One-Minute Book Reviews

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

September 11, 2009

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

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:47 pm
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A collection of 16 light-hearted poems, each about a bird, insect or animal

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

By Janice Harayda

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worst line: “The platypus is quite unique.”

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

Published: October 2008

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

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

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

September 5, 2009

‘Officer Buckle and Gloria’ – School-Safety Tips From a Caldecott Medalist

Do the kids need a few more school-safety lessons before their classes begin? Pick up Officer Buckle and Gloria (Putnam, 40 pp., $16.99, ages 7 and under). Peggy Rathmann won the 1996 Caldecott Medal for this picture book, and her art is no match for that of honorees like Maurice Sendak, Chris Van Allsburg and Virginia Lee Burton. But Officer Buckle and Gloria tells the lively story of a high-spirited dog who helps a luckless policeman teach schoolchildren vital safety lessons such as: Don’t stand on swivel chairs, and don’t leave thumbtacks where people could sit. If only it had a page on how to stay safe from swine flu.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

August 14, 2009

2010 Newbery and Caldecott Medal Predictions From the School Library Journal Blog

From "The Lion and the Mouse"

Update, Jan. 11, 2010: The School Library Journal blogger Elizabeth Bird now predicts that When You Reach Me will win the Newbery Medal and The Lion and the Mouse the Caldecott. She also predicts the Honor Books at http://tinyurl.com/yarluuf.

You say the kids aren’t going back school for a couple of weeks and you’ve run out of ideas on what they could read? You might want to look at the 2010 Newbery and Caldecott Medal predictions that Elizabeth Bird has posted on the School Library Journal blog. Bird is a children’s librarian with the New York Public Library system and a past Newbery judge who has a better record than most of us do for predicting the winners of the American Library Association’s annual awards. Among her favorites for the 2010 Newbery: Jacqueline Woodson’s: Peace, Locomotion (“it has her customary style and grace intact and she’s been edging closer and closer to outright Newbery Award status with every year”). Bird’s 2010 Caldecott candidates include Jerry Pinkney’s “almost wordless” and “meticulously researched” interpretation of a fable by Aesop, The Lion and the Mouse (“the kind of Pinkney book that will make converts out of people who weren’t Pinkney fans before”).

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

July 31, 2009

Kate DiCamillo’s Allegory of Christian Faith and Resurrection, ‘The Miraculous Journey of Edward to Tulane,’ With a Key to Its Biblical Parallels

This review appeared in January 2007, right after the American Library Association gave that year’s Newbery Medal to The Higher Power of Lucky instead of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, regarded as a favorite for the award.

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. By Kate DiCamillo. Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. Candlewick, 200 pp., $18.99. Ages 7 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Edward Tulane spends “40 days and 40 nights” in a wilderness, is nailed to a cross, dies after a shared meal, and is resurrected and reunited with a parent figure. Sound like anybody you’ve heard of?

How about if I added that Edward is a rabbit, a symbol of Easter? And that he is loved by a girl named Maggie, which can be a nickname for Magdalene?

That’s right. Edward Tulane is a symbol of Christ, his story is a Passion narrative, and this novel is an allegory of Christian faith and resurrection.

If you’ve followed the publicity for The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, you may have heard denials of all this. So here are a couple of facts:

1) Anyone who has a financial stake in this novel may have to deny its religious motifs, even though the book includes a striking full-page picture of Edward’s crucifixion. Kate DiCamillo won the Newbery Medal for The Tale of Despereaux, and the award helped to make her books among the most popular in American schools. The Christian imagery in The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane may have cost DiCamillo 2007 Newbery Medal, which the American Library Assocation awarded to The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron. A blunt acknowledgment that Edward is a Jesus figure might also keep the book off school reading lists.

2) The religious themes in the book do not appear once or twice or in ways that might have been accidental. They appear in the title, the artwork, and throughout the story. DiCamillo is too careful a writer to insert such motifs casually, which would violate the reader’s trust and well-established dramatic principles. At the end of this review are some lines that are identical or closely parallel to lines in the Bible. In DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie, the main character’s father was a preacher.

Children can enjoy The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane without understanding its religious themes just as adults can love Animal Farm without realizing that it is an allegory for Stalinism. But some children will sense that DiCamillo’s book has more than one level of meaning. To deny this could undermine their confidence in their ability to make intelligent, multi-layered judgments about books. All children benefit from learning to grasp a story on more than one level. DiCamillo has given them a chance to do this in a moving and suspenseful novel, beautifully illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. Children of any faith can enjoy its story. How unfortunate if the novel were kept out of schools because it might help them appreciate the many layers of meaning that a good book can have.

These are three of many passages in The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane that have parallels in the Bible:

DiCamillo’s lines appear below in a light-faced font. The parallel lines from the King James Version appear in bold.

Edward begins his journey by leaving “a house on Egypt Street” where he is in bondage to his inability to love. “Remember this day, in which ye came out from Egypt, out of the house of bondage …” Exodus 13:13

Edward spends “40 days and 40 nights” in a garbage dump surrounded by rotting food. “… he had fasted for 40 days and 40 nights …” Matthew 4:2 Also: “I will cause it to rain upon the earth for 40 days and 40 nights.” Genesis 7:4

A shopkeeper tells Edward: “I brought you back from the world of the dead.” “… he rose from the dead.” Acts 10:34

Many names in the book also have religious connotations. They include those of three female characters: Abilene (once a region of the Holy Land), Natalie (which means “birth of the Lord”); and Maggie (often a nickname for Magdalene).

Published: February 2006

Read an excerpt from The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane on the Candlewick Books site.

