One-Minute Book Reviews

November 18, 2012

‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers,’ 2012 National Book Award Winner

A Mumbai slum dweller falls into a judicial Bermuda triangle after a neighbor frames him for a crime

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. By Katherine Boo. Random House, 256 pp., $27

By Janice Harayda

In the United States, the word “corruption” has only negative connotations. But in India, Katherine Boo observes wryly, graft and fraud are among the few “genuine opportunities” open to slum dwellers who hope to rise above poverty.

Boo doesn’t endorse that reality but suggests why it endures in this portrait of Annawadi, a slum of 3,000 people packed into 335 huts in the shadow of a sparkling blue-glass Hyatt near the Mumbai airport. The residents can’t count on improving their lives through education, because many public schools are shams, run by teenagers or unqualified teachers who bribed officials to get their jobs. Without education, slum dwellers are shut out of jobs, particularly if they are Muslims or low-born Hindus.

One of Boo’s sources who prospered against the odds was the slum boss Asha Waghekar, who traded sex with police officers for their willingness to fix cases of residents who bribed her to intercede. But Asha’s intervention helped little after an embittered woman with a deformed leg set herself on fire. Before she died, Fatima the One-Leg implicated three neighbors in her death: Karam Husain and his daughter Kehkashan and son Abdul, who supported the family by working as a garbage trader. The police learned quickly that the Husains were innocent but jailed them, anyway, hoping to extort payoffs for favorable treatment from their relatives. A judge absolved Karam and Kekashan of guilt, but Abdul fell into a judicial Bermuda triangle.

Boo finds the main narrative thread for her book in Abdul’s story and uses it to offer a much starker view of poverty than international relief agencies typically do in their pictures of hollow-eyed children and their assurances that pennies a day can change lives. She shows how corruption and destitution go hand-in-hand to a degree that may keep aid from reaching its intended recipients at all. In Annawadi, a government-sponsored self-help group for poor women foundered when Asha, the slum boss, siphoned off money from the program and lent it at usurious rates to destitute residents excluded from the program.

As she develops this bleak picture, Boo shows the exceptional courage and gift for reporting that helped her win a Pulitzer Prize at the Washington Post before she joined the staff of The New Yorker. She uses, less successfully, some of the techniques of creative nonfiction, such as claiming access to her subjects’ thoughts and submerging her voice and point of view in theirs. At times Boo tries to give the flavor of her slum-dwellers’ speech without quoting it directly by adopting their language: She uses “bitty” for small, and she writes of a eunuch whose “legs became slithery things” when he danced and of lake that “magicked into a thick mat of water-hyacinth weed.” Such language is more likely to come from from children or teenagers than from a writer for The New Yorker  and clashes with that of other passages in which Boo is clearly writing in her voice. Often she doesn’t identify the sources for questionable details and, as the New Delhi bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal noted, appears not to have interviewed people whose version of events might have differed from that of her subjects.

Even so, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a welcome complement – and, in some ways, an antidote – to the brutal but ultimately romanticized portrait of India in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. “Every country has its myths, and one that successful Indians liked to indulge was a romance of instability and adaptation – the idea that their country’s rapid rise derived in part from the chaotic unpredictability of daily life,” Boo writes. “In America and Europe, it was said, people know what is going to happen next when they turn on the water tap or flick the light switch. In India, a land of few assumptions, chronic uncertainty was said to have helped produce a nation of quick-witted problem-solvers.”

Boo makes clear that among the Mumbai poor, instability does foster ingenuity, but it can also foster corruption – legal, moral, and political – among those who see no other way to improve their lives. Over time, Boo notes, “the lack of a link between effort and result could be debilitating.” One Annawadi girl told her: “We try so many things, but the world doesn’t seem to move in our favor.” The paradox of Behind the Beautiful Forevers is that it leaves you with little hope that things will change even as it persuades you that more books like this one might set changes in motion.

Best line: No. 1: “Food wasn’t one of the amenities at Cooper, the 500-bed hospital on which millions of poor people depended. Nor was medicine. ‘Out of stock today’ was the nurses’ official explanation. Plundered and resold out of supply cabinets was an unofficial one. What patients needed, families had to buy on the street and bring in.” No. 2: “As every slumdweller knew, there were three main ways out of poverty: finding an entrepreneurial niche, as the Husains had found in garbage; politics and corruption, in which Asha had placed here hopes; and education. Several dozen parents in the slum were getting by on roti and salt in order to pay private school tuition.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Asha clucked.” No. 2 “She’d started to be treated as a mattering person.”

Published: February 2012

Furthermore: The New Delhi bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal finds “sloppiness,” “caricaturing” Indians and other defects in “The Letdown of ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’,” which argues that Boo wrote a good, not great, book.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Behind the Beautiful Forevers appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Nov. 18, 2012, in the post that preceded this one.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

April 18, 2012

In Defense of the Pulitzer Board’s Decision to Give No 2012 Fiction Prize

Update, Thursday, 2:50 p.m.: I’ve learned since writing this post that when juror Michael Cunningham was an unknown, nominee Denis Johnson helped to launch his career by providing a blurb for his first novel, Golden States (Crown, 1984). Johnson helped Cunningham again more recently by allowing Cunningham to reprint his work in an anthology he edited, Land’s End: A Walk in Provincetown (Crown, 2002). Juror Maureen Corrigan says in today’s Washington Post that the jurors “unanimously agreed” on the books they nominated for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. If she is right, Cunningham failed to recuse himself from the judging as would be required by many other awards, including the National Book Critics Circle awards. Cunningham’s conflict of interest in promoting the career of someone who promoted his work is all the more reason why the Pulitzer Prize Board acted correctly in rejecting Johnson. Jan Harayda 

The Pulitzer board angered people when it gave no fiction award Monday, but it made the right call

By Janice Harayda

My newspaper nominated me for a Pulitzer when I was the book critic for the Plain Dealer, and I didn’t win. Many of my colleagues who have done worthy work have failed to earn a medal. And Pulitzers have often gone to books that, as a critic, I saw as less deserving than those that went unrecognized.

