One-Minute Book Reviews

February 10, 2012

‘Joy and Woe Are Woven Fine’ in Maurice Sendak’s ‘Bumble-Ardy’

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A birthday party goes haywire in a tale of an adopted pig whose parents “got ate”

Bumble-Ardy. By Maurice Sendak. Michael Di Capua/Harper Collins, 40 pp., $17.95.

By Janice Harayda

Maurice Sendak has often spoken of his admiration for William Blake, and in his latest book he develops a variation on the poet’s idea that “joy and woe are woven fine” in human life. Or, in this case, porcine life.

The author of "Where the Wild Things Are" returns with another wild rumpus

Bumble-Ardy transposes into a darker key a brief animated segment that Sendak and Jim Henson created for Sesame Street in 1970. Its hero is no longer a boy who throws a birthday party for himself on a whim while his mother is out. Bumble-Ardy is an 8-year-old pig who has survived the slaughter of parents who never gave him a birthday party. He lives with his adoptive aunt Adeline, who can’t see that he wants a big celebration when he turns nine. So he invites a group of swine to a masquerade after she leaves for work. He soon finds their sty full of costumed revelers — a jester, a pirate, Louis XIV and others – whose carousing turns into a six-page bacchanal reminiscent of the “wild rumpus” in Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. The party’s over when Adeline returns and threatens to turn the outsiders into ham if they don’t leave.

Sendak’s pictures express an idea larger than that of a birthday party gone haywire: the irretrievability of time. Bumble-Ardy brims with images of objects found in vanitas paintings, those symbol-filled art works about the transience of earthly life, or in their modern counterparts. His frontispiece and title spread show a birth certificate, a June 2008 calendar and the “Hogwash Gazette” along with pictures of Bumble-Ardy’s dead parents. Nearly every subsequent page has a memento mori, such as a skull, or another traditional symbol the brevity of life — a watch, mirror, dead flower, flickering candle, musical instrument, broken plate or a number representing minutes, days or years.

These images may have a melancholy undertone, but Bumble-Ardy isn’t funereal. Sendak applies his watercolors with a light hand and surrounds his memento mori with images full of  life. He also writes in lively rhyming poetry, beginning with a “Simple Simon” trochaic meter — “Bumble Ardy had no party when he turned one” — and moving on to iambic and anapestic couplets or triplets. If some verses work less well than in the more light-hearted Sesame-Street video, where music masked their imperfections, they offer a welcome counterpoint to the reminders of death. They have the spirit of “Three Blind Mice,” a nursery rhyme so bouncy you don’t dwell on the farmer’s wife who “cut off their tails with a carving knife.”

But Bumble-Ardy is at heart the story of a lonely and misunderstood pig who is — as child psychologists say — “resilient.” Its hero doesn’t sulk when nobody gives him a birthday party. He plans one for himself. And he tries desperately to please an aunt who is furious afterward: “I Promise! / I Swear! / I Won’t Ever / Turn Ten!” Adeline covers him with kisses, so the story ends happily enough, but Bumble-Ardy’s plight remains sad. He copes by denying reality: He “won’t ever” turn ten.

Sendak’s unwillingness to preach about such situations has always set him apart from authors who favor tidy solutions and has helped to earn him a deserved reputation as one of the world’s finest picture-book illustrators.  Bumble-Ardy stays the course. Sendak isn’t warning parents to do better than those of its hero. He is saying: This is reality for some children. His message isn’t a “message.” It is closer a question, written on a sign held by a pig: “Where Do We Go From Here?”

Best line/picture: The six-page of the bacchanal, which includes visual references to Sendak’s earlier books and to those of other artists.

Worst line/Picture: Sendak says of Bumble-Ardy’s fifth, sixth, and seventh birthdays: “And five six seven just simply were not.” The line is wordy: It didn’t need both adverbs, “just” and “simply.” And the story includes an inherent contradiction. The book casts Bumble-Ardy as a young pig, but eight years old isn’t young for a pig: It’s at least middle-aged.

Published: September 2011

Furthermore: Sendak won a Caldecott Medal for his picture book, Where the Wild Things Are, which One-Minute Book Reviews reviewed in its “Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read” series.  Bumble-Ardy is the first book that he has written and illustrated since Outside Over There in 1981. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the follow button in the sidebar on this site.

You may also want to read “American Library Association to Little Kids: Women Are Second Best,” a post about male artists’ dominance of the Caldecott awards.

