One-Minute Book Reviews

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.

January 23, 2010

A Second Look at a Controversial Newbery Medal Winner, Susan Patron’s ‘The Higher Power of Lucky’

Note: I’m reading the 2010 Newbery medalist, When You Reach Me, and will review it soon. This is a repost of a review of the controversial 2007 winner.

The Higher Power of Lucky: A Novel. By Susan Patron. Illustrated by Matt Phelan. Atheneum: A Richard Jackson Book, 135 pp., $16.95. Age range: 9-11. [See further comments about these ages at the end of the review.]

By Janice Harayda

Who would have thought that the American Library Association would give its most prestigious award for children’s literature to a novel that uses the word “scrotum” on the first page? Not those of us who have observed its choices for years and have found that they tend to suffer from an excess of caution, often rewarding deserving books only after children have embraced them.

So it was, in a sense, startling that the ALA gave the 2007 Newbery Medal to Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky, which tells the story of a 10-year-old orphan named Lucky Trimble who hears what an Amazon reviewer has called “the s word” while eavesdropping on a 12-step meeting through a hole in the wall. Patron writes on the first page:

“Sammy told of the day when he had drunk half a gallon of rum listening to Johnny Cash all morning in his parked ’62 Cadillac, then fallen out of the car when he saw a rattlesnake on the passenger seat biting his dog, Roy, on the scrotum.”

This is hardly shocking language when many 3-year-olds know the words “penis” and “vagina” and psychologists routinely urge parents to introduce the medically correct terms for genitalia as soon as their children can understand them. You would think that librarians would rejoice in the arrival of a book that supports this view instead of rolling out words you are more likely to hear from children, such as “dickhead” and “butt-head” and, of course, the deathless “poopy-head.”

But some people have reacted to The Higher Power of Lucky though Patron had issued a manifesto in favor of kiddie porn. At least a few libraries have banned the novel, the New York Times reported yesterday. And a librarian in Durango, Colorado, accused Patron of using “a Howard Stern-type shock treatment” to attract attention.

All of this distracts from the more important question: How good is this book?

Answer: Not bad. I’d give it a B or B-minus, though it was far from the best work of children’s literature published last year. I haven’t read all the candidates for 2007 Newbery, including the Honor Books. But among those I have read, Patron’s novel has less literary merit than Kate DiCamillos’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane or Laura Amy Schlitz’s A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, both rumored on library listservs and elsewhere to have been contenders for the award.

But The Higher Power of Lucky does have virtues, some of which are more therapeutic than literary. Patron describes the principles of 12-step programs not just for alcoholics but for “gamblers, smokers, and overeaters.” This may help many children who have relatives in such programs and don’t understand them. And Lucky is an intrepid and often amusing heroine who defies a few female stereotypes. She loves science, has close male friends, and lives in a trailer in the Mojave Desert, which has a dramatic landscape that Patron describes vibrantly. No one could accuse this novel of fostering the rampant materialism you see in so many children’s books. The Higher Power of Lucky also has evocative black-and-white illustrations by Matt Phelan that add so much to the book that you wonder if it would have had a shot at the Newbery without them. Perhaps above all, the novel has a worthy theme: What constitutes a “family”?

So what’s not to like about the book? The writing — vivid as it can be — is at times careless or clunky. Patron confuses “lay” and “lie” in a line of dialogue on page 4, and while you could argue that this misuse is in character for the speaker, she makes similar lapses in expository passages. She tells us that a character had “a very unique way of cooking.” She does not appear to have mastered the use of the semicolon and overuses it, including in conversation, in a book for children who may themselves be struggling to figure out its purpose. She also italicizes so many words — a sign of weak writing — that her book reads at times like a children’s version of the old Cosmopolitan edited by Helen Gurley Brown.

Most of all, some aspects of the plot and Lucky’s character are thin and underdeveloped. Toward the end of the book, Lucky behaves recklessly and is also dangerously mean to a friend. And while such events might have made less difference earlier in the book, they come so late that Patron has left herself too little time to persuade us that her heroine has learned from them. Other late events are insufficiently foreshadowed to make them believable. And that brings us back to that incendiary “scrotum.”