So I know that the loss of a prize can hurt. And I know that the Pulitzer Prize Board, the ultimate arbiter of the awards, has at times appeared to wield its power with the neutrality of a Soviet-era figure-skating judge.

But the board made the right call when it said on Monday that for the first time in 35 years, it would give no fiction prize, a decision that caused an uproar in the publishing industry. Choosing a winner sounds straightforward: Every year a three-member Pulitzer jury selects three finalists for the award, and from among those nominations, the Pulitzer board picks a winner. Or it rejects all candidates and gives no prize. That’s what happened Monday when the board declined without explanation to give a medal to any of the jury’s choices: Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, all books by authors much-honored for their work.

The torrent of protests that followed gushed with the strongest force from publishers and others who would have profited from the sales bump the award provides. One of the more bizarre outbursts came from Ann Patchett, the novelist and Nashville bookseller. Patchett said in a New York Times op-ed piece that  she “can’t imagine” a year that had more “need” of a fiction Pulitzer even though none was given in 1941 when Pearl Harbor was bombed.

Was the board’s decision so terrible? Consider the books nominated by the jury. Johnson’s Train Dreams is a long short story that appeared in the Paris Review, that had about 50 pages when reprinted in a PEN/O. Henry Prize anthology, and that its publisher repackaged to look like a novel by using a large font. Foster Wallace left The Pale King unfinished, and his editor, Michael Pietsch, completed it after his death. Russell’s Swamplandia!, the strongest candidate, is a B/B-minus novel substantially less deserving of an award than many previous winners.

Whatever their merits, these three books comprised a seriously flawed shortlist. Should the board have honored a single short story by Johnson, however good, when it gave the Pulitzer to an entire book full great ones in The Stories of John Cheever? Should it have rewarded Foster Wallace for a novel written partly by someone else? Should it have given a medal to Russell’s B/B-minus book instead of to the A/A+ work that a Pulitzer implies?

Choosing any of those books would have had drawbacks that outweighed benefits such as a sales boost for the winner. Rewarding unworthy books fosters cynicism among readers and devalues literary prizes. In this case, it would also have lent the imprimatur of the board to nominations that seemed almost willfully perverse, given that the list ignored a host of more deserving candidates, including Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision (a National Book Award finalist that won the National Book Critics Circle prize for fiction) and Pulitzer winner Steven Millhauser’s We Others (which won the Story Prize for short fiction).

Ann Patchett rightly notes that reading fiction matters because it allows us to imagine lives other than our own. But no evidence shows that the failure to award a Pulitzer will keep people from doing that. On the contrary, research has found that by adulthood, people generally have a habit of reading or they don’t. Those who have it won’t give it up because the Pulitzer board fails to pick a winner. They will instead get literary recommendations from friends, bookstores and libraries, reviews in print and online, and other sources. That process will lead some people to fiction they will enjoy more than the three books nominated by the Pulitzer jury. For that, we should be grateful.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor and critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button.

(c) 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 2, 2012

What I’m Reading … Maya Jasanoff’s ‘Liberty’s Exiles’

The latest in a series of posts about books I’m reading that I may or may not review later

What I’m reading: Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World (Knopf, 460 pp., $30), by Maya Jasanoff.

What it is: A Harvard professor’s dense, scholarly history of the diaspora of colonists who stayed loyal to Britain during the American Revolution and fled afterward to countries that included Canada, Jamaica and Sierra Leone.

Why I’m reading it: Liberty’s Exiles was a finalist for the 2011 Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction, which produces a consistently high-quality shortlist. The book also won the most recent National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction.

How much I’ve read: The first 55 pages, a 34-page chapter on loyalists who fled to Jamaica, and more, about 100 pages in all.

Quote from the book: Anglo-Americans in Jamaica “went to appalling extremes” to protect their authority over black slaves, including many brought into the country by loyalists who left the U.S. after the Revolutionary War: “A dispassionate record of Jamaica’s everyday sadism survives in the diaries of plantation overseer Thomas Thistlewood, whose 37-year-old career on the island ended with his death in 1786. By then, Thistlewood had scored tens of thousands of lashes across slaves’ bare skin, practically flaying some of his victims alive. He had had sex with 138 women (by his own tally), almost all of them slaves. He stuck the heads of executed runaways on poles; he had seen cheeks slit and ears cut off. He routinely meted out punishments such as the following, for a slave caught eating sugarcane: ‘had him well flogged and pickled, then made Hector shit in his mouth.’ Such incredible barbarity symptomized the panic that pervaded Jamaican white society: the fear that the black majority might rise up and slaughter them in their beds.”

