One-Minute Book Reviews

July 2, 2010

Dana Reinhardt’s Young Adult Novel, ‘The Things a Brother Knows’ – Mature Subjects, Third-Grade Reading Level

Filed under: Children's Books,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:53 pm
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A 17-year-old wonders why his older brother acts strangely after serving with the Marines in a combat zone

The Things a Brother Knows. By Dana Reinhardt. Wendy Lamb/Random House Children’s Books, 256 pp., $16.99. Publisher’s suggested ages: 14 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Not long ago, the Canadian novelist Joan Clark argued that North American publishers should drop the “young adult” label and replace it, as their British counterparts have, with two new categories: “under 12” (to be shelved in the children’s section of bookstores) and “over 12” (to shelved in the adult section). Clark makes a strong case that the confusing YA classification can keep both adults and children away from books they might like.

You could hardly find a better example of the problems with the genre than The Things a Brother Knows. This novel deals with a complex topic: A 17-year-old named Levi struggles to make sense of the troubling behavior a brother who, after serving with the Marines, shows PTSD-like symptoms that threaten to estrange the siblings. Dana Reinhardt gives this subject a relatively mature treatment that involves jokes about porn and masturbation, occasional strong language, and serious moral and psychological questions: What do we owe veterans? What price do families pay for their members’ military service? And is it OK to do bad things such as hacking into a brother’s computer because you want to help him?

For all this, Reinhardt writes at a third-grade reading level, according the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that come with the Microsoft Word spell-checker. And her earnest prose, if smooth as the surface of an iPod, is too dumbed-down for many of the age-14-and-up readers to whom its publisher recommends it, who may have read the stylistically more challenging Harry Potter and J.R.R. Tolkien tales years ago. The book might have more appeal for 11- and 12-year-olds, but its drab cover won’t help its cause with preteens who have sped through adventure stories like those in Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series.

Like no small number of young adult novels, The Things a Brother Knows makes you wonder: Who is this book for? Reinhardt says in a letter to readers that Levi, on his quest to understand his brother, “goes in a boy and comes out a man.” If that’s true of her main character, it’s not true her novel as a whole, which is suspended between boyhood and manhood, a case of arrested literary development.

Best line: “We’d been to Israel twice already, in the psychotic heat of summer.”

Worst line: No. 1: “He doesn’t leave his fucking room, Mr. Hopper.” No. 2: “I’m pretty sure there’s nothing in the world uglier than the sight of your own father’s pubic hair.” No. 3: “I meant that ‘little private Levi time’ thing as a euphemism. Masturbating. Get it?”

Published: September 2010

Editor: Wendy Lamb, who edited the 2010 Newbery Medal winner, Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me.

Caveat lector: This book was based on an advance reader’s copy. Some material in the finished book, including the cover, may differ.

Furthermore: Jacqueline Woodson’s Peace, Locomotion also deals with the effect on a family of a son who returns from a war with symptoms resembling those of PTSD.

You may also want to read: Joan Clark’s essay on the problems with the young-adult label.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 15, 2009

‘Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith’ – Quotes of the Day From a 2009 Finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

“A novel … does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if it be a pretty woman, all the better.”
— Charles Darwin, as quoted in Charles and Emma

The winners of the 2009 National Book Awards will be announced Wednesday, and the finalists in the category of young people’s literature include Deborah Heiligman’s captivating Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Holt, 268 pp., $18.95). This dual biography is a portrait of the loving marriage of the author of The Origin of Species and his spirited and intelligent wife, who held religious views he did not share.

This excerpt describes how Charles and Emma Darwin spent their first days in their new home in London after their wedding at a Staffordshire church on January 29, 1839:

“In their first few days together, they mostly stayed in – it was snowing. But they also did some shopping for furniture, dishes, and clothes, including a morning gown for Emma. It was ‘a sort of clarety-brown satin,’ she wrote to [her sister] Elizabeth, and she felt it was ‘very unobjectionable.’ They borrowed some novels from the library, starting a lifelong tradition of reading together – usually Emma read to Charles while he rested from his work. Charles liked novels with happy endings, and he once wrote, ‘I often bless all novelists. A surprising number have been read aloud to me … and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily – against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if it be a pretty woman all the better.”

