One-Minute Book Reviews

January 26, 2012

Is American Library Association Ghetto-izing Black Authors?

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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

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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 10, 2011

2011 Caldecott Goes to ‘A Sick Day for Amos McGee,’ Newbery to ‘Moon Over Manifest’ — Full List of ALA Winners

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A Sick Day for Amos McGee (Roaring Brook, 2010) has won the 2011 Caldecott Medal for the year’s most distinguished picture book. Erin Stead illustrated and Philip Stead wrote the book, which the New York Times Book Review called “gently absurd comedy.” Clare Vanderpool’s Moon Over Manifest (Delacorte, 2010) has won the Newbery Medal for the most distinguished work of literature for children. The American Library also named other winners today.

January 30, 2010

A Review of the 2010 Newbery Medal Winner, ‘When You Reach Me’: Enjoyable? Yes. The Year’s ‘Most Distinguished’? Maybe Not.

A 12-year-old girl tries to figure out who’s sending her mysterious notes in a novel that pays homage to Madeleine L’Engle

When You Reach Me. By Rebecca Stead, 197 pp., Wendy Lamb/Random House, $15.99. Ages 9–12.

By Janice Harayda

When You Reach Me won the American Library Association’s latest John Newbery Medal, and it’s certainly an enjoyable and well-written book. But is it the year’s “most distinguished contribution” to children’s literature?

Maybe it depends on how you define “distinguished.” By my lights, the ALA citation implies: “a book that will seem as great decades from now.” And I’m not convinced that When You Reach Me passes that test, or that Rebecca Stead will hold her own against Newbery winners like Russell Freedman (Lincoln: A Photobiography) and Katherine Paterson (Bridge to Terabithia, Jacob I Have Loved).

Stead tells a cleverly plotted story about a bright 12-year-old named Miranda, who tries to decipher a series of mysterious and slightly ominous notes from an unknown sender in 1978–1979. The sender — whose knowledge of events seems to transcend the laws of time and space — may or may not live near the apartment Miranda shares with her mother on the Upper West Side of New York.

Miranda’s favorite book is Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, a novel about time-traveling children. And like that 1963 Newbery winner, When You Reach Me raises the question: Is time travel possible? Stead handles the issue well, offering enough science to keep her story plausible without turning it into a treatise.

But When You Reach Me deals with less complex questions than – and appears derivative in comparison to – L’Engle’s modern classic. Like most suspense novels, this one gets much of its appeal from its quick pace and ability to keep you guessing, not from its depth of characterization. Miranda’s mother has a boyfriend, “who is German but not strict or awful,” and whose German-ness resides mainly in his Aryan looks: You never understand why Stead made him German instead of another nationality.

Far more complex characterizations appear in Deborah Heiligman’s 2009 National Book Award finalist, Charles and Emma, which won a nonfiction award from the ALA. And Phillip Hoose tells a more powerful story in his Newbery Honor Book, the biography Claudette Colvin. Those books seem more likely to be important decades from now. If I had to assign grades, I’d give Charles and Emma and Claudette Colvin each an A or A-minus and When You Reach Me a B.

So why did the novel win the Newbery? Hard to say. It can’t have hurt that Stead’s novel subtly flatters the ALA by ratifying its choice for 1963 Newbery, or that its allusions to A Wrinkle in Time are a bonanza for teachers who love to assign compare-and-contrast exercises. Nor can it have hurt that, like the 1991 winner, Maniac Magee, the latest testifies to the joy of reading. When You Reach Me was also popular — a bestseller on Amazon — before it won, so it was a safe choice. And I’ve read few of the fiction candidates for the 2010 Newbery: If the judges wanted to honor a novel, though they didn’t have to, Stead’s may have been the best. So When You Reach Me gets a qualified endorsement: Amble to your library or bookstore for it if you’re inclined, and save your sprint for National Book Award winner Claudette Colvin.

Best line: Miranda has proprietary feelings about A Wrinkle in Time: “The truth is that I hate to think about other people reading my book.”

