One-Minute Book Reviews

January 14, 2008

A Reader’s Guide to the 2008 Caldecott Medalist, Brian Selznick’s ‘The Invention of Hugo Cabret’

 

10 Discussion Questions for Young Readers
The Invention of Hugo Cabret: A Novel in Words and Pictures
By Brian Selznick

Source: One-Minute Book Reviews, http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

[This is a repost in full of a Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Invention of Hugo Cabret that appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on April 21, 2007. The novel won the American Library Association’s 2008 Caldecott Medal, which honors the most distinguished American picture book for children, on Jan. 14, 2008.]

Take a 12-year-old orphan whose name begins with H. Write a novel about him that involves magic, a train station and a female sidekick. Get Scholastic Press to publish it … and what do you have? No, not a new Harry Potter book. You’ve got The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a novel about a young thief who lives in a Paris train station and tries to finish a project begun by his father – fixing a broken wind-up man or automaton that may contain a secret message. In this innovative book, Brian Selznick merges the picture- and chapter-book formats. The Invention of Hugo Cabret has 533 pages, but the text would fill only 100 or so pages of most novels. Why? Selznick tells Hugo’s story alternately through words and 158 black-and-white pictures. The illustrations are mostly pencil drawings but include memorable stills from the movies of the filmmaker Georges Méliès, whose life helped to inspire the book.

Question 1
This book is called The Invention of Hugo Cabret. What is Hugo’s “invention”? Could the word refer to more than one thing? Could Hugo have “invented” a new life for himself (or for someone else) in addition to a mechanical man?

Question 2
Brian Selznick tells Hugo’s story in a unique way. He uses a lot more pictures than you find in most novels. Sometimes he tells Hugo’s story in words and sometimes in pictures. Why do you think he did this? How did you like it? What are some advantages and disadvantages of having so many pictures in a novel?

Question 3
Selznick also uses only black-and-white pictures on the pages of in this novel, no color ones. What are some reasons why he might have done this? Some authors say that they like to use black-and-white art because it lets people use their imagination and fill in the colors in their minds. Did you “fill in” any colors while you were reading the book? What are some of the colors you saw in your mind? Why?

Question 4
A lot of other authors have at times used only black-and-white pictures. For example, Chris Van Allsburg has done this in some books. And all of the pictures that Matt Phelan did for Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky, winner of the 2007 Newbery Award, are black-and-white. What books have you read that have only black-and-white illustrations? How do they compare to The Invention of Hugo Cabret?

Question 5
You may have noticed that a lot of the drawings in this book look as though they have something draped over them. It’s as though you’re looking at the pictures through a veil or net. Can you think of any reasons why Selznick might have used this technique? Does it make the story seem a little more mysterious? Does it remind you of the lenses you can put on a camera, including a movie camera?

Question 6
Hugo loves a movie called The Million that he and Isabelle go to a theater to see. It has an “amazing” chase in it. “He thought every good story should end with a big, exciting chase.” [Page 202] Why do you Selznick wrote that? What happens right after it in The Invention of Hugo Cabret?

Question 7
Hugo spends a lot of time trying to fix things like clocks or the mechanical man, or automaton, that he finds on the street. He likes machines because each one has a purpose. “Maybe that’s why a broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn’t able to do what it was meant to do,” Hugo says. He adds, “Maybe it’s the same with people. If you lose your purpose … it’s like you’re broken.” [Page 374] How does this relate to the rest of the novel?

Question 8
The story of Prometheus is important in The Invention of Hugo Cabret. There’s a picture of Prometheus on pages 344–345. We learn that he was “finally set free” from his chains. What character or characters in this book does he resemble?

Question 9
Hugo’s friend Isabelle loves looking at photographs. She says, “You can make up your own story when you look at a photo.” [Page 193] Pick a photograph in The Invention of Hugo Cabret and make up a story to go with it. You might start with the picture of the man hanging from the clock on pages 173–174 or with the picture of the rocket crashing into the moon on pages 352–353.

