One-Minute Book Reviews

May 10, 2009

Rick Riordan’s ‘The Last Olympian,’ the New Book in His Percy Jackson Series

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Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series has well-entrenched spot in the pantheon of books worshipped by boys (typically, by strong readers over the age of 8 or 9 and by others over 10). In a sense, it’s life following art: The novels involve a modern 12-year-old who learns that he is the son of a Greek god. And in my suburb, the series (which I haven’t read) may have gotten entire soccer leagues excited about Greek mythology. Meghan Cox Gurdon reviews the latest installment, The Last Olympian (Hyperion, 381 pp., $17.99) in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, and a teacher gives his view of Riordan in a post I wrote in February.

February 7, 2009

Jon Scieszka Courts Preteen Boys in ‘Knucklehead,’ a Memoir of Growing Up With Five Brothers in Michigan during the Baby Boom

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One of the country’s most popular children’s authors remembers his childhood

Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Mostly True Stories of Growing up Scieszka. Viking Juvenile, 106 pp., $19.99. Publisher’s suggested age range: 9–12. See further discussion of ages below.

By Janice Harayda

Jon Scieszka first captured the hearts of preteen boys when he launched his popular “Time Warp Trio” series about three time-traveling male friends whose escapades had wacky titles like Your Mother Was a Neanderthal. Scieszka has since become a supernova in children’s literature: He’s won awards for picture books, seen the “Time Warp Trio” tales made into a television series, and been named the first national ambassador for young people’s literature by the Library of Congress.

Now he returns to writing for preteen boys in a memoir as fresh and entertaining as his early books for them. The mixed-media cover of Knucklehead resembles that of a graphic novel about World War II: Young Jon emerges with a grin from the hatch of an armored tank – a pint-sized John Wayne in a bow tie – as bombers drop their payload overhead. But Knucklehead is actually an illustrated memoir with 38 breezy chapters, most with just a page or two of text, about growing up Catholic with five brothers in Flint, Michigan, during the baby boom. It teems with photos of the Scieszka family and memorabilia of the era: a Wiffle Ball logo, MAD magazine cover, image from a Dick-and-Jane reader.

Scieszka focuses on the zanier aspects of growing up with five brothers: the matching outfits, the torments inflicted on nuns, the backyard games with ominous names like Slaughter Ball. A photo of a report card shows that he would have started fourth-grade in 1963, but if the death of JFK made an impression on him, he doesn’t say so. And on the evidence of this book, the Elvis and the Beatles never made it north of Toledo, and the annual Michigan-Ohio State game completely escaped the notice of six sports-loving boys living in Flint.

Like many boys of their day, Jon and his brothers reveled in militarism: They played with toy soldiers, shot frogs with BB guns, and made Revell fighter planes from kits. But behind all of their war games lay a glowing love of family that pervades this book. One anecdote involves a family car trip with a cat that ate a Stuckey’s Pecan Log Roll with disastrous results. And the incident allows Scieszka to express the closest Knucklehead has to a theme: “Stick with your brothers. Stick up for your brothers. And if you ever drop a pecan nut log in a car with your five brothers and the cat … you will probably stick to your brothers.”

Best line: Scieszka tweaks Dick-and-Jane readers: “When I read the Dick and Jane stories, I thought they were afraid they might forget each other’s names Because they always said each other’s names. A lot.

“So if Jane didn’t see the dog, Dick would say, ‘Look Jane. Look. There is the dog next to Sally, Jane. The dog is also next to Mother, Jane. The dog is next to Father, Jane. Ha, ha, ha. That is funny, Jane.’

“Did I mention that Dick and Jane also had a terrible sense of humor?”

You don’t quite believe that Scieszka thought all of that in the second grade or so, but the comment is funny and perceptive.

Worst line: “Here are me, Brian, Tom, Jim and Gregg outside our house in flint Michigan.” Scieszka is identifying the brothers in order in a picture, but that “Here are me …” is hard on the ear.

Recommendation? A great family read-aloud book. The publisher recommends Knucklehead for ages 9-12, but many 7- and 8-year-olds will enjoy it, too. And the book has high intergenerational appeal, because the pictures of boomer memorabilia may inspire grandparents and others to tell stories of their own childhoods. All the war imagery is historically appropriate and relatively mild in context (in part because the book doesn’t show all the Revell model planes that had swastikas on their wings).

