One-Minute Book Reviews

February 25, 2013

Jon Klassen’s ‘This Is Not My Hat’ – 2013 Caldecott Medal Winner

A picture book that works as a crime story, a Robin Hood tale with a twist, and a critique of capitalism in an age of banking scandals

This Is Not My Hat. By Jon Klassen. Candlewick, 40 pp., $15.99. Ages 4 and up.

By Janice Harayda

A small fish appears to suffer an unfair punishment for the crime of stealing a blue derby hat from a much bigger fish in this undersea suspense tale that won the 2013 Caldecott Medal. Jon Klassen’s noir-ish pictures serve as a witty a counterpoint to the thief’s tragicomic rationalizations for the snatch, which include: “It was too small for him anyway. / It fits me just right.”

But the big fish is hardly a passive victim. He takes swift and pitiless revenge for his loss, and the hat does fit the smaller creature better. Had the big fish stolen it? Was the theft an act of reclamation? Klassen leaves the questions open. And the moral uncertainty allows the story to work on several levels: as a mystery, a Robin Hood tale with a twist, and a critique of bullying or capitalism in the age of Enron and banking scandals in which small investors have paid for the crimes of larger predators.

Rarely do picture books of such high artistry allow for so many levels of interpretation or so successfully flout the picture-book convention that calls for an unambiguously happy ending. Along with it’s author’s earlier I Want My Hat Back, This Is Not My Hat establishes Klassen as an heir to the grand tradition of Maurice Sendak, Chris Van Allsburg, Tomi Ungerer and other artists who fearlessly have broken ground while retaining a sense of fun that appeals to children and adults alike.

Best line/picture: All. But Klassen has noted rightly that the drama begins when the eyes of the big fish pop open after the smaller one says that the hat-wearer “was asleep” at the time of the theft “probably won’t wake up for a long time.”

Worst line/picture: None.

Published: 2012

Furthermore: This Is Not My Hat won the 2013 Caldecott Medal, given by the American Library Association to “the most distinguished American picture book for children.” Klassen, who lives in California, talks about the book in a brief video. Many critics, including Roger Sutton in the New York Times Boook Review, have referred to the small fish as a “he” when the sex of the fish is unidentified and girls can wear derby hats, too.

Jan is an award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle. She cohosts a monthly conversation about classic books on Twitter at the hashtag #classicschat.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

January 26, 2013

Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s 2013 Caldecott Honor Book, ‘Green’

Filed under: Children's Books,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:13 am
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A romanticized view of a popular color honored by the American Library Association

Green. By Laura Vaccaro Seeger. Neal Porter/Roaring Brook Press, $16.99. Ages 2–5.

By Janice Harayda

A half century ago, Dr. Seuss helped children learn about colors with his rhyming trochees: “One fish / two fish / red fish / blue fish.” Laura Vaccaro Seeger takes a similar approach in her celebration of every environmentalist’s favorite color, which begins: “forest green / sea green / lime green / pea green.”

This 32-word book introduces different kinds of green by pairing thumping rhymes with boldly painted pictures and cutouts that, like windows, show a different view depending on whether you’re looking in or out (or, in this case, at the first page on which they appear or the next): A cutout that defines a pea on one page turns into the eye of a tiger on the next.

Green has no rhymes like “bile green / sickly green / vile green / prickly green,” and its romanticized green-is-good subtext borders on an environmental cliché. But Vaccaro Seeger is a fine painter who can make impasto acrylics rest as lightly on the page as a firefly. You just wonder how may 2-year-olds will come away with the idea that zebras have green stripes after seeing such a creature in the illustration for the final line of the quatrain: “Jungle green / khaki green / fern green / wacky green.”

Best line/picture: The picture of the “wacky green” zebra is great even if drags the concept of the book sideways and the joke will sail over the heads of 3-year-olds who have no idea what a zebra is.

Worst line/picture: All of the lines in the book begin with lower-case letters except for “Jungle green / khaki green …” which begins, senselessly, with a capital J. And as others have noted, the one of the cutouts of fireflies on the “glow green” spread doesn’t line up perfectly with what it’s supposed to reveal.

Published: March 2012

Furthermore: Update: The American Library Association named Green a 2013 Caldecott Honor Book on Jan. 30, 2013. Green has emerged as a favorite for the Caldecott Medal (which will be awarded Jan. 28, 2013) in the Mock Caldecott contests sponsored by libraries and others.The trailer for Green shows much of the book. The headline on this review has been changed to reflect its Caldecott honor.

