s good I did not know what in hell was going on. To have known might well have been catastrophic.” The authors of Read All About It! do know what’s going on, and that’s the problem.
Best line/picture: On the title page a pig nuzzles Tyrone with a Babe-like sweetness that isn’t cloying.
Worst line/picture: No. 1: “Ms. Toadskin thinks she can gross us out with her science experiments. But I live for that stuff!” No. 2: “The library is a boring place! All I will meet there are stinky pages.” No. 3: “And then I had the most brilliant idea EVER. ‘Miss Libro, let’s read here, in the library!’
“’Take it from me, Tyrone! You never know who you are going to meet when you look in a book!’”
Take it from me, everybody! Overusing exclamation points is a sign of weak writing! And italics and boldface, too! The authors don’t get that this is shouting at kids!
Published: May 2008
Consider reading instead: Max’s Words, a far more effective picture book about a boy who discovers the joy of words www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/08/16/.
Futhermore: Read Roger Sutton’s full review here www.nytimes.com/2008/05/11/books/review/Sutton-t.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss. Listen to Laura Bush and Jenna Bush talk about how they wrote their book here www.harpercollinschildrens.com/harperchildrens/parents/gamesandcontests/features/readallaboutit/.
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© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.