One-Minute Book Reviews

June 18, 2010

‘Red Ted and the Lost Things’ — A Former British Children’s Laureate Returns With a Tale of Finding Your Way Home

A teddy bear, a crocodile and a cat team up in a picture book from a popular author

Red Ted and the Lost Things. By Michael Rosen. Illustrated by Joel Stewart. Candlewick, 40 pp., $16.99. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Few picture-books authors write more honestly about loss than Michael Rosen, the former British children’s laureate. His Michael Rosen’s Sad Book was the rare book for its age group that dealt successfully with multi-layered adult grief — the pain its author felt when his 18-year-old son Eddie died from meningitis.

Now Rosen has returned with a lighter story about loss: a tale of a brave red teddy bear who must find his own way home when his young owner accidentally leaves him on a train seat and he ends up in a cavernous lost-and-found department. That premise alone would set this picture book apart from many others in which lost toys are reunited with their owners through children’s diligent search-and-rescue efforts.

But Red Ted and the Lost Things is also unusual for its willingness to acknowledge that some lost objects never return home. Red Ted at first feels confident that his owner, a girl named Stevie, will claim him at the train station. But he realizes he must find his own way home when a crocodile tells him, “I’ve been here a very long time, and no one has ever come to get me.”

So the new friends follow the “Way Out” signs in the train station and begin their journey – an optimistic teddy bear and a pessimistic crocodile, who fall in with a helpful cat who has some of the traits of each. It’s a much quieter trip than the rip-roaring family adventure in We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, a book that includes an unexpected snowstorm. And its pleasures are gentler: Joel Stewart affirms the bond between the animals, despite their differences, by using bright colors only for the three traveling companions and a sepia- wash for the background. And by the time the three find Stevie, this book has become more than a quest narrative: It is a story about the value of teamwork and how people of different of temperaments can work – and, in the end, live – together happily.

Best line/picture: Red Ted and the Lost Things has an inventive spread that consists of one-and-a-half blank pages (with art only at the bottom of the second page), which appears when the characters seem to have run out of ideas for finding their way home.

Worst line/picture: None. But you wonder why Steve calls her mother “Mom” instead of “Mum” when the signs follow the British model (“Way Out” instead of “Exit”).

Published: October 2009

About the author and illustrator: Rosen was the British Children’s Laureate from 2007–2009. He is best known in the U.S. for his acclaimed We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, which he performs in an excellent video. He collaborated on Michael Rosen’s Sad Book with the great illustrator British Quentin Blake. Joel Stewart lives in England and has illustrated Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter. She reviews children’s books on Saturdays on One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 17, 2009

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

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Fine artists from England reinvigorate a classic tale and nursery rhyme

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

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

By Janice Harayda

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

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

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

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

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

Worst lines: None.

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

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

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

June 13, 2009

Lisa Brown’s ‘How to Be’ — Fun With Animals for Very Young Children

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A witty picture book shows children how to imitate a bear, monkey, turtle, snake, spider, and dog

How to Be. By Lisa Brown. HarperCollins, 32 pp., $16.89. Ages 6 months and up.

By Janice Harayda

Is there a toddler or preschooler who doesn’t love to make animal sounds? San Francisco artist Lisa Brown urges very young children to take their copycat instincts a step further in this witty picture book about a brother and sister who imitate the behavior of six animals — a bear, monkey, turtle, snake, spider, and dog.

Each spread gives simple directions for acting like one of those creatures, illustrated by amusing line drawings that show how the siblings interpret the instructions. And I defy you to keep a straight face when you see how the two respond to last command on the “How to Be a Dog” pages: “Lick someone.” Oh, are parents and grandparents going to have fun watching children follow the instructions in this book! You might have almost as much fun as they’re going to have licking your elbow.

Best line/picture: Apart from the picture of the brother trying to lick his sister? A command on the “How to Be a Monkey” pages: “Eat with your toes.”

Worst line/picture: None unless you’re so heartless that you believe that children should never – not even once – be allowed to eat with their toes.

Recommendation? A good gift for ages newborn to 2 or 3. How to Be might especially appeal to children who like the imitative aspects of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. And it has an intergenerational appeal, because it will allow children to show off for their grandparents their impressive ability to slither on their bellies like a snake.