Comments: Liberty’s Exiles has the redundant phrase “wealthy heiress” in the first sentence. Its author also has an unfortunate lust for the adjectival use of  “very”: “the very fact,” “their very names,” and “the very bosom of American homes.”  Among adverbial uses, she gives us “the very same ships,” “the very same rooms,” and “the very first signer.” But I’ve found the book worthwhile for its overview of loyalists in exile and its expansive portraits of some, including the young wife and mother Elizabeth Johnston, who lost her three-month-old daughter to smallpox in Jamaica.

Published: February 2011 (Knopf hardcover). March 2012 (Vintage/Anchor paperback).

Read more about Liberty’s Exiles in a review in the Spectator.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

 © 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

March 12, 2012

Deborah Baker’s ‘The Convert’ – A National Book Awards Reality Check

Filed under: Biography,Book Awards Reality Check,National Book Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:01 pm
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“Make-believe” letters undermine the credibility of a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for nonfiction

The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism. By Deborah Baker. Graywolf, 246 pp., $23.

By Janice Harayda

Deborah Baker purports in this book to tell the story of an American woman who converted from Judaism to Islam in her 20s and who, after moving to Pakistan in 1962, has remained there. But she gives you reason to distrust most of The Convert by waiting until late in book to clarify a line on the dust jacket that says that she drew on letters that Maryam Jameelah sent home to her parents after she had begun her new life as Maryam Jameelah.

Baker says in “A Note on Methodology” that while her book is “fundamentally nonfiction,” she has “rewritten and greatly condensed” the letters and rearranged the order of some of the anecdotes. And some letters are more than reconstructed: They are “make-believe” (apparently, Jameelah’s fantasies, though you don’t know that the author hasn’t made up letters, too). A message on Baker’s website, ostensibly from Jameelah, says: “I am satisfied with your book as a fair and just detailed appraisal of my life and work.”

That note does little to bolster the credibility of The Convert, given that doctors said Jameelah had schizophrenia and that she appears to be mentally disturbed, whether or not the diagnosis was accurate.  There may well be a fascinating story in the life of the former Margaret Marcus of Mamaroneck, New York, but Baker hasn’t found a credible way to tell it.

Best line: Not applicable.

Worst line: “I then asked Maryam if I could write her story as if she were writing once again to her family. Having her voice pass through my own, perhaps I might understand her better. I wanted her blessing to use the correspondence in her archive, the doctored and make-believe letters as well as the real ones, to quote and paraphrase and arrange as I saw fit.”

Published: 2011 (Graywolf hardcover). Graywolf paperback due out in September 2012.

Furthermore: One of the unreported literary scandals of last year was that The Convert was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for “nonfiction.”

Flap copy: The dust jacket of the hardcover edition of The Convert erroneously says that Jameelah grew up Larchmont, NY, when the book makes clear that it was Mamaroneck, a mistake picked up by many reviewers.

Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews is ranked one of the top 40 book blogs by Technorati and top 40 book-review blogs by Alexa Internet and was named one of New Jersey’s best blogs by New Jersey Monthly.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar at right.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 15, 2012

Jesmyn Ward’s ‘Salvage the Bones’ – A National Book Awards Reality Check

A pregnant teenager faces several kinds of storms, including Hurricane Katrina

Salvage the Bones: A Novel. By Jesmyn Ward. 259 pp., $24.

By Janice Harayda

Jesmyn Ward writes in Salvage the Bones at a 10-year-old reading level – that of a student who is just starting the fifth grade – according to well-established measures of comprehension. That fact in itself isn’t a problem. Some of the most popular classics of American literature have the same reading level, including The Grapes of Wrath and The Old Man and the Sea. So do at least two other recipients of the National Book Award for fiction, which Salvage the Bones won in 2011: Tree of Smoke and Let the Great World Spin. To Kill a Mockingbird has a reading level of only a half grade higher.

But Salvage the Bones differs from most adult novels with relatively low reading levels in an important way. It also has a young narrator – a pregnant teenager named Esch who lives with her widowed father, her three brothers, and their pit bull, China, who is giving birth to a litter as the novel opens. The Batistes live in “the black heart of Bois Sauvage,” a rundown town set apart from white neighborhoods near the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, which Hurricane Katrina will destroy over the 12 days that give the novel its time frame. The family becomes caught up in a revenge tragedy in which Mother Nature punishes her children with a fury as unreasonable as that of Medea, whose story Esch has been reading in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology during the summer after tenth grade. Their tale tells us that motherhood is rational and irrational, tender and savage, a theme developed through the actions of Esch, China and Katrina.

It’s a task of alpine difficulty to hitch such a metaphorical load to a young narrator, almost a literary suicide mission. Even Harper Lee didn’t try it but told To Kill a Mockingbird from the point of view of an adult looking back on her childhood. Novelists who hope to create believable young narrators must invest those characters with the powers of observation needed to describe what they see and the wisdom to deal with it. That fact requires authors to become, in effect, faux-naïfs, writing as though they didn’t know much of what they do. The challenge is all the greater when an author intentionally or unintentionally limits the vocabulary, sentence structure and other elements that determine a reading level.