Question 10
Hugo thinks it’s his fault that his father had died in a fire. [Page 124] Do you agree or disagree with him? Why?

Extras:
Question 11
If you’ve read any of the Harry Potter books or seen the movies, you may have noticed that the Invention of Hugo Cabret has some things in common with them. What are some of them?

Question 12
Often a novel is written by one person and illustrated by another. That’s because not many people are equally good at writing and drawing. Most of us are better at one or the other. The Invention of Hugo Cabret is unusual in that Selznick both wrote and illustrated it. Do you think he was better at writing or drawing? Which did you like better in his novel, the words or the pictures? Why?

Vital statistics:
The Invention of Hugo Cabret: A Novel in Words and Pictures. By Brian Selznick. Scholastic, 533 pp., $22.99. Ages 9–12. Published: January 2007. Winner of the Caldecott Medal from the American Library Association www.ala.org on January 14, 2008.

Links: www.theinventionofhugocabret.com

This reading group was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. This guide is copyrighted by Janice Harayda, and its sale or reproduction in any form is illegal except by public libraries that many reproduce it for use in their in-house reading groups. Other groups that wish to use this guide should link to this site or use “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

If you are a librarian and found this guide helpful, please consider adding One-Minute Book Reviews http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com to the “Ready Reference” links at your library. One-Minute Book Reviews accepts no advertising and has been approved by, and appears on, Open Directory lists. Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

‘Hugo Cabret’ Wins 2008 Caldecott, ‘Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!’ Gets Newbery

[Note: Additional posts about these awards will appear later today.]

Librarians honor one of their own for the second year in a row in giving Newbery to Laura Amy Schlitz

By Janice Harayda

Brian Selznick has won the 2008 Caldecott Medal for his bestselling illustrated novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Selznick merges the picture- and chapter-book formats in his tale of a young orphan and thief who lives in a Paris train station and tries to solve a mystery that involves a mechanical man begun by his late father. Books that win Caldecott medals typically have about 32 pages and suit 4-to-8-year-olds. The Invention of Hugo Cabret has 533 pages and may be the longest to win the award. It popular among 9-to-12-year-olds.

The American Library Association announced the award today at a meeting in Philadelphia. The Caldecott Medal honors the most distinguished American picture book for children. A review of and reading group guide to The Invention of Hugo Cabret appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on April 21, 2007, www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/04/21/.

Laura Amy Schlitz has won the Newbery Medal for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, a collection of monologues by characters from an English village in 1255. By giving the award to Schlitz, the librarians honored one of their own for the second year in a row. The 2007 Newbery Medal went to Los Angeles librarian Susan Patron for The Higher Power of Lucky. The medal honors the most distinguished work of American literature for children published in the preceding year.

The Caldecott Honor books are Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine and Kadir Nelson, First the Egg by Laura Vaccaro Seeger, The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sis and Knuffle Bunny, Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity by Mo Willems. The Newbery Honor books are: Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis, The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt and Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson.

Christopher Paul Curtis won Coretta Scott King Award for an author for Elijah of Buxton.
The Honor awards for authors went to Sharon M. Draper for November Blues and Charles R. Smith Jr. for Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali.
Artist Ashley Bryan won the Coretta Scott King Award for an author for Let It Shine.
The Honor awards went to illustrator Nancy Devard for The Secret Olivia Told Me and Leo and Diane Dillon for Jazz on a Saturday Night.
Geraldine McCaughrean’s The White Darkness won the Michael L. Printz Award to www.ala.org/yalsa/printz for excellence in literature for young adults.
The Printz Honor Books are Dreamquake: Book Two of the Dreamhunter Duet by Elizabeth Knox, One Whole and Perfect Day by Judith Clarke, Repossessed by A. M. Jenkins and Your Own, Sylvia: A Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath by Stephanie Hemphill.
(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 1, 2007

Eric Kimmel’s ‘Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins’ and Other Good Children’s Books About the Festival of Lights

A Caldecott Honor Book and others by Eric Kimmel that offer more than eight days of fun

By Janice Harayda

For a holiday that Jewish scholars regard as minor, Hanukkah has produced at least one major children’s book and others that shine like a just-polished silver menorah.

