One-Minute Book Reviews

May 21, 2010

A Grade-by-Grade List of Books Recommended for Summer Reading for Children and Teenagers

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At this time of year, many libraries hand out lists of books recommended for summer reading for children and teenagers in different school grades. If yours doesn’t or if you’d like more ideas, visit the terrific site for the Highland Park, Illinois, Public Library. This site has a list of books recommended for each school grade (such as “Hot Fifth Grade Titles” and “Riveting Sixth Grade Books”) divided into categories such as “Adventure,” “Biography,” “Historical Fiction,” “Sports” and “Mysteries.” And unlike the flyers at many libraries, this master list has a link to one or more reviews of each recommended book so you can quickly learn more about it.

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

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

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

April 29, 2010

Coming Saturday – A Review of Lois Lowry’s ‘Crow Call’

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Two-time Newbery Medal winner Lois Lowry is one of America’s most honored authors of middle-grade fiction. On Saturday One-Minute Book Reviews will have a review of her first picture book, Crow Call, with art by Bagram Ibatoulline, who illustrated Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.

March 26, 2010

Girl With a Gun – Deborah Hopkinson’s Sing-Along Picture Book, ‘Stagecoach Sal,’ Illustrated by Carson Ellis

Stagecoach Sal: Inspired by a True Tale. By Deborah Hopkinson. Pictures by Carson Ellis. Disney/Hyperion, 24 pp., $16.99. Ages 6 and under.

By Janice Harayda
“Based on a true story” often masks weaknesses in a plot. It may mean: “Hey, don’t blame us! It really happened that way.” A case in point is Stagecoach Sal, an attractive picture book “inspired” by the life of the first woman to carry the U.S. mail by stagecoach in California.

Deborah Hopkinson drew on promising historical material for her tale of a rifle-loving girl who thwarts a bandit intent on stealing the mail she carries on her stagecoach. But the plot doesn’t entirely make sense. Young Sal gets a clear warning from her parents before she sets out alone on a stagecoach to deliver mail: “No passengers!” Sal ignores this sensible advice when accosted at a remote spot by a man she recognizes as a famous poetry-spouting bandit. Instead of driving away, she invites the stranger to ride shotgun on her stagecoach. And you’re never sure why, when she has horses and the man seems to have none: Did she have a rebellious streak? Too much faith in her reputation as “a crack shot”? A misplaced desire to help?

Sal distracts the bandit from his desire to rob her by singing songs, Scheherazade-like, as they ride: “Polly Wolly Doodle,” “Sweet Betsy From Pike,” “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” and “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me!” Hopkinson integrates these toe-tappers well into her story. And given the gaps in her plot, the songs – and Carson Ellis’s warm and lively pictures – account for much of the appeal of the book. Stagecoach Sal is no Brave Irene, William Steig’s tale of a girl who plunges into snowstorm to deliver a dress made by her seamstress mother, a book that beautifully evokes its young heroine’s character and struggle. But Hopkinson and Eliis offer an easygoing introduction to several classic folksongs that many children know less well than “Baby Beluga.” And leaky plot ultimately may count for less than the fun of singing at bedtime, “Oh, I went down South / for to see my Sal / singing Polly wolly doodle all the day.”

Best line/picture: Ellis’s fine illustrations include nice touches such as a compass at the bottom of one page, a pig tied to a covered wagon on another.

Worst line/picture: Hopkinson says in an afterword that you can hear “some of Sal’s favorite songs” on the Kids’ Pages of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. True, but frustration awaits anyone who reads that “some” as “all.” I couldn’t find “Sweet Betsy From Pike” after many searches of the recommended site using varied spellings of Betsy, quotations from the lyrics and more. Eventually  the lyrics and part of the music on turned up on Wikipedia.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. She satirizes American literary culture, such as is its, on her Fake Book News page on Twitter (@FakeBookNews).

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

March 12, 2010

Good Passover Books For Boys and Girls Ages 4 and Up

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Cover of Wonders and Miracles by Eric KimmelA picture book and an anthology explain the Seder and more

Miriam’s Cup: A Passover Story. By Fran Manushkin. Illustrated by Bob Dacey. Scholastic, 32 pp., $5.99, paperback. Ages 4 and up.

