One-Minute Book Reviews

June 10, 2012

‘A Ball for Daisy’ – A Review of the 2012 Caldecott Medal Winner

Chris Raschka brings the spirit of modern art to to American picture books, but is that good?

A Ball for Daisy. By Chris Raschka. Schwartz & Wade/Random House, 32 pp., $16.99, Ages 2–4.

By Janice Harayda

A vacancy has existed at the summit of American picture book illustration since the death of Maurice Sendak, who shared that spot with Chris Van Allsburg and Nancy Ekholm Burkert. Some critics might usher in Chris Raschka, who won his first Caldecott Medal for The Hello, Goodbye Window and his second for A Ball for Daisy. And it’s easy to see why reviewers like the more than 40 books for children that he has produced alone or with authors such as Norman Juster and Jack Prelutsky.

More aggressively than any recent illustrator, Raschka has brought to American picture books the spirit and techniques of modern art: Fauvism’s symbolic use of color, Cubism’s fragmented geometric forms, Expressionism’s bold lines and emotional drama. That pattern holds in A Ball for Daisy, a wordless tale of a shaggy dog who suffers acute but fleeting heartbreak when a poodle punctures her adored red ball during a romp in the park. Raschka works with familiar materials – ink, watercolor and gouache – but uses them inventively enough to refresh an ageless theme: A new love eases the pain of losing an old one. His debt to the modernists shows up clearly in the destroyed ball, which in its shape and intensity of color resembles one of Matisse’s six-bladed leaf cutouts.

Raschka certainly deserves credit for originality in the conservative field of picture books – a realm that, as Sendak said, “is becoming a creatively exhausted genre.” But whether he should have won the latest Caldecott Medal is debatable. Novelty isn’t the same as greatness. And all the modernist influences on display in his book don’t lift it above some of the animal tales that the 2012 Caldecott judges rejected, including Ekholm Burkert’s Mouse & Lion. Like the 2011 winner, A Sick Day for Amos McGee, A Ball for Daisy is a sweet book unlikely to offend anyone.

Then there is the issue of the wordlessness of the story. The presence or absence of a written text is neutral in picture books, which can work with or without one. But words can add layers of meaning to a story. When they don’t exist, those layers must come from the art in order for a picture book to stand up to multiple rereadings. And A Ball for Daisy doesn’t really have them. What you see is what you get.

Three of the past six Caldecott winners have had no words, and that fact has led to speculation and some anger online. Have the judges bypassed worthy books because of fonts or stories when the medal is an award for illustration? Are they dumbing down America’s most prestigious picture book prize? The deliberations of the Caldecott judges are confidential, so it’s unclear why wordless books are winning a disproportionate number of medals. Whatever the reason, for the second year in a row they have played it safe. Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are still inspires spirited arguments more than a half-century after it won the 1964 Caldecott Medal. Gift-shoppers may see it as a strength — while others can only see it as a weakness — that  A Ball for Daisy gives you so little to debate.

Best line/picture: A wordless spread in that has eight roughly square pictures showing Daisy’s stages of grief for her destroyed ball, which include confusion, sorrow, anger, and finally a pained resignation. The spread makes the most sense when “read” horizontally across the two pages, which gives you a background that darkens with each image to show the dog’s growing despair. But it also works if you read the images on the left-hand page first (as some children will do) in an up-and-down, clockwise, or counterclockwise direction.

Worst line/picture: The young girl who owns Daisy remains headless until she and her beloved pet return home, more than halfway through the book, after the ball deflates. Raschka clearly did this to keep the focus on the dog’s emotions. But it distracts you from the story by adding a subplot: Who is Daisy’s owner?

Furthermore: A Ball for Daisy won the 2012 Caldecott Medal from the American Library Association, which also honored him for The Hello, Goodbye Window. Meghan Cox Gurdon reviewed A Ball for Daisy for the Wall Street Journal. One-Minute Book Reviews reviewed Jack Prelutsky’s Good Sports, which Raschka illustrated.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 29, 2012

‘The Call of the Wild’ / A Parable for an Uncivilized Age

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:44 am
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An abducted dog faces cruel masters and canine rivals during the Klondike Gold Rush

The Call of the Wild. By Jack London. Library of America, 96 pp., $8.50, paperback. Available in many other editions.