The best is the Caldecott Honor Book Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins (Holiday House, $6.95, paperback, ages 4–8). Eric A. Kimmel’s spirited text finds its inspiration in exploits of Hershel of Ostropol, a quick-witted, itinerant Jewish folk hero who lived Eastern Europe in early 19th century.
In this picture book Hershel must outsmart goblins who haunt an old hilltop synagogue and annually spoil Hanukkah in the valley below though tactics such as blowing out villagers’ candles and throwing their latkes on the floor. He triumphs through an ingenious mix of humor, intelligence and feigned indifference to their powers. (When the king of the goblins tries to intimidate Hershel by asking him if he knows who he is, he quips, “I know you’re not Queen Esther.”) The entertaining text is not flawless: A seam shows where Kimmel seems to have edited out the stories of a few goblins who appeared in longer version.

But Trina Schart Hyman’s pictures have their usual rich, luminous beauty – like that of fine stained glass windows – and lift Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins into an aptly ethereal realm. Schart Hyman is one of few picture-book artists can make dark tones rest as lightly on their pages as Tomi Ungerer’s did his great Moon Man.

Kimmel www.ericakimmel.com has also written at least a half dozen other widely respected picture books about Hannukah. One that’s out-of-print but worth tracking down at a library or elsewhere is The Magic Dreidels (Holiday House, $6.95 paperback, ages 4–8), illustrated by Katya Krenina, the engaging story of a boy named Jacob who encounters a goblin who gives him several magic dreidels, the four-sided tops that children spin during Hanukkah.

A picture book that is in print Kimmel’s The Chanukkah Guest (Holiday House, $6.95 paperback, ages 4–8), a folk-tale–like story of an old woman with failing vision who lives on the edge of a forest and serves her Hanukkah latkes to a bear she mistakes for her rabbi. First published in Cricket, The Chanukkah Guest www.holidayhouse.com isn’t in the same league with Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins or even The Magic Dreidels. But it tells an amusing story about a friendly bear that’s likely to appeal to 4- and 5-year-olds who enjoy tales such Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood. Another picture book that remains in print is Kimmel’s turn-of-the-century tale, When Mindy Saved Hannukah (Scholastic, $5.99, paperback, ages 4-8). I haven’t seen it, but you can find reviews on Amazon www.amazon.com that give a good sense of its story.

Kimmel’s holiday offering for older children is A Hanukkah Treasury (Holt, $20, ages 9-12), illustrated by Emily Lister, a collection of songs, poems, recipes and more. I haven’t seen this one, either, but admired his book about Passover, Wonders and Miracles: A Passover Companion Scholastic, $18.95, ages 9-12) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/24/. That beautifully produced anthology, though recommended by its publisher for school-age children, had some material that would appeal to preschoolers, too.

If you can’t find these books, ask a bookseller or children’s librarian to show you other books by its author, about Hannukah or another subject. Kimmel has been writing for decades and enjoys a well-earned popularity. While the appeal of many Hannukah books won’t outlast the holiday, Kimmel’s stories are seasonless.

Reviews new or classic children’s books appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reivews. You can read other reviews of children’s books by clicking on the “Children’s Books” category below the “Top Posts” list at right. Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who spent 11 years as the book editor of a large daily newspaper.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

November 29, 2007

Raise the Drawbridge and Lower the Portcullis! It’s David Macaulay’s Captivating ‘Castle’

A Caldecott Honor Book about the making of a medieval castle in Wales still appeals to children three decades after its publication

By Janice Harayda

This afternoon I found myself in the children’s section of our library with an 8-year-old friend whose mother had agreed to let me to pick out a book for him while she visited the adult stacks. The book I thought Cory might like wasn’t on the shelves. But David Macaulay’s wonderful picture books about the making of large structures – Cathedral, Pyramid, Castle and the new Mosque – stood near its spot.