Ward brings large advantages to her work: intelligence, a respect for language, and first-hand knowledge of Katrina, gained while she was living in Mississippi. She knows how you kill a chicken by twisting its neck, how much meat you’ll have after you skin a squirrel (an amount “as thick as two pork chops laid together”), and how boys talk at backwoods dogfights, one of which gets 23 pages in her novel. She knows that if you’re poor, you prepare for a hurricane by covering windows with a wooden patchwork that leaves bits of glass exposed, not the custom-fitted boards of the well-off.

Salvage the Bones nonetheless has a hole at its center: Ward’s inability to create a narrator who sounds like a tenth-grader instead of an adult impersonating one. Esch says she slept with boys because they wanted sex, not because she did: “I’d let boys have it because for a moment, I was Psyche or Eurydice or Daphne.” Those words ring false not just because they are overwrought and imprecise but because they clash with others in the book. Esch says she started sleeping with boys at the age of 12, or in about the seventh grade. She read about the Greeks in Hamilton’s Mythology after the tenth grade. So she was having sex for three years before she knew of Psyche and Eurydice and Daphne. And are we to believe that wanted to feel like Eurydice stepping on a poisonous snake and spending the rest of her life in darkness after her beloved failed to rescue her? Here as elsewhere, the references to mythology hang on the tale like Spanish moss on a live oak. They may look pretty, but they grow on the story, not from within it.

Ward works hard to transcend the limits of telling the Batistes’ story in a young voice and at 10-year-old reading level. She weighs down her tale with similes and metaphors in duplicate or triplicate and lets you know exactly how you are supposed to feel about every character at nearly every moment. Esch says of Katrina, in one of many allusions to Medea, “She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes.” That’s a metaphor and three similes in one sentence. Those figures of speech, at least, make sense. Esch says that cooked meat had “turned as brown and small with as many hard edges as a jewel” when the novel offers no evidence that she has seen a jewel. And Ward’s promiscuous us of color shows the limits of chromatic writing. Esch says that Manny, the father of her baby, had a face “marked with red sunburn.” Can’t we assume that sunburn is red? Apparently not. (Ward’s “red suburn” may be a clumsy attempt to signal that Manny is Latino or white given that black skin shows sunburn differently than white skin does.) Salvage the Bones has much, much more of this kind of writing.

All of this might have more of a payoff if the novel had larger ideas at its core. But Ward instead gives us belabored parallels to the Medea myth and bumper-sticker sentiments. “Bodies tell stories.” “Everything deserve to live.” “Everything need a chance.” Who could disagree with such lines? All the florid metaphors that surround them can’t elevate them. Leon Edel once said that Henry James, in his letters, could “disguise the absence of thought by the shameless gilding of his own verbal lilies.” Something similar occurs in Salvage the Bones. Journalists have called Hurricane Katrina “the mother of all storms,” and you may wonder whether Ward improves on it with her ponderous reminder: “Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.”

Best line: “Manny could dribble on rocks.”

Worst line: “She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and salt-burned land. She left us to learn to crawl. She left us to salvage. Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes.”

About the reading level of this book: The 10-year-old or fifth-grade reading level of this book comes from Perma-Bound, which sells books to school libraries. Other reading-level assessment tools confirmed it and ranked some passages in the novel at a level as low as third grade or age 8.

Furthermore: Salvage the Bones won the 2011 National Book Award for fiction and a 2012 Alex Award for “books for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18.”

A reading group guide to Salvage the Bones appeared on this site on Feb. 15, 2012, in the post before this one.

Read more about the book or buy a copy from an independent bookstore in Ward’s area.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

January 30, 2012

American Library Association to Little Kids: Women Are Second Best

Why are women winning fewer Caldecott medals than at any point in the 74-year history of the ALA’s top prize for picture books?

By Janice Harayda

Four out of five librarians are women, but when it comes to children’s book awards, nobody could accuse them of an excess of sisterhood. For decades the American Library Association has had a dismal record of honoring female artists with its Caldecott medal, given each year to “the most distinguished American picture book for children.” That record just got worse.

Last week the ALA named the winners of the 2012 Caldecott medal and three Honor books, all four of whom were men. Long before that shutout for women, the number of female winners had sunk to its lowest level in the 74-year history of the prize. Women won 10 percent the Caldecott medals from 2000-2009 compared with 30 percent in the 1950s and 40 percent in the 1960s. They are also doing worse than men by virtually every other measure of the award. Male artists have won roughly twice as many Caldecott medals and Honor awards overall as their female counterparts. They have won all the Honor awards four times as often. And the women whom librarians have passed over aren’t second-rate artists: They include some of the greatest illustrators, living and dead, who have worked in the field.

This neglect of women is startling given the wealth of female talent that has existed in picture books since Dorothy Lathrop won the first Caldecott medal in 1938 and Virginia Lee Burton soon earned one for The Little House. It is that much harder to understand because women are claiming more awards from others, including  75 percent of the 2011 National Book Awards and 83 percent of the most recent National Book Critics Circle prizes. And outside of library sites, the trend has received little notice, perhaps because it is to some extent masked by the profusion of ALA prizes added since the Caldecott, including the Coretta Scott King (for black authors and illustrators) and Pura Belpré (for Latinos and Latinas). Many of the newer awards have gone to female artists and allow the library association to say that it honors women while denying them its showpiece award for picture books, which has more prestige and impact on sales.