An earlier post on Charles and Emma has links to more information about the book.

The publisher recommends Charles and Emma for ages 13 and up — perhaps because of occasional mature content, such as the passing use of the word “erection” — but it may also appeal to younger children who are strong readers.

November 14, 2009

‘Claudette Colvin’ – Phillip Hoose’s Finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature Honors a Teenager Who Wouldn’t Give Up Her Bus Seat

Note: Since I posted this, a visitor has pasted into comment #1 a good short video about this book that lets you hear Claudette Colvin and see some of the excellent archival photos in the book. You can watch it without leaving this site. Jan

CLAUDETTE COLVIN: Twice Toward Justice. By Phillip Hoose. FSG/Melanie Kroupa, 133 pp., $19.95. 10 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Claudette Colvin brings down from the attic of American history a life that deserves a place on its front porch. The judges for the National Book Awards will announce on Wednesday whether this 2009 finalist is, in their view, the year’s best book of young people’s literature. It is certainly one of the most inspiring.

Beginning in late 1955, tens of thousands of black residents of the Alabama capital refused to ride the city’s buses after the police arrested Rosa Parks for not giving up her seat to a white passenger. The Montgomery bus boycott lasted until the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s ruling in Browder v. Gayle that segregated buses were unconstitutional. The decision strengthened the civil-rights movement and the career of the young pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery who had encouraged the protesters to remain nonviolent, Martin Luther King Jr.

A plaintiff in Browder v. Gale was Claudette Colvin, an intelligent and strong-willed teenager from a family who lived in one of the poorest sections of the city. Nine months before Parks took her historic stand, Colvin was arrested and jailed after she refused to give up her seat to a white woman on a Montgomery bus. At the age of 15, Colvin had studied black history in school and idolized the abolitionist Harriet Tubman. So she did not go gently, as Parks did, when ordered her to yield her seat. As the police dragged her backwards off the bus, she screamed, “It’s my constitutional right!”

But while Parks became famous, Colvin remains little known. Phillip Hoose shows the injustice of that neglect in this fascinating story of her early years – much of it told in her words — that combines oral history and pictorial biography. Colvin’s memories of growing up in segregated Montgomery are at times almost heartbreaking in their understatement. “My mother had always said, ‘If you can even talk to a white person without lowering your eyes you’re really doing something,’” Colvin recalls. And such comments are enriched by well-chosen black-and-white archival photos, including a copy of a Jim Crow–era sign that says: “NO DOGS NEGROS [SIC] MEXICANS.”

Claudette Colvin leaves unanswered many questions about Colvin’s later life, apparently because some events were too painful for her to discuss. But anyone would prefer to have this fine story of her life than none at all.

“The wonderful thing which you have just done makes me feel like a craven coward,” a man in Sacramento wrote to Colvin after hearing that police had arrested for her staying in a bus seat she had paid for. “How encouraging it would be more adults had your courage, self respect and integrity.” Indeed, it would.

Best line: One of many memorable details of life under Jim Crow laws, in Colvin’s words: “We could shop in white stores – they’d take our money all right – but they wouldn’t let us try anything on … When [my sister] and I needed shoes, my mom would trace the shape of our feet on a brown paper bag and we’d carry the outline to the store because we weren’t allowed to try the shoes on.”

Worst line: None.

Read an excerpt from Claudette Colvin.

Furthermore: Claudette Colvin is a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature. the winner will be announced on Nov. 18, and the prize sponsor has posted more on the book on its Web site.

About the author: Hoose‘s other books include Perfect, Once Removed, a memoir of the summer when his cousin Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in the World Series.

You can also follow janiceharayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, which may have other comments on the National Book Award finalists.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 31, 2009

Deborah Heiligman’s ‘Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith’ — A Finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

Deborah Heiligman’s captivating dual biography of the Darwins, Charles and Emma (Holt, 268 pp., $18.95), is one of the best young-adult books I’ve read since launching this site. This finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature lacks the problems of last year’s winner, What I Saw and How I Lied, among them a clash between its third-grade reading level and its sophisticated content. Good as it is, Charles and Emma isn’t a shoo-in: It’s up against books that include Phillip Hoose’s Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 144 pp., $19.95), the true story of a 15-year-old whose refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger helped to integrate the buses in Montgomery, Alabama.  I haven’t been able to put my hands on a copy, but I admired Hoose’s Perfect, Once Removed (Walker, 2007), a memoir of the October when his cousin Don Larsen pitched a perfect World Series game, and I hope to say more about both National Book Award finalists soon.