Cory loves to read – especially The Invention of Hugo Cabret – but hadn’t seen these treasures, which helped to win a MacArthur grant for their creator. So I pulled a few of Macaulay’s books off the shelves and handed them to him. Cory gravitated right away to a picture of how a drawbridge works in Castle (Houghton Mifflin, 74 pages, $9.95 paperback, ages 7 and up), a Caldecott Honor Book about the construction of a medieval castle in Wales.

So I returned him to his mother with three of Macaulay’s books and checked back later. Cory was still poring over Castle – specifically, a picture of soldiers who seemed to be underground. I wondered if they were digging a moat. But Cory pointed to a witty drawing of several of their comrades, who were to trying to reach the ramparts. He explained that if “the enemy” couldn’t scale the castle walls, they tried to tunnel their way in. This he had just learned from the book.

I don’t know if every child reacts this way to Macaulay, a superstar in the field. But by now millions must have been captivated by his intelligent texts and intricate and amusing black-and-white cross-hatched drawings. And Castle, first published in 1977, makes an especially good introduction to his work, because it feeds interests kindled in children by fairy and folk tapes. Houghton Mifflin recommends it for 10-to-14-year-olds, but I’d give it to 7-to-9-year-olds and let them grow into it if they’re not quite ready. The pictures will draw in the younger children even if some words are unfamiliar. Just ask Cory.

Links: www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Macaulay and www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com

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© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 13, 2007

Three Good Picture-Book Editions of Ernest L. Thayer’s Classic ‘Casey at the Bat’ – A Poem for All Baseball Seasons


Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.

— From Ernest L. Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat”

By Janice Harayda

“Casey at the Bat” is one of the few poems that nearly all American children like. Yet it is hard to say exactly why this is so.

The story told in the poem almost couldn’t be simpler. A home team is losing a baseball game – perhaps not even an especially important one — when its star player gets an unexpected chance to bat in the last inning. Everybody is sure that “mighty Casey” can bring victory to the Mudville Nine. Instead, he strikes out and the team loses.

This is hardly a riveting drama compared with what children read in contemporary books or see in the movies and on television. And you can’t say that author Ernest L. Thayer makes up for it with brilliant poetry – he doesn’t. Thayer tells Casey’s story in rhyming couplets of iambic heptameter, a nearly obsolete verse form known as the fourteener because a line typically has 14 syllables or seven iambic feet. But he has a slack enough grip on that form that you can’t always tell whether he meant a phrase to be read as iambic, trochaic or anapestic meter. Some of his baseball terms are unfamiliar today, too, such calling a weak player as a “cake.”

Generations of Americans have responded to objections like these with, “Who cares?” First published in the San Francisco Examiner in 1888, “Casey at the Bat” transcends its limits by appealing to a universal human desire – the wish to have heroes and yet also to see them fail sometimes, letting us off the hook for our own failures. Like all good heroes, Casey is like us and not like us. And three illustrators revitalize him in picture books that use the full title and subtitle of the poem, “Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888.”

Thayer’s Casey plays in an adult league. But Patricia Polacco www.patriciapolacco.com turns Casey into a freckled-faced boy — an updated Norman Rockwell character more impish than arrogant — in her winsome 1988 Casey at the Bat. Polacco adds brief prose bookends that allow her to give Casey a baseball-loving sister and a long-eared dog in this paperback edition of the poem, which is hard to find but available in many libraries. If you click on the link for the book on her Web site, you can send a free electronic postcard bearing a picture of Casey. Her youthful characters and bright, airy illustrations, which abound with primary colors, make this a good edition for preschoolers.