Worst line: “At the meetings, during which Mr. Nunzi has usually burned a new hole in our couch with his cigarette …” Doesn’t ring true. Most sofas sold in the U.S. contain polyurethane foam stuffing, which is highly flammable, and one cigarette burn can send them up in flames.

Art notes: The cover of this book does not serve it well. It shows greenish-gray grid that looks like a patchwork of lawns and suggests that the action takes place in a northern New Jersey suburb that faces New York skyline when, in fact, it’s set in Manhattan. And the book as a whole begged for illustrations.

Published: July 2009

Furthermore: Two reviews of When You Reach Me by librarians: Amanda Pape’s on her blog Bookin’ It and Elizabeth Bird’s on the School Library Journal blog.

Janice Harayda is a novelist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and the book columnist for Glamour. You can also follow her on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. She satirizes American literary culture and the publishing industry at www.twitter.com/fakebooknews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 23, 2010

A Second Look at a Controversial Newbery Medal Winner, Susan Patron’s ‘The Higher Power of Lucky’

Note: I’m reading the 2010 Newbery medalist, When You Reach Me, and will review it soon. This is a repost of a review of the controversial 2007 winner.

The Higher Power of Lucky: A Novel. By Susan Patron. Illustrated by Matt Phelan. Atheneum: A Richard Jackson Book, 135 pp., $16.95. Age range: 9-11. [See further comments about these ages at the end of the review.]

By Janice Harayda

Who would have thought that the American Library Association would give its most prestigious award for children’s literature to a novel that uses the word “scrotum” on the first page? Not those of us who have observed its choices for years and have found that they tend to suffer from an excess of caution, often rewarding deserving books only after children have embraced them.

So it was, in a sense, startling that the ALA gave the 2007 Newbery Medal to Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky, which tells the story of a 10-year-old orphan named Lucky Trimble who hears what an Amazon reviewer has called “the s word” while eavesdropping on a 12-step meeting through a hole in the wall. Patron writes on the first page:

“Sammy told of the day when he had drunk half a gallon of rum listening to Johnny Cash all morning in his parked ’62 Cadillac, then fallen out of the car when he saw a rattlesnake on the passenger seat biting his dog, Roy, on the scrotum.”

This is hardly shocking language when many 3-year-olds know the words “penis” and “vagina” and psychologists routinely urge parents to introduce the medically correct terms for genitalia as soon as their children can understand them. You would think that librarians would rejoice in the arrival of a book that supports this view instead of rolling out words you are more likely to hear from children, such as “dickhead” and “butt-head” and, of course, the deathless “poopy-head.”

But some people have reacted to The Higher Power of Lucky though Patron had issued a manifesto in favor of kiddie porn. At least a few libraries have banned the novel, the New York Times reported yesterday. And a librarian in Durango, Colorado, accused Patron of using “a Howard Stern-type shock treatment” to attract attention.

All of this distracts from the more important question: How good is this book?

Answer: Not bad. I’d give it a B or B-minus, though it was far from the best work of children’s literature published last year. I haven’t read all the candidates for 2007 Newbery, including the Honor Books. But among those I have read, Patron’s novel has less literary merit than Kate DiCamillos’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane or Laura Amy Schlitz’s A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, both rumored on library listservs and elsewhere to have been contenders for the award.

But The Higher Power of Lucky does have virtues, some of which are more therapeutic than literary. Patron describes the principles of 12-step programs not just for alcoholics but for “gamblers, smokers, and overeaters.” This may help many children who have relatives in such programs and don’t understand them. And Lucky is an intrepid and often amusing heroine who defies a few female stereotypes. She loves science, has close male friends, and lives in a trailer in the Mojave Desert, which has a dramatic landscape that Patron describes vibrantly. No one could accuse this novel of fostering the rampant materialism you see in so many children’s books. The Higher Power of Lucky also has evocative black-and-white illustrations by Matt Phelan that add so much to the book that you wonder if it would have had a shot at the Newbery without them. Perhaps above all, the novel has a worthy theme: What constitutes a “family”?

