One-Minute Book Reviews

March 7, 2009

‘The Poky Little Puppy’ — ‘The All-Time Bestselling Children’s Hardcover Book in English’ Is Still Scampering Along in Its Original Golden Books Format

The latest in a series of occasional posts on classic picture books for young children

The Poky Little Puppy: A Little Golden Book Classic. By Janette Sebring Lowrey. Illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren. Random House/Golden Books, 24 pp., $2.99. Ages 5 and under.

By Janice Harayda

The Poky Little Puppy is the all-time bestselling children’s hardcover book in English, the trade journal Publishers Weekly reported in 2001. Whether that report is accurate is debatable — others have made a similar claim for The Tale of Peter Rabbit — but the longevity of the book is remarkable by any measure.

First published in 1942, The Poky Little Puppy was one of the original 12 Little Golden Books that sold for 25 cents. And like other Golden Books that remain in print, this one retains the distinctive design elements of the series: the nearly square format; the patterned golden spine; and the space on the inside front cover for children to write their names after the words: “This Little Golden Book belongs to …” The book also has paper so lightweight that an Amazon reader complained of its flimsiness but that, in fact, has important benefits: It makes the book easy for children to carry and helps to keep the cost to a remarkably low $2.99 in hardcover.

A puppy goes bed "without a single bite of shortcake" in a classic picture book.

If they remember nothing else about The Poky Little Puppy, countless baby boomers recall it as the story of a dawdling puppy who had to go to bed without strawberry shortcake. But this book is also about the joy of exploring the natural world and its bounty: “a fuzzy caterpillar,” “a quick green lizard,” and other creatures.

Five puppies dig a hole under a fence around their yard and set out to enjoy “the wide, wide world.” But a poky little brown-and-white puppy dawdles while his siblings race ahead. And for two days, this works to his advantage: His swifter siblings get home first and are punished for digging the hole under the fence by their mother, who sends them to bed without dessert, so he gets to eat their rice pudding and chocolate custard. On the third day, the poky little puppy pays for his dallying: His quicker siblings get home first again and after finding their mother upset about another hole they have dug under the fence, fill it in. She rewards them with strawberry shortcake, and they leave none for him.

The Poky Little Puppy might have trouble finding a publisher today. Some of its themes conflict with the orthodoxies of child-rearing of 21st century, when psychologists instruct adults not to label children “poky” or “shy” or to withhold food as punishment (or even to use the word “punishment” instead of “discipline”). But this book has endured in part because it is not bibliotherapy but a good story. The talking animals tell children right away that this is a fantasy, not a slice of life.

No doubt many parents have used The Poky Little Puppy to teach the consequences of dallying or ignoring boundaries. But the book works as a straight adventure story. Gustave Tenggren’s gentle pictures soften the blow of the loss of the shortcake. And the puppy radiates such sweetness that no one could think him intentionally wayward – which is just what many children want their parents to think when they miss the school bus.

Best line: The first line: “Five little puppies dug a hole under the fence and went for a walk in the wide, wide world.” And the next-to-last: “So the poky little puppy had to go to bed without a single bite of shortcake, and he felt very sorry for himself.” And it’s great that a child can claim the book emotionally by writing his or her name in the space provided on the inside cover. Many recent picture books are so pretty they discourage children from writing their names in them, and that’s part of the problem with them.

Worst line: None. But see the caution below.

Caveat lector: Avoid gussied-up editions of this book — such as the one Random House describes as “upscale” – that cost more than $2.99. Part of the appeal of the Golden Books has always lay in their small, predictable format.

Read 20 early Golden Books free online at the Antique Book Library.

Published: 1942 (first edition) and many subsequent reprints.

Other classic picture books reviewed on One-Minute Book Reviews include Horton Hatches the Egg, Millions of Cats, Madeline, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Where the Wild Things Are, The Backward Day, The Story of Ferdinand and Flat Stanley.