Wonders and Miracles: A Passover Companion. Written and Compiled by Eric A. Kimmel. Scholastic, 144 pp., $18.95. Publisher: 4–8. School Library Journal: 9–12. [See further discussion of ages below.]

By Janice Harayda

Many children’s books about Passover cover essentially the same material, including the story of Moses and his sister, Miriam, and why some  families place a Miriam’s Cup next to the Elijah’s Cup at the Seder, the Passover meal. Among those with staying power:

Miriam’s Cup is a picture book that refracts the Passover story through the eyes of a modern family preparing for the holiday. Before guests arrive for the Seder, Mama Pinsky tells her daughter, Miriam, about the “the prophet you are named for.” Mama’s account focuses on the biblical heroine’s role in events more often associated with her brother Moses — his discovery in the bulrushes, his flight from Egypt, the plagues of frogs and other afflictions, and the parting of the Red Sea.

The text of Miriam’s Cup is at times stilted. The Pinskys are modern enough to have a Miriam’s Cup at their Seder, but Miriam Pinsky calls her parents “Mama” and “Papa” as though living in the early 20th century. And although Fran Manushkin never says so directly, her book has a feminist slant. (Anybody who doesn’t recall seeing Miriam on the list of prophets in that Bible-as-literature class in college may want to read the entry about her on Wikipedia). But Bob Dacey’s bold watercolors draw you in quickly and help to offset the effect of the anachronisms, and the book includes a bonus: the words and music to Debbie Friedman’s “Miriam’s Song” based on Exodus 15:20–21.

Wonders and Miracles won a National Jewish Book Award  and is, in effect, a children’s coffee-table book – an exquisite collection of poems, stories, prayers, recipes, and more – that befits the high reputation of Eric A. Kimmel, who wrote the Caldecott Medal runner-up Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. His Passover anthology doen’t include a complete Haggadah, the collection of readings used at the Passover meal. Instead Kimmel walks children through each part of the Seder, explaining why it matters with the help of beautiful illustrations spanning three centuries – from an Egyptian tomb painting to contemporary photographs of three versions of a Miriam’s Cup (silver, glass, and clay).

If the publisher and School Library Journal disagree on the ages for this book, it’s because Wonders and Miracles has something for all. J. Patrick Lewis’s simple rhyming poem “Spirit of the Seder” would suit preschoolers. Gershon Levine’s story “And You Shall Teach Your Children” makes a good introduction for adolescents to the Soviet Jews known as “refusniks” who lost their jobs or were investigated by the secret police if they tried to practice Judaism or move to Israel. And adults might appreciate the recipes for almond macaroons (“a lovely change from the traditional coconut macaroons”) or both an Ashkenazic and Sephardic charoset.

For all its virtues, this book has such an unexpected dust jacket I might have missed it if a children’s librarian hadn’t put it in my hands when I asked for “the best Passover books.” The cover comes from the gifted Bagram Ibatoulline (creator of the crucified rabbit for Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane). Ibatoulline shows Moses and Aaron in red tunics that make them look like – there’s no getting around this – Santa Claus, with seraphim and cherubim above and below them. An editorial note traces the cover influences to the Amsterdam Haggadah “illustrated by a Jewish convert who copied his illustrations from a Christian source.” And while the winged angels might confuse some children about Jewish beliefs, in a sense the cover brilliantly reflects the spirit of this book. On his first page, Kimmel tells us that Passover is ancient and modern, solemn and joyous, and timeless and ever-changing. It is, in other words, “a holiday filled with contractions.”

Ages: The publisher recommends Wonders and Miracles for ages 4–8 while School Library Journal suggests 9–12. Both are right. But very young children might destroy this book while some 11- and 12-year-olds might be too old for some of it. I would probably give it to 6-to-9-year-olds or as a “family” gift.

Published: March 2006 and Feb. 1998 (paperback and hardcover editions of Miriam’s Cup) and Feb. 2004 (Wonders and Miracles, hardcover only available).