So what’s not to like about the book? The writing — vivid as it can be — is at times careless or clunky. Patron confuses “lay” and “lie” in a line of dialogue on page 4, and while you could argue that this misuse is in character for the speaker, she makes similar lapses in expository passages. She tells us that a character had “a very unique way of cooking.” She does not appear to have mastered the use of the semicolon and overuses it, including in conversation, in a book for children who may themselves be struggling to figure out its purpose. She also italicizes so many words — a sign of weak writing — that her book reads at times like a children’s version of the old Cosmopolitan edited by Helen Gurley Brown.

Most of all, some aspects of the plot and Lucky’s character are thin and underdeveloped. Toward the end of the book, Lucky behaves recklessly and is also dangerously mean to a friend. And while such events might have made less difference earlier in the book, they come so late that Patron has left herself too little time to persuade us that her heroine has learned from them. Other late events are insufficiently foreshadowed to make them believable. And that brings us back to that incendiary “scrotum.”

Lucky finally does learn the meaning of the word. But it turns out to have so little relation to the rest of the plot that its use in the beginning looks gratuitous. The metaphorical gun on the wall in the first act turns out to be firing blanks. The Higher Power of Lucky is not about its heroine’s sexual development or anything else that might have justified the use of the word. Patron could have reworked the offending passage with no loss to the book. In that sense, she may have made a mistake. But libraries would be making an even more serious one if they ban a book that has much to offer children.

Best line: This book has many good descriptions of the landscape of the Mojave, such as this image of a dust storm: “Tiny twisters of sand rose up from the ground, as if miniature people were throwing handfuls in the air.”

Worst line: Clearly many people think it’s the one about the scrotum. For variety I’ll go with the ungrammatical first line of the third chapter, which includes a dangling modifier: “Out of the millions of people in America who might become Lucky’s mother if Brigitte went home to France, Lucky wondered about some way to trap and catch exactly the right one.”

Age range: The publisher recommends this book for ages 9-to-11. But The Higher Power of Lucky has a much less complex plot and smaller cast than many novels beloved by children in that age group, such as the Harry Potter novels. And its heroine is a 10-and-a-half-year-old fifth-grader, and children tend to read “up,” or prefer stories about characters who are older than they are. So this book may have much more appeal for children below its age range, including 7- and 8-year-olds, than 11-year-olds. This fact may explain much of the controversy about the book. Many librarians and teachers who would have no trouble with the word “scrotum” in a book for fifth-graders may be upset because they know that this one will end up in the hands of many second- and third-graders.

Furthermore: A reading group guide to The Higher Power of Lucky is saved in the “Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guides” category. One-Minute Book Reviews also posted an analysis of why the novel might have won the Newbery.

Published: November 2006

Furthermore: Patron’s name is pronounced “pa-TRONE.”

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter, where she comments on books at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda and satirizes American literary culture at www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews.

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent literary blog created by Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist and who has been book editor of  the Plain Dealer and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle.

(c) 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 31, 2009

2010 Newbery and Caldecott Medal Winners to Be Announced at 7:45 a.m. EST on Jan. 18 – American Library Association to Give Results on Live Webcast and on Twitter

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The American Library Association will announce the winners of the 2010 Caldecott and Newbery medals for children’s books on Monday, January 18, at 7:45 a.m. EST, during its Youth Media Awards ceremony in Boston. The ALA will offer a live Webcast of the event at http://alawebcast.unikron.com with limited connections available on a first-come first served basis. The organization plans also to tweet the results on Twitter at twitter.com/ALAyma and post the winners’ names at www.ala.org/yma by 9:30 a.m. EST on its Web site.

February 13, 2009

Kathi Appelt’s Violent and Controversial 2009 Newbery and National Book Award Finalist, ‘The Underneath’

Cruelty to animals and people abounds in an acclaimed children’s novel set in an East Texas pine forest

The Underneath. By Kathi Appelt. Drawings by David Small. Atheneum, 311 pp., $19.99. Ages 8 and up.