Caldecott judges snub women’s books on other year’s-best lists

Librarians have defended their Caldecott record with arguments that collapse under scrutiny. Some have suggested that women win fewer Caldecotts because they are staying home and having babies instead of working on the next Where the Wild Things Are. If only female artists were all gay and childless like Maurice Sendak! Never mind that in the 1950s – when far more women stayed home – women won twice as many Caldecotts as in the past 13 years. And never mind that in England, where women also have babies, they won 60 percent of the Kate Greenaway medals (“the British Caldecott”) between 2000–2009 compared with 10 percent of Caldecotts.

Other librarians blame publishers for the medal gap. They speculate that fewer picture books by women get published, although they cite no evidence of it. Roger Sutton, editor-in-chief of children’s literature magazine The Horn Book, punted when he heard in 2007 that men had won four times as many Caldecott medals as women in the past two decades. “I wouldn’t argue that sexism is at work here without a lot more information – what percentage of picture books are illustrated by women, for starters,” he said.

The publishing industry offers much to blame in how it treats women, but it isn’t causing the medal gap. Consider the best-picture-books-of-the-year lists in major newspapers and trade magazines. In late 2011 virtually all lists included multiple books by female artists. Every year their editors and reviewers find outstanding books by women: It’s the Caldecott judges who have trouble. Then perhaps librarians have higher standards than the critics for the New York Times or Publishers Weekly? Not likely: This year School Library Journal had several female artists on its best-picture-books list.

The idea that publishers are causing the medals gap loses more ground when you consider the books spurned by Caldecott judges. This year the also-rans included a book that made the New York Times’ Best Illustrated Books list: Brother Sun, Sister Moon, which has unique and beautiful paper cuts by Pam Dalton and a text by Katherine Paterson, who has won the National Book Award and Newbery medal twice each. Librarians also rejected a book named one of the year’s best by School Library Journal and other publications: Mouse & Lion, illustrated by 1973 Caldecott Honor artist Nancy Ekholm Burkert, whose work has appeared in the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art and who is one of the greatest living picture-book artists. The judges instead gave a second Caldecott medal to Chris Raschka for his A Ball for Daisy, which has a bright crowd-pleasing appeal but lacks the depth and originality of Brother Sun, Sister Moon and Mouse & Lion. Past Caldecott committees have withheld the top prize from Carin Berger, Meilo So, Natalie Babbitt, Rosemary Wells, M.B. (Brooke) Goffstein and others, often honoring less deserving books by men.

Favoring books because they’re by men … or because they’re about boys?

Some librarians counter the accusations of favoritism by saying that the Caldecott committees change annually. But rotating the judges doesn’t help if a long-term institutional bias affects decisions. And ALA judges have shown such a pattern: They lean toward artists who are popular with children or who they think should be, so their awards may reflect children’s well-documented prejudices about sex roles. Many librarians are also desperate to promote reading among boys and may honor books by men because they are more likely to depict male characters. This idea gains plausibility from the medal count for Newbery awards for books for older children, which skews in other direction: Consciously or not, the Caldecott judges may be favoring visual images of boys as much as male artists.

None of these reasons is acceptable. If the librarians want to reward books that they believe will interest boys without slighting women, they have a simple way do it: Give more medals. The Caldecott committee has often named four or five Honor Books but this year listed only three.

Whatever the reason for the medals gap, the ALA is sending a message to children that women are second best. Librarians can’t say “We want children to see that Caldecott medals on books have meaning” and, at the same time, “We don’t want that meaning to be: Women are also-rans.” Children will see in the medals what they see.

Caldecott judges don’t discuss their deliberations, so we may never know why they found all women unworthy this year and honored a male artist’s book about a dog that lost its favorite red ball. But judge Michele Farley offered a clue on Twitter soon after the ALA denied the medal to a woman for 11th time in 13 years. Farley tweeted: “I am so happy it was a dog book!”

A note about the sources for this article: The U.S. Census Bureau says that 4 in 5 librarians are women. The 2-to-1 ratio of male-to-female Caldecott medalists came to my attention through a comment by Peter, editor of the Printz Picks blog, on the Fuse #8 blog at School Library Journal, and my math confirmed it. All percentages and ratios come from my calculations and can be confirmed through the winners’ lists on the prize-givers’ sites or on Wikipedia. Some comments grow out of my conversations with librarians and publishing executives.

This is the second of two posts on the 2012 Caldecott awards. The first dealt with the scarcity of Caldecott medals for black artists.

Janice Harayda is a novelist award-winning critic who has been book editor the Plain Dealer and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. She has been reviewing books for children and adults for two decades. Jan tweets about books for all ages at @janiceharayda.

Comments on this site may not exceed 250 words, must relate to directly to the post, and must be civil. They must also include either a full name, a photo avatar or a link to the commenter’s website, unless their author is known to the moderator. Comments that do not meet these guidelines will be deleted or edited.

(c) 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 27, 2011

Did ‘A Sick Day for Amos McGee’ Deserve the 2011 Caldecott Medal?

The latest in a series of posts on whether winners of major awards earned their honors

A Sick Day for Amos McGee. Written by Philip C. Stead. Illustrated by Erin E. Stead. Neal Porter/Roaring Brook Press, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 2–5.

By Janice Harayda

Erin Stead won that healthiest of picture-book prizes, the Caldecott Medal, for her illustrations for A Sick Day for Amos McGee. And she might have earned it for her fine draftsmanship alone.

