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

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

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 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.

July 17, 2009

‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’ and ‘Five Little Ducks’ — Good Books for 1- to 3-Year-Olds

Filed under: Children's literature — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:47 pm
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Fine artists from England reinvigorate a classic tale and nursery rhyme

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. Retold by Michael Rosen. Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury. McElderry, 32 pp., price $12.21. Ages: 1–6.

Five Little Ducks. Illustrated by Ivan Bates. Orchard, 24 pp., $12.99. Ages 1–6.

By Janice Harayda

Do you know a child who is ready to move beyond Goodnight Moon but too young for the symbolism and shifting perspectives of Chris Van Allsburg? Two worthy picture books brim with elements that 1- to 3-year-olds love – animal motifs, repeated words, and easy-to-imitate sounds.

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt has been delighting young listeners for nearly a generation with its retelling of a classic tale about a father and four children who go on a bear hunt. Michael Rosen’s story teems with adventures that children love to act out, such as crossing a river (“Splash splosh!”) and trudging through a blizzard (“Hoooo woooo!”). And it has dynamic illustrations by Helen Oxenbury, who has twice won the Kate Greenaway Medal, England’s equivalent of the Caldecott. One of the few potential drawbacks to giving this book as a gift is that it is so popular that families may have a copy.

Children are less likely to own Five Little Ducks, illustrated by another gifted artist who lives in England. This is a new version of the nursery rhyme that begins: “Five little ducks/Went out one day/Over the hills and far away./Mother duck said, ‘Quack, quack, quack.’/But only four little ducks/came waddling back.”

Ivan Bates uses sunny pencil-and-watercolor illustrations to depict the five ducklings that wander away from their mother one by one, then rush back all at once. And he invests his animals with tender emotion without over-anthropomorphizing them or dressing them, Peter Rabbit-like, in human clothes. His mother duck is clearly heartbroken when her young disappear and overjoyed when they return. Many books browbeat children with warnings about what could happen if they don’t stay near adults. Bates takes a more subtle and perhaps more effective approach to the subject: He shows children how sad their mothers would be if they didn’t return.

Best Lines: We’re Going on a Bear Hunt: “We’re going on a bear hunt … We’re not scared.” Five Little Ducks: Verses are traditional. A nice touch is that this book includes an easy-to-play musical score for the song with the same title.

Worst lines: None.

Published: We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, 1989. Five Little Ducks, February 2006. This review refers to the hardcover edition of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, also available in Aladdin paperback, Little Simon board-book, pop-up, and book-and-CD editions. Board book editions may or may not contain the full text of the original.

This a re-post of a review that appeared in November 2006. Reviews of books for children and teenagers appear on Saturdays on One-Minute Book Reviews. All are are written by Janice Harayda, former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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