October 14, 2009

David Small’s Graphic Memoir of Throat Cancer, ‘Stitches,’ Makes Shortlist for National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

David Small has made the shortlist for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature for Stitches (Norton, 336 pp., $24.95), his graphic memoir of getting throat cancer after receiving high doses of radiation for a sinus condition while growing up in Detroit in the baby-boom era. The sponsor of the awards doesn’t give a separate prize for graphic novels or memoirs but considers them along with other submissions in the relevant category, so you could easily miss that this one has a different format from other books on the shortlist. Small talks about Stitches in a YouTube trailer that shows a generous number of pages from the book. He won the American Library Association’s 2001 Caldecott Medal for So You Want to Be President?, and his work has appeared in The New Yorker and other publications.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

July 21, 2009

How to Get Teenagers Into Libraries – Late Night With Jan Harayda

Filed under: Late Night With Jan Harayda,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:25 pm
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One way to get teenagers into libraries: Have a party and invite the kids to come as their favorite character in the bestselling “Twilight” series of vampire romance novels. You might show the movie “Twilight” and play trivia games, as the Fairhope Public Library in Fairhope, Alabama, did.

July 15, 2009

Telling Kids ‘You’re Special’ Fosters Narcissism, Not Self-Esteem, Prof Says

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:02 am
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You know all those parenting manuals that say that you can build children’s self-esteem by piling on praise like, “You’re special”? And how a lot of schools apply the advice by assigning essays on topics like, “I’m special because …” If U.S. News & World Report is right, some people might want to ask for refunds from the boards of education that have used tax dollars to pay for such projects. Telling kids “You’re special” fosters narcissism, not self esteem, Jean Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State and the author of Generation Me (Free Press, 2007), says in the magazine. U.S. News also says that you’re squandering your praise if you keeping telling the kids, “Good job!” If the magazine is right on that one, many parents deserve additional refunds from the publishers of the waves of books on child-rearing that have been promoting that phrase for years.

June 18, 2009

Nicotine Patches Encourage Teenagers to Smoke – Late Night With Jan Harayda

Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World (Random House, 272 pp., $15, paperback) came out in paperback recently, and if the Food and Drug Administration gains power to regulate tobacco products as seems likely, regulators might learn from it.  William Grimes wrote in a New York Times review of the book:

“Nicotine patches and nicotine gum, intended to wean smokers from their dangerous habit, actually seem to encourage teenagers to take the first puff, for reasons that any economist might have predicted. Since there are now products to help smokers quit, it becomes less risky, as a purely rational proposition, to pick up the habit.”

Steven E. Landsburg makes a related point his entertainingly contrarian The Armchair Economist (Free Press, 1995), a book that with a catchier title might have become the Freakonomics of its day. In a chapter semi-facetiously called “How Seat Belts Kill,” Landsburg describes what happened in the 1960s when federal legislation for the first time required Americans to wear seat belts:

“The number of auto accidents increased. The reason is that the threat of being killed in an accident is a powerful incentive to drive carefully. But a driver with a seat belt and a padded dashboard faces less of a threat. Because people respond to incentives, drivers are less careful. The result is more accidents.”

Landsburg goes on:

“An interesting question remains. How big is the effect in question? How many additional accidents were caused by the safety regulations of the 1960s: The regulations tend to reduce the number of driver deaths by making it easier to survive an accident. At the same time, the regulations tend to increase the number of driver deaths by encouraging reckless behavior. Which effect is greater?”

In the mid-1970s, University of Chicago researcher Sam Peltzman studied the question and found that two effects were of about the same size and cancelled each other out, Landsburg says:

“There were more accidents and fewer diver deaths per accident, but the total number of deaths remained essentially unchanged. An interesting side effect appear to have been an increase in the number of pedestrian deaths; pedestrians, after all, gain no benefit from padded dashboards.”