This is a repost of a review that appeared in slightly different form in 2007. You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter, where she often comments on children’s books.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 6, 2010

Hare-Brained Books About Bunnies — Beware of Rip-Offs of ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’ and Other Classics

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Bad bunny books and some recommended substitutions for the Easter basket

If you’re looking good books about bunnies, beware of the words “based on.” That phrase on a cover is usually a tip-off that you aren’t getting the original text, pictures or both. And some books omit even that red flag. Two examples are Peter Rabbit (Ideals, $3.95) and The Velveteen Rabbit (Ideals, $3.95), which have the words of Beatrix Potter and Margery Williams but pictures far inferior to those in the best-known editions of their books. Publishers can do this because The Tale of Peter Rabbit and The Velveteen Rabbit are out of copyright in the U.S. (though not necessarily in all other countries). Some knock-offs of these classics cost as much as books with the original text and art.

So why not go for the real thing? Or consider any of the many other good books about rabbits. They include Pat the Bunny (Golden Books, $9.99, ages 1–3), by Dorothy Kunhardt; The Runaway Bunny (HarperCollins, $16.99, ages 2–5), by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd; and Bunny Cakes and Bunny Money (Picture Puffins, $5.99 each, ages 3–5), by Rosemary Wells or other titles in Wells’s hilarious “Max and Ruby” series about a brother and sister rabbit.

For ages 6 and up, consider the chapter-books about Bunnicula the “vampire rabbit” (well, it does drain juice from vegetables), by James Howe and Deborah Howe, illustrated Alan Daniel. The titles in this comic mystery series may tell you all you need to know: Bunnicula, Bunnicula Strikes Again!, Howliday Inn, Return to Howliday Inn and The Celery Stalks at Midnight (Aladdin, $4.99–$5.99 each).

This post first appeared in slightly different form in 2007. You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 27, 2010

‘Tsunami!’ — A Picture Book That Explains a Monster Wave to Children

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A farmer sacrifices his rice crop to save his neighbors from a monster wave in Kimiko Kajikawa’s recent picture book Tsunami! (Philomel, 32 pp., $16.99, ages 4 and up), illustrated  by Caldecott medalist Ed Young and adapted from a story by Lafcadio Hearn. “Young knows how to evoke devastation without needless gore, and throughout the book he does with it vibrant collage-like images that, unlike his more realistic cover picture, have an abstract-expressionist spirit,” an Oct. 3 review on this site said. “He suggests – instead of showing in bloody detail – the power of a monster wave.” Read the full review here.

February 26, 2010

A Second Look at Ezra Jack Keats’s ‘The Snowy Day’

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A Caldecott medalist often called “the book that broke the color barrier” in children’s publishing

Winter still has enough muscle here in New Jersey that the library was closed for snow yesterday, so I couldn’t put my hands on a trailblazing book about the kind of weather we’re having now, Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day (Puffin, 40 pp., $6.99, paperback, and other editions). But an excellent reference book on children’s literature puts its achievement in context.

“Keats illustrated nearly a dozen books before writing his first, The Snowy Day, which won the 1963 Caldecott Medal,” former children’s librarian Mary Mehlman Burns writes in The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators(Houghton Mifflin, 2002), edited by Anita Silvey.

“A celebration of color, texture, design, and childhood wonder, The Snowy Day is significant in that it was one of the first picture books in which a minority child is seen as Everychild. Years before, Keats had come across photos of a young boy, and he recalled that ‘his expressive face, his body attitudes, the way he wore his clothes, totally captivated me.’ The boy was to become Peter, who, in his red snowsuit, discovers the joys of dragging sticks and making tracks in the snow. After its publication, Keats found out that the photos had come from a 1940 Life magazine – he had retained the images for over 20 years.

“With solid and patterned paper as wedges of color, Keats used collage to create endearing characters and energetic cityscapes, not only in The Snowy Day (1962) but also in Whistle for Willie (1964) and Peter’s Chair (1964).”

A generation of readers – black and white – is grateful to The Snowy Day, sometimes called “the book that broke the color barrier” in picture books from mainstream publishers. The editions include DVD-and-book gift set from Viking that also has Whistle for Willie.

You may also want to read “American Library Association to Little Kids: Women Are Second Best,” a response to the medals gap between male and female Caldecott winners.

This review first appeared in 2008.

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter. She satirizes the American literary culture, such as it is, on her Fake Book News page (@fakebooknews) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews.

http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/caldecottmedal/caldecottwinners/caldecottmedal.cfm

 

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
http://www.janiceharayda.com

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.

