One-Minute Book Reviews

March 26, 2012

Are School Reading Assignments Making Your Child Dumber?

Filed under: News,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:50 am
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High school students are reading books appropriate for fifth graders, often assigned by teachers

By Janice Harayda

Schools are supposed to make you make you smarter. Are American teachers routinely assigning books that make kids dumber? You might think so after reading a major new report by Renaissance Learning, which develops hardware and software that helps schools measure students’ educational progress.

The top 40 books read by teenagers in grades 9–12 have an average of reading level of grade 5.3, appropriate for the third month of fifth grade, the report said. And the picture wasn’t much prettier for younger students. The book most read by seventh graders is Diary of a Wimpy Kid (reading level: grade 5.5). For eighth grade, it’s The Outsiders (grade 4.7). And students often read these books because their teachers assign them.

Students sometimes can benefit from reading books that are below their level. Easy books can build confidence, keep reading fun, and reinforce educational gains. But a steady diet of too-simple books won’t prepare students for the demands of life after high school. David Coleman, a contributor to the Renaissance Learning report, notes that the most important predictor of success in college is the ability to read and understand challenging material. And many books on the top 40 lists aren’t “complex enough to prepare them for the rigors of college and career.” Students may also lose interest in reading for pleasure if they find easy books boring.

That’s why parents need to fight back when schools frequently require children to read books that are below their reading level. Here are three ways to do that:

Check the reading levels of books that seem too easy. You can find the levels of many books used in schools by entering their titles in the search box on the AR BookFinder site. You can find the levels of others by pasting text from them into the box at ReadabilityFormulas.com. The Renaissance Learning report “What Kids Are Reading, 2012″ has the reading levels of the top 40 books read by grades K-12.

Talk to teachers who assign too-easy books. Find out why they thought your child would benefit from the books. If the reasons aren’t convincing, ask teachers to substitute others suited to your child’s level.

Let the principal know. Don’t quit if teachers won’t assign books at your child’s level or if your concerns go beyond one assignment – for example, if an entire summer reading list is too easy. In some schools or districts, most lists are dumbed-down, and the problem requires action at a higher level.

Some children will find their way to harder books if you do nothing. But most won’t, Coleman says. Children, he says, “need to be challenged  and supported to build  their strength as readers by stretching to the next level.”

For more information: Read the Huffington Post summary of the Renaissance Learning report. You may also want to read this One-Minute Book Reviews post on how Mitch Albom is writing at a third-grade reading level, which compares his level to that of other bestselling authors.

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 18, 2012

Tomorrow … A Review of Abraham Verghese’s ‘Cutting for Stone’

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:31 pm
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President Obama had it with him during his 2011 vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. Martha Stewart endorsed it. Book clubs are flocking to it. But is Abraham Verghese’s first novel good, or another example the literary herd instinct run amok? A review of Cutting for Stone will appear tomorrow.

March 3, 2012

Talk Back to Bizarre Book Titles on Twitter at #talkbacktobooktitles

Filed under: Humor,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:58 pm
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Ever wonder what publishers were thinking when they came up with book titles like Afterthoughts of a Worm Hunter or Strip & Knit With Style? My former colleague Michael Heaton did when he saw the books in the reject pile of the book editor of the Plain Dealer, and he’s written an amusing riff on their titles for the Cleveland newspaper. Perfect Death, he muses? “Thanks, I’ll pass.” Before the End, After the Beginning? “Make up your mind.” Simon: The Genius in My Basement? “Please let him out.” I’ve started a hashtag on Twitter #talkbacktobooktitles that you can add to tweets that list your responses to odd book titles. (Any takers for Cooking with Poo?) If you send a copy to @janiceharayda, I’ll try to retweet the most entertaining. Please don’t wait until I’m one of The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Provided I get there.

February 24, 2012

23 British Publishing Euphemisms Decoded by Industry Experts

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:43 am
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A tongue-in-cheek glossary from U.K. editors, publishers, authors and agents

By Janice Harayda

The British have a gift for coded speech. Like Southerners who say “Bless your heart” when they mean the opposite, they salt their conversations with euphemisms that only the most credulous tourist would take at face value.