Lucky finally does learn the meaning of the word. But it turns out to have so little relation to the rest of the plot that its use in the beginning looks gratuitous. The metaphorical gun on the wall in the first act turns out to be firing blanks. The Higher Power of Lucky is not about its heroine’s sexual development or anything else that might have justified the use of the word. Patron could have reworked the offending passage with no loss to the book. In that sense, she may have made a mistake. But libraries would be making an even more serious one if they ban a book that has much to offer children.

Best line: This book has many good descriptions of the landscape of the Mojave, such as this image of a dust storm: “Tiny twisters of sand rose up from the ground, as if miniature people were throwing handfuls in the air.”

Worst line: Clearly many people think it’s the one about the scrotum. For variety I’ll go with the ungrammatical first line of the third chapter, which includes a dangling modifier: “Out of the millions of people in America who might become Lucky’s mother if Brigitte went home to France, Lucky wondered about some way to trap and catch exactly the right one.”

Age range: The publisher recommends this book for ages 9-to-11. But The Higher Power of Lucky has a much less complex plot and smaller cast than many novels beloved by children in that age group, such as the Harry Potter novels. And its heroine is a 10-and-a-half-year-old fifth-grader, and children tend to read “up,” or prefer stories about characters who are older than they are. So this book may have much more appeal for children below its age range, including 7- and 8-year-olds, than 11-year-olds. This fact may explain much of the controversy about the book. Many librarians and teachers who would have no trouble with the word “scrotum” in a book for fifth-graders may be upset because they know that this one will end up in the hands of many second- and third-graders.

Furthermore: A reading group guide to The Higher Power of Lucky is saved in the “Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guides” category. One-Minute Book Reviews also posted an analysis of why the novel might have won the Newbery.

Published: November 2006

Furthermore: Patron’s name is pronounced “pa-TRONE.”

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter, where she comments on books at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda and satirizes American literary culture at www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews.

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent literary blog created by Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist and who has been book editor of  the Plain Dealer and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle.

(c) 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 9, 2010

A Lion Shares in Matthew McElligott’s Fable ‘The Lion’s Share’

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A lion and an ant act courteously when other animals make pigs of themselves

The Lion’s Share: A Tale of Halving Cake and Eating it. By Matthew McElligott. Walker, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

A children’s librarian suggested I read this book when I couldn’t find Jerry Pinkney’s The Lion and the Mouse, and I’m not sorry she did. The almost-too-cute homophone in the subtitle — halving your cake — is the sort of device that can bode ominously. And the wordplay doesn’t end there. The Lion’s Share is a literary triple-layer cake — a fable, an etiquette lesson, and an introduction to fractions — about a lion who shares the lion’s share of his triple-layer cake with an ant and other animals.

But Matthew McElligott integrates the wordplay well into in a story amusingly illustrated with digitally enhanced ink and watercolor. And he offers lively lessons in fractions, and practice in counting to 256, as all of his creatures except the lion and the ant make pigs of themselves at dinner. In a tale with an Aesopian flavor, an ant who politely waits her turn for cake seems at first to lose but wins in the end.

Best line/picture: McElliggott devotes one page to nothing but pictures of 256 peanut-butter cakes and makes it interesting.

Worst line/picture: Still not sure about that “halving cake” in the subtitle …

Ages: In schools this book is most likely to be used in grades 1–3. But it would suit any child who hasn’t outgrown picture books and is starting to learn multiplication and division.

Published: February 2009

Furthermore: McElligott teaches at Sage College in Albany, NY.  Besides a lion and an ant, The Lion’s Share involves a beetle, frog,  macaw, warthog, tortoise, gorilla, hippo, and an elephant.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter. She comments on books at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda and satirizes American literary culture and the publishing industry at www.twitter.com/fakebooknews.