January 30, 2010

A Review of the 2010 Newbery Medal Winner, ‘When You Reach Me': Enjoyable? Yes. The Year’s ‘Most Distinguished’? Maybe Not.

A 12-year-old girl tries to figure out who’s sending her mysterious notes in a novel that pays homage to Madeleine L’Engle

When You Reach Me. By Rebecca Stead, 197 pp., Wendy Lamb/Random House, $15.99. Ages 9–12.

By Janice Harayda

When You Reach Me won the American Library Association’s latest John Newbery Medal, and it’s certainly an enjoyable and well-written book. But is it the year’s “most distinguished contribution” to children’s literature?

Maybe it depends on how you define “distinguished.” By my lights, the ALA citation implies: “a book that will seem as great decades from now.” And I’m not convinced that When You Reach Me passes that test, or that Rebecca Stead will hold her own against Newbery winners like Russell Freedman (Lincoln: A Photobiography) and Katherine Paterson (Bridge to Terabithia, Jacob I Have Loved).

Stead tells a cleverly plotted story about a bright 12-year-old named Miranda, who tries to decipher a series of mysterious and slightly ominous notes from an unknown sender in 1978–1979. The sender — whose knowledge of events seems to transcend the laws of time and space — may or may not live near the apartment Miranda shares with her mother on the Upper West Side of New York.

Miranda’s favorite book is Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, a novel about time-traveling children. And like that 1963 Newbery winner, When You Reach Me raises the question: Is time travel possible? Stead handles the issue well, offering enough science to keep her story plausible without turning it into a treatise.

But When You Reach Me deals with less complex questions than – and appears derivative in comparison to – L’Engle’s modern classic. Like most suspense novels, this one gets much of its appeal from its quick pace and ability to keep you guessing, not from its depth of characterization. Miranda’s mother has a boyfriend, “who is German but not strict or awful,” and whose German-ness resides mainly in his Aryan looks: You never understand why Stead made him German instead of another nationality.

Far more complex characterizations appear in Deborah Heiligman’s 2009 National Book Award finalist, Charles and Emma, which won a nonfiction award from the ALA. And Phillip Hoose tells a more powerful story in his Newbery Honor Book, the biography Claudette Colvin. Those books seem more likely to be important decades from now. If I had to assign grades, I’d give Charles and Emma and Claudette Colvin each an A or A-minus and When You Reach Me a B.

So why did the novel win the Newbery? Hard to say. It can’t have hurt that Stead’s novel subtly flatters the ALA by ratifying its choice for 1963 Newbery, or that its allusions to A Wrinkle in Time are a bonanza for teachers who love to assign compare-and-contrast exercises. Nor can it have hurt that, like the 1991 winner, Maniac Magee, the latest testifies to the joy of reading. When You Reach Me was also popular — a bestseller on Amazon — before it won, so it was a safe choice. And I’ve read few of the fiction candidates for the 2010 Newbery: If the judges wanted to honor a novel, though they didn’t have to, Stead’s may have been the best. So When You Reach Me gets a qualified endorsement: Amble to your library or bookstore for it if you’re inclined, and save your sprint for National Book Award winner Claudette Colvin.

Best line: Miranda has proprietary feelings about A Wrinkle in Time: “The truth is that I hate to think about other people reading my book.”

Worst line: “At the meetings, during which Mr. Nunzi has usually burned a new hole in our couch with his cigarette …” Doesn’t ring true. Most sofas sold in the U.S. contain polyurethane foam stuffing, which is highly flammable, and one cigarette burn can send them up in flames.

Art notes: The cover of this book does not serve it well. It shows greenish-gray grid that looks like a patchwork of lawns and suggests that the action takes place in a northern New Jersey suburb that faces New York skyline when, in fact, it’s set in Manhattan. And the book as a whole begged for illustrations.

Published: July 2009

Furthermore: Two reviews of When You Reach Me by librarians: Amanda Pape’s on her blog Bookin’ It and Elizabeth Bird’s on the School Library Journal blog.

Janice Harayda is a novelist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and the book columnist for Glamour. You can also follow her on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. She satirizes American literary culture and the publishing industry at www.twitter.com/fakebooknews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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