School-age children may prefer the 2003 Casey at the Bat (Simon & Schuster, $16.95) www.simonsayskids.com, illustrated by the gifted C.F. Payne. Casey has a handlebar moustache and mythic Paul Bunyan-esque proportions in this atmospheric book that evokes the flavor of 19th-century baseball. Payne’s book ends with an excellent four-page note on the history and afterlife of the poem, which explains some of its real-life parallels and how vaudeville helped to make it famous.

Christopher Bing won a 2001 Caldecott Honor award from the American Library Association www.ala.org for his ambitious Casey at the Bat (Handprint Books, $17.95), printed on pages that resemble yellowing newsprint with halftone pictures (the kind you find in the Wall Street Journal). Each spread is a pastiche that includes more than lines from the poem and a picture of the game. It also has overlaid images — reproductions of the ticket stubs, baseball cards and newspaper editorials about the game. One editorial supports fans outraged by advent of the baseball glove: “They justifiably see this move as a disgrace – perhaps the first step in the calculated and tragic emasculation of the game.” At times the supplementary material can be distracting, a case of what the British call over-egging the pudding. But much of it is fascinating and a feast for detail-oriented children in grades 3 and up.

Each of these editions has virtues. But no one needs to buy a book to enjoy Thayer’s poem. “Casey at the Bat” is out of copyright and available for free on many sites, including that of the Academy of American Poets www.poets.org. (The punctuation varies on the sites, reflecting that of different editions that have appeared in the past century.) It’s also short enough that you could read it to children during the seventh-inning stretch of a playoff or World Series game. And would you really prefer that they hear another beer commercial instead?

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

August 31, 2007

Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read #4: Maurice Sendak’s ‘Where the Wild Things Are’

A landmark picture book about how children tame their demons

Where the Wild Things Are. Story and Pictures by Maurice Sendak. HarperCollins, 48 pp., $7.95, paperback, and other editions. Ages 2–8.

By Janice Harayda

Where the Wild Things is so popular today that few people may remember how revolutionary it once was. In a sense it was the Les Demoiselles d’Avignon of picture books, and not just because it, too, is about the night. Maurice Sendak broke the rules of composition and content in 1963 as Picasso had done 1907, and his act of defiance has had an enduring effect on other artists.

Great picture books existed before Sendak wrote and illustrated the story of a boy named Max, who finds an outlet in fantasy for the anger he feels after his mother puts him to bed without supper. And his work shares traits with that of artists such as Beatrix Potter and Randolph Caldecott – meticulous craftsmanship, a seamless interplay of works and pictures, and a refusal to patronize children.

But Where the Wild Things Are put its own stamp on picture books. Sendak tells its story in words and pictures until Max travels to an imaginary realm and orders a “wild rumpus” to start among the “wild things” who have made him their king. Then pictures alone move the narrative forward for three double-page spreads until the text resumes when Max orders the creatures to bed. Sendak’s editor said – and there is no reason to doubt – that no artist had ever structured a picture book this way.

The content was no less unusual than this compositional device. Where the Wild Things Are was the first great picture took to take as its subject — and to dramatize — the interior life of a child. Some adults may wonder why the cover shows a picture of a sleeping “wild thing” instead of Max. The story holds the answer. This is a book about how children use fantasy to tame their troubling feelings. The cover befits that theme: The “wild thing” has gone to sleep at Max’s command.

Canadian scholar Perry Nodelman has described other remarkable aspects of the book, including its use of color and white space, in Words About Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children’s Picture Books. But no one has described the book better than Sendak in accepting 1964 Caldecott Medal from the American Library Association for Where the Wild Things Are.

“Certainly we want to protect our children from new and painful experiences that are beyond their emotional comprehension and that intensify anxiety; and to a point we can prevent premature exposure to such experiences,” he said. “That is obvious. But what is just as obvious – and what is too often overlooked – is the fact that from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, that fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, that they continually cope with frustration as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things.”

