One-Minute Book Reviews

April 27, 2008

Why Read the Classics? (Quote of the Day / Michael Dirda)

Why is it important to read the classics? Michael Dirda, who won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for criticism as a staff critic for the Washington Post, responds in his Bound to Please: An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education: Essays on Great Writers and Their Books (Norton, 2005):

“People sometimes ask teachers or critics, ‘Which books should I read to become educated?’ The short answer is either ‘As many as you can’ or ‘A small handful that you study to pieces.’ But a better question might be this one: ‘Which books should I read first?’

“The answer to that is ‘The great patterning works of world literature and culture, the poems and stories that have shaped civilization.’

“Without a knowledge of the Greek myths, the Bible, ancient history, the world’s folktales and fairy tales, one can never fully understand the visual arts, most opera, and half the literature of later ages. Homer tells us about Ulysses in The Odyssey; then Dante, Tennyson, James Joyce, Wallace Stevens, and Eudora Welty add to, enrich, and subvert that story in great works of their own. The classics are important not because they are old but because they are always being renewed.”

Michael Dirda’s most recent book is Classics for Pleasure (Harcourt, 2007).

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

October 17, 2007

10 Percent of Americans Think Joan of Arc Was Noah’s Wife — Quote of the Day (George Barna via Stephen Prothero)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:00 pm
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American are reading less of all kinds of things, including religious books. What are the effects? Here’s an example from a survey of religious literacy:

“Ten percent of Americans believed that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.”

Stephen Prothero in Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn’t (HarperOne, $24.95). He’s citing research published in George Barna’s The Index of Leading Spiritual Indicators (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1996). Prothero www.stephenprothero.com chairs the religion department at Boston University www.bu.edu. You can find more statistics like the one above if you go to www.amazon.com and use the “Search Inside the Book” tool to find page 30 in Religious Literacy.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

May 5, 2007

Good Picture Books About Noah’s Ark

“High and long, / Thick and strong, / Wide and stark, / Was the ark.”
From Peter Spier’s Caldecott Medal–winning Noah’s Ark

By Janice Harayda

No Bible story has fared better at the hands of picture-book illustrators than that of Noah’s Ark. Preschoolers love stories about animals, so picture books and the Flood are a natural fit. And there are so many outstanding versions of the story in Chapters 6–9 of Genesis that many bookstores and libraries have several or more.

The best book for toddlers and younger preschoolers is Noah’s Ark (Dell, 48 pp., $7.99, ages 2–6), illustrated by the Dutch-born American artist Peter Spier, who won the 1978 Caldecott Medal for it. Noah’s Ark begins with a translation of a Dutch poem about the Flood that has singsong rhymes simple enough for 3-year-olds: “Dog and cat, / Mouse and rat, / Fly and vole, /Worm and mole … In they came, / Pair by pair, / Gross and fair.”

From then on, Spier uses only pictures – his signature black line drawings washed with color – to tell the story of the Ark from the gathering of the animals through the appearance of the rainbow symbolizing God’s promise never to send another flood like the one Noah survived. And Spier’s vibrant and sympathetic illustrations suggest both the gravity of the situation and the potential for humor in crowding so many species onto a wooden boat. Within the larger story of the Flood, his drawings tell hundreds of smaller stories of the endless tasks faced by Noah and his family, such as milking cows and gathering eggs from hens. Noah’s Ark has stayed in print for decades partly because you see something new each time you return to it.

An excellent book for older preschoolers and young school-age children is Arthur Geisert‘s The Ark (Houghton Mifflin/Walter Lorraine, 48 pp., $7.99, ages 4–8). Geisert tells Noah’s story through a spare, interpretive text and black-and-white etchings that include wonderfully detailed cross sections. The pictures in his book may fascinate even children who shun traditional Bible stories, because they show how ships of any kind might transport animals. Larger creatures like bears and elephants take up the lower decks while flamingoes strut and peacocks spread their tails on the upper ones.