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

January 24, 2012

Nancy Ekholm Burkert’s ‘Mouse & Lion’ Re-Imagines Aesop

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The mouse is the star of a fresh version of “The Lion and the Mouse” 

Mouse & Lion. By Rand Burkert. Pictures by Nancy Ekholm Burkert. Michael Di Capua/Scholastic, $17.95. Ages 3–6.

By Janice Harayda

Nancy Ekholm Burkert established herself as one of America’s great illustrators of children’s books with her art for the original 1961 edition of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. She has held that distinction for 50 years – along with Maurice Sendak, Chris Van Allsburg and a handful of others – and is perhaps the country’s best living female picture-book artist.

Ekholm Burkert works in the fine-art tradition of nuanced and often symbolic paintings, an approach pioneered by illustrators such as N.C. Wyeth and Arthur Rackham. She excels at re-interpretations of classics, which have included Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs, a retelling of a Brothers Grimm version translated by Randall Jarrell.

In Snow-White and elsewhere, Ekholm Burkert shows a deep understanding of how far you can go with ageless tales without betraying their spirit. Unlike artists who simply graft modern clothes or speech onto classics, she works from the inside out. She brings to each book a unity and originality of vision that extends to the most arcane detail. The dwarfs in her Snow-White aren’t elves or gnomes. They are real people, based on research suggesting that the tale may have roots in a medieval incident involving dwarfs. This approach gives Snow-White a warm humanity and depth that most versions lack.

Anyone who doesn’t know Ekholm Burkert’s work will find an excellent introduction to it in the elegant Mouse & Lion, her first picture book since Valentine & Orson in 1989. Capably written by her son, Rand, this retelling of Aesop’s “The Lion and the Mouse” sets the fable in the Aha Hills on the border of Botswana and Namibia. Ekholm Burkert gives the tale a baobab tree and a tawny African grass mouse with black and white stripes. That is where another artist would have stopped.

Ekholm Burkert goes further. Her book shows, perhaps better than any other, that this story is about the mouse, who is the protagonist to the lion’s antagonist. Most versions have both animals on the cover or just the lion. This one has only the mouse on the front. The lion is on the back.

Mouse & Lion is original in other ways. Many artists treat Aesop’s fable as a stern tale that instructs: Be kind, and others will repay you for it. Ekholm Burkert sees the humor in the story: The king of beasts needs help from a tiny creature in freeing itself from a hunter’s snare. This and other aspects would be comical in real life, and her pictures show it. In a witty series of images, the regal Lion treats Mouse like a court jester: He demands that his captive show he’s brave enough to repay the favor of a release. Lion laughs when Mouse tries to perform acrobatics on a blade of tall grass that breaks, an act that lands him on his head. The king-and-vassal relationship changes after Mouse gnaws a hole in the snare that has trapped Lion, and the book gains a second theme — the joy of small things — in closing pages that show Mouse’s mate and their babies and Lion admiring ethereal African flora and fauna. If the fable traditionally casts kindness as a duty or means of self-preservation, this one shows that it is also pleasure.

Ekholm Burkert admires Asian art, and more than her earlier books, Mouse & Lion shows its influence on her work through its agile lines and expansive use of white space. At the same time it retains the virtues of her earlier books: the subtle color sense, the superior draftsmanship and the rich textures — on the grain of a boulder, the fur on a mouse, the wings of a butterfly. Rand Burkert notes in an afterword that the lion was Aesop’s favorite “character,”  and Mouse & Lion is the rare retelling that makes you see why.

Best line/picture: No. 1: Mouse returning to his mate and their six melt-your-heart babies. No. 2: Burkert has found an subtle way around a challenge : the difficulty of showing in a single image actions occurring at different times. She uses an airy blue to show things that have occurred or will – for example, the pendulum route Mouse has swung above Lion’s jaws.

Worst line/picture: None, but Rand Burkert has a heavy hand with exclamation points. Do you really need them after “A net dropped and twisted around him!” and “ ‘Ah yes!’ he thought”?

Recommended? This beautiful children’s book may also appeal to adults who admire fine-art illustration. I liked Jerry Pinkney’s almost wordless 2010 Caldecott winner, The Lion & the Mouse. But Mouse & Lion offers more insights into the fable, and the two retellings are so different that many people will want to read both.

Furthermore: Publishers Weekly named Mouse & Lion one of the best picture books of 2011. Nancy Ekholm Burkert won a 1973 Caldecott Honor for Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs. Her other honors include a show of her work at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. A New York Times review of Mouse & Lion discusses varied interpretations of Aesop.