The U.K. publishing industry has its own subset of words and phrases that deflect embarrassing or inconvenient realities. A few appeared in my American-accented “40 Publishing Buzzwords, Clichés and Euphemisms Decoded” and “More Publishing Buzzwords,” which gathered highlights from witty translations submitted at the Twitter hashtag #pubcode last year. Other examples of the British talent for indirection surfaced yesterday in a new wave of definitions at #publishingeuphemisms. Here are some of the best of those late arrivals (a list that excludes a few tweets that gave off an intentional or unintentional whiff of those posted in 2011), followed by the decoder’s name.

“ahead of its time”: “It bombed” Julie Bertagna, author of Exodus and other young-adult novels

“All our focus is on the paperback”: “The hardback tanked” Jonny Geller, literary agent

“eminently marketable”: “This author looks fit” Catherine Fox, author of Angels and Men, Scenes From Vicarage Life and other books

“an exciting new children’s author”: “edited to within an inch of its life so no parents can possibly be offended” Iain Paton, writer

for fans of [insert bestselling author name]”: “Normally eat smoked salmon? Try some tinned” Rhian Davies, judge for CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger.

“has worked as a gravedigger, ambulance driver, and llama-shearer”: “had a gap year” Christopher Wakling, author of The Devil’s Mask and other novels

“Here are all my corrections!”: “(Except all the ones I’m going to email you everyday until sign off date.)” Cathy Hurren, production editor and MA student

“I’m hard at work”: “I’m on Twitter” David Hebblethwaite, critic and blogger

“’I’m under such pressure for space”: “It didn’t deserve a review on my page” MaryB (@marysbookstuff on Twitter), “many hats.”

“in their own words”: “in the ghostwriter’s words” Iain Paton, writer

“Just a couple of tiny changes needed”: “I’m about to send you 27 pages of edits.”  Jill Mansell, author of A Walk in the Park and other novels

”literary-commercial cross-over”: “Has a plot but not too many adverbs” Nina Bell, author of Lovers and Liars and other novels

“The manuscript is nearly finished”: “I’m up to chapter 3” Karen Wheeler, former fashion editor of a British newspaper and the author of Tout Sweet: Hanging Up My High Heels for a New Life in France and other books.

“The new Tom Clancy”: “Jane’s Military technical specifications with occasional action” Iain Paton, writer

“No woman has nipples like strawberries: “I don’t get out much” Martin Pilcher (Igor Zap), writer

“The novel never quite reached the huge potential of its promise”: “Your pitch letter was better than the book” Jonny Geller, literary agent

“Sorry but our list is currently closed”: “We are too busy chasing celebrity deals to bother with hoi-polloi”  Carole Matthews, author of Wrapped Up in You and other books

“There is such excitement in-house”: “My assistant loved it” Jonny Geller

“This novel really challenges convention”: “including spelling and basic grammar” Phoenix Yard Books, an independent children’s publisher

“This doesn’t fit in my current list”: “The restraining order is in the post” Cath Bore, writer

“We’re not sure a head shot will work on the jacket”: “Look in a mirror” Christopher Wakling , novelist

We’ve changed the pub date to give the book the best exposure”: “We’ve f*cked up the schedule.” Jane Judd, literary agent

“You seem to have fallen through the net”: “We don’t send cheques unless we’re forced to.” Rosy Cole, author of The Wolf and the Lamb

“Your novel isn’t right for us at this time” = “or any time luv” Cath Bore

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

www.janiceharayda.com

January 26, 2012

Is American Library Association Ghetto-izing Black Authors?

Filed under: African American,Caldecott Medals,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:23 am
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Kadir Nelson, a four-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Award, lost the more prestigious Caldecott medal — again — on Monday

By Janice Harayda

Kadir Nelson may have won more honors than any of the most recent candidates for Caldecott medal, given by the American Library Association each year to “the most distinguished American picture book for children.” His paintings have appeared in museums and galleries around the world and on U.S. postage stamps, including two that celebrate Negro League baseball.