By Janice Harayda

What were the Newbery and National Book Awards judges thinking when they named this novel a finalist for their prizes? That kids don’t see enough repulsive characters in other media and needed a book about two more? Or that they have to get their New Age twaddle early so that they’ll recognize it when they see it in The Secret?

The Underneath tells the linked stories of two hate-filled characters: a cruel gun-toting hermit and a poisonous shape-shifting serpent, who live deep in an East Texas pine forest. The hermit, known as Gar Face, avenges his abused childhood by shooting animals, getting drunk, and plotting to kill a giant alligator in a nearby bayou. He brutally mistreats his only companion, a lame bloodhound named Ranger. The serpent seethes over the loss of her daughter, who ran off with a shape-shifting hawk who changed into a handsome man. She, too, has one companion — the giant alligator that Gar Face wants to kill, “and he was not the snuggly type.” That is the closest you will find to wit in this novel.

Like the snake, Gar Face has an Ahab–like fixation on vengeance, complicated by the arrival of an abandoned calico cat, who soon has kittens. Ranger protects the cats and warns them to stay in “the Underneath” – a crawl space under the hermit’s shack — or face Gar Face’s fury. Unfortunately, kittens are hard to manage: “There is also that whole thing about curiosity.” This line is bad news for anyone who expects Newbery finalists to avoid clichéd themes like, “Curiosity killed the cat.”

The Underneath is so drenched in sorrow that while it might pain some children at any time, you wonder how it will affect those who are suffering greatly because of the recession. The scant redemption comes in the last few pages and at the cost of more violence. One hate-filled main character remains unrepentant and meets a grisly death. The other gives up on revenge and acts kindly, if belatedly. The message is: When you feel bitter, you can keep on hating or you can choose to love. A worthy idea, certainly. But the final act of kindness is so unexpected — and so little foreshadowed – that it’s as though Ahab had decided at the end of Moby-Dick to join a “Save the Whales” campaign.

In a sense, all the cruelty is beside the point: There’s plenty of cruelty to children in the novels of Charles Dickens, and they’re still worthy of readers, young and old. The problem with The Underneath is in part a lack of balance. Good children’s books may have cruel adults, but those characters tend not to predominate as in this novel: Villains share center stage with better people. The absence of good people in major roles invests The Underneath — perhaps inadvertently — with a deeply cynical view of human nature.

What, then, could the Newbery and National Book Awards judges have liked about this controversial book, apart from its love-is-good message? Above all, a rich sense of place. The Underneath reflects a strong appreciation for the landscape of the Texas-Louisiana border — the birds and fish, the trees and plants, the marshes and bayous. A sense of landscape isn’t enough to sustain a novel. But it’s not nothing when so many children’s books offer bland descriptions of classrooms and soccer fields (and, interestingly, it’s something The Underneath shares with the 2007 Newbery winner, The Higher Power of Lucky, which vividly evokes the Mojave).

Kathi Appelt also writes clearly, although her book has some inane lines like: “The pain she felt was palpable.” She weaves her several storylines together smoothly, if often repetitively, and maintains a fair amount of suspense given that two of her characters at times do little more than sit around plotting revenge.

But one aspect of The Underneath that may have appealed to judges isn’t a virtue: It touches many ideologically fashionable bases. These include the idea that animals (and, in this book, other forms of nonhuman life) are morally superior to people.

After Gar Face commits a heinous act, the book asks: “What do you call a person like that? The trees have a word: evil.” No, humans have a word, but you wouldn’t know it from this story. Later we get more on the wisdom of trees, written in pretentious tones like this:

“For trees, who see so much sorrow, so much anger, so much desperation, know love for the rare wonder of it, so they are champions of it and will do whatever the can to help it along its way.”

This is sentimental New Age goop, pitched to an age in which environmentalism often becomes substitute religion. The Underneath acknowledges that the hermit is evil. But it’s trees — not wise people — who see that he is. The best children’s books may have virtuous animals or trees, but they also have admirable humans. Charlotte’s Web has Wilbur and Fern (and part of E. B. White’s genius is that his novel has a girl named Fern, not a talking fern). In The Underneath the only good humans are part-animal shape-shifters who are not main but supporting characters. Even they die terrible deaths. Instead of hope, this bleak book offers children a variation on the cynical political axiom: If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.