Furthermore: Kate DiCamillo’s “Mercy Watson” series for beginning readers was reviewed on this site on Feb. 10, 2007. DiCamillo’s new novel for children, The Magician’s Elephant, will be published this fall, and an excerpt appears on her Web site.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

June 20, 2009

A Good Children’s Poem About the Fourth of July

John Updike celebrates the Fourth in the spirited children’s poem “July,” which begins: “Bang-bang! Ka-boom! / We celebrate / Our national / Independence date.” The poem is one of 12, one for each month, collected in A Child’s Calendar (Holiday House, 32 pages, $17.95 hardcover, $6.95 paperback, ages 4–8). Beautifully illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, this picture book won a Caldecott Honor for its images of four seasons in the life of members of an interracial New England family and their friends. Don’t miss Updike tending the barbecue grill in the full-page picture next to the poem.

June 12, 2009

Good Free Reading Group Guides From the U.S. Government

On this site I’ve often faulted publishers’ reading group guides for their poor quality –- poor in part because they tend to pander to book-club members with loopy questions like: “The heroine of this novel is a one-eyed snake charmer whose parents were abducted by aliens. Have you ever known a one-eyed snake charmer whose parents were abducted by aliens?” Gee, I’ll have to think about that one! I might have known one-eyed snake charmer, but her parents got in the space ship voluntarily and technically weren’t abducted!  How about you?

So I was heartened to find that the U.S. Government has posted more than two dozen free reading group guides that are more objective and helpful. The guides come from The Big Read, a National Endowment for the Arts program intended to encourage reading, and most cover major American works of fiction for adults or children, such as My Antonia, The Great Gatsby, The Age of Innocence, The Call of the Wild, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. But a couple deal with books by authors from other countries — Naguib Mahfouz’s The Thief and the Dogs and Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich – and the NEA plans soon to post companions to the poetry of Emily Dickinson and others.

You can download the guides for free at the site for The Big Read. And some libraries can get printed versions and CDs with more information at no cost. (I learned about all of this when I found a stack of free reader’s guides and companion disks for To Kill a Mockingbird at a small-town library giving them away to patrons.) Along with warhorses such as The Grapes of Wrath, The Big Read guides deal with a couple gems that are less well known, including Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl.

www.janiceharayda.com

June 6, 2009

Why Children Need High-Quality Fiction and Other Imaginative Literature

Filed under: Children — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:35 am
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Most children need to read more than nonfiction and the poor quality fiction that often appears on school reading lists. Here’s a good explanation of why:

“Practical books with facts in them may be necessary, but they are not everything. They do not serve the imagination in the same way that high invention does when it allows the mind to investigate every possibility, to set itself free from the ordinary, to enter a world where paradox reigns and nothing is what it seems. Properly engaged, the intelligent child begins to question all presuppositions, and thinks on his own. In fact, the moment he says, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if …?’ he is on his way and his own imagination has begun to work at a level considerably more interesting than the usual speculation on what it would be like to own a car and make money.”

Gore Vidal in Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays 1952–1972 (Random House, 1972). The illustration shows the cover of Natalie Babbitt’s modern classic, Tuck Everlasting, an example of high-quality imaginative fiction that encourages children “to enter a world where paradox reigns and nothing is what it seems” and also appears on many school reading lists.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

May 16, 2009

Good Clean Limericks for Children – Poems for 1st, 2nd and 3rd Graders

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!—

From a classic nonsense limerick by Edward Lear

Anyone who wants to encourage a child to read poetry should memorize three good limericks — stopping just short of any that begin, “There was a young girl from Nantucket” — and recite them regularly. Limericks have five rhyming lines and a bouncy rhythm that makes them easy to remember. So children tend to absorb them effortlessly if they hear them often.

The question is: Where can you find the clean ones? True limericks are always bawdy, some critics say. When they aren’t scatological, they may include double-entendres or other risqué elements. Many limericks on the Web are also plagiarized — it’s generally illegal to quote an entire five-line poem by a living or not-long-dead poet even if you credit the author — and could cause trouble for children who quote them in school reports.

But the Academy of American Poets has posted several out-of-copyright classics by Edward Lear (1812––1888), author of “The Owl and the Pussy Cat,” at www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/16814, including:

There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said, “It is just as I feared!–
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren,
Have all built their nests in my beard!”

The academy also offers facts about the rhyme and meter of limericks at www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5783. All 112 of the limericks in the 1861 edition of Lear’s A Book of Nonsense appear on a site that abounds with information about his work www.nonsenselit.org.

A good source of limericks for young children is The Hopeful Trout and Other Limericks (Houghton Mifflin, 1989), written by John Ciardi and illustrated by Susan Meddaugh, available in many libraries. This book is used in grades 2 and up in schools. But some of its limericks would also suit younger children. They include “Be Kind to Dumb Animals” (“There once was an ape in a zoo / Who looked out through the bars and saw – YOU!”), which consists only of simple one-syllable words, and “The Halloween House” (“I’m told there’s a Green Thing in there. / And the sign on the gate says BEWARE!”).

Many limericks are mini-morality tales about people who get an amusing, nonsensical comeuppance. The Hopeful Trout has several in this category. “The Poor Boy Was Wrong” describes the unlucky Sid, who “thought that a shark / Would turn tail if you bark,” then swam off to test the premise. Ciardi refers obliquely to Sid’s fate, but any child who isn’t sure what happened needs only look at the drawing grinning shark and a single flipper.

© 2009 Janice Harayda
www.janiceharayda.com

May 10, 2009

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

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:36 am
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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.

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