About the author: Vaccaro Seeger wrote First the Egg, a Caldecott Honor book. She lives on Long Island.

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

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

August 19, 2012

‘Moo’ – An Obese Touch-and-Feel Book About Barnyard Animals

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:01 am
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Lifting the flaps will easier for children than lifting the book

Moo. By Matthew Van Fleet. Photography by Brian Stanton. Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 18 pp., $16.99.Ages 2–4.

By Janice Harayda

There are books that children can’t put down. Then there are books, like Moo, that some can’t pick up.

This obese book weighs nearly two pounds, about 10 percent of the average weight of the group most likely to respond to it, 2-year-olds. Would you want to lift 10 percent of your weight every time you felt inclined to pick up a book? If you aren’t sure, consider: The average American adult weighs 191 pounds if male and 164 pounds if female, according to government research. So you’d be lifting — and hauling around — a 16- or 19-pound tome.

Yes, 2-year-olds could turn the pages of this book if you laid it on a table, and no doubt many would enjoy it. Moo is a touch-and-feel, lift-the-flap book that uses bold color photographs and a scant rhyming text to describe the sounds and behavior of seven baby and barnyard animals – cows, pigs, sheep, goats, ducks, chickens and horses. But the book lacks a signal charm of its ancestor Pat the Bunny, dimensions that allowed it to fit into small hands. Why read a new behemoth before a well-proportioned classic?

Best line/picture: “Now the day is done and with a / Moo cow, moo / Goodbye from all the animals … / cock-a-doodle doo!”

Worst line/picture: “Mommy hen, / Fuzzy chicks,  / Roosters strut and stretch. / Cluck chicken, / Eat chicken – peck, peck, peck!” Stretch does not rhyme with peck.

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

© 2102 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

June 10, 2012

‘A Ball for Daisy’ – A Review of the 2012 Caldecott Medal Winner

Chris Raschka brings the spirit of modern art to to American picture books, but is that good?

A Ball for Daisy. By Chris Raschka. Schwartz & Wade/Random House, 32 pp., $16.99, Ages 2–4.

By Janice Harayda

A vacancy has existed at the summit of American picture book illustration since the death of Maurice Sendak, who shared that spot with Chris Van Allsburg and Nancy Ekholm Burkert. Some critics might usher in Chris Raschka, who won his first Caldecott Medal for The Hello, Goodbye Window and his second for A Ball for Daisy. And it’s easy to see why reviewers like the more than 40 books for children that he has produced alone or with authors such as Norman Juster and Jack Prelutsky.

More aggressively than any recent illustrator, Raschka has brought to American picture books the spirit and techniques of modern art: Fauvism’s symbolic use of color, Cubism’s fragmented geometric forms, Expressionism’s bold lines and emotional drama. That pattern holds in A Ball for Daisy, a wordless tale of a shaggy dog who suffers acute but fleeting heartbreak when a poodle punctures her adored red ball during a romp in the park. Raschka works with familiar materials – ink, watercolor and gouache – but uses them inventively enough to refresh an ageless theme: A new love eases the pain of losing an old one. His debt to the modernists shows up clearly in the destroyed ball, which in its shape and intensity of color resembles one of Matisse’s six-bladed leaf cutouts.

Raschka certainly deserves credit for originality in the conservative field of picture books – a realm that, as Sendak said, “is becoming a creatively exhausted genre.” But whether he should have won the latest Caldecott Medal is debatable. Novelty isn’t the same as greatness. And all the modernist influences on display in his book don’t lift it above some of the animal tales that the 2012 Caldecott judges rejected, including Ekholm Burkert’s Mouse & Lion. Like the 2011 winner, A Sick Day for Amos McGee, A Ball for Daisy is a sweet book unlikely to offend anyone.

Then there is the issue of the wordlessness of the story. The presence or absence of a written text is neutral in picture books, which can work with or without one. But words can add layers of meaning to a story. When they don’t exist, those layers must come from the art in order for a picture book to stand up to multiple rereadings. And A Ball for Daisy doesn’t really have them. What you see is what you get.