Just as great painters may succeed at landscapes but fail at portraiture, some acclaimed picture-book illustrators can’t draw – and especially can’t draw faces – well. They excel at working with paint, collage, or mixed media instead of a pencil or pen. Or they illustrate stories good enough to mask or offset their deficiencies as draftsmen.

But pencil drawings have provided the spark for many of the best picture books of the past 50 years, including Caldecott winners such as Chris Van Allsburg’s Jumanji and Peter Spiers’s Noah’s Ark. And the medium may attract fewer illustrators as computer-generated art proliferates. So it’s cheering that Erin Stead shows a gift for the form in A Sick Day for Amos McGee, a picture book written by her husband, Philip. She draws with a pencil on softly colored woodblock prints to give warmth and depth to this comic fantasy about animals who repay the kindness of their zookeeper.

A Sick Day for Amos McGee has little in the way of plot. A faithful zookeeper always makes time to visit his animal friends – to play chess with an elephant and sit with a shy penguin – until the day he stays home in bed with a cold and he and his companions reverse their caretaking roles. The creatures help the sniffling Amos by assuming, as children tend to do, that others have needs identical to theirs. The rhino with allergies hands him a handkerchief. The owl who is afraid of the dark – “knowing that Amos was afraid of the dark” – reads him a story.

Philip Stead develops his theme — you get what you give — with an appealing absence of didacticism and pretense. But his writing has less power than that of Caldecott winners such as Where the Wild Things (in which the last line – “and it was still hot” – uplifts all that has preceded it). And A Sick Day for Amos McGee ends on a slightly derivative note when, in an echo of Goodnight Moon, everyone says “goodnight”:

So Amos said goodnight to the elephant.
And good night to the tortoise.
And goodnight to the penguin.
And good night to the owl …

But Erin Stead extends the story with her talent for portraiture and more. Every face in the book — human or animal — shows emotion and personality, whether it’s that of the contemplative elephant, the long-suffering rhinoceros, or the sweetly child-like Amos. And Stead’s use of color heightens the mood she creates for each page. On several spreads, she sets her characters against wide, vertical yellow stripes that could represent wallpaper, beams of sunlight, and more. That several interpretations would make sense helps to show why this book would stand up to many rereadings.

No less appealing are the visual subplots. One involves the reticent penguin who at first holds himself apart from other characters. Then he catches a red balloon that floats within his reach at the zoo. We next see him holding the balloon as he sits at the front of a bus that is taking the animals to the ailing Amos: He’s starting to shed his shyness. On the following spread, he stands tall as he walks at the front of a line of larger animals marching into the sick zookeeper’s bedroom. He has clearly gained confidence from holding a balloon, what psychologists might call a “security object,” and perhaps also from his mission. Only the pictures tell you about the change in the penguin, but they need no help from words.

Was this book worthy of a Caldecott Medal? A qualified yes. Erin Stead gets an A for her art and Philip Stead a B/B+ for his writing. But American Library Association rules say that Caldecott judges should’t consider the text unless it interferes with the pictures. And the writing in this book doesn’t interfere. By the rulebook, A Sick Day for Amos McGee gets an A. The greatest Caldecott Medal winners – which include Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House and Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are – are A+ books in which the words and pictures are equally superlative. But only the most unrealistic adult would expect a child to read nothing but A+ books. And A Sick Day for Amos McGee has literary traits that some of the ALA titans don’t, including that it’s short and gentle enough to make a fine bedtime story for any child who is getting tired of Goodnight Moon.

Sendak once wrote that Randolph Caldecott’s work marks the beginning of the modern picture book. The Victorian illustrator found a new way to juxtapose words and pictures, he noted: “Words are left out – but the picture says it. Pictures are left out — but the word says it.” Long after Caldecott’s death, artists must still to bring those ideals into harmony, and Erin Stead has done it in A Sick Day for Amos McGee.

Best line/picture: Two wordless spreads that tell the story entirely in pictures.

Worst line/picture: I don’t have children, but people who do say that you need to be careful about introducing the concept of “fear of the dark” to toddlers and preschoolers who don’t have it. Some adults might want to skip over the lines that refer to it. And all of the characters in this book are male.

Published: June 2010

Furthermore: The Caldecott Medal goes to the illustrator of a book, not the author. Erin Stead shows in this video the technique she used for A Sick Day for Amos McGee: drawing with pencil on top of woodblock prints. She made other comments about her work to the Wall Street Journal.  One-Minute Book Reviews also reviewed the Caldecott medalists FlotsamWhere The Wild Things Are and The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

About the author and illustrator: The Steads commute between New York City and Ann Arbor, Michigan.

You may also want to read “American Library Association to Little Kids: Women Are Second Best,” a response to the medals gap between male and female Caldecott winners.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and journalist who has been vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. You can also follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 14, 2010

Pulitzer Prize Reality Check – The 2010 Poetry Winner, Rae Armantrout’s ‘Versed’

The latest in a series of posts on literary-prize winners and whether they deserved their honors

Versed: Wesleyan Poetry Series. By Rae Armantrout. Wesleyan University Press, 120 pp., $22.95, $14.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Rae Armantrout writes poems for an age of spin-offs of spin-offs. The theme of many of the 87 poems in Versed is more complex than “you can’t trust appearances”: It’s that you can’t even be sure they are “appearances.” Reality is unknowable.