Jerry Pinkney won a 2003 Caldecott Honor citation for his Noah’s Ark (North-South/SeaStar, 40 pp., $16.99. ages 4–8). It tells the story of the Flood in modern words arranged on the page like stanzas of free verse: “The zebras munched their hay. / The geese gobbled up the grain. / The monkeys nibbled on sweet grapes / and climbed to the roof / where the sparrows / perched and sang.”

As usual in Pinkney’s books, the exquisite illustrations steal the show. Pinkney works on a dramatic artistic scale. His illustrations bleed across gutters and off the page. And he zooms in so closely on faces – human or animal – that you can see the whites of Noah’s eyes and up the nostrils of a bear. Among living picture-book artists, perhaps only David Wiesner has more skill at creating stylized watercolors that are dreamy yet realistic.

Pinkney’s book is harder to find than Spier’s and Geisert’s but available in many libraries. And children who like it may enjoy learning about his unusual techniques, which he described in The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators (Houghton Mifflin, 542 pp., $17), edited by Anita Silvey. “In illustrating stories about animals, as with people, research is important,” Pinkney said. “I keep a large reference file and have over a hundred books on nature and animals. The first step in envisioning a creature for me is to pretend to be that particular animal. I think about its size and the sounds it makes, how it moves, where it lives. When the stories call for anthropomorphic animals, I’ve used Polaroid photographs of myself posing as the animal characters.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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December 8, 2006

Julie Vivas’s ‘The Nativity': The Best Version of the Christmas Story for Preschoolers

And the critic said, “Fear not, for this book takes its text from the Gospel of Luke, which shall be found in the King James Version of the Bible.”

The Nativity. Illustrated by Julie Vivas. Voyager Books, 36 pp., $7, paperback. Ages 4–8.

By Janice Harayda

It’s a miracle: For once I agree with the American Library Association www.ala.org, which named The Nativity a Notable Book of the year after its first American publication in 1988. I haven’t seen every version of the Christmas story for preschoolers. But as a former Sunday school teacher, I’ve seen a lot. And take it from somebody who knows how to make remarkably convincing angels – well, sort of convincing — by folding back the handles of coffee cups and glue-ing on ping-pong ball heads: This book is the best for its age group.

The Nativity has several big advantages over most other picture books about birth of Christ and the arrival of the shepherds and wise men. One of these is that it tells the story through the rich and resonant text of the Gospel of Luke from the King James Version of the Bible, dropping only a phrase or two here and there for clarity or space. (“Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” becomes “Fear not, I bring you tidings of great joy.”) Another advantage of the book is that the characters have no fixed race, so all kinds of families can identify with them. A third is that Vivas provides dynamic but offbeat and deglamorized watercolor illustrations — no gilt halos, no foil star, no flocked sheep. So The Nativity is more accurate than many of the books that have a Jesus, Mary, and Joseph who might have come straight from a DreamWorks casting call.

Then what’s not to like? For many families, nothing. But The Nativity has a painting that shows baby Jesus in what Hollywood calls “full frontal nudity.” I can only image the reaction of the mother who once wrote me angry letter after I praised a book by Maurice Sendak with similar anatomical detail. “Why on earth would I want to buy my child a book with pictures of naked babies?” she asked. And although The Nativity is widely available in bookstores, it’s so popular that it may sell out well before Christmas. My local bookstore had only one copy, much upstaged by newer titles. I snapped it up. Go thou and do likewise — this weekend – if you’d like to read The Nativity this season.

Best line: All.

Worst line: None.

Recommended if … you believe that a child who can sing “Baby Beluga” can understand: “And she brought forth her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn.”

Published: 1988 (first U.S. edition), 2006 (Restored Voyager Books edition).

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Check back for more reviews of books for preschoolers in the Children’s Corner, which appears every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews. Or read all the reviews archived in the Children’s Books category on www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com.

This blog was created by Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor and critic of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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