One-Minute Book Reviews

April 30, 2010

Girl Meets Gun in Lois Lowry’s First Picture Book, ‘Crow Call’

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A girl spends a day with her father who has returned from World War II

Crow Call. By Lois Lowry. Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. Scholastic, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages: School Library Journal recommends for grades K-4.

By Janice Harayda

Two-time Newbery Medal winner Lois Lowry can write what she pleases at this stage of her career, and this fact may help explain her tepid first picture book. Crow Call tells the story of a pigtailed girl whose father, just back from World War II, takes her along when he sets out to kill crows that are eating the crops on nearby Pennsylvania farmlands.

Liz feels happy, if shy, about spending time with someone who “has been gone for so long.” But she worries about the crows, and her father, sensing this, takes her home without shooting any – a change of heart that causes the plot to sputter out in the last pages. Liz also tells her story through slightly affected first-person, present-tense narration. You don’t fully believe she would have all of her thoughts, which include self-conscious lines like “our words seem etched and breakable on the brittle stillness.”

Lowry says in an afterword that the events of Crow Call happened to her and her father in 1945, and her publisher casts the story as an allegory that “shows how, like the birds gathering above, the relationship between the girl and her father is graced with the chance to fly.” Maybe so. But the text has much less loft than the art by Bagram Ibatoulline in the color palette and social-realist style of Christina’s World, which his fellow Pennsylvanian Andrew Wyeth painted three years after the events that inspired Crow Call took place. His lovely pictures are the saving grace of a book that, you sense, Lowry needed to write more than children need to read.

Best line/picture: A picture of Liz’s father stretching his neck out, imitating a giraffe, as she tries to stifle a laugh.

Worst line/picture: The last line: “Then I put it into the pocket of my shirt and reach over, out of my enormous cuff, and take my father’s hand.” This line isn’t strong or credible enough for its position in the book. Lizzie and her father have spent quite a bit of time alone together by the time she takes his hand, and you don’t believe she wouldn’t have done so before then.

Published: October 2009

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

September 11, 2009

Dennis Webster’s ‘Absolutely Wild’ – Good Poems About Animals for Young Children

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A collection of 16 light-hearted poems, each about a bird, insect or animal

Absolutely Wild. Poems by Dennis Webster. Illustrations by Kim Webster Cunningham. Godine, 32 pp., $17.95. Ages 2 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Ogden Nash once delighted Americans with light verse — often about animals — such as, “If called by a panther / Don’t anther.” Something of his spirit lives in the 16 short, rhyming poems in Absolutely Wild.

Dennis Webster isn’t as playful as Nash – he doesn’t use wrenched rhymes like “panther” and “anther.” But he’s written the best collection of original children’s poems about animals I’ve seen since Jack Prelutsky’s Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant. And his daughter has enhanced the book with handsome hand-colored linoleum-block prints framed by decorative borders, some reminiscent of the Ghanaian cloth known as kente.

Each poem in Absolutely Wild has 4–12 lines, a strong rhyme and meter, and a focus on a colorful bird, insect or animal. The 8-line “The Yak” sets the tone:
A shaggy species is the yak
With hairy front and hairy back.
It isn’t very hard to spot him
With hairy top and hairy bottom.

Most poems are odes or odes-in-spirit that marvel at the qualities of a creature in couplet quatrains or another traditional form. In the 8-line “The Ostrich,” Webster celebrates the bird in hymn stanzas, arranged in their usual pattern of alternating lines of four and three iambic feet:
The ostrich is a splendid bird
Who’s taller than most men.
It seems a little bit absurd
To call his wife a hen.

Absolutely Wild also has poems about an ant, snail, moose, shrew, penguin, vulture, gnu, puffin, seagull, giraffe, porcupine, gibbon, platypus and ptarmigan. And it reflects David R. Godine’s attention to craftsmanship in its endpapers and elsewhere. It would make a fine gift for very young children and a good resource for slightly older ones who are learning in school about creatures you won’t usually find in the parking lot at Shop Rite.

Best line: Every child’s favorite is likely to be that “With hairy top and hairy bottom.”

Worst line: “The platypus is quite unique.”

Caveat lector: The second and fourth lines of “The Ostrich” should be indented, but the template for this blog won’t permit it.

Published: October 2008

Furthermore: Kim Webster Cunningham has posted the poem about a snail and the art for it on her Web site.

Children’s book reviews appear on this site on Saturdays.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
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

July 18, 2008

‘Owl Babies’ — A Picture Book That Sets the Stage for Bedtime

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Two words for parents looking for a bedtime story for very young children: Owl Babies (Candlewick, 32 pp., $5.99, paperback, ages 1–3). In this popular picture book, Martin Waddell tells a lackluster story about the separation anxiety that strikes three fluffy white owlets that are left alone one night when their mother flies off to hunt for food. But Patrick Benson illustrates the tale with captivating ink-and-watercolor pictures that help to make up for the weaknesses of a text that is at times cutesy and overelaborated. Benson also sets the white owls against a very dark background that, more strongly than most picture books, immerses you in a nighttime world and sets the stage for bedtime.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

May 31, 2008

More on ‘Pale Male,’ One of the Year’s Best Children’s Books

You can never predict the behavior of those wacky Caldecott judges at the American Library Association www.ala.org. These are the people who never gave a medal to Dr. Seuss! And instead insulted him with three Honor Book citations! What were those librarians thinking when they passed over Horton Hatches the Egg and so many other wonderful picture books? I have no idea and a lot of other critics don’t, either.