Three of the past six Caldecott winners have had no words, and that fact has led to speculation and some anger online. Have the judges bypassed worthy books because of fonts or stories when the medal is an award for illustration? Are they dumbing down America’s most prestigious picture book prize? The deliberations of the Caldecott judges are confidential, so it’s unclear why wordless books are winning a disproportionate number of medals. Whatever the reason, for the second year in a row they have played it safe. Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are still inspires spirited arguments more than a half-century after it won the 1964 Caldecott Medal. Gift-shoppers may see it as a strength — while others can only see it as a weakness — that  A Ball for Daisy gives you so little to debate.

Best line/picture: A wordless spread in that has eight roughly square pictures showing Daisy’s stages of grief for her destroyed ball, which include confusion, sorrow, anger, and finally a pained resignation. The spread makes the most sense when “read” horizontally across the two pages, which gives you a background that darkens with each image to show the dog’s growing despair. But it also works if you read the images on the left-hand page first (as some children will do) in an up-and-down, clockwise, or counterclockwise direction.

Worst line/picture: The young girl who owns Daisy remains headless until she and her beloved pet return home, more than halfway through the book, after the ball deflates. Raschka clearly did this to keep the focus on the dog’s emotions. But it distracts you from the story by adding a subplot: Who is Daisy’s owner?

Furthermore: A Ball for Daisy won the 2012 Caldecott Medal from the American Library Association, which also honored him for The Hello, Goodbye Window. Meghan Cox Gurdon reviewed A Ball for Daisy for the Wall Street Journal. One-Minute Book Reviews reviewed Jack Prelutsky’s Good Sports, which Raschka illustrated.

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

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

April 14, 2012

‘Frog and Toad Are Friends,’ Arnold Lobel’s Easy Reader for Grades K—2

Filed under: Children's Books,Classics — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:16 am
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The first book in an award-winning series for children who are starting to read on their own

Frog and Toad Are Friends: An I CAN READ Book. By Arnold Lobel. HarperCollins, 64 pp., $16.99. Ages 4—8 (Grades K—2).

By Janice Harayda

Arnold Lobel called Beatrix Potter his artistic mother. If that’s true, he deserves a Son of the Year award for Frog and Toad Are Friends.

Potter casts a long shadow over stories about animals who act and dress like humans but retain characteristics of their species. Artists often try to avoid the Curse of Peter Rabbit by denying its existence: They create animal tales so garish or absurd that no one could confuse them with Potter’s exquisite naturalism. Lobel stays in the sun by taking the opposite tack: He nods to Potter by giving his stories neo-Victorian settings and clothing, making her era his own. In his “Frog and Toad” early readers, his characters live in fairy-tale cottages with period details — a potted fern, cross-hatched windows, and heavy, carved furniture — made fresh by a palette long on soft greens. This approach makes for escapist fun along with a psychological depth rare in limited-vocabulary books.

Frog and Toad Are Friends introduces in five short parables a pair of gentle amphibian best friends with complementary temperaments — the optimistic and gregarious Frog and the more pessimistic and reticent Toad. Like a long-married couple, Frog and Toad take care of each other in ways that are kind, natural, and amusing. In their first adventure they tackle small tasks that can seem Herculean to children — getting out of bed, coping with illness, finding a lost button, waiting for mail, and appearing in a swimsuit in front of friends.

Frog and Toad have a gift for telling the truth without being mean, a trait that emerges as they splash in a river in “A Swim.” Toad thinks he looks funny in a bathing suit, a striped one-piece Victorian affair, and doesn’t want to leave the water while Frog and other creatures are watching. Sure enough, when he steps onto land, Frog laughs. Toad asks why. “I am laughing at you, Toad,” said Frog, “because you do look funny in your bathing suit.” Far from appearing wounded by this, Toad says matter-of-factly, “Of course I do.” He marches home with his head high, satisfied that Frog has admitted the truth, in a witty sketch that puts a happy ending on the tale.

Perhaps better than any story in Frog and Toad Are Friends, “A Swim” shows Lobel’s command of character. Frog doesn’t hurt Toad’s feelings by telling him he looks “funny” in a bathing suit because that is what his friend wants to hear. His comment is a validation of Toad’s view rather than an insult. And Lobel shows his sophistication as an author and artist in his ability to make such a distinction clearly implicit without expressing it in words. Frog and Toad Are Friends lacks the full-throttle drama of Mr. McGregor racing after Peter Rabbit with a rake shouting, “Stop thief!” But it has many quieter pleasures. Good artistic sons, like biological children, don’t have to look just like their parents.