Watch the book trailer for Knucklehead on Scieszka’s blog.

Published: October 2008

Furthermore: Scieszka (pronounced SHEH-ska) collaborated with the gifted artist Lane Smith on the “Time Warp Trio” series and picture books that include The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! and The Stinky Cheese Man. For more on the “Time Warp Trip series,” see the One-Minute Book Reviews post “Beach Books for Ages 7 and Up.”

One-Minute Book Reviews reviews books for children or teenagers every Saturday. To avoid missing these reviews, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

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

February 5, 2009

A Review of Jon Scieszka’s ‘Knucklehead’ — Coming Saturday

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Jon Scieszka first captured the hearts of preteen boys when he launched his popular “Time Warp Trio” series about three time-traveling male friends whose escapades had wacky titles like Your Mother Was a Neanderthal. Scieszka has since become a supernova in children’s literature: He’s won awards, seen the “Time Warp Trio” tales made into a series on the Discovery Kids Channel, and been named the first national ambassador for young people’s literature by the Library of Congress. Now he returns to writing for preteen boys in Knucklehead : Tall Tales & Mostly True Stories About Growing Up Scieszka (Viking, 106 pp., $19.99), a memoir of growing up with five brothers in Michigan during the baby boom. How does it compare to his earlier work? One-Minute Book Reviews will have a review Saturday.

© 2009 Janice Harayda.

September 26, 2008

John Burningham’s ‘John Patrick Norman McHennessy — the boy who was always late’ — A Great Picture Book Returns in Hardcover in Time for Holiday Gift-Giving

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A teacher doesn’t believe a boy’s fanciful stories about why he can’t get to class on time

John Patrick Norman McHennessy — the boy who was always late. By John Burningham. Knopf, 40 pp., $16.99. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

The Man Booker Prize judges snub Netherland. The Secret outsells Pride and Prejudice on Amazon. Oprah picks another book with woo-woo elements – this time, sentient dogs. A Long Way Gone appears on nonfiction lists even though its publisher has never produced any evidence that Ishmael Beah was a child soldier for so much as one day. The tanking economy won’t help any of this.

The publishing industry is a font of bad news, but sometimes it works as it should: John Burningham’s John Patrick Norman McHennessy — the boy who was always late, one of the great picture books of the 1990s, is back in American stores in the handsome hardcover edition it deserves. A boy gets the last word on a teacher who doesn’t believe his explanations for why he is late for class in this exceptionally imaginative and entertaining book, which has a fine subtext about the degree to which schools penalize creative children. And its large format and exciting pictures make it ideal for story hours, reading aloud, and holiday gift-giving.

Best line/picture: All.

Worst line/picture: None.

Published: 1999 (first American edition) and July 2008 (new hardcover edition).

Furthermore: Burningham won the Kate Greenaway medal, Britain’s Caldecott, for Borka: The Adventures of a Goose With No Feathers and Mr. Gumpy’s Outing. He earned other raves for John Patrick Norman McHennessy, some of which you can read here www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780375852206. The book doesn’t ascribe a nationality to its young hero, but the name “John Patrick Norman McHennesy” might delight families who are proud of their Irish heritage.

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

March 8, 2008

One of the Year’s Best Books About High School Sports, Mark Kreidler’s ‘Four Days to Glory,’ Returns in a Paperback Edition

Filed under: Paperbacks,Sports,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:53 pm
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Masterly reporting sheds light on an athletic subculture little-known outside the Midwest

You can’t envy parents, teachers and librarians who are looking for sports books for high school students. So many books in the category are cheesy celebrity biographies that foster the worship of false demigods instead of a love of reading or a real understanding of competition. Not Mark Kreidler’s Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland (Harper, 285 pp., $13.95, paperback, ages 13 and up), which recently came out in paperback www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/08/07/. Two high school wrestlers prepare to compete in the Iowa state championship in this book of masterly reporting that offers a fascinating portrait of a little-known athletic subculture www.markkreidler.com and www.harpercollins.com. Mary Ann Harlan rightly said in School Library Journal: “Teen wrestlers will appreciate a book that speaks to them and respectfully about them, and sports fans may find a new area to appreciate.”