Furthermore: The bold line drawings and minimalist color palette give this book an unusually fresh look. How to Be would fit in well at Museum of Modern Art gift shop. Yet it’s not one of those pretentious books that please adults more than children. Both groups are likely to enjoy it.

Published: May 2006

This is a repost of a review that appeared on this site on June 30, 2007.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

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.

January 27, 2008

Coming Saturday — A Review of ‘The Bearskinner’ by Laura Amy Schlitz and Max Grafe

Laura Amy Schlitz proved that she could capture the attention of ages 10 and up with her novel A Drowned Maiden’s Hair and her cycle of one- and two-person plays, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, winner of the 2008 Newbery Medal from the American Library Association. But can she write for younger children? On Saturday One-Minute Book Reviews will review her recent picture book, The Bearskinner, a retelling of a tale by the Brothers Grimm, illustrated by Max Grafe.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 13, 2007

Greg Foley’s ‘Thank You Bear’: A Good Book for Toddlers That Panders to Library Story Hours at the Expense of Parents and Others

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:58 pm
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A young bear learns that a friend shares your values

Thank You Bear. By Greg Foley. Viking. 32 pp., $15.95, Ages 1–3.

By Janice Harayda

Thank You Bear has so much going for it that you wish it weren’t also an example of a disheartening trend: More and more, publishers are pandering to library story hours at the expense of parents and others who read to children.

This new picture book tells a simple yet highly effective story that’s in some ways reminiscent of “Goldilocks”: A little bear finds a small box he’s sure his friend Mouse will love — until he meets up with other animals, each of whom dismisses it for a different reason. (The elephant thinks it’s too small, the rabbit doesn’t have time to look at it.) Bear is starting to wonder if the box is so great after all when Mouse comes along and loves it as much as he had hoped.

In fewer than 200 words, Greg Foley develops the worthy theme that a friend shares your values. And like his text, his drawings are pared-down but expressive. Because I don’t have toddlers, I took Thank You Bear to church, corralled a two-year-old at coffee hour and read it to him as we sat in side-by-side armchairs. It was Palm Sunday, so the room was mobbed with children eating cookies and making Origami-like crosses from fronds. My young companion paid no attention to the crowd: He was riveted by the story and could easily identify the animals from Foley’s bold strokes.

Then what’s the problem? First, at nearly 10” by 10,” Thank You Bear is too big. I held it against the bodies of a couple of two-year-olds and found that it was as long as either of their arms from shoulder to wrist. How easily could you hold a book a long as your arm? Thank You Bear isn’t a book most toddlers could carry around like the paperback edition of Thomas the Tank Engine that my young friend had with him. And size helps to drive price. Thank You Bear is a $15.95 book that would serve children better if it were at least third smaller and less expensive. Oversized books make sense for authors like Maurice Sendak and Chris Van Allsburg, who do museum-quality work, or Jan Brett, who uses folkloric motifs and borders full of details easier to see in a large format. But the minimalist art of Thank You Bear doesn’t require that scope. On many pages Bear is becalmed in a sea of white space.

The gargantuan 4” x 3” font used for the title on the cover tells you a lot about this book. Few toddlers can read, so they don’t need it, and even bifocal-wearing grandparents don’t require something that big. So why use a blimp-sized font and comparably large pictures throughout the book? Clearly, so the children at the back of a semicircle can see them at story hours.

Publishers often bring out paperback or mini-editions of picture books within a year or so of their publication, and that may happen with Thank You Bear. Until then it’s sad that this book may exceed the financial – or physical – reach of many parents and toddlers who would enjoy it.

Best line/picture: An image that shows Bear wondering if his box is so great after all. Uncertainty is harder to show than stronger feelings, but Foley pulls it off.

Worst line/picture: The cover font. Thank You Bear is also punctuated incorrectly on the cover and title page, though not elsewhere in the book.

Recommended if … you either a) get the book from the library; b) wait for a paperback or mini-edition; or c) or can say truthfully, “I don’t care if the publisher is gouging me. Nothing is too expensive for my brilliant, wonderful, adorable grandchild. Want to see a picture?”

Published: March 2007

Furthermore: In the coming months, I plan to revisit aggressively the issue of overpriced children’s books. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing posts on this subject.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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