Best line/picture: The final picture of Toad, marching off proudly in his ankle-length, green-and-white striped Victorian bathing suit, in “A Swim.”

Worst line/picture: None. But this review was based on the original 1970 hardcover edition. The literary and artistic quality of spinoffs and later editions may differ.

Furthermore: Frog and Toad Are Friends was a 1971 Caldecott Honor book. Arnold Lobel (19331987) won many other honors for his books for children.

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

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

April 1, 2012

What Made the ‘The Little Engine That Could’ So Popular? / Quote of the Day

Filed under: Children's Books,Classics,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:12 am
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Few picture books influenced mid-20th-century children as did The Little Engine That Could, written by the pseudonymous Watty Piper. Its pictures lack the high distinction of other favorites of the era, including The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. But  some baby boomers who recall no other line from their early reading remember: “I-Think-I-Can …” What explains the appeal of this story of a small engine that agrees to pull a long train up a hill after larger engines refuse to help? An answer appears in The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived, which ranks the “little engine” as No. 31 on a list compiled by authors Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan and Jeremy Salter. They write:

“Each of us has reserves of strength, imagination, and intelligence. If we concentrate and focus our attention, we can tap those reservoirs and meet challenges that might otherwise have seemed overwhelming. This is the simple yet powerful lesson of The Little Engine That Could. It is especially worth the attention of its target audience because The Little Engine That Could is a morality play for children. It is also very much an American tale in which an individual accomplishes what the establishment is unable or unwilling to do. …

“A valuable lesson for children is that being big doesn’t always make the difference. Those big engines refused to do what the tiny hero of our story accomplished. And she teaches us that we should believe in ourselves, to believe we can do it.”

March 24, 2012

‘Nate the Great’ Turns 40 / A 9-Year-Old Sleuth With Enduring Appeal

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:50 am
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A confident young “detective” loves solving cases and eating pancakes

Nate the Great. By Marjorie Weinman Sharmat. Pictures by Marc Simont. Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 64 pp., $4.99, paperback. Ages 5–8.

By Janice Harayda

For 40 years, the 9-year-old detective who calls himself “Nate the Great” has been striding confidently forth to solve crimes dressed in a Sherlock Holmesian deerstalker’s cap and a trench coat worthy of Inspector Clouseau. And there’s no mystery about why he remains one of the most popular heroes of the beginning-reader genre.

Sharmat was among the first authors to show that books with a limited vocabulary don’t have to be as dull as the Dick-and-Jane primers that set their tone for years. Nate has personality. He is cool, methodical and self-assured without being rude. And he’s funny. Sharmat writes in the deadpan tone of hard-boiled detective novels and invests her hero with the mannerisms of their sleuths. “My name is Nate the Great,” Nate announces in the first sentence of Nate the Great. “I am a detective. I work alone.”

That “I work alone” is typical of how Sharmat invokes the solitary American private eye with wit and accuracy. Nate solves “cases” instead of crimes: Who taped the red paper heart to Sludge’s doghouse? Who is raiding his friend Oliver’s garbage? What happened to the birthday gift that fell off the cat-loving Rosamond’s sled?

Nate helps his friend Annie find a missing picture of her dog, Fang, in Nate the Great. He works not by deduction (forming a theory and testing it) like Holmes but mostly by intuition and induction (gathering evidence until he has a theory). When he learns that Annie’s house has no secret passageways he can explore, he seeks clues by other means — searching her room, digging in her yard, and talking with her brother. He stops briefly to fill up on pancakes because “I must keep up my strength.”

The plot of Nate the Great has enough action to work either for independent reading by children or for reading aloud by adults. And Marc Simont’s witty line drawings suggest the range of emotions that accompany his hero’s bravado. His Nate is alternately as tight-lipped as Sam Spade and as expressive as any 9-year-old, an unusual and well-balanced combination that helps to give the series its enduring appeal.

Some might argue that Nate the Great reflects traditional sex roles in words and pictures that show a boy helping a girl who couldn’t find a picture on her own. But those roles reflect both the era in which the novel arrived and the crime fiction that inspired it. By the standards of the hard-boiled novels of its day, the story is actually progressive. Nate and Annie are friends apart from the case that brought them together. How many  fictional gumshoes, even today, spend most of their time in the company of a female friend in whom they have no romantic interest?

Best line/picture: No. 1: “I work alone.” No. 2: “I would like Annie if I liked girls.”