About the author: A short biography of Nancy Elkhom Burkert appears on the blog We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right. She is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and book editor of the Plain Dealer.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda

January 1, 2012

‘War Horse,’ Michael Morpurgo’s Anti-War Novel for Ages 8–12

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A farm horse adapts to life as a cavalry mount and more in World War I

War Horse. By Michael Morpurgo. Scholastic, 165 pp., $6.99, paperback. Ages 8 and up.

By Janice Harayda

War Horse is narrated by a horse that has mastered the use of the semicolon. If you can accept this, you will probably have no trouble believing the rest of his adventures, which begin when a Devon farmer sells him to a British officer in World War I and which take him to the Western Front, where he serves as a cavalry mount and a hauler of guns and carts full of wounded soldiers and ammunition.

Joey has a white cross on his reddish brown forehead and bears his suffering with the saintliness that the mark implies. He gallops through so many odds-defying escapes that the suspense depends less on whether he will survive than on whether he will again see Albert Narracott, the farmer’s son who misses him back in England.

Michael Morpurgo invests this plot with an anti-war message uncluttered by the ambiguities that combat involves. He gives no sense that some ideals are worth fighting for or that World War I had causes beyond “some old duke that’s been shot somewhere.” After being commandeered by Germans in France, Joey falls under the care of a soldier known as Crazy Old Friedrich, who insists that he is “the only sane man” in his regiment:

“It’s the others who are crazy, but they don’t know it. They fight a war and they don’t know what for. Isn’t that crazy? How can one man kill another and not know why he does it, except that the other man wears a different color uniform and speaks a different language. And it’s me they call crazy!”

Adults may hear a faint echo of Catch-22 and  All Quiet on the Western Front in the observations of Friedrich and others. But preteens who haven’t read those books are likely to find the ideas in War Horse fresh and expressed in terms they can understand. And the historical setting of the novel offers 8-to-12-year-olds an appealing change from the contemporary realism and paranormal fantasy more often pitched to them.

Like Black Beauty, War Horse takes the form of an interior monologue by a beloved English horse whose hardships reveal a purity of spirit. Joey has a gentle nature and treats his companions better than many characters in recent children’s fiction treat their classmates. His friends, human and equine, repay his kindness and support the ageless theme of War Horse: People and animals comfort each other amid the sorrows of war. For all of Joey’s valor in combat, the title of his story has an ironic aspect. War Horse could have been called Peace Horse.

Best line: No. 1: “Within minutes the mist began to clear away and I saw for the first time that I stood in a wide corridor of mud, a wasted, shattered landscape between two vast unending rolls of barbed wire that stretched away into the distance behind me and in front of me. … This was what the soldiers called ‘no-man’s-land.’”

Worst line: “For just a few short moments, we moved forward at the trot as we had done in training.” All moments are short.

Recommendation: The direct, conversational writing style of War Horse lends itself well to reading aloud.

About the author: Morpurgo is a former children’s laureate in England.

Published: 1982 (first UK edition), 1910 (Scholastic paperback edition).

Links for the movie version: Watch the trailer and see an interactive map of the trip Joey takes in the film.

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

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 12, 2011

Chris Van Allsburg’s ‘Queen of the Falls’ – A Barrel of Female Heroism

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Annie Edson Taylor learned that some things are harder than going over Niagara Falls in a barrel

Queen of the Falls. By Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin, 40 pp., $18.99. Ages 6 and up.

By Janice Harayda

No living American picture-book artist hits notes as high as Chris Van Allsburg does as often as he does. For more than thirty years he has been writing books that are at once dramatic and restrained by elegant taste. He never panders to children or their parents with cuteness or dumbing-down. And because he writes and illustrates his stories, his words and pictures work as a duet instead of dueling solos.

Van Allsburg achieves his effects partly through superb pencil draftsmanship. He collects Mission Style furniture, which has clean horizontal and vertical lines that set off the grain of the wood, and his illustrations have a similar quality. Every image reveals the texture of what it depicts — a chair, blades of grass, the mutton-chop sideburns on a turn-of-the-century newspaper reporter.
A recent case in point Queen of the Falls, Van Allsburg’s first nonfiction book. It tells a story of female heroism and its aftermath. In 1901 Annie Edson Taylor became the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive. Some sources say that Taylor took her plunge on her 63rd birthday, and while she is known to have lied about her age, photographs show that she was well past youth. In the fashion of the day, she wore an ankle-length skirt.