December 26, 2009

Children’s Poems About January

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Do poets have trouble finding rhymes for “hangover”? Or believe that all kids go to bed early on Dec. 31? For whatever reason, there are few good children’s New Year’s Day, compared with the many about Christmas, Thanksgiving and other major holidays. But John Updike wrote a lovely poem about January that appears in his A Child’s Calendar (Holiday House, 32 pp., ages 4-8), and in The Random House Book of Poetry for Children (Random House, 248 pp., $22.99, ages 12 and under), selected by Jack Prelutsky. “January” doesn’t mention the New Year but celebrates the month with rhyming iambic quatrains: “The days are short, / The sun a spark / Hung thin between / The dark and dark.” The Random House Book of Poetry for Children also includes Sara Coleridge’s poem “The Months,” which has 12 rhyming couplets, one for each month, that begin: “January brings the snow, / makes our feet and fingers glow.”

This post first appeared on Dec. 28, 2008. You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 20, 2009

Gift Ideas for Kids — The Winners of 2009 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards for Excellence in Children’s Literature

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We won’t know the next winners of American Library Association’s Newbery and Caldecott medals until Jan. 18. But if you’re looking for ideas for children’s gifts before then, you might want to print and save this list of books that won the most recent Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards for excellence in children’s literature. Only American authors are eligible for ALA honors. But the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards are open to anyone who has had a book published in the U.S., so they can show more diversity than the librarians’ awards. Two examples: The latest winners include Nation, the British Terry Pratchett’s young-adult novel about two 19th-century children who create a society from scratch, and Bubble Trouble, by the New Zealander Margaret Mahy, illustrated by England’s Polly Dunbar. And this month the Horn Book posted its list of the best books of 2009 for children and teenagers, which also includes Bubble Trouble.

November 27, 2009

A Lift-the-Flap Book About Transportation — William Low’s ‘Machines That Work’

An artist born in a taxi shows a train, fire truck and other vehicles in action

Machines Go To Work. By William Low. Holt, 42 pp., $14.95. Ages 5 and under.

By Janice Harayda

William Low was born in the back seat of a taxi in the Bronx, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that he has written an excellent book about transportation. Machines Go to Work unfolds as a series of small dramas about familiar conveyances, all described in a clear and at times onomatopoetic text – a backhoe, fire truck, cement mixer, tow truck, tugboat, container ship, freight train, and news helicopter.

In each case Low introduces a machine, then asks a question or makes a statement that encourages you to lift a flap and see it in action. He writes on one spread: “When the drawbridge opens, the container ship may pass. Will it fit through the narrow gap?” You lift a flap and see the ship passing under the raised bridge with the help of red tugboat. On another spread Low shows a helicopter rushing toward a news event: “Is there an accident ahead?” No, just a row of ducklings crossing a street.

Cynics may see Low’s ducklings as a form of brazen pandering to American Library Association awards judges — who gave their 1942 Caldecott Medal to Make Way for Ducklings — while others may view them as a lovely homage to Robert McCloskey’s classic. But Machines Go to Work is so good, it hardly matters. Low suggests the power of his machines through rich, saturated colors and what appear to be thick oil-paint brushstrokes but are, in fact, digital art created with Photoshop and Painter software.

Low has also found a way around the problem with most lift-the-flap books: Children can too easily rip off the flaps. All of his “flaps” are sturdy full-page gatefolds, which should make the pages last for the life of the book. And at the back, Low explains what each machine does in a helpful thumbnail sketch. Low writes of the fire truck: “This truck is so long that it needs two steering wheels: one in the front and one in the back!” His deft blend of drama and facts would make this a fine gift for a 2-to-4-year-old who loves anything with wheels.

Best line/picture: The freight train gatefold opens out to four pages (instead of the three the other machines get) to show “its 22 cars and a caboose in the back.”

Worst line/picture: Low calls cherry trees “cherry blossom trees,” which may be how children see them but also leave a misimpression about their name.

Published: May 2009

Furthermore: Low explains how he creates his digital images in a three-part video on the Holt site.

About the author: Low‘s picture books include Old Penn Station, a New York Times Best Illustrated Book.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter (@janiceharayda) www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. Children’s book reviews appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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