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews, a site for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. You can find other reviews in the “Children’s Books,” “Young Adult,” “Caldecott Medals” and “Newbery Medals” categories at right.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

March 1, 2008

Why Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘Little House’ Books Aren’t Just for Girls (Quote of the Day / Jonathan Yardley)

Filed under: Children's Books,Classics — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:05 am
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Many people think of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books as a series for girls. But is it true? Jonathan Yardley wrote about Wilder’s books his “Second Reading” series in the Washington Post and recalled how much he had enjoyed Little House on the Prairie and Little House in the Big Woods as a child:

“What surprises me a bit in thinking back to my own reaction to these books as a boy is that it seems to have made no difference at all that girls, not boys, were at the center of these stories. Most of my favorite books were about boys — Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s The Story of a Bad Boy, Booth Tarkington’s Penrod and Sam — but I remember with great affection, even if I can remember neither the title nor the author, a memoir of a girlhood spent in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park, and as my reading habits advanced I thought Little Women a much better book than Little Men, which of course it is.

“I say this not in order to lay claim to preternaturally premature feminism, but to make the point that Wilder’s books are open and accessible to readers of both sexes. The girls whom she portrays are thoroughly feminine, but they also know how to load guns and do chores in and out of the house. Indeed, the chief trouble with the Laura Ingalls Wilder industry as it now exists is that it idealizes the girls of the frontier far more than Wilder did. The front cover of my copy of Little House in the Big Woods shows two cute-as-buttons girls in a bright, sunny woods, wearing clothes that look right out of Ralph Lauren. That may be good TV, but it’s bad Laura Ingalls Wilder.”

To read all of Yardley’s comments on Wilder, click here: www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/11/07/AR2007110702595.html.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

December 7, 2007

A Boy and His Dog Enjoy Christmas Without Commercialism in Cynthia Rylant’s ‘Henry and Mudge in the Sparkle Days’

The snow sparkles, and so do the words and pictures in this book for beginning readers

Henry and Mudge in the Sparkle Days: The Fifth Book of Their Adventures (Henry and Mudge Ready-to-Read). Words by Cynthia Rylant. Pictures by Suçie Stevenson. Aladdin, 48 pp., $3.99, paperback. Also available in hardcover and audio editions. Ages 4–8.

By Janice Harayda

The books known as “easy readers” are paradoxically among the hardest to write. They need to have simple words yet enough depth to captivate children whose thoughts are more complex than the sentences they are able to read.

Strong pictures help – that’s partly why the Dr. Seuss easy readers are so effective – but children’s books begin with good stories. And writing them for 6-to-8-year-olds is difficult enough that even the gifted Kate DiCamillo has so far come up short in her new “Mercy Watson” series for that age group.

Cynthia Rylant is a master of the art of the easy reader, and in Suçie Stevenson she has found an illustrator whose comic style suits her work the way nutmeg suits eggnog. Henry and Mudge in the Sparkle Days consists of three short stories, each about enjoying a winter pleasure – the first snowfall, a Christmas Eve dinner and a family walk at night followed by a quiet time in front of a fireplace. This sort of material reduces lesser writers and artists to utter sappiness.

But Rylant and Stevenson invest it with high drama, whether Mudge is destroying Henry’s snow angels or crying in a bedroom because he “hadn’t been invited to the fancy Christmas Eve dinner because he was a dog.” Their story has real warmth and emotion, rooted in family members’ love for one another and their pet.

These virtues alone might earn Henry and Mudge in the Sparkle Days a spot on a young child’s reading list. But there is something else: Rylant achieves her effects without pandering to children. All of the stories focus on simple pleasures of home and family, not on expensive gifts. Stevenson’s Christmas Eve scenes show a tree strung with popcorn, a house decorated with greenery and two discreetly wrapped presents (which may or may not be for Henry and Mudge). Henry and Mudge in the Sparkle Days www.henryandmudge.com is about a holiday without what’s usually called “commercialism.” But it doesn’t moralize or engage in self-congratulation. It dramatizes, with clarity and wit, its theme that Christmas is about the people (and animals) you love. And that makes it a book worth rereading in any season.

Best line/picture: Stevenson’s picture of Henry in a snow gear, including a ski mask, is a hoot. Henry has his arms outstretched as if to say, “What am I doing in all of this stuff?” The picture fits the text perfectly, because on the next page we learn that Mudge “barked and barked and barked at the strange creature.”