One-Minute Book Reviews will announce the winners of the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books for children or adults on Monday, March 16, 2009. A list of the finalists appeared on Feb. 27 and passages from books on the list on Feb. 26.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

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

February 9, 2009

The Little Parrot That Could – Irene M. Pepperberg’s ‘Alex & Me,’ The True Story of a Lovable Bird That Could ‘Say Better’ Than Others

A scholar’s 31-year-experiment in avian learning had spectacular results

Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence — and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process. By Irene M. Pepperberg. Collins, 232 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

Copycat titles like Alex & Me usually appear on weak imitations of the books that inspired them – in this case, the bestselling Marley and Me, John Grogan’s memoir of his wayward dog. Not Irene Pepperberg’s true story of her 31 years with an African Grey parrot that, on the evidence of this book, was the Einstein of the bird world.

Like Marley and Me, Alex & Me is an affectionate and entertaining portrait of a larger-than-life creature. But Pepperberg’s memoir is in some ways more interesting because it tells two stories at once.
The first tale involves the life and death of an extraordinary parrot who followed his owner to colleges from Tucson to Boston, where she did research on his ability to learn. Alex could recognize numbers from one to six and and do simple addition. He could identify objects by color, shape and material. He seems to have grasped concepts such as “smaller” and “larger” and the idea of object permanence (that a thing still exists when hidden from view), which children generally acquire during the first year of life.

Alex’s most endearing trait was that he learned to express his wishes in ways that were as forceful as they were colorful. He bombarded Pepperberg’s student assistants with requests: “Want corn … Want nut … Wanna go shoulder … Wanna go gym.” During lab tests, he corrected parrots who responded incorrectly (“You’re wrong”) or answered indistinctly (“Say better”). Yet he seemed to sense when he had gone too far, a realization he expressed by saying “I’m sorry.”

The second story Pepperberg tells – nearly as interesting – involves her efforts, beginning in the 1970s, to be taken seriously by her peers despite two formidable obstacles. First, she was a woman when recruiters still asked female scientists questions such as, “What kind of birth control are you using?” And she was fighting the prevailing scholarly belief that animals were automatons who lacked cognitive abilities.

Pepperberg parries inflammatory topics such as, “Did Alex have language?” and instead speaks of his ability to “label” objects. She also avoids some obvious questions – notably when she tells us that Alex would have an autopsy but not what it revealed about his walnut-sized brain.

Fortunately, it doesn’t matter in the book. Pepperberg writes in a lively, conversational style as engaging as Grogan’s. Yet she provides enough scientific detail to persuade you that something remarkable happened during her work with her adored parrot. Alex’s last words to Pepperberg were, “You be good. I love you.”

Best line: “Alex became quite a fixture at the vets’, talking to everyone who had time to stop and listen. His cage was right next to the accountant’s desk. The night before I was due to take him to Tucson, the accountant had to stay late, working on the books. ‘You want a nut?’ Alex asked her.
“‘No, Alex.’
“He persisted. ‘You want corn?’
“ ‘No, thank you, Alex, I don’t want corn.’
“This went on for a little while, and the accountant did her best to ignore him. Finally, Alex apparently became exasperated and said in a petulant voice, ‘Well, what do you want?’ The accountant cracked up laughing and gave Alex the attention he was demanding.”

Worst line: Pepperberg quotes a Guardian obituary: “Alex, the African Grey parrot who was smarter than the average U.S. president, has died at the relatively tender age of 31.” The evidence in Alex & Me doesn’t support the Guardian‘s claim, so it isn’t clear why it’s quoted. Alex could label numbers up to six. If the Guardian claim were true, the average U.S. president couldn’t tell you the address of the White House.

Sample chapter titles: “Alex’s First Labels,” “Alex Goes High-Tech,” “What Alex Taught Me.”

Published: October 2008

Watch a video of Pepperberg interacting with Alex on the HarperCollins site.

Furthermore: Pepperberg is an associate research professor at Brandeis and teaches animal cognition at Harvard. She also wrote The Alex Studies (Harvard, 2000).

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer.

One-Minute Book Reviews will announced the finalists for the Third Annual Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books on Feb. 26 and the winners on March 15, 2009. To nominate a passage in a book for a bad-writing award, leave a comment or send a message to the e-mail address on the “Contact” page.

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

December 10, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda — Dewey Is Not Marley

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:47 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

My library wouldn’t let me take out the story of Dewey the Library Cat today because I owe $38 in fines. I was willing to pay the fines, but the library refused to take my money. A staff member said I have to bring my overdue books back first. Apparently I am the literary equivalent of a drunk who has had so many accidents, she can’t get bail until she goes into rehab.