Van Allsburg evokes his setting with shifting perspectives tones that resemble sepia but have more warmth. Taylor enters her barrel watched by a box turtle with design on its shell that echoes the ribs of her container, a visual rhyme. Then comes a two-page bleed of Niagara Falls with a barrel atop them and the line: “ ‘Oh, Lord,’ she whispered, and then she was gone.” The next spread shows the onlookers, including a bull terrier, Van Allsburg’s artistic signature.

Why would anyone undertake such a reckless act? Taylor seems to have embarked on her mission out of desperation more than daredevil streak. She was a widow living a boarding house in Bay City, Michigan, after her once-busy charm school failed, and she hoped that her feat would bring fame and enough money for a secure old age. That it didn’t work out that way makes her story as poignant as it is exciting and gives a double meaning to the title of Queen of the Falls. Van Allsburg writes:

“When Annie was still back in Bay City, imagining her path to fame and fortune, she believed going over Niagara Falls in a barrel would be the hard part, but she was wrong.”

That comment amounts to a chilling understatement. Taylor faded from view after the initial fascination with her ride wore off. Hucksters exploited her, and people snubbed her lecture tour because she lacked the glamour they had expected. Faced with indifference to an act for which she had risked her life, she stopped touring, sold postcards for pennies near the falls, and died poor.

Queen of the Falls is about the vulnerability of older women to poverty and neglect, but it is also about hope. Van Allsburg invests Taylor with dignity and courage amid continual hardship. In a typical passage, he avoids speculating about how she felt when she saw all the empty seats on her lecture tour but writes gently that, after a while, “The widow had run out of steam.” For all her disappointments, Taylor kept her self-respect, and Van Allsburg makes you see why that may have been as much of an achievement as the one that led to her evanescent fame. Many full-scale biographies of exceptional Americans have said less about the character of their subjects than Van Allsburg does in this short book about the Midwestern widow who remains the only woman to have gone over the falls alone.

Best line/picture: The two pages that show Annie’s barrel about to go over the fall and the single line of text: “ ‘Oh, Lord,’ she whispered, and then she was gone.”

Worst line/picture: “The [charm] school’s owner and only teacher was a short, plump, fussy 62-year-old widow named Annie Edson Taylor.” Some sources disagree that Taylor was 62 when she began planning her feat, and others agree but say that because of the time it took to design her barrel, she made her trip over the falls on her 63rd birthday. Queen of the Falls would have benefited from an endnote about the source Van Allsburg used for her age and why he chose it.

Recommendation? A teacher described Queen of the Falls on Twitter it a “spectacular read-aloud book” that engaged her students and inspired “plenty of questions.”

Furthermore: A review of Van Allsburg’s alphabet book, The Z Was Zapped, also appeared on this site.

About the author: Van Allsburg won Caldecott medals for Jumanji and The Polar Express. His The Mysteries of Harris Burdick inspired the new collection The Chronicles of Harris Burdick.

You can also follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda or by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar on this site.

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

June 6, 2011

In Defense of Meghan Cox Gurdon, Children’s Book Reviewer

Does a reviewer have a right to say that books for adolescents are “ever-more-appalling”?

By Janice Harayda

For years Meghan Cox Gurdon has been reviewing books for children and teenagers for the Wall Street Journal – at first biweekly and, since the launch of the paper’s book review section in late 2010, weekly. Her reviews are consistently intelligent and well-written and almost always favorable.

Cox Gurdon clearly has made it her mission to look for and call attention to high-quality books for children and teenagers on many topics and in a variety of genres. She has praised books as different as Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which won the 2008 Caldecott Medal from the American Library Association, and Ruth Krauss’s reissued classic The Backward Day.

Over the weekend the Wall Street Journal published “Darkness Too Visible,” one of the rare articles by Cox Gurdon that faulted a major trend — the burgeoning array of novels for adolescents that involve violence, abuse or other bleak topics. For this she has been pilloried in blogs and on Twitter at the hashtag #YASaves, which was created  in response her story and has generated more than 15,000 responses, according to the trade newsletter ShelfAwareness. Cox Gurdon has been called “biased” (@KelliTrapnell), “idiotic” (@fvanhorne), “a right-wing nut” (@annejumps), full of “ugliness” (@AprilHenryBooks), and “brittle, ignorant, shrewish” (@Breznian).