Best line: “This Piney Woods forest in far East Texas is wet and steamy. Take a step and your footprint will fill with water.”

Worst line: “Humans are designed to be with other humans, even those with mixed blood.” That “mixed blood” refers to shape-shifters, creatures half-human and half-bird or -reptile. But the phrase comes across as an unintentional racial slur. Among David Small’s illustrations (which strike me as just OK): Appelt says Hawk Man has “coppery feathers in his long black hair,” but in a picture he appears to have a shaved head.

Recommendation? The Underneath has the most misleading dust-jacket copy I’ve seen on a children’s novel this year, which begins: “A calico cat, about to have kittens, hears the lonely howl of a chained-up hound deep in the backwaters of the bayou. She dares to find him in the forest, and the hound dares to befriend this cat, this feline, this creature he is supposed to hate.” Strictly speaking, that is accurate. But it gives a poor sense of what you will find in this book, which is not a sweet story about a cat and dog. Librarian Elizabeth Bird got it right when she warned that if you know children who can’t read Charlotte’s Web because they find Charlotte’s death too disturbing, “boy oh boy is this NOT the book for them.”

Read an excerpt.

Editor: Caitlyn Dlouhy

Published: May 2008

Furthermore: The Underneath was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for young people’s literature. It won a 2009 Newbery Honor Book citation from the American Library Association. The Underneath is the first novel by Appelt, who has also written picture books for children.

Note: I haven’t read the 2009 Newbery winner, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, so I can’t compare it to The Underneath. If you’ve read both novels, can you suggest what it has that Appelt’s book doesn’t? Or recommend a recent Honor Book that might have more to offer 8-to-12-year-olds? Thanks. Jan

One-Minute Book Reviews is the home of the annual Delete Key awards for the year’s worst writing in books for adults or children. The 2009 finalists will be announced on Feb. 26 and the winners on March 15. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing these posts.

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

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

January 28, 2009

2009 Caldecott Honor Book ‘A River of Words’ Introduces the Poet William Carlos Williams, Whose First Book Sold Four Copies

William Carlos Williams broke with the traditions of Longfellow and others.

A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams. By Jen Bryant. Illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 32 pp., $17. Ages 7 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Melissa Sweet says in a note at the end of this book that her “Brownie troupe” once visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That gaffe is, alas, all too typical of this runner-up for the title of “the most distinguished American picture book for children.”

Jen Bryant has written a lively but unexceptional introduction to the life of William Carlos Williams (1883—1963), who combined practicing medicine in a New Jersey suburb with writing experimental verse that broke with the classical traditions of 19th-century lions like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. A River of Words is the rare book for its age group that shows a man — not a woman — balancing multiple roles.

Williams’s best-known book of poetry, the multivolume Paterson, is often called collage of that city. And Sweet tries hard to apply the artistic counterpart of that technique. Working with mixed media, she combines watercolors and items from Williams’s world: a map, a report card, sheet music, pages from an anatomy book, the stationery from his medical office.

The poet Sara London wrote diplomatically in the New York Times Book Review that Sweet’s pictures are “playfully distracting – the eye hops sparrowlike from leaf to leaf, uncertain where to settle.” At times the images are so frenetic, they’re confusing. On one spread, the left-hand page shows Williams sitting at his desk writing poetry as a boy. The right-hand page shows in childlike handwriting the first lines of his poem “Pastoral”: “The little sparrows / hop ingenuously / about the pavement / quarreling.” The juxtaposition suggests that Williams wrote the poem as a child when, in fact, he wrote it in early adulthood.

Some people have criticized the American Library Association for not honoring enough poetry, and they have a point. The ALA has snubbed prize-worthy books like Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant, which combines wonderful pictures by Carin Berger with some of the best recent work by Jack Prelutsky, the popular children’s poet.