But when the ALA named the winners of its 2012 awards on Monday, Nelson didn’t get the Caldecott for his Heart and Soul, as many had expected. He won his fourth Coretta Scott King Award, which only black authors or illustrators may receive. The King award is a high honor but one with less prestige and impact on sales than a Caldecott medal. And Nelson’s award has revived a debate about whether the ALA is ghetto-izing the black authors and illustrators who qualify for the identity-based prizes that it gives out along with honors open to all. Are writers and artists who look like shoo-ins for a King award being denied the Caldecott and Newbery medals that can have a much greater impact on their careers?

The answer should be no. Library-association judging committees deliberate independently. And authors can win awards in more than one ALA category, as when Nelson received a King award and a Sibert prize for “the most distinguished informational book for children” for We Are the Ship. But the reality is less clear-cut, as the blogger and novelist Mitali Perkins noted in explaining why she hoped the library group wouldn’t create an award for authors of Asian descent like her:

“The existence of such an award for Asian-Americans may inadvertently or sub-consciously knock books out of the running for prizes like the Newbery or the Printz. (‘Oh, that title’s sure to be nominated for a Super Asian Writer Award …,’ said the committee member to herself as she crossed Kira-Kira off her list of finalists.)”

Such possibilities may involve a cruel paradox for black superstars like Nelson: The better those authors and illustrators are, they more likely they are to look like shoo-ins for a King award. And the less likely they are to get what they deserve, if judges subconsciously or inadvertently relegate them to lesser prizes. Nelson’s many nonlibrary honors don’t mean that he automatically deserves a Caldecott medal. Designing a postage stamp isn’t the same as creating a picture book that involves the flow of words and pictures.

But author Marc Aronson is right that the ALA is tumbling down “a very slippery slope” with its profusion of identity-based prizes. Aronson notes that when the ALA launched the King award in 1969, “no black artist or author had won major recognition from ALA (Arna Bontemps’s Story of the Negro, a 1949 Newbery Honor Book, aside), and there were relatively few African Americans working in the field.” That situation has changed greatly, he adds: The U.S. now has a “steadily growing group of African-American artists that every important publisher, large and small, seeks to publish” and independent presses devoted to their work. If the Coretta Scott King Award helped to change that, it has also brought new risks for black authors and illustrators and for awards judges. As Aronson notes:

“The danger in every award that sets limits on the kinds of people, or types of book, that can win it is that it diminishes the pressure on the larger awards, the Newbery and the Caldecott, to live up to their charge to seek the most distinguished children’s books of the year.”

In a post that predicted the 2012 Caldecott winners, the influential librarian and  School Library Journal blogger Elizabeth Bird wrote that “We all know that Kadir deserves to win one of these days.” It’s fair to ask: Would “one of these days” have arrived by now if the ALA hadn’t been able to give Nelson the Coretta Scott King Award?

This is the first of two posts on the winners of the 2012 Caldecott medal and the three Honor Book citiations. The second post deals with the shutout for women in the awards.

Jan Harayda is an award-winning critic and former vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar on this site.

January 23, 2012

Complete List of 2012 Newbery, Calcdecott and Other ALA Awards Winners

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:50 pm
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Chris Raschka has won the Caldecott Medal for “the most distinguished picture book for children” and Jack Gantos won the Newbery Medal for “the most outstanding contribution to children’s literature,” both awarded today by the American Library Association. Here’s the complete list of the 2012 Newbery, Caldecott and other ALA award winners. As always with literary prizes, part of the news consists of who didn’t win. In naming today’s honorees, librarians snubbed books by three of America’s greatest living illustrators of children’s books: Nancy Ekholm Burkert’s Mouse & Lion, Maurice Sendak’s Bumble-Ardy and Chris Van Allsburg’s Queen of the Falls.

January 20, 2012

2012 Newbery and Caldecott Award Winners to Be Announced at 7:45 a.m., Central Time, on Monday, Jan. 23

Filed under: Caldecott Medals,Newbery Medals,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:09 am
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The American Library Association will announce with winners of the 2012 Newbery and Caldecott awards for children’s books beginning at 7:45 a.m. Central Time (8:45 a.m. ET) on Monday, Jan. 23. A live webcast of the event will begin at 7:30 a.m. Central Time. You can also follow the awards on Twitter at @ALAyma. If I’ve reviewed any winners, I’ll post or re-post my comments after the ceremony. I may also comment on the awards on Twitter at @janiceharayda.