What did Cox Gurdon do to earn this torrent of vitriol? She did what critics are supposed to do – to look beyond plot and characterization and consider the deeper themes and issues raised by novels. In “Darkness Too Visible,” she questioned the effects of books like Jackie Morse Kessler’s Rage, a “gruesome but inventive” 2011 book about a girl whose secret practice of cutting herself “turns nightmarish after a sadistic sexual prank.” Cox Gurdon quotes a passage from the novel that says: “She had sliced her arms to ribbons, but the badness remained, staining her insides like cancer. She had gouged her belly until it was a mess of meat and blood, but she still couldn’t breathe.”

It is entirely legitimate for a reviewer to ask, as Cox Gurdon does, how this might affect a vulnerable child or teenager:

“The argument in favor of such novels is that they validate the teen experience, giving voice to tortured adolescents who would otherwise be voiceless. If a teen has been abused, the logic follows, reading about another teen in the same straits will be comforting. If a girl cuts her flesh with a razor to relieve surging feelings of self-loathing, she will find succor in reading about another girl who cuts, mops up the blood with towels and eventually learns to manage her emotional turbulence without a knife.

“Yet it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue. That is not to discount the real suffering that some young people endure; it is an argument for taking care.”

Anyone who writes about children’s books regularly knows that Cox Gurdon hasn’t made up this trend: Books, like movies, keep getting more lurid. Or, as she puts it, the publishing industry is serving up “ever-more-appalling offerings for adolescent readers.” If this issue might not concern all adults, it would surely concern some, given how many buy books as gifts for children without having time to look at much more than the cover and flap copy. And Cox Gurdon isn’t saying: Never read young-adult books. She’s saying: Know what’s in those books, and use judgment, as you would with movies.

Contemporary child-rearing experts urge parents to protect their children in ways that would have been unthinkable a couple of generations ago, when psychologists warned of about the dangers of “overprotectiveness.” This shift has resulted from social changes that require more caution, and Cox Gurdon has encouraged adults to apply to their children’s reading the level of care that they bring to all other areas of their lives. Is this so terrible? Thousands of people on Twitter have said, “Yes.” Anyone who believes that adolescents’ reading habits matter as much as their viewing habits may disagree. In her latest article and others, Cox Gurdon has paid young people’s literature the highest compliment:  She has given children’s books the close scrutiny that, in an age of shrinking book-review sections, typically goes only to those for adults. For that, she deserves gratitude.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer, the book columnist for Glamour, and vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She has written for the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, and many other publications Since 2006 she has edited One-Minute Book Reviews, named one of New Jersey’s best blogs in the April 2011 issue of New Jersey Monthly. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

(c) 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 14, 2011

The Katie Woo Series: Early Readers About 6-Year-Old Chinese-American Girl

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Best Season Ever (Katie Woo Series). Red, White, and Blue and Katie Woo! (Katie Woo Series). Boo, Katie Woo! (Katie Woo Series). By Fran Manushkin. Illustrated by Tammie Lyon. Picture Window/Capstone, 32 pp., $19.99 each. Ages 5-8.

By Janice Harayda

Early readers — short chapter books with a limited vocabulary — are hard to write, and Fran Manushkin just clears the bar in this series about Katie Woo, a 6-year-old Chinese-American first-grader and her friends Pedro and JoJo. Tammie Lyon’s upbeat watercolors lack subtlety, and they get little help from the mundane plots and serviceable prose of these three books, which find the trio debating which season is best, celebrating the Fourth of July, and trying to scare people on Halloween. Each book has a glossary and other material at the end, and in Boo, Katie Woo! the back matter includes a recipe for a Halloween punch made from grape and orange juice, which apparently turn black when mixed. “Witch’s Brew might look pretty gross,” Manushkin writes, “but it will taste terrific.”

Best line: A party idea in the supplemental material for Boo, Katie Woo!: Make an “Icy Hand” for a Halloween punch by filling a non-powdered latex glove with water, freezing it, and removing the glove before floating it in the bowl.

Worst line: No. 1: A picture of Pedro heading a soccer ball and the words, “He backed up to hit the ball with his head” in Red, White, and Blue and Katie Woo!. Katie is 6 years old, and her friends are about the same age. American Youth Soccer discourages children under the age of 10 from heading, and U.S. leagues generally don’t teach it before then. No. 2: A picture of Katie standing outdoors in a sleeveless dress in a snowstorm on the cover of Best Season Ever. This seems to be  a fantasy when the other  pictures are realistic, and it sends a confusing sign about what the book contains. No. 3: These books don’t explain why they phoneticize the Chinese surname “Wu” to “Woo.” Would a two-letter word have been harder for children to grasp than a 3-letter one?