Armantrout tells us that truth sometimes hides behind the intentional or unintentional deceptions of others. She writes in “New”:

The new pop song
is about getting real:

“You had a bad day.
The camera don’t lie.”

But they’re lying
to you
about the camera.

Reality can be elusive for reasons more subtle than lies, including the difficulty knowing ourselves or others. Armantrout writes in “The Racket”: “It’s as if / the real / thing – / your own absence – / can never be / uncovered.

Armantrout has said that the first half of Versed focuses on the dark forces that emerged in the United States during the war in Iraq and the second half on the shadows that fell over her life after she learned in 2006 that she had adrenal cortical cancer. That’s true as far as it goes. But Armantrout expresses her views on Iraq more obliquely than have poets like Robert Hass, who won the 2008 Pulitzer for poetry for Time and Materials, which includes the antiwar poem “Bush’s War.” In “Own,” she compares medical experts dissecting her illness to televised images of President Bush as she juxtaposes the human body and the body politic:

“We will prevail,”
says the leader on multiple
screens. The words
are empty, but he’s there
inside the lie
everyone believes –

Verses like these have made Armantrout a star of the Language movement in poetry, which seeks to separate words from their usual associations and create something other than the reflection of the world that poets typically strive to produce. Like many others of that school, she combines prose and poetry, often in the same poem.

The poet John Drury has noted that critics of the Language movement see much of its poetry “a mass of pretentious gibberish, a dead end of nonsense verse that is not even funny.” And while the poems in Versed are far from gibberish, they are often enigmatic or abstruse. These lines these from “Left” sound like a trick question:

If an instant
is a measure of

endurance,
what is the distance

from expectancy
to spider?

If the goal of Language poetry is to detach words from their usual connotations, the poems in Versed succeed perhaps too well: They are detached to the point of sterility. They don’t appeal, as great poetry does, both to the intellect and to the emotions, something accomplished by Claudia Emerson’s 2006 poetry winner, Late Wife. The poems in Versed speak more to the mind than to the heart. But they are so intelligent when much poetry is trivial that you can see why the book became the most celebrated collection of published in 2009. Many modern poets steep their work in mythological or other symbols, but Armantrout warns that symbolism is “the party face of paranoia.”

Best line: “Metaphor / is ritual sacrifice. // It kills the look-alike.”

Worst line: “that a discrepancy / is a pea / and I am a Princess.”

Furthermore: Versed won the2010 Pulitzer Prize for poetry and the most recent National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry and was a 2009 National Book Award finalist.  James Marcus wrote a brief, eloquent review for the National Book Critics Circle site. The poems in Versed appeared in publications that include The Nation, The New Yorker and The Green Integer Review.

Published: May 2009

Read poems from Versed: “Scumble” and “Guess.”

About the author: Armantrout teaches at the University of California at San Diego.

One-Minute Book Reviews posted Pulitzer Prize Reality Checks for the 2007 biography winner, The Most Famous Man in America; for a 2007 fiction finalist, After This; and for a 2009 fiction finalist, All Souls. The site also has reviews of the 2006 poetry winner, Late Wifeand the 2009 fiction winner, Olive Kitteridge.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 28, 2010

True Stories of Defectors From a Communist State: ‘Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea’

A foreign correspondent describes life in one of the world’s most repressive dictatorships in a finalist for the National Book Award for nonfiction

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. By Barbara Demick. Spiegel & Grau, 314 pp., $26.

By Janice Harayda

In Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick adapts the structure that her writing teacher John Hersey used in his great Hiroshima, which tells the stories of six people who survived the bomb that fell on their city. But she makes the form her own in this wonderful book about a half dozen North Koreans who fled the hereditary communist dictatorship of Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il.

Demick focuses on the early 1990s and afterward, when North Korea “faded to black” after the Berlin Wall fell and the old Soviet Union ceased to prop up its economy. Unable to maintain its power grid, the country lost most of its electricity. People couldn’t watch television, read at night, or go to movies or restaurants. “Even in parts of the showcase capital of Pyongyang,” she says, “you can stroll down the middle of a main street at night without being able to see the buildings on either side.”

The Kims tightened their grip to keep residents from learning the extent of their oppression. North Koreans could not use the Internet, watch movies and television programs not made by the state, travel to nearby towns without a permit, or call or write to relatives in South Korea. And during the famine of the 1990s, many could not eat. An estimated 600,000 to 2 million North Koreans died because the regime would not work with governments that might have helped. Many survived by eating grass, corn husks, or ground pine bark.

Demick shows the catastrophic effects of all of it by tracing the lives of four women and two men from the city of Chongjin, all of whom escaped to South Korea by dint of forged passports, bribed border guards, or other cloak-and-dagger efforts. Some of her most moving stories involve the legions of sick, orphaned, or abandoned children whom two of her subjects, a pediatrician and a kindergarten teacher, were powerless to help.

“Facing a food shortage, many North Korean families conducted a brutal triage of their own households – they denied themselves and often elderly grandparents food in order to keep the younger generation alive,” Demick writes. “That strategy produced an unusual number of orphans, as the children were often the last ones left of entire families that had perished.”

Many of the homeless found their way to the train station in Chongjin: “That was where people went when they had nothing left and no place else to go. It wasn’t quite like giving up and lying down by the side of the road. The movement of the trains created an illusion of purpose that kept hope alive against all odds.”