December 31, 2011

Judgment and Disclosure Lapses at the New York Times Book Review

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:58 pm
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By Janice Harayda

In October the sponsor of the National Book Awards did a favor for Oregon Public Broadcasting, an independently run member of NPR. The National Book Foundation allowed OPB to carry the live announcement of the 2011 finalists — and benefit from any related boost in ratings or traffic to its site — instead of a for-profit station.

So you might wonder why the New York Times Book Review assigned a review of the fiction winner, Salvage the Bones, to Parul Sehgal, the books editor of NPR.org. Wouldn’t that create the appearance of a conflict of interest by giving an NPR employee the opportunity to return a favor the National Book Foundation did for an NPR member? If so, shouldn’t the NYTBR have disclosed the link between the awards program and NPR?

You might think so. And there’s more. Before the awards ceremony, Sehgal praised Salvage the Bones on the NPR site. She called Jesmyn Ward’s tale of Hurricane Katrina one of five “splendid books” shortlisted for the fiction prize, admiring its “pitch-perfect collisions of character and fate that endow it with the scope and impact of classical tragedy.” After the novel won, she reaffirmed her high opinion of it on The Millions, where she wrote: “Salvage the Bones is every bit as good as they say it is.” So it’s no surprise that in the Jan. 1 New York Times Book Review, Sehgal again celebrates the book: “Salvage the Bones … is a taut, wily novel, smartly plotted and voluptuously written.” After all, she’s told us twice before that she likes it.

What is a surprise is that the NYTBR assigned the review not just to a critic employed by NPR but to one who had made her views on the novel well known. Did the editors believe that no other critic could review the book as well? Sehgal is the most recent winner of the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing and was certainly well qualified to review the novel. But so were many other critics, including a half dozen or more recipients of the same honor. Was the Times trying to stack the deck in favor of a good review?

Newspapers often reprint reviews that have appeared in other papers or on wire services such as the AP, just as many bloggers self-syndicate by allowing their reviews to appear on multiple sites. These practices are widely accepted in part because they typically involve no effort to rig the jury. An editor of a paper or site simply reprints what exists. It’s also common for critics to review new books by authors whose earlier work they have praised, and more than 3 in 4 critics see nothing wrong with the practice, according an NBCC ethics survey.

But it’s highly unusual for a major newspaper to permit a critic to review a new book that he or she has lavishly praised for a substantial national audience, and it may be unprecedented at the New York Times Book Review. In the case of Salvage the Bones, the results are confusing: Sehgal seems to imply on the NPR site that the book is “pitch-perfect.” But she says of its author in her Times review: “She never uses one metaphor when she can use three, and too many sentences grow waterlogged and buckle.” None of this is intended to slight Sehgal – whose ethics and professionalism are, to my knowledge, unquestioned – but it creates the suspicion that the Times hoped to ensure a favorable review choosing her.

All of this raises questions of fairness – to readers, to authors, and to publishers. Everyone benefits when books receive as many reviews as possible from open-minded critics, because each reviewer offers a unique perspective. The situation might be different if the posts that Sehgal wrote before her Times review had been straight news stories that contained no opinion and consisited of, say, an announcement of its shortlisting and plot summary. But words like “splendid,” “pitch-perfect” and “as good as they say” involve value judgments, not facts, and the NPR description of the novel is indistinguishable from a brief review even if not labeled as such.

It’s hard to believe that the Times would have allowed Sehgal to review Salvage the Bones if she had criticized the book as strongly as she praised it on the NPR and the Millions sites. Readers would have complained that the paper showed an unfair bias in assigning a review of the novel to a critic known to dislike the book. Why wasn’t it equally unfair of the Times to assign a review to a critic known to like it?

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

November 16, 2011

Conflict of Interest Questions at the 2011 National Book Awards

Filed under: National Book Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:22 am
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Several conflicts of interest or the appearance of them may affect the results of the 2011 National Book Awards that will be handed out tonight in Manhattan. Here are some ties between judges and finalists and how they may affect the outcome of the awards:

Fiction
The conflict
Fiction judge Yiyun Li provided a blurb for Edith Pearlman’s finalist Binocular Vision that appears on the back cover of the book. Li has said on Twitter that for that reason, she is abstaining from discussions of the book.