But giving a 2009 Honor Book citation to A River of Words was doing the right thing — showing respect for poetry — for the wrong reason. A River of Words deserves a place in many libraries and bookstores for its spirited and in some ways successful portrait of what it takes to succeed as a poet. That is different from deserving a place on the medal stand.

Best line/picture: A chronology of Williams’s life at the end of the book includes this event for 1909: “His first verse collection Poems is printed and published by a friend. It sells only four copies.” The line is incorrectly punctuated – Poems should be set off by commas – but it offers a healthy jolt of shock therapy to would-be poets.

Worst line/picture: From the illustrator’s note at the end: “Living in northern New Jersey (not too far from where Williams grew up in Rutherford), my Brownie troupe took a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.”

Furthermore: A River of Words won a 2009 Caldecott Honor citation. The book has the full text of Williams’s most famous poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow”, and five others: “The Woodthrush,” “The Great Figure,” “Metric Figure,” “This Is Just to Say”, and “Pastoral.” It has excerpts from “Complaint,” “The Descent of Winter” and “Part X, Pictures from Brueghel.” All of the poems appear on the endpapers.

About the authors: Jen Bryant lives in Glenmoore, Pennsylvania. Melissa Sweet lives in Rockport, Maine.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

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

January 27, 2009

2009 Caldecott Medal Honors an Attractive But Derivative Book — ALA Judges Play It Safe by Choosing the Poetry of ‘The House in the Night’

Beth Krommes used scratchboard and watercolor for 'The House in the Night.'

The House in the Night. By Susan Marie Swanson. Illustrated by Beth Krommes. Houghton Mifflin, 40 pp., $17. Ages 2–5.

By Janice Harayda

This lovely and thoroughly inoffensive 2009 Caldecott award–winner should hearten anybody who sees the American Library Association as a hotbed of Communists who keep trying to sneak into kids’ hands books on dangerous topics like sex education and environmentalism. The House in the Night is pretty as can be but shows the ALA in full retreat from the days when it gave medals to trailblazing books like The Little House, Where the Wild Things Are and Jumanji.

There’s no doubt that as the financial maelstrom rages, many people will welcome this gentle story about the comforts of home in the darkness. As night falls, a young girl receives a key to a tidy house that has glowing lamp. She enters and finds on a bed a book about a dove-like bird that carries her on its wings toward the moon and back to a home “full of light.”

None of the action in this tale has a catalyst that is remotely upsetting or disturbing, such as Max’s getting sent to bed without his supper in Where the Wild Things Are. Susan Marie Swanson found the inspiration for this cumulative story in one of the nursery rhymes collected by the estimable Iona and Peter Opie (“This is the key of the kingdom: / In that kingdom is a city”). And although nursery rhymes can be sadistic, this book minds its manners. Swanson tells her story in short-lined poetry so low keyed, most critics seem to have missed it despite lines like “the house in the night / a home full of light.”

Beth Krommes’s illustrations have a minimalist color palette unusually sophisticated for a picture book. Krommes uses just three colors – black, white and yellow – and watercolor and scratchboard techniques that give the art the look of wood engravings. She also reduces her images to essentials: a cat, a doll, a brush, teddy bears, sweaters in a bedroom drawer. Her “house in the night” is a cottage — the roof appears thatched — that could have come from a benevolent fairy tale. Even the sun has a smiling face with long eyelashes. The girl soars on her bird’s wings over a pastoral landscape that, the cars suggest, belongs to the 1940s.

All of these scenes have a cozy familiarity – too much of it for a Caldecott winner. Everything in this derivative book reminds you of something else. That brush in the bedroom? Goodnight Moon. That color palette? Wanda Gág’s Millions of Cats. The structure of the story? “This Is the House That Jack Built.”

The borrowed elements in The House in the Night generally work well together and add up to a good book. But you expect more than good from the winner of the Caldecott Medal, awarded to “the most distinguished American picture book for children.” You expect greatness, or at least a higher level of originality – the boldness of winners like Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House, which dealt with suburban sprawl decades before it became fashionable, or David Macaulay’s Black and White, which wove together multiple plots in way new to picture books.