I read bits and pieces of the book before my privileges got cut off, and here is my opinion of Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World (Grand Central, 288 pp., $19.99), the No. 1 bestseller by Vicki Myron with Bret Witter. Dewey is not Marley, because Vicki Myron is not John Grogan. Not close. And Marley was a bad, bad dog. Dewey was a good, good cat that, as a kitten, got dropped into a metal after-hours book-deposit slot at a library in Iowa on a freezing winter night.

Dewey a sweet memoir by the librarian who found him the next day with frostbite, and I might give it to a couple of people for Christmas. But I had the feeling that after 50 pages or so, you’d wish this cat would show a little of Marley’s spirit and start destroying priceless first editions of The Son Also Rises. What would the visitors to Dewey’s Facebook page think of that idea www.facebook.com/pages/Dewey/34303826286?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 22, 2008

Countdown to the 2009 Caldecott and Newbery Medals #2: ‘Zen Ties,’ the Sequel to ‘Zen Shorts’ — A for the Art, C-Minus for the Prose and Poetry

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:35 am
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The American Library Association will hand out its annual Caldecott and Newbery medals for children’s books on Jan. 26, 2009. In the next month or two I’ll be focusing closely — but not exclusively — on books that, deservedly or not, are likely to receive serious consideration for those awards. Posts about these books will be labeled “Countdown to the 2009 Caldecott and Newbery Medals.” You may may also want to read the May 10 review of Pale Male, which I have retroactively tagged as part of this series www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/10/.

Stillwater the panda returns and gets a visit from his nephew who speaks only in haiku

Zen Ties. By John J. Muth. Scholastic, 40 pp., $17.99. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

What would you say are the chances that any author would be equally good at prose, poetry and painting? If your answer is “close to zero,” you’ll have no trouble seeing the problem with this sequel to John J. Muth’s bestseller about a giant panda named Stillwater and the three Western children he befriends.

Muth’s beautiful watercolors give his Zen Ties a fresh and modern look. But the stuffy text is a New Age equivalent of one of the Victorian moral tales pushed aside decades ago by the work of pioneers like Margaret Wise Brown and Virginia Lee Burton and more recently by great author-illustrators like Maurice Sendak and Chris Van Allsburg.

In Muth’s new book, Stillwater has abandoned his boxer shorts and donned a red necktie for a visit from his nephew, Koo. You know you’re in for a slog when the gentle panda greets Koo, who speaks only in haiku, with, “Hi, Koo!” The problem with the greeting isn’t that children won’t get the pun — in good story, they wouldn’t need to — but that it’s cute instead of witty and typical of the weak writing in the book.

The becalmed plot befits a tale about a character named Stillwater. On a summer day in a well-kept American town, the panda decides to visit an ailing old lady who frightens children. He takes along four potential victims of that fear: Koo and young Karl, Addy and Michael. The children find that — surprise — Miss Whitaker is nice and helps Michael win a ribbon at a spelling bee. Why anybody would be taking part in a spelling bee in the summer, presumably at school, goes unexplained.

You might wonder if Zen Ties imparted worthy Buddhist teachings that would offset weaknesses in the writing. Not unless child-rearing experts like Penelope Leach and Michael Riera are Buddhists, because Stillwater dispenses advice that might have come straight from their books. And some of Muth’s implicit messages seem bizarrely anti-Buddhist. To entertain Koo, Addy invents a game called “Jump on Stillwater,” which looks sadistic. When she cleans Miss Whitaker’s house, she snaps at Karl, “Karl, hold the dustpan still!” No please, no apology for her rudeness.

Zen Ties does introduce children to haiku through the poems spoken by Koo. But haiku is a quiet verse form close to natural speech, so you wonder if they will even notice. And some of the poems in this book are poor examples of it. Near the end of his visit, Koo says, “Summer fading / new friends’ faces / lighten the way home.” “Lighten” is confusing here. It could mean “make less heavy” or “illuminate,” and because isn’t clear which one Koo intended, children will probably assume that he meant “illuminate.”