Even so, I went out on a limb a couple of weeks ago and predicted that the Caldecott committee will give serious consideration to Janet Schulman and Meilo So’s new picture book Pale Male (Knopf, $16.99), the true story of a red-tailed hawk that with its mate built a nest atop a luxury co-op building on Fifth Avenue www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/10/. The hawk had inspired a two earlier children’s books, Jeanette Winter’s The Tale of Pale Male: A True Story. (Harcourt, 2007) and Meghan McCarthy’s City Hawk: The Story of Pale Male (Simon & Schuster, 2007). Because I hadn’t seen them, I couldn’t discuss them in my review.

But John Schwartz read the earlier books before reviewing Pale Male for tomorrow’s New York Times Book Review. And he says that the 2007 books are intended for younger readers than the 6-to-9-year-olds who may enjoy Schulman and So’s work. He also says that while both have their pleasures, “Schulman tells the story of the city’s most popular predator since Michael Milken with more detail and verbal grace.”

Schwartz’s review has a much larger reproduction of one of So’s beautiful watercolors than I could show on this site, so if you’re on the fence about the book, you may want to read the review here www.nytimes.com/2008/06/01/books/review/Schwartz-t.html?ref=books.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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May 10, 2008

Countdown to the 2009 Caldecott and Newbery Medals #1: Janet Shulman and Meilo So’s Hale ‘Pale Male’ Makes Way for Hawklets

Filed under: Children's Books,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:03 am
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A picture book tells the story of an urban red-tailed hawk and the international outcry that erupted when the management of a Fifth Avenue co-op destroyed its nest

Pale Male: Citizen Hawk of New York City. By Janet Schulman. Illustrated by Meilo So. Knopf, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 4 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Make way for hawklets. This delightful picture book tells the true story of a red-tailed hawk who became a star after he and his mate began raising chicks on a ledge on posh building on Fifth Avenue in the 1990s. Birdwatchers named him Pale Male and gathered in Central Park to study his family with binoculars and telescopes.

But residents of 927 Fifth Avenue disliked having their sidewalk littered with feathers, bird droppings and the remains of rats, pigeons and the occasional squirrel that the hawks ate. They persuaded the owners of the building to remove the hawks’ nest, an act that set off an international outcry and homegrown protests that — even in a city full of exhibitionists — commanded attention.

“Two protesters dressed as birds urged cars on Fifth Avenue to ‘Honk 4 Hawks.’” Janet Schulman writes. “Taxis, cars, and city buses honked. Trucks let out ear-piercing blasts of their air horns. Even fire trucks let loose their sirens.”

After the Audubon Society and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service got involved, the owners of the building restored the nests. And all of it could have turned into another of the dreary lectures on environmentalism that have come to infest picture books.

But Pale Male has less in common with those sermons-in-print than with Robert McCloskey’s endearing 1941 Caldecott Medal–winner Make Way for Duckings. Like that tale of Boston policeman who stops traffic so a family of ducks can cross the street, this book isn’t a brief for animal rights. It’s a celebration of wild creatures and the joy they can bring when, against the odds, they cross our urban paths.

Schulman clearly sympathizes with the hawks, but her text suggests why others might have different views, as do the wonderful illustrations, created with watercolor inks and colored pencils. One picture shows a sweeper in the hands of the pained-looking doorman who has to clean up the mess left by the hawks. Meilo So uses shifting visual perspectives to show New York City as it might look to the varied players in this drama — Pale Male soaring above Central Park, birdwatchers tracking him with their binoculars, a rich couple despairing in their plush co-op about the din caused by honking taxis and protestors. Schulman’s afterword on Pale Male is good, too: “He has now won the status of a true New York celebrity: his building is pointed out by tour-bus operators.”

Best line/picture: Both Schulman and So tweak wealthy residents of 927 Fifth in ways that are amusing but not mean. The rich couple despair in a living room that has faintly Victorian décor, including red walls and a rolled-arm red velvet sofa. It’s a subtle way of suggesting that they’re out of touch.

Worst line/picture: “Most of the tenants had been irked for years that they couldn’t legally get rid of the hawks. Then in 2003, during a time when many conservation and wildlife laws were being relaxed by President George W. Bush’s administration, the Migratory Bird Treaty was changed. It now permitted destruction of nests as long as there were no chicks in the nest. Hawks lay their eggs in March and the chicks fledge in June. In December Pale Male’s nest was empty. The owners of the hawk building were quick to take advantage of the new law.”

The problem with this paragraph isn’t really the jab at Bush but that, atypically for Schulman, it’s confusing. Why the sudden jump from June to December? Why does the paragraph say that the nest was “empty” then when the following one suggests that it was gone? And why does it call the people who lived in 927 Fifth Avenue “tenants” instead of “residents” when the building was a co-op?

Furthermore: Pale Male is likely to receive – and deserves – serious consideration for the American Library Association’s Caldecott Medal or one of its annual awards for “information books.” This is one of the year’s best gift books for children and maybe even a mother who loves bird-watching.

Update: Pale Male www.palemale.com and his current mate, Lola, still live on their ledge at 927 Fifth Avenue, but no more chicks have hatched since the nest was removed and restored. An update on their plight appeared in an article the May 1, 2008 New York Times, “Reprise: The Fifth Avenue Ballad of Pale Male and Lola.”

Published: March 2008 www.randomhouse.com/kids

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

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