The idea that fantasy is the “best means” for “taming Wild Things” – if radical when the book first appeared – may be more so today. Adults may acknowledge the value of daydreaming, unstructured play and other ways for children to indulge their fantasies. But it is probably safe to say that experts have convinced most parents that the “best means” for children to tame their “wild things” is through talk, or perhaps venting their anger by kicking a soccer ball. Given that shift, it might seem a miracle that Where the Wild Things Are has remained popular. And yet it isn’t a miracle at all, because that kind of ability to survive changes in fashion is exactly what makes a book a classic.

Best line: The last five words. Max returns to his room and finds his supper waiting for him “and it was still hot.” When a new edition of Where the Wild Things Are was being prepared ten years after it won the Caldecott Medal, Sendak’s editor wrote to ask him if he wanted to change “hot” to “warm” because Harper Collins had heard from “a couple of children (or their rotten parents)” that “children don’t like hot” food. Authors, editors will never stop trying to change your work, even after you are rich, famous and have won the highest honor in your field.

Worst line: None.

Editor: Ursula Nordstrom

Published: 1963 (first edition)

Furthermore: Nordstrom said that the three consecutive wordless spreads were unique in a letter to Nat Hentoff, collected in Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (Harper Collins, 1998), edited by Leonard S. Marcus, pp. 184–185. She asked about the change from “hot” to “warm” in a letter to Sendak in the same book, p. 355.

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 www.janiceharayda.com 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. A new review of a book for children or teenagers appears every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 4, 2007

Good Picture Books About Real and Imagined Beaches: David Wiesner and Faith Ringgold

Acclaimed artists depict magical summertime journeys in Flotsam and Tar Beach

Heading to the beach with a preschooler? Or hoping to keep alive the memories of an earlier trip to the seashore? Pick up David Wiesner’s Flotsam (Clarion, $17.95 ages 3 and up), an eloquent, wordless picture book that won this year’s Caldecott Medal from the American Library Association www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/01/22/. Flotsam www.clarionbooks.com tells the story of a boy who finds an underwater camera that washes up on a beach and takes him on a magical journey to distant times and places.

Consider Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach (Dragonfly, $6.99, paperback, ages 3 and up) , a Caldecott Honor book, for children who can only dream of a trip to the seashore. It tells the story of Depression-era girl who spends summer nights on a Harlem rooftop she calls “tar beach,” a place that inspires dreams of flying above the George Washington Bridge. As often in her work, Ringgold www.faithringgold.com incorporates motifs from black history and culture. Her heroine’s magical journeys build on the flight-to-freedom theme in African-American literature.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

One-Minute Book Reviews is an indepdendent blog created by Janice Harayda, 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. A new review of a book for children or teenagers appears every Saturday on this site.

June 8, 2007

Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read #2: ‘Madeline’

In an old house in Paris
that was covered with vines
lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.

— The opening lines of Madeline

Madeline. Story and Pictures by Ludwig Bemelmans. Viking, 48 pp., $7.99, paperback. Also available in other editions. Ages 2 & up.

By Janice Harayda

One of the most delightful characters in children’s literature was born, figuratively speaking, in a saloon. Ludwig Bemelmans (1898–1962) may have gotten the idea for Madeline after a bicycle accident sent him to a French hospital, where a girl in the next room had just had her appendix out. But he wrote the first lines of his most famous book on the back of a menu at Pete’s Tavern in New York: “In an old house in Paris / that was covered with vines …”

Those words set the tone for this brief narrative poem that uses rhyming couplets and a loose anapestic meter to tell the story a fearless girl who attends a convent school near the Cathedral of Notre-Dame and other French landmarks. Madeline is the smallest and bravest of the girls in the care of a nun called Miss (not Sister) Clavel: “To the tiger in the zoo / Madeline just said, ‘Pooh-pooh.’” She makes such a fine adventure of having her appendix out – the central drama of the book – that by the last page her schoolmates are clamoring to have surgery, too.