Worst line/picture: None. But in the well-used 1972 library edition I read, one page describes a clown, house and tree as “red” and a monster as “orange” when the colors appear indistinguishable, possibly because of fading.

Recommended for: First and second graders who are beginning to read and for reading aloud to younger children.

Published: 1972 (Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, first edition), 1977 (Yearling/Dell reprint).

Want to wish Nate a happy 40th birthday? Write to Marjorie Weinman Sharmat c/o Author Mail, Delacorte Press, Dell Publishing, 1540 Broadway, New York, NY 10036.

Furthermore: Nate has inspired a musical and more.

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 23, 2012

‘Nate the Great,’ Boy Detective — Tomorrow

Nate the Great wears a Sherlock Holmesian deerstalker’s cap and a trench coat worthy of Inspector Clouseau. And for decades the 9-year-old sleuth has been the hero of the first mysteries that many children read on their own, Marjorie Weinman Sharmat’s popular series of easy-readers for ages 5 through 8 that bears his name. Tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews: clues to his success in a review of the book that launched his adventures.

February 24, 2012

Albert Marrin’s ‘Flesh and Blood So Cheap’ – A Children’s Book on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and Its Aftermath

The true story of a blouse-factory disaster that killed 146 people, mostly young women

Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy. Knopf, 192 pp., $19.99. By Albert Marrin. Ages 10 & up.

By Janice Harayda

Four hundred thousand people lined the streets of New York on a rainy day in 1911 for the funeral procession of the victims the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Nearly all of the dead were young, female Italian or Russian immigrants. And nearly all are known today, if they are known at all, for how they died rather than how they lived.

This excellent book shows how the victims lived — in their home countries, on ships bound for America, and in New York tenements — and how they found a legacy in workplace reforms that eased the shocking conditions that led to their deaths. It focuses on the Italian Catholic and Russian Jewish garment workers at the Triangle blouse factory in Lower Manhattan.

But Albert Marrin makes clear that the 146 victims of the fire shared hardships with people from other countries — especially Greece, Hungary, Romania and Poland — who became the grandparents of baby boomers. And if children see this book as the fascinating story of a tragedy that better safety rules could have prevented, their elders may find in it a part of their family history. Many adults have heard that their grandparents came to America “in steerage,” the lowest deck that held the steering cables for ships, but know little about what that means. They might gain a new respect for their elders’ fortitude if they knew that throughout the transatlantic crossing, two- to four-hundred steerage passengers shared two toilets.

Best line: Many. An example that deals with the garment industry at the time of the Triangle fire: “Textile workers, often 9- and 10-year-olds, tended the looms that wove the thread into cloth. Textile machines lacked safety devices like guardrails and automatic shutoff switches. A machine might pull in a child, grown drowsy and careless with overwork, crushing limbs or worse.” Flesh and Blood So Cheap also has a fascinating discussion of the similar conditions that exist today in other countries. The book quotes economist Jeffrey D. Sachs of Harvard, who argues that banning child labor and closing sweatshops throws poor people out of work, which can hurt them. Marrin writes that children “had no place to go” after garment-factory owners in Bangladesh fired them: “To survive, many lived on the streets as beggars. Many others became prostitutes or starved.”

Worst line: “Eventually, the partners [of the Triangle Waist Company] paid the victims’ families $75 for each life lost” in the fire. Actually, that’s a good line  — and money couldn’t compensate for these deaths — but you wonder what $75 would be in today’s dollars.

Published: February 2011

Furthermore: Flesh and Blood So Cheap was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for young people’s literature. Albert Marrin’s website describes his other works of juvenile nonfiction.

Read an excerpt from Flesh and Blood So Cheap.

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 was named one of New Jersey’s best blogs by New Jersey Monthly.

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

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

February 19, 2012

A Collie Enters the Westminister Dog Show in ‘Lad: A Dog’

Filed under: Children's Books,Children's literature,Classics — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:36 am
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Long before Malachy the Pekingese won “Best in Show” at the 2012 Westminster Kennel Club competition, Lad the collie had his own adventures at that annual event at Madison Square Garden. Albert Payson Terhune describes them in two tales in Lad: A Dog, a collection of 12 short stories inspired by an exceptional dog at a New Jersey kennel, which became an adult bestseller after it appeared in 1919 and which its publisher later repackaged as a children’s book. You can read “For a Bit of Ribbon” and “Lost!” online or in the attractive 1993 Puffin edition with illustrations by Sam Savitt.

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