The House in the Night leaves you wondering if the Caldecott judges wanted to find the best book, or just to administer a dose of bibliotherapy to a nation that needs it. You also wonder if the committee overreacted to recent criticisms that the ALA awards don’t honor enough poetry by honoring a book some may not recognize as poetry at all. And why are the organization’s judges such suckers for books about reading? This pattern goes back at least to the 1991 Newbery for Maniac Magee. But books about the power of reading aren’t inherently worthier of awards than those about plumbing or red-tailed hawks: Everything depends on the execution.

Certainly the Caldecott committee snubbed books as award-worthy as this one, including Pale Male and The Little Yellow Leaf. For all its virtues, The House in the Night has nothing so unusual about it that schools and libraries need to have it, the way they do need have the 2008 winner, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which has strong and unique merits. Oddly enough, if the Caldecott judges wanted to help a nation in financial turmoil, they did it, but not in the intended way: They selected a book that no one needs to rush out to buy.

Best line/picture: “the house in the night / a home full of light.”

Worst line/picture: This book depicts cars more than a half century old but a lamp that looks inspired by the latest Pottery Barn catalog.

Published: May 2008

About the authors: Swanson is an award-winning poet in St. Paul, Minnesota. Krommes is an illustrator in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

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 an award-winning journalist and former vice-president for Awards of the National Book Critics Circle.

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

January 26, 2009

Complete List of 2009 Newbery, Caldecott, Printz, Sibert, Alex and Other American Library Association Award-Winners and Honor Books

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Neil Gaiman has won the 2009 Newbery Medal for The Graveyard Book, illustrated by Dave McKean, for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” The House in the Night, written by Susan Marie Swanson and illustrated by Beth Krommes, has won the 2009 Caldecott Medal for “the most distinguished American picture book for children.” The American Library Association announced the awards today in Denver.

The others who won medals or Honor Book citations are:

Newbery Honor Books:

The Underneath, by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by David Small

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom, by Margarita Engle

Savvy, by Ingrid Law

After Tupac & D Foster, by Jacqueline Woodson

Caldecott Honor Books:
A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever, written and illustrated by Marla Frazee

How I Learned Geography, written and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz

A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams, illustrated by Melissa Sweet, written by Jen Bryant

Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in literature written for young adults:

Melina Marchetta, author of Jellicoe Road

Printz Honor Books:

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II, The Kingdom on the Waves, by M.T. Anderson

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart

Nation, by Terry Pratchett

Tender Morsels, by Margo Lanagan

Coretta Scott King Book Award to an African-American author and illustrator of outstanding books for children and young adults:

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, written and illustrated by Kadir Nelson

The Blacker the Berry, illustrated by Floyd Cooper, written by Joyce Carol Thomas, is the King Illustrator Book winner.

King Author Honor Books:

The Blacker the Berry, by Joyce Carol Thomas, illustrated by Floyd Cooper

Keeping the Night Watch, by Hope Anita Smith, illustrated by E.B. Lewis

Becoming Billie Holiday, by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Floyd Cooper

King Illustrator Honor Books:

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, by Kadir Nelson

Before John Was a Jazz Giant, by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Sean Qualls

The Moon Over Star, by Dianna Hutts Aston, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Author Award.

Shadra Strickland, illustrator of Bird, written by Zetta Elliott, is the Steptoe winner.

Schneider Family Book Award for books that embody the artistic expression of the disability experience for young readers:

Piano Starts Here: The Young Art Tatum, written and illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker

Leslie Connor won the middle-school award for Waiting for Normal.