The fine watercolors in this book throw the deficiencies of the text into higher relief. And because pictures count for more than words in the Caldecott Awards, Zen Ties is likely be a serious contender for the next medal. You hope the judges will look hard for a book will allow the nation’s highest picture-book award to go to a work that is, on every level, of exceptional quality.

Best line/picture: The endpapers that show Stillwater and his nephew doing side-by-side t’ai chi movements.

Worst line/picture: Quoted above: “lighten the way home.”

Wish I’d written that: Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) wrote in the New York Times Book Review: “I had hopes that Zen Ties might veer closer to the Buddhist sources [than Zen Shorts did] , but the sequel contains no ancient tales at all …The weak story is a real shame, as Muth’s illustrations have the yearning gorgeousness displayed in the first volume.” Read Handler’s full review:
www.nytimes.com/2008/05/11/books/review/Handler-t.html.

Published: February 2008 www2.scholastic.com/browse/book.jsp?id=5114 . Muth won a Caldecott Honor citation for Zen Shorts en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_J._Muth.

Furthermore: I will have more comments on the Caldecott and Newbery awards before and after the American Library Association www.ala.org hands them out at its midwinter meeting in January.

You may also want to read: A review of the 2008 Caldecott Medal winner, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and a reading group guide to it, posted on this site on Jan. 14, 2008. Click on this link and you will see both below the Orson Scott Card quote www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/14/.

Janice Harayda’s 2008 A-to-Z holiday gift-book list will appear soon. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing her recommendations for children and adults.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 21, 2008

John J. Muth’s ‘Zen Ties’ — Tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:19 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

John J. Muth won a Caldecott Honor citation and a 41-week stay on the New York Times bestseller list for Zen Shorts (Scholastic, 2005), the first picture book in a series about a gentle larger-than-life panda named Stillwater and three of his young human friends. This year Muth has returned with Zen Ties, a new tale about Stillwater (whose spin-offs include the boxer-shorts-wearing stuffed animal at left, available on Amazon www.amazon.com and elsewhere). A review of Zen Ties will appear tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 28, 2008

Review of Oprah’s Latest Book Club Pick, ‘The Story of Edgar Sawtelle,’ the First Novel by David Wroblewski

Get thee to a kennel! A mute boy named Edgar finds his Ophelia in a dog named Almondine in story set in a hamlet in Wisconsin

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel. By David Wroblewski. Ecco, 562 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

To read, or not to read
The Edgar Sawtelle book
That is the question.
Whether ’tis nobler
In the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of
Outrageous twaddle,
And moralizing, too,
In sections told just from
The point of view of dogs,
One of them a stand-in
For Ophelia herself –
Her name is Almondine –
Because this novel is
A sort of canine Hamlet
That’s set in — of all places –
A hamlet in Wisconsin,
Or nobler to skip
A story you might like
Especially if you miss
The big, fat novels that
James Michener used to write.
To read, perchance to find
That this is your dream book:
Ay, there’s the rub!
Unless you are seeking
The kind of happy ending
That Hamlet doesn’t have
Because the author doesn’t give you
What you don’t find in the play:
A tale where no one dies.
It’s true, the book is not
The play in any way.
No poison-tipped sword looms,
A syringe is used instead.
And as for Rosenkrantz
and Guildenstern, his friend,
Like Ophelia
They have four feet and fur,
Though Hamlet is a boy, mute,
The Edgar of the title,
Who sees his father’s ghost,
A paranormal twist
In Edgar’s earthbound-life.
Morosely, Hamlet said –
Remember? – that conscience
Makes cowards of us all.
Which is not true of Edgar.
But will his morals save him
Or send him to his doom?
No spoilers you’ll find here –
The Bard supplies them all.

[Note: This review is not intended as a strict parody of Hamlet's "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy. If you've read Hamlet and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and can do better, why not leave your parody in the comments section on this post? For more on the novel, visit www.edgarsawtelle.com.]