Worst line/picture: None

Furthermore: Rylant’s 30 Henry and Mudge books include Henry and Mudge and a Very Merry Christmas (Aladdin, $3.99, paperback), which I haven’t seen http://www.henryandmudge.com. But School Library Journal said that “Rylant’s words and Stevenson’s pictures work together to create a charming and funny holiday title” that children and adults will enjoy all year long. Rylant www.en.wikipedia/wiki/Cynthia_Rylant also wrote Missing May, which won the Newbery Medal from the American Library Association www.ala.org.

Published: 1997 www.simonsayskids.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

www.janiceharayda.com

A Review of a ‘Henry and Mudge’ Christmas Story for Beginning Readers Coming Tomorrow

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Looking for a Christmas story for a child who is learning to read?

Henry and his dog, Mudge, celebrate the first snowfall and Christmas Eve in Henry and Mudge in the Sparkle Days, part of the popular “Henry and Mudge” www.henryandmudge.com series of beginning-reader books for roughly 6-to-8-year-olds, by Cynthia Rylant with pictures by Sucie Stevenson. A review of the book will appear tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews.

For other reviews of children’s books, please click on the “Children’s Books” category under the “Top Posts” lists at right.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

November 17, 2007

John Burningham’s ‘Edwardo: The Horriblest Boy in the Whole Wide World’ – More Fun for Preschoolers From One of England’s Best Author-Illustrators

Edwardo: The Horriblest Boy in the Whole Wide World. By John Burningham. Knopf, 32 pp., $12.29. Ages 2 and up. [Note: I’m having computer problems that keep me from showing a better image of the cover of Edwardo, which is much more attractive than it looks here. Jan]

By Janice Harayda

John Burningham is an ideal author-illustrator for preschoolers who are delightful nonconformists. His career began more than 40 years ago when he won the Kate Greenaway Medal, England’s Caldecott, for his first book, Borka: The Adventures of a Goose With No Feathers. Since then his book have won honors as wide-ranging as the German Youth Literature Prize and a Best Book Award from School Library Journal.

Like his countryman Quentin Blake, Burningham has a distinctively witty style of drawing that allows him to find humor in ordinary circumstances. He appeals to the latent anarchist in every preschooler, partly because he tends to depict — and give the last word to — boys and girls who are slightly out-of-step with others. He makes clear that children have vibrant inner lives that adults often misunderstand. But he doesn’t moralize. He dramatizes amusing stories in which young children can see themselves.

Burningham’s latest picture book gives an amusing twist to the theme that children become what adults expect them to be. Edwardo is seen by his elders as loud, rude, mean and dirty – “the horriblest boy in the whole wide world” – until he kicks over a flower pot. A bystander gives him praise instead of the criticism he’s used to hearing. “I see you are starting a little garden, Edwardo,” the man says. “It looks lovely. You should get some more plants.” Edwardo finds that he has a green thumb and, as other adults also begin to treat him more kindly, more talents.

Edwardo: The Horriblest Boy in the Whole Wide World isn’t as effective as some of Burningham’s earlier books, including the wonderful John Patrick Norman McHennessey: The Boy Who Was Always Late. But even the second-tier books from this gifted author are better than most of what you’ll find at bookstores this season. And because Burningham has a deservedly high reputation, many libraries have his books. So here’s a suggestion: If you know preschooler whose motto might as well be, “Why Can’t Everybody Be More Like Me?,” head for the “B” shelves in the picture-book section of your bookstore or library. Leaf through any books you can find by Burningham, and see if they don’t capture something of that child’s spirit.

Best line/picture: Before he reforms, Edwardo dresses has comically spiky hair. This suggests aptly that he’s so bad, he makes even his own hair stand on end.

Worst line: The title. Atypically for Burningham, Edwardo: The Horriblest Boy in the Whole Wide World is more cute than funny. Compare that title with that of John Patrick Norman McHennesseu: The Boy Who Was Always Late, which has a stronger rhythm and is more suggestive. And isn’t clear why Burningham used the nonstandard spelling of Eduardo, which isn’t quite funny enough to be funny. Edwardo seems to deserve either a weirder name or one that, like John Patrick Norman McHennessey’s, carries more weight.

Published: April 2007 www.randomhouse.com/kids

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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