How it may affect the outcome
Li has won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and other honors that make her the most acclaimed fiction-jury member. Assuming that she would have supported a book she blurbed, her abstention will deprive Pearlman of an advocate and may make victory more likely for one of the two best-known finalists, Téa Obreht and Julie Otsuka.

Nonfiction
The conflict
Nonfiction judge Jill Lepore and finalist Stephen Greenblatt are both professors in humanities disciplines at Harvard University (history and English, respectively).

How it may affect the outcome
Greenblatt was a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award for nonfiction and may be the most honored candidate on the 2011 nonfiction shortlist. Lepore did not respond to an email message asking whether she is taking part in discussions about her colleague’s The Swerve. But if she would have supported Greenblatt, an abstention could hurt one of strongest nonfiction candidates. And it would further strain a jury reduced to four members instead of five after the unexplained disappearance of Rebecca Solnit, named a judge in April. An abstention by Lepore would leave the panel with just three members participating in some deliberations. And it would mean that Greenblatt could win with two votes in the case of a 2-1 split.

Poetry
The conflict
Poetry panel chair and Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander serves on the faculty of the Cave Canem writers’ program, according to its website, which also lists as faculty two 2011 poetry finalists, Nikky Finney and Yussef Komunyakaa. Komunyakaa further shares with Alexander the title of honorary directory of the program. A third poetry finalist  listed as a faculty member, Carl Phillips, says his term did not overlap with Alexander’s and he has not taught with her at Cave Canem.

How it may affect the outcome
Alexander should abstain from discussing Finney and Komunyakaa if the Cave Canem website reflects accurately her status as a colleague of both. If she does, four judges will decide the fate of those finalists, which could increase the chances of a hung jury. If she doesn’t abstain, that fact would create the unusual situation of a judge remaining involved despite an apparent conflict with not one but two finalists.

You can read more about conflicts of interest at the National Book Awards in the fourth section of this post.  A complete list of National Book Awards judges and finalists appears on the website for the sponsor, the National Book Foundation.

You can follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar. She will be live-tweeting the National Book Awards ceremony beginning at 8 p.m. tonight. Jan is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been book editor of the Plain Dealer and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle.

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

November 15, 2011

2011 National Book Awards Predictions – Young People’s Literature

Filed under: National Book Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:48 pm
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Who will win this year’s National Book Award for young people’s literature?

By Janice Harayda

A swamp of judging conflicts of interest. An orgy of self-congratulation for the publishing industry. A chance to learn about good books you might have missed. The National Book Awards are all of those, and you may see evidence of some of it when they prizes are handed out tomorrow night at Cipriani Wall Street.

During the run-up, I’ve been tweeting micro-reviews of excerpts from finalists’ books and using them to try to predict the winners in every category except poetry, where apparent  judging conflicts of interest reduce the odds that my method might work. My fiction and nonfiction predictions appeared earlier this month, and to judge by the finalists’ excerpts, the young people’s literature award should go to Chime or Flesh and Blood So Cheap.

Chime. A folkloric fantasy with the best opening by a mile among National Book Awards YA fiction finalists. Grade: A Based on this excerpt.

Flesh and Blood So Cheap. Vivid nonfiction about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Grade: A Based on this excerpt.

Inside Out and Back Again. Unexciting poetry in a high-degree-of-difficulty novel in verse. Grade: B Based on this excerpt.

My Name Is Not Easy. Too little drama for an excerpt with a gun in the first paragraph Grade: B- Based on this excerpt.

Okay for now. Alexie-ish fun, but maybe more Newbery than National Book Awards. Grade: B Based on this excerpt.

You may also want to read  “The National Book Awards Debacle Was an Accident Waiting to Happen — 7 Ways to Restore Credibility to the Prizes.”

Jan (@janiceharayda) will live-tweet the National Book Awards on her Twitter page at 8 p.m. Eastern Time Wednesday, Nov. 16. You can follow her comments by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

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

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