Jonathan Friesen won the teen award for Jerk, California

Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for the most distinguished book for beginning readers:

Are You Ready to Play Outside?, written and illustrated by Mo Willems

Geisel Honor Books:

Chicken said, ‘Cluck!,” by Judyann Ackerman Grant, illustrated by Sue Truesdell

One Boy, written and illustrated by Laura Vaccaro Seeger

Stinky, written and illustrated by Eleanor Davis

Wolfsnail: A Backyard Predator, by Sarah C. Campbell, with photographs by Sarah C. Campbell and Richard P. Campbell

Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults:

Laurie Halse Anderson is the recipient of the 2009 Margaret A. Edwards Award honoring her outstanding lifetime contribution to writing for teens for Catalyst, Fever 1793, Speak,

Pura Belpre Awards to Latino authors and illustrators whose work best portrays, affirms and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in children’s books:

Just in Case, illustrated by Yuyi Morales, is the winner of the 2009 Belpre Illustrator Award.

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom, by Margarita Engle, is the winner of the 2009 Belpre Author Award.

Belpre Illustrator Honor Books:

Papa and Me, illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez, written by Arthur Dorros

The Storyteller’s Candle / La velita de los cuentos, illustrated by Lulu Delacre, written by Lucia Gonzalez

What Can You Do with a Rebozo?, illustrated by Amy Cordova, written by Carmen Tafolla

Belpre Author Honor Books:

Just in Case, written by Yuyi Morales

Reaching Out, written by Francisco Jimenez

The Storyteller’s Candle / La velita de los cuentos, written by Lucia Gonzalez

Robert F. Sibert Medal for most distinguished informational book for children:

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball,by author and illustrator Kadir Nelson

Sibert Honor Books:

Bodies from the Ice: Melting Glaciers and Rediscovery of The Past, by James M. Deem

What to Do About Alice?: How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World, and Drove Her Father Teddy Crazy!, written by Barbara Kerley, illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham

Andrew Carnegie Medal for excellence in children’s video:

Paul R. Gagne and Melissa Reilly of Weston Woods Studios, producers of March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World

Mildred L. Batchelder Award for the most outstanding children’s book originally published in a language other than English in a country other than the U.S. and translated into English for publication here:

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, originally published in Japanese, written by Nahoko Uehashi and translated by Cathy Hirano

Batchelder Honor Books:

Garmann’s Summer, originally published in Norwegian, written by Stian Hole, translated by Don Bartlett

Tiger Moon, originally published in German, written by Antonia Michaelis, translated by Anthea Bell

Odyssey Award for Excellence in Audiobook Production:

Recorded Books, producer of the audiobook The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, written and narrated by Sherman Alexie

Odyssey Honor Audiobooks:

Curse of the Blue Tattoo: Being an Account of the Misadventures of Jacky Faber, Midshipman and Fine Lady, written by L.A. Meyer, narrated by Katherine Kellgren

Elijah of Buxton, written by Christopher Paul Curtis, narrated by Mirron Willis

I’m Dirty!, written by Kate and Jim McMullan, narrated by Steve Buscemi

Martina the Beautiful Cockroach: A Cuban Folktale, written and narrated by Carmen Agra Deedy

Nation,written by Terry Pratchett, narrated by Stephen Briggs

Alex Awards for the 10 best adult books that appeal to teen audiences:

City of Thieves, by David Benioff

The Dragons of Babel, by Michael Swanwick

Finding Nouf, by Zoe Ferrari

The Good Thief, by Hannah Tinti

Just After Sunset: Stories, by Stephen King

Mudbound, by Hillary Jordan

Over and Under, by Todd Tucker

The Oxford Project, by Stephen G. Bloom, photographed by Peter Feldstein

Sharp Teeth, by Toby Barlow, published by Harper

Three Girls and Their Brother, by Theresa Rebeck

May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture “recognizing an individual who shall prepare a paper considered to be a significant contribution to the field of children’s literature, and then present the lecture at a winning host site”:

Kathleen T. Horning, director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC).

Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to an author or illustrator whose books are published in the United States and have made a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children:

Ashley Bryan, whose works include Dancing Granny, Beat the Story-Drum, Pum-Pum, and Beautiful Blackbird.

William C. Morris Award:

A Curse Dark as Gold, written by Elizabeth C. Bunce

More information on all of the awards appears on the American Library Association Web site.

© 2009 Janice Haraydal All rights reserved.

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