Madeline was published in 1939 and is one the few picture books of its day that has never fallen from favor. But it has more going for it than nostalgia or its intergenerational appeal. The amusing line drawings are simple yet dynamic. Bemelmans suggests an entire world through his images of 12 girls who are always identically dressed, whether they wear broad-brimmed hats while visiting the Eiffel Tower or muffs while ice-skating near Montmartre. Like Helen Oxenbury’s pictures for We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, his illustrations alternate between color and black- and-white (plus a sunny yellow in Madeline). This technique helps to quicken the pace, so that the 48 pages of text hold the attention of preschoolers used to shorter books. And there’s another reason why Madeline and its five sequels work so well, astutely suggested by Anna Quindlen in her introduction to Mad About Madeline: The Complete Tales (Viking, $35), which contains all the books in the series:

“For those of us who believe that children feel secure with structure, part of the enduring charm of the books must surely be that Madeline’s confidence and fearlessness are set within a backdrop of utter safety,” Quindlen writes. Miss Clavel is “concerned but competent.” If Madeline’s life is regimented, it has an order and predictability that many children long for at a time when the family dinner is becoming a cultural artifact. Madeline and her schoolmates all eat their meals, brush their teeth, and go to bed at the same time. A caged tiger may bare its teeth at the zoo. But as Quindlen rightly notes, “life is safe” in that “old house in Paris / that was covered with vines.”

Best line: The first three, quoted at the top of this review.

Worst line: None. But some parents may prefer to skip two lines on the last page: “Good night, little girls! Thank the Lord you are well!”

Published: 1939 (first Simon & Schuster edition), 2000 (Viking paperback reprint).

Furthermore: A naturalized American citizen, Bemelmans was born in the Austrian Tyrol and moved to the U.S. as a teenager. Madeline www.madeline.com was a Caldecott Honor book, and its first sequel, Madeline’s Rescue, won the Caldecott Medal. More often associated with O. Henry than with Bemelmans, Pete’s Tavern still serves meals at the corner of 18th Street and Irving Place in Manhattan.

You may also want to read: Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read #1, Millions of Cats by Wanda Gág, reviewed on this site on Jan. 5, 2007 http://oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/01/05.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 5, 2007

Good Picture Books About Noah’s Ark

“High and long, / Thick and strong, / Wide and stark, / Was the ark.”
From Peter Spier’s Caldecott Medal–winning Noah’s Ark

By Janice Harayda

No Bible story has fared better at the hands of picture-book illustrators than that of Noah’s Ark. Preschoolers love stories about animals, so picture books and the Flood are a natural fit. And there are so many outstanding versions of the story in Chapters 6–9 of Genesis that many bookstores and libraries have several or more.

The best book for toddlers and younger preschoolers is Noah’s Ark (Dell, 48 pp., $7.99, ages 2–6), illustrated by the Dutch-born American artist Peter Spier, who won the 1978 Caldecott Medal for it. Noah’s Ark begins with a translation of a Dutch poem about the Flood that has singsong rhymes simple enough for 3-year-olds: “Dog and cat, / Mouse and rat, / Fly and vole, /Worm and mole … In they came, / Pair by pair, / Gross and fair.”

From then on, Spier uses only pictures – his signature black line drawings washed with color – to tell the story of the Ark from the gathering of the animals through the appearance of the rainbow symbolizing God’s promise never to send another flood like the one Noah survived. And Spier’s vibrant and sympathetic illustrations suggest both the gravity of the situation and the potential for humor in crowding so many species onto a wooden boat. Within the larger story of the Flood, his drawings tell hundreds of smaller stories of the endless tasks faced by Noah and his family, such as milking cows and gathering eggs from hens. Noah’s Ark has stayed in print for decades partly because you see something new each time you return to it.

An excellent book for older preschoolers and young school-age children is Arthur Geisert‘s The Ark (Houghton Mifflin/Walter Lorraine, 48 pp., $7.99, ages 4–8). Geisert tells Noah’s story through a spare, interpretive text and black-and-white etchings that include wonderfully detailed cross sections. The pictures in his book may fascinate even children who shun traditional Bible stories, because they show how ships of any kind might transport animals. Larger creatures like bears and elephants take up the lower decks while flamingoes strut and peacocks spread their tails on the upper ones.