One man told Demick that on some days, the cleaning staff removed as many as 30 bodies from the station. It is far from the worst of the catatastophes described in Nothing to Envy. To get such stories, Demick had to earn great trust from defectors who had grown up under one of the world’s most xenophobic regimes. On the evidence of this book, she deserves every bit of it.

Best line: “North Korea was chronically short of chemical fertilizer and needed to use human excrement since there were few farm animals. Each family had to provide a bucketful each week, delivered to a warehouse miles away.” This requirement existed under Kim Il-sung, the communist dictator who led North Korea from 1948–1994.

Worst line: Demick says in the last line of Nothing to Envy that the lives of her subjects “like Korea itself, remain works in progress.” But by the time you get there, you can’t hold the cliché against her.

Recommendation? Go for it, book clubs.

Published: December 2009

Furthermore: Nothing to Envy has made the longlist for the 2010 Samuel Johnson Award for nonfiction and was a National Book Awards nonfiction finalist.

Read an excerpt from Nothing to Envy here.

About the author: Demick is the Beijing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. She grew up in Ridgewood, NJ, and wrote: Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter. She satirizes American literary culture on her Fake Book News (@fakebooknews) page on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

January 30, 2010

A Review of the 2010 Newbery Medal Winner, ‘When You Reach Me': Enjoyable? Yes. The Year’s ‘Most Distinguished’? Maybe Not.

A 12-year-old girl tries to figure out who’s sending her mysterious notes in a novel that pays homage to Madeleine L’Engle

When You Reach Me. By Rebecca Stead, 197 pp., Wendy Lamb/Random House, $15.99. Ages 9–12.

By Janice Harayda

When You Reach Me won the American Library Association’s latest John Newbery Medal, and it’s certainly an enjoyable and well-written book. But is it the year’s “most distinguished contribution” to children’s literature?

Maybe it depends on how you define “distinguished.” By my lights, the ALA citation implies: “a book that will seem as great decades from now.” And I’m not convinced that When You Reach Me passes that test, or that Rebecca Stead will hold her own against Newbery winners like Russell Freedman (Lincoln: A Photobiography) and Katherine Paterson (Bridge to Terabithia, Jacob I Have Loved).

Stead tells a cleverly plotted story about a bright 12-year-old named Miranda, who tries to decipher a series of mysterious and slightly ominous notes from an unknown sender in 1978–1979. The sender — whose knowledge of events seems to transcend the laws of time and space — may or may not live near the apartment Miranda shares with her mother on the Upper West Side of New York.

Miranda’s favorite book is Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, a novel about time-traveling children. And like that 1963 Newbery winner, When You Reach Me raises the question: Is time travel possible? Stead handles the issue well, offering enough science to keep her story plausible without turning it into a treatise.

But When You Reach Me deals with less complex questions than – and appears derivative in comparison to – L’Engle’s modern classic. Like most suspense novels, this one gets much of its appeal from its quick pace and ability to keep you guessing, not from its depth of characterization. Miranda’s mother has a boyfriend, “who is German but not strict or awful,” and whose German-ness resides mainly in his Aryan looks: You never understand why Stead made him German instead of another nationality.

Far more complex characterizations appear in Deborah Heiligman’s 2009 National Book Award finalist, Charles and Emma, which won a nonfiction award from the ALA. And Phillip Hoose tells a more powerful story in his Newbery Honor Book, the biography Claudette Colvin. Those books seem more likely to be important decades from now. If I had to assign grades, I’d give Charles and Emma and Claudette Colvin each an A or A-minus and When You Reach Me a B.

So why did the novel win the Newbery? Hard to say. It can’t have hurt that Stead’s novel subtly flatters the ALA by ratifying its choice for 1963 Newbery, or that its allusions to A Wrinkle in Time are a bonanza for teachers who love to assign compare-and-contrast exercises. Nor can it have hurt that, like the 1991 winner, Maniac Magee, the latest testifies to the joy of reading. When You Reach Me was also popular — a bestseller on Amazon — before it won, so it was a safe choice. And I’ve read few of the fiction candidates for the 2010 Newbery: If the judges wanted to honor a novel, though they didn’t have to, Stead’s may have been the best. So When You Reach Me gets a qualified endorsement: Amble to your library or bookstore for it if you’re inclined, and save your sprint for National Book Award winner Claudette Colvin.

Best line: Miranda has proprietary feelings about A Wrinkle in Time: “The truth is that I hate to think about other people reading my book.”

Worst line: “At the meetings, during which Mr. Nunzi has usually burned a new hole in our couch with his cigarette …” Doesn’t ring true. Most sofas sold in the U.S. contain polyurethane foam stuffing, which is highly flammable, and one cigarette burn can send them up in flames.

Art notes: The cover of this book does not serve it well. It shows greenish-gray grid that looks like a patchwork of lawns and suggests that the action takes place in a northern New Jersey suburb that faces New York skyline when, in fact, it’s set in Manhattan. And the book as a whole begged for illustrations.

Published: July 2009

Furthermore: Two reviews of When You Reach Me by librarians: Amanda Pape’s on her blog Bookin’ It and Elizabeth Bird’s on the School Library Journal blog.

Janice Harayda is a novelist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and the book columnist for Glamour. You can also follow her on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. She satirizes American literary culture and the publishing industry at www.twitter.com/fakebooknews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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