“Late Night With Jan Harayda” is an occasional series of posts about books that appear after 10 a.m. Eastern time that may include commentary but do not include reviews, which typically appear earlier in the day.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

May 10, 2009

Rick Riordan’s ‘The Last Olympian,’ the New Book in His Percy Jackson Series

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:36 am
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Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series has well-entrenched spot in the pantheon of books worshipped by boys (typically, by strong readers over the age of 8 or 9 and by others over 10). In a sense, it’s life following art: The novels involve a modern 12-year-old who learns that he is the son of a Greek god. And in my suburb, the series (which I haven’t read) may have gotten entire soccer leagues excited about Greek mythology. Meghan Cox Gurdon reviews the latest installment, The Last Olympian (Hyperion, 381 pp., $17.99) in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, and a teacher gives his view of Riordan in a post I wrote in February.

April 25, 2009

Rich Wallace’s Tale of Young Chess Players, ‘Perpetual Check’

Teenage brothers face off in a novel about a chess tournament

Perpetual Check. By Rich Wallace. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 128 pp., $15.99. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

Perpetual Check has a warning for parents who overpraise their children’s modest talents, hoping to enhance self-esteem. The caution comes from Zeke Mansfield, a high school senior who is a good athlete but less than the star his father imagines. Zeke realizes at a chess tournament:

“Having his father telling him what a star he is for all those years hasn’t been a plus after all. Somehow it made him decide that an extra hour of working on his ball control was plenty, no need to make it two; that 50 sit-ups after practice were just as good as a hundred; that sometimes it wasn’t worth running hills in the pouring rain. He was great; he was unbelievable. His natural talent would carry him as far as he wanted to go. It was heady stuff at 12 or 13 or 15.”

That “heady stuff” gets tested at the Northeast Regional of the Pennsylvania High School Chess Championship, held during a snow-encrusted weekend at a hotel in Scranton. Zeke and his pudgy younger brother, Randy, a freshman, have both qualified for the event. Randy can beat his brother nine times out of ten and outranks him in other ways: He’s better student, has a girlfriend, and can guess the colors of M&Ms in his mouth with his eyes closed.

So when the two brothers meet in the semifinals, there’s a showdown, complicated by the presence of their father. Mr. Mansfield is a hypocritical, overcontrolling, sexist who tries live out his failed dreams through Zeke. His boorishness has fueled the natural rivalry between his sons, a reality that emerges in chapters told from the brothers’ alternating points of view.

Will one son outperform the other in the tournament? Or might both embarrass their father by losing to – oh, the horror! – a girl? Wallace controls the suspense well in a lightweight, fast-paced book that portrays Zeke and Randy with more subtlety than their father, who is a caricature. By the time the tournament ends, the brothers have had insights into more than chess strategy: They understand better the role their father has played in their relationship and in their parents’ shaky marriage. Zeke reflects early in Perpetual Check that “he never had a chance to be the big brother in the equation” with his sibling, because Randy had so many strengths. The equation may not be solved by the last page, but the boys have the formula.

Best line: “Randy knows that Zeke will often make a seemingly careless move early in the game. The strategy is to leave the opponent with ‘He must know something I don’t’ bewilderment.”

Worst line: “Dina giggles again.” Wallace casts Mr. Mansfield as a sexist, without using the word, but isn’t it sexist to have only female characters giggling, as in this book? Perpetual Check also has many lines such as, “He’s a dick,” “This guy I’m playing against is a prick,” and “No way you’re sitting on your fat ass for another summer.”

Published: February 2009

Ages: The publisher recommends this book for ages 12 and up, a label that appears based largely on its use of words such as “dick” and “ass.” This seems prudish and misguided given that many children start hearing these words in preschool.  Apart from the “bad words,” this short novel — a novella, really — would better suit ages 9-12 and strong readers as young as 8.

Read an excerpt form Perpetual Check.

About the author: Rich Wallace also wrote Wrestling Sturbridge and Playing Without the Ball.

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear on Saturdays on One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

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