Jerry Pinkney won a 2003 Caldecott Honor citation for his Noah’s Ark (North-South/SeaStar, 40 pp., $16.99. ages 4–8). It tells the story of the Flood in modern words arranged on the page like stanzas of free verse: “The zebras munched their hay. / The geese gobbled up the grain. / The monkeys nibbled on sweet grapes / and climbed to the roof / where the sparrows / perched and sang.”

As usual in Pinkney’s books, the exquisite illustrations steal the show. Pinkney works on a dramatic artistic scale. His illustrations bleed across gutters and off the page. And he zooms in so closely on faces – human or animal – that you can see the whites of Noah’s eyes and up the nostrils of a bear. Among living picture-book artists, perhaps only David Wiesner has more skill at creating stylized watercolors that are dreamy yet realistic.

Pinkney’s book is harder to find than Spier’s and Geisert’s but available in many libraries. And children who like it may enjoy learning about his unusual techniques, which he described in The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators (Houghton Mifflin, 542 pp., $17), edited by Anita Silvey. “In illustrating stories about animals, as with people, research is important,” Pinkney said. “I keep a large reference file and have over a hundred books on nature and animals. The first step in envisioning a creature for me is to pretend to be that particular animal. I think about its size and the sounds it makes, how it moves, where it lives. When the stories call for anthropomorphic animals, I’ve used Polaroid photographs of myself posing as the animal characters.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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February 24, 2007

A Bedtime Story for the ‘Goodnight Moon’ Set

Filed under: Book Reviews,Books,Caldecott Medals,Children's Books,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:28 am

A Caldecott Medalist returns with a book that may help toddlers and preschoolers fall asleep

So Sleepy Story. Uri Shulevitz. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 32 pp., $16. Ages: 2 and up.

By Janice Harayda

True story: I found this book in the third-floor children’s department of my public library, where a librarian recommended it to me. By the time I got to the checkout desk on the first floor, I was yawning just from looking at the cover. So Sleepy Story is so remarkably effective at making you feel sleepy that every time I tried to review it during the daytime, I had to put it aside, because I was afraid of nodding off. Imagine, parents, what this book could do for your children.

So Sleepy Story draws on a fact well-known to psychologists: Yawns are among the most contagious — perhaps the most contagious — of all forms of behavior. A lot of us will start to yawn, even if we’re not tired, just because we’re looking at someone who is. Or because we read the word “yawn” on the page. If I use the word “yawn” a couple more times in this review, you might be yawning by the end.

Uri Shulevitz makes brilliant use of this principle by beginning and ending his story with a picture of a house with a yawning “face.” He also uses pen-and-watercolor illustrations in muted colors that intensify the soporific effect. Goodnight Moon is a riot of color compared with So Sleepy Story, which looks so much more somber than many picture books that you might pass it up if you saw it on a shelf.

But that subdued quality is a part of what’s so effective about this tale of boy who wakes up in the night when music drifts into his room, then falls back to sleep. So is the heavy use of repetition of the word “sleepy,” which appears on almost every page, including the first: “In a sleepy sleepy house/everything is sleepy sleepy.” And because I’m getting a little sleepy from writing this, I’ll end by saying that the book includes a series of pictures of dishes with human faces that pay homage to Randolph Caldecott’s famous illustrations for the nursery rhyme about the dish that ran away with the spoon. So Sleepy Story may especially appeal to a child who sometimes wakes up at night and needs a little help getting back to sleep … and isn’t that just about every child?

Furthermore: Uri Shulevitz won a Caldecott Medal for The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship, written with Arthur Radsome. And some librarians thought that So Sleep Story had a good shot at this year’s medal, which went to David Wiesner’s Flotsam.

Published: August 2006

Links: www.fsgkidsbooks.com

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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