Consider reading instead or or in addition these books: The “Henry and Mudge” early-reader series by Cynthia Ryant and Suçie Stevenson, which includes Henry and Mudge in the Sparkle Days.

Published: 2011

You can also follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 7, 2011

The Glass Doghouse – It’s a Man’s World in Animal Stories for Children

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A study has found that male main characters dominate books about creatures with fur or feathers

By Janice Harayda

Not long ago I noted in a review that no female characters appear in the 2011 Caldecott medalist, A Sick Day for Amos McGee, a book about zoo animals who repay the kindness of their keeper. A new study makes clear that its representation of the sexes isn’t unusual. Alison Flood writes in the Guardian:

“Looking at almost 6,000 children’s books published between 1900 and 2000, the study, led by Janice McCabe, a professor of sociology at Florida State University, found that males are central characters in 57% of children’s books published each year, with just 31% having female central characters. Male animals are central characters in 23% of books per year, the study found, while female animals star in only 7.5%.

“Published in the April issue of Gender & Society, the study … looked at Caldecott award-winning books, the well-known US book series Little Golden Books and [listings in] the Children’s Catalog. Just one Caldecott winner (1985′s Have You Seen My Duckling? following a mother duck on a search for her baby) has had a standalone female character since the award was established in 1938. Books with male animals were more than two-and-a-half times more common across the century than those with female animals, the authors said.

“Although the gender disparity came close to disappearing by the 1990s for human characters in children’s books, with a ratio of 0.9 to 1 for child characters and 1.2 to 1 for adult characters, it remained for animal characters, with a ‘significant disparity’ of nearly two to one. The study found that the 1930s to 1960s, the period between waves of feminist activism, ‘exhibits greater disparities than earlier and later periods.’”

I wish I could say the new study has flaws. But the equality gap in animal stories has existed since I’ve been reviewing children’s books. It’s true that such tales have more female characters than they did before the 1960s, including Maisy, Olivia and Angelina. But many more picture books are published today, so the ratio of male-to-female animals could have remained the same — or gone up — despite the larger number of heroines. And males remain the default setting in tales of characters with fur, fins, or feathers.

A Sick Day for Amos McGee fits the pattern: Every character in it, human or animal, is male, though the theme of the story — you get what you give – applies to both sexes. Do we need a new term,”the glass doghouse,” to describe the imbalance in such books?

April 17, 2011

‘The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy)’ – Life With Father

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Mark Twain said his daughter used “no sandpaper” on him

The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy). By Barbara Kerley. Illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham. Scholastic, 48 pp., $17.99. Ages: 4–8.

By Janice Harayda

In this picture-book biography Barbara Kerley takes a humorous approach as she tries to prove that Mark Twain was more than a humorist. Children may not be persuaded, but this crowd-pleaser has other virtues, including larger-than-life digital art and 11 folio insets with lines from 13-year-old Susy Clemens’s account of her father’s life, which inspired the volume.

Best line: Twain on the book by his daughter that inspired The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy): “This is a frank biographer and an honest one; she uses no sandpaper on me.”

Worst line: “The animals on the farm could not care less that Papa was a world-famous author …” (Kerley).

Recommendation: The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy) isn’t for children who are old enough to debate the moral questions raised by the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn but for those young enough to enjoy lifting the letters out of the envelopes in “The Jolly Postman” series.

Published: January 2010

Furthermore: The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy) appeared on the Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal lists of the best books of 2010.

About the author and illustrator: Kerley and Fotheringham collaborated on What to Do About Alice?, a picture-book biography of Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

You can also follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2011 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.

March 26, 2011

Tomorrow – A Review of the 2011 Caldecott Medal Winner, Erin and Philip Stead’s ‘A Sick Day for Amos McGee’

Filed under: Caldecott Medals,Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:05 pm
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Erin Stead won the American Library Association’s highest honor for illustration, the Caldecott Medal, for A Sick Day for Amos McGee, a picture book about animals who repay the kindness of their zookeeper. Her art accompanied a bedtime story by her husband, Philip. How does her work compare to that of other Caldecott winners? A review will appear on One-Minute Book Reviews tomorrow.

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