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

August 27, 2008

Reviving Ophelia as a Dog — ‘The Story of Edgar Sawtelle’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:24 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,
Ophelia has four feet and fur in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

Ophelia has four feet and fur in 'The Story of Edgar Sawtelle'

You know how I wrote yesterday about five books I was planning to read this week while dog-sitting for literary friends? Those books are going to have to wait a day or two. My friends left behind a copy of David Wroblewski’s first novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (Ecco, 562 pp., $29.95) www.edgarsawtelle.com. And although I’ve been reading the over-the-top reviews of this bestseller for weeks, I’d somehow missed that – to oversimplify – this is a canine version of Hamlet in which a) Ophelia is a dog and b) the story is told partly from “Ophelia”’s point of view. Is Wroblewski’s novel closer to Shakespeare or Millie’s Book, the book former first lady Barbara Bush wrote in the voice of a White House spaniel? I will sort this out soon on One-Minute Book Reviews. To avoid missing this and other reviews, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 2, 2008

A Tale by the Brothers Grimm Returns in ‘The Bearskinner,’ a Picture Book by Newbery Winner Laura Amy Schlitz and Max Grafe

A former soldier struggles to avoid losing his soul to the devil in a parable about faith, hope and charity

The Bearskinner. By Laura Amy Schlitz. Illustrated by Max Grafe. Candlewick, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 4 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Laura Amy Schlitz is the newest supernova in the field of children’s literature. For years, she had a passionate following mainly among the students who listened to her stories at the Park School in Baltimore, where she is the librarian. But her visibility soared after she earned raves for her 2006 novel for ages 10 and up, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair. This year she won 2008 Newbery Medal for her cycle of one- and two-person plays, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, and she would be equally worthy of a major award for The Bearskinner, her retelling of a Faustian tale by the Brothers Grimm.

The grave and eloquent opening lines of the book set the tone: “They say that when a man gives up hope, the devil walks at his side. So begins this story: A soldier marched through a dark wood, and he did not march alone.” In this tale a hungry and cold soldier returns from war to find nothing left of his home and the people he loved. At his lowest moment, he accepts an offer from the devil, a man with a goat’s hoof for a left foot: For seven years, the soldier will have unlimited gold. But he must wear a bearskin and may not wash, pray or tell anyone of his dark bargain. If he does, he will lose his soul.

Clad in the skin of a bear he has just killed, the ex-soldier goes off to indulge his desires. After three years, he looks like a monster, and people flee from him. He loathes himself, too, and is thinking of ending his life. But he sees a starving mother and child who give him an idea – he will use Satan’s money to feed the poor. This act of charity leads to others that enable him to outwit the devil, throw off his bearskin and marry a kind woman who has seen the good heart behind the repulsive appearance.

All of this has aspects of both a fairy and morality tale. But Schlitz neither sentimentalizes nor preaches, and Max Grafe’s wonderful illustrations remind you the work of the late Leonard Baskin in their boldness, their restricted color palette and their use of fluid body lines to suggest inner turmoil. Grafe sets the text on yellowing pages that resemble parchment, or perhaps charred tree bark, which locates the story in the distant past and may soften its potentially frightening aspects. And his devil is one of the most original to appear in a picture book in years in years. Grafe casts Lucifer as a handsome devil in the literal sense of the phrase, a man who resembles 1930s matinee idol with slicked-back hair and a flowing green cloak. No ogre with a scar, his devil is a smooth operator – just like a lot of devils in real life.

Best line: The first lines of the book, quoted in the review.

Worst line: “He rode to the gambler’s house on a dapple-gray horse.” The use of “dapple-gray” is confusing. Why not “dappled gray”?

Published: November 2007 www.candlewick.com

Furthermore: Schlitz, a Baltimore librarian, won the 2008 Newbery Medal from the American Library Association www.ala.org, for her book of monologues and dialogues, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village (Candlewick, $19.99), illustrated by Robert Byrd. She lives in Maryland. Grafe is a New York printmaker and illustrator.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 1, 2008

Coming Tomorrow — A Review of ‘The Bearskinner’ by Newbery Medalist Laura Amy Schlitz

Laura Amy Schlitz won the 2008 Newbery Medal for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, a book of one- and two-person plays for ages 10 and up. Can Schlitz write for younger children? A review of her recent picture book The Bearskinner, illustrated by Max Grafe, will appear tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

« Previous PageNext Page »

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 372 other followers

%d bloggers like this: