One-Minute Book Reviews

September 18, 2010

A Girl’s Imagination Blooms in the Picture Book ‘My Garden’

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The 2005 Caldecott medalist returns with a tale about the joys of solitude

My Garden. By Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow, 40 pp., $18.99. Ages 3–6.

By Janice Harayda

Kevin Henkes has won deserved praise for Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse and other picture books about a high-spirited mouse and her friends and family. But he also excels at telling quiet stories about the rewards people gain from spending time alone.

Nearly 30 years ago, Henkes made his picture-book debut with All Alone, which offered a boy’s view of things he could do on his own. Henkes returns to the theme of the joys of solitude in a book about a girl whose imagination blooms when she’s alone in the family garden. On the first spread, Henkes’s unnamed heroine helps her mother weed and water and “chase away the rabbits / so that they don’t eat all the lettuce” in their fenced-in garden. Then, until the last spread, the girl is alone on the page, and her imagination soars as she considers what life would be like “if I had a garden …”

Like a well-structured poem, My Garden links its young heroine’s fantasies with a refrain, “In my garden”: “In my garden, the flowers could change color / just by my thinking about it — / pink, blue, green, purple. Even patterns.” “In my garden, the rabbits wouldn’t eat the lettuce / because the rabbits would be chocolate / and I would eat them.” These lines reflect perfectly the thinking of children of a certain age – at once literal and wildly fanciful – and the illustrations are nearly as good. Henkes works in pen-and-ink and watercolor and doesn’t tart up his pictures with glitter, but when his heroine imagines strawberries that “glow like lanterns,” the fruit seems lit from within. And his palette — which runs to colors like pink and lilac and moss green — is soft-focused without being insipid.

Henkes’s pictures lack the depth and stylistic flair of the work of the best living picture-book illustrators, a group that includes Chris Van Allsburg, Maurice Sendak and Quentin Blake. But his words and pictures are so well integrated that My Garden works better than many books by greater artists who have written weak texts or were mismatched with authors who did. His heroine’s mother returns at just the right moment with her hands outstretched to show that people need both time alone and time with others. And if My Garden lacks the high comedy of the books about Lilly, its heroine has sly wit of her own. “What are you doing?” her mother asks on the last page. “Oh, nothing,” her daughter deadpans. “Just working in the garden.”

Best line/picture: “If I planted jelly beans, / I’d grow a great big jelly bean bush.” And there’s a nice echo of the nursery rhyme “Mary, Mary” in: “If I planted seashells, / I’d grow seashells.” The plaid sunflowers are also amusing, and the book has striking endpapers.

Worst line/picture: A hard-liner might argue that Henkes should have killed the italics and used stronger words in “I would eat them” and another line.

Published: February 2010

2011 Caldecott Medal scouting report: My Garden is less original than some books likely to receive serious consideration for the American Library Association’s award, such as Here Comes the Garbage Barge!. But it’s a safe choice, unlikely to cause trouble for any library that acquires it. Henkes won the 2005 Caldecott medal and an earlier Honor Book citation, and the ALA has a tradition of honoring the same authors repeatedly. No one should be surprised if this book wins.

About the author: Henkes won the 2005 Caldecott Medal for Kitten’s First Full Moon. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 13, 2010

A Review of the 2010 Caldecott Medal Winner, Jerry Pinkney’s ‘The Lion and the Mouse’

A vibrant interpretation of an Aesop’s fable roars its way to the American Library Association’s highest award for illustration

THE LION AND THE MOUSE. By Jerry Pinkney. Little, Brown, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 6 and under.

By Janice Harayda

Whoever decided that Jerry Pinkney should do a wordless book was a genius. For decades Pinkney has been creating beautiful art that has earned him a place in the first rank of American picture-book illustrators. But some of his books have had words so much weaker than their pictures that they were hard to recommend as highly as their art seemed to demand.

The cover of 'The Lion and the Mouse.'

That’s been true whether Pinkney wrote the books or illustrated someone else’s. And until this year unexciting writing may have deprived him of a Caldecott Medal, which he won last month for The Lion and the Mouse. Caldecott judges aren’t supposed to consider the text of a book unless it interferes with the pictures, but whether or not it “interferes” is a judgment call. And by my lights, the writing in Pinkney’s books sometimes did get in the way. You just don’t want to recommend bad free verse, however attractively packaged, to preschoolers.

Pinkney needed to get words of out of the way of his pictures, and he did it in his near-wordless version of an Aesop’s fable, The Lion and the Mouse. Set in the Serengeti of Kenya and Tanzania, his adaptation teems with creatures lushly rendered in sunny watercolors: monkeys, giraffes, elephants, butterflies, gazelles and what appear to be wildebeest. Pinkney adds a few elements to the original tale of a mouse who repays a lion for saving its life by returning the favor: Most notably, he gives the mouse babies, which adds a dimension to the sparing of its life. But his art stays close to the original story and faithful to its theme: No act of kindness is ever in vain. And “the meek can trump the mighty,” as Pinkney says in an afterword.

Children over the age of 4 or so should grasp easily the plot of all this, though the only words are animal sounds such as the squeaks of mice. Whether children will grasp the moral that is indispensable to any Aesop’s fable is less clear. So some might also want to read a more traditional version or watch a lively one-minute video of “The Lion and the Mouse” based on Tom Lynch’s Fables From Aesop (Viking, 2007). Either way, the revival of this fable shows again why stories become classics: They never shed their truth but allow each generation to interpret them in its own way.

Best line/picture: The cover. Not putting type on the cover was great for two reasons. One is that it suggests that The Lion and the Mouse is wordless. The other is that cover image is so strong, type might have detracted from it. The detail is clear and rich that you can count the lion’s whiskers. Not sure why the lion is looking toward the spine instead of the pages, though, which seems to take your eyes in the wrong direction.

Worst line/picture: None. But you wonder if lions and zebras ever stayed so peacefully side-by-side as on the beautiful front endpaper.

Published: September 2009

Furthermore: Jerry Pinkney won the 2010 Caldecott Medal for The Lion and the Mouse.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can also follow her Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. She satirizes American literary culture on Twitter at FakeBookNews (@FakeBookNews), which you can preview at www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews. Some of her satirical tweets involve the Newbery and Caldecott awards.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 31, 2009

2010 Newbery and Caldecott Medal Winners to Be Announced at 7:45 a.m. EST on Jan. 18 – American Library Association to Give Results on Live Webcast and on Twitter

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The American Library Association will announce the winners of the 2010 Caldecott and Newbery medals for children’s books on Monday, January 18, at 7:45 a.m. EST, during its Youth Media Awards ceremony in Boston. The ALA will offer a live Webcast of the event at http://alawebcast.unikron.com with limited connections available on a first-come first served basis. The organization plans also to tweet the results on Twitter at twitter.com/ALAyma and post the winners’ names at www.ala.org/yma by 9:30 a.m. EST on its Web site.

October 17, 2009

Why Was the Book ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ a Trailblazer? A Classic Reconsidered

Why did Where the Wild Things Are seem revolutionary when it appeared in 1963? What qualities helped it win the 1964 Caldecott Medal? And why has it lasted long enough to inspire a new Spike Jonze movie? A review of the trailblazing children’s book by Maurice Sendak appeared in the “Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read” series on One-Minute Book Reviews.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

September 19, 2009

Arthur Yorinks and Richard Egielski Hand in Their ‘Homework’

A pencil and other objects come to life to help a boy write a story for school

Homework. By Arthur Yorinks. Illustrated by Richard Egielski. Walker, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 4 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Household objects that come to life have been inspiring brilliant picture books since the Victorian era, when Randolph Caldecott drew a dish running away with a spoon for Hey Diddle Diddle. And few creative teams might have seemed better qualified to preserve the tradition than Richard Egielski, who won the 1987 Caldecott Medal for his pictures for Hey, Al, and Arthur Yorinks, who wrote the story for that book.

The plot of their latest collaboration certainly had promise: One night while he sleeps, a boy named Tony gets help with his homework from four objects on his desktop – a pencil, an eraser, a ballpoint pen and a fountain pen. The four decide to write a story for him about outer space. And the quartet’s bickering and attempts to improve one another’s work tell children something important about writing – that revision is a vital part of the process.

But the text of Homework begins with back-to-back clunky and ungrammatical sentences and moves on to worse. The eraser calls a pen “a jerk.” The pencil calls the eraser and a pen “nincompoops.” And in the interplanetary tale they concoct, the white captain of a spaceship gets attacked by a giant purple splotch and cries out for help to a black crew member – who runs away as his leader is being eaten and, apparently, killed. What message are children supposed to take away from this? That it’s okay to desert your friends in a crisis as long as you help them with small things like homework? And what will children make of a black character running away as a white one is devoured?

Yes, the tale is a fantasy and the objects return to inanimation after Tony awakens and finds inspiration in their work (suggesting that perhaps he dreamed what they wrote). But the lapses all the more lamentable because Richard Egielski – though his art is flatter than usual – uses a remarkable technique in Homework. Midway through the book, Egielski changes the look of the white Tony so that in his darkened bedroom he appears black and later Asian before he is white again when the lights come on again. He also does this so subtly that you might read the book several times before you even noticed it. This is near-genius not just because it allows boys of varied races to see themselves in the hero but because it reflects a truth: fantasy has an appeal that transcends race. For all the imperfections of Homework, a similar technique could enrich many other picture books.

Best line / picture: The first picture in which the white Tony appears black.

Worst line / picture: The opening sentences, “One night, like almost every night, Tony’s mom yelled, ‘Tony! Do your homework!’ And like almost every night, Tony didn’t do his homework.”

Published: July 2009

Furthermore: Yorinks lives in Brooklyn, NY, and Egielski in Milford, NJ. They have collaborated on nine books. Egielski also illustrated the recent The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan.

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

May 22, 2009

‘Anatole’ — A Classic Picture Book Every Child Should Read — Coming Tomorrow

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For more than 50 years, American children have enjoyed Anatole,  a Caldecott Honor Book that tells the story of a friendly French mouse who is shocked to discover that humans don’t like it when he feasts on their leftovers. What does the tale offer in the age of Webkinz and Dora the Explorer? And why has it inspired more than a half dozen sequels? A review will appear tomorrow in the “Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read” series on One-Minute Book Reviews, which reviews books for children or teenagers on Saturdays.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

January 28, 2009

2009 Caldecott Honor Book ‘A River of Words’ Introduces the Poet William Carlos Williams, Whose First Book Sold Four Copies

William Carlos Williams broke with the traditions of Longfellow and others.

A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams. By Jen Bryant. Illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 32 pp., $17. Ages 7 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Melissa Sweet says in a note at the end of this book that her “Brownie troupe” once visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That gaffe is, alas, all too typical of this runner-up for the title of “the most distinguished American picture book for children.”

Jen Bryant has written a lively but unexceptional introduction to the life of William Carlos Williams (1883—1963), who combined practicing medicine in a New Jersey suburb with writing experimental verse that broke with the classical traditions of 19th-century lions like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. A River of Words is the rare book for its age group that shows a man — not a woman — balancing multiple roles.

Williams’s best-known book of poetry, the multivolume Paterson, is often called collage of that city. And Sweet tries hard to apply the artistic counterpart of that technique. Working with mixed media, she combines watercolors and items from Williams’s world: a map, a report card, sheet music, pages from an anatomy book, the stationery from his medical office.

The poet Sara London wrote diplomatically in the New York Times Book Review that Sweet’s pictures are “playfully distracting – the eye hops sparrowlike from leaf to leaf, uncertain where to settle.” At times the images are so frenetic, they’re confusing. On one spread, the left-hand page shows Williams sitting at his desk writing poetry as a boy. The right-hand page shows in childlike handwriting the first lines of his poem “Pastoral”: “The little sparrows / hop ingenuously / about the pavement / quarreling.” The juxtaposition suggests that Williams wrote the poem as a child when, in fact, he wrote it in early adulthood.

Some people have criticized the American Library Association for not honoring enough poetry, and they have a point. The ALA has snubbed prize-worthy books like Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant, which combines wonderful pictures by Carin Berger with some of the best recent work by Jack Prelutsky, the popular children’s poet.

But giving a 2009 Honor Book citation to A River of Words was doing the right thing — showing respect for poetry — for the wrong reason. A River of Words deserves a place in many libraries and bookstores for its spirited and in some ways successful portrait of what it takes to succeed as a poet. That is different from deserving a place on the medal stand.

Best line/picture: A chronology of Williams’s life at the end of the book includes this event for 1909: “His first verse collection Poems is printed and published by a friend. It sells only four copies.” The line is incorrectly punctuated – Poems should be set off by commas – but it offers a healthy jolt of shock therapy to would-be poets.

Worst line/picture: From the illustrator’s note at the end: “Living in northern New Jersey (not too far from where Williams grew up in Rutherford), my Brownie troupe took a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.”

Furthermore: A River of Words won a 2009 Caldecott Honor citation. The book has the full text of Williams’s most famous poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow”, and five others: “The Woodthrush,” “The Great Figure,” “Metric Figure,” “This Is Just to Say”, and “Pastoral.” It has excerpts from “Complaint,” “The Descent of Winter” and “Part X, Pictures from Brueghel.” All of the poems appear on the endpapers.

About the authors: Jen Bryant lives in Glenmoore, Pennsylvania. Melissa Sweet lives in Rockport, Maine.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

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

January 26, 2009

Newbery and Caldecott Medals Don’t Determine the Long-Term Fate of a Children’s Book (Quote of the Day / Barbara Barstow)

How much difference will Newbery and Caldecott medals make to the winners named today? In the short run, a lot. Newbery and Caldecott medalists typically become bestsellers. They also gain prestige and a longer life on bookstore and library shelves.

But do medals determine the ultimate fate of a book? Not according to former Newbery judge Barbara Barstow, the retired head of youth services for the Cuyahoga County Public Library System and co-author of Beyond Picture Books: Subject Access to Best Books for Beginning Readers (Libraries Unlimited, 2007).

As the book editor of the Plain Dealer, I interviewed Barstow about children’s books that didn’t win a Newbery or Caldecott medal, including Charlotte’s Web. E.B. White’s classic earned an Honor Book citation but lost the top prize to Ann Nolan Clark’s Secret of the Andes.

“How do I feel about that?” Barstow asked. “I feel it was very tragic. But it didn’t matter ultimately because children made E. B. White immortal. Secret of the Andes is still there, and it’s like putting teeth to get a child to read it. If we make mistakes, the children rectify them.”

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 25, 2009

Jan the Hungarian Predicts … ‘We Are the Ship’ Will Win the 2009 Caldecott Medal

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Update 10:48 a.m. Eastern Time: We Are the Ship has won the 2009 Robert F. Silbert Medal for “the most distinguished informational book for children” from the American Library Association.

The latest in a series of occasional posts that predict the winners of major book awards

A last-minute prediction from Jan the Hungarian, about 11 hours before the American Library Association announces the winners of its 2009 Newbery and Caldecott medals …

Kadir Nelson’s We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball (Hyperion, 88 pp., $18.99) will win the 2009 Caldecott.

I’ve held off on calling this one because the text of this nonfiction book has obvious factual and other errors that Kevin Baker noted in his review in the New York Times Book Review (and that I confirmed easily). But the Caldecott judges aren’t allowed to consider the text unless it interferes with the pictures, so Nelson has a get-out-of-jail free pass on that one. And We Are the Ship strikes me as this year’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the novel that got the 2008 Caldecott despite its own flawed text (in which, among other things, the young hero wrongly blamed himself for the death of his father and the book left the issue unresolved).

Consider this: A big advantage The Invention of Hugo Cabret had over other 2008 candidates was its novelty. Brian Selznick told its story alternately in words and black-and-white drawings, merging the picture- and chapter-book formats in a way that no book had done. We Are the Ship has a similar novelty going for it: The art consists of dozens of original oil paintings. (When was the last time you saw that in a children’s book?) Nelson also uses only first-person plural narration (“we” instead of “I”), which – although the judges aren’t supposed to consider it — is even rarer than oil paintings in picture books. So like The Invention of Hugo Cabret, We Are the Ship would be a defensible choice, if not the ideal one. And I’m guessing that tomorrow, as so often in the past, the ALA will favor safety over risk-taking.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

January 24, 2009

Carin Berger’s Caldecott-Worthy ‘The Little Yellow Leaf’

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A fable about an oak leaf that doesn’t want to leave its tree

The Little Yellow Leaf. By Carin Berger. Greenwillow, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 2 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Carin Berger first caught my eye when her wonderful pictures nearly stole the show from Jack Prelutsky’s whimsical poems in Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant. Now she’s back with The Little Yellow Leaf, a book that has turned up on many lists of favorites for the Caldecott Medal that the American Library Association will award on Monday to “the most distinguished American picture book for children.” The ALA judges have good reason to consider this lovely fable.

Its plot works well on its own terms. A yellow oak leaf is “not ready” to fall from the tree in autumn and bides its time until early winter, when it finds a scarlet leaf left on the bough and the two agree to leave together. And throughout the book, Berger maintains suspense about how or whether the yellow leaf will leave its perch.

But The Little Yellow Leaf also works a parable about teamwork, or how a friend’s encouragement can make the difference when you’re facing a change. In that sense the book resembles such classics as The Story of Ferdinand and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, which tell good stories that have a second layer of meaning: They are parables about nonviolence and growing old, respectively.

Berger works in her signature mixed media that include exquisite cut-paper collages made from everyday items – a 1914 water bill, graph paper, faded snippets books or articles in several languages. Her most memorable illustration helps to show how the yellow leaf (actually, yellow and tawny) clings to its branch day and night: It’s a two-page image of the sun made from thousands of tiny hand-cut squares and rectangles, each unique, laid out in a parquet design. Such humble materials show the beauty of recycled objects.

Berger also has a fine and subtle sense of color, one of the best I’ve seen in a living picture-book artist. She knows how to infuse a muted palette with drama by using techniques such as shifting perspectives that show her leaf from varied angles and distances. Her work benefits further from two exceptional design elements: an unusual vertical format that suggests the shape of a tree and an extra set of endpapers at the front and back (for a total of four in front and four in back) that trace the path of a leaf in midair and draw your eye into and out of the book.

The Little Yellow Leaf is old-fashioned book in the best sense of that term — meticulously crafted and free of commercial taint — that will compete against flashier books, some of them much less effective, in the Caldecott stakes. So I’d guess that if it wins a 2009 award, it will be an Honor Book citation, not the top prize. And although it isn’t the only medal-worthy book of the year, I’d be delighted if I were proved wrong on Monday.

Best line/picture: “Into the waiting wind they danced … ”

Worst line/picture: “A chill filled the air / and the sun sank slow.”

Recommendation? Apart from its high artistic merits. this book could help children explore their feelings about many events for which with they don’t feel ready, such as the first day of school, preschool, or day care.

Published: August 2008

Furthermore: The Little Yellow Leaf was one of the New York Times’s Best Illustrated Books of the Year. Carin Berger lives in New York City and shows an unusually generous number of illustrations from the book on her Web site.

You can also follow Jan on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

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

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