By Janice Harayda

Jack London wrote The Call of the Wild more than a century before Staff Sergeant Robert Bales walked away from his combat outpost in Kandahar province and, the Army says, shot to death 16 Afghan civilians. But his classic novel deals with a question often asked about that well-liked former linebacker who stands accused of slaughtering innocents: What turns a product of civilized society into a killer?

London’s answer is neither “nature” or “nurture” but “both,” a prescient anticipation of the modern scientific view that environmental factors switch genes on or off. He develops his theme in an adventure story told mainly from the point of view of Buck, a half-collie, half-Saint Bernard mix, who has spent the first four years of his life as the “unduly civilized” pet of a California judge. Then a groundskeeper kidnaps him and sells him to the first of a series of cruel owners, who soon attach him to sled-dog teams during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897. In order to survive, Buck must shed more of his civilized instincts with each clash with his brutal masters and with rival dogs who turn savage when starved, beaten, and forced to haul crushing loads in temperatures as low as 50 degrees below zero. By time Buck finds an owner who treats him kindly, the question is: At what point does “the call of the wild” become irreversible, or at least irresistible?

These fictional circumstances are far different those of a sergeant accused of killing 16 civilians on his fourth deployment in a war zone: a man who reportedly had suffered a head injury, lost part of a foot, picked up the bodies of dead Iraqis, seen a comrade’s leg blown off, and faced eviction from his home in Seattle. But Robert Bales’s life and emotional arc have enough parallels with Buck’s that teachers might compare them with profit in junior high or high school classrooms.

As E.L. Doctorow notes in his introduction, The Call of the Wild is a “mordant parable of the thinness of civilization.” It shows how a lifetime of restraints can fall away when circumstances are extreme, and it retains its appeal in part because allows us to see that shedding of civilization at two removes: in the life of a dog and in the vast Yukon wilderness that few of us will ever see. The remoteness of the setting invests The Call of the Wild with a mythic allure. And London shows how a good novelist can lend credibility to the kind of transformations that, when described in newspapers, often defy belief.

Best line: “It was beautiful spring weather, but neither dogs nor humans were aware of it. Each day the sun rose earlier and set later. It was dawn by three in the morning, and the twilight lingered till nine at night. The whole long day was a blaze of sunshine. The ghostly winter silence had given way to the great spring murmur of awakening life. This murmur arose from all the land, fraught with the joy of living.”

Worst line: London’s rendering of the speech of “a French-Canadian half-breed”: “ ‘Tree vair’ good dogs,’ François told Perrault. ‘Dat Buck, heem pool lak hell. I tich heem queek as anyt’ing.’”

Published: 1903 (Macmillan first edition), 1990 (the Library of America stand-alone edition that I read). Many editions exist.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 21, 2012

What I’m Reading … Jack London’s ‘The Call of the Wild’

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:29 am
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The latest in a series about books I’m reading that I may or may not review

What I’m reading: The Call of the Wild (Library of America, 96 pp., $8.50, paperback), with an introduction by E.L. Doctorow.

What it is: A classic adventure novel about Buck, a dog kidnapped from his California owner and forced to endure savage hardships during the Klondike gold rush of 1897. The story of Buck’s transformation in the wild is, as the novelist E.L. Doctorow says in his introduction, a “mordant parable of the thinness of civilization.”

Why I’m reading it: For a book club. I’m rereading The Call of the Wild for the first time in more than a decade.

Quote from the book: “One night he sprang from sleep with a start, eager-eyed, nostrils quivering and scenting, his mane bristling in recurrent waves. From the forest came the call (or one note of it, for the call was many noted), distinct and definite as never before, — a long-drawn howl, like, yet unlike, any noise made by a husky dog. And he knew it, in the old familiar way, as a sound heard before.”

Published: 1903 (Macmillan first edition), 1990 (the Library of America stand-alone edition I’m reading). Many good editions exist.

Probability that I will review the book: High

Furthermore: My edition calls The Call of the Wild “perhaps the best novel ever written about animals” on its back cover. Forgotten that whales are mammals, eh, Library of America?

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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February 19, 2012

A Collie Enters the Westminister Dog Show in ‘Lad: A Dog’

Filed under: Children's Books,Children's literature,Classics — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:36 am
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Long before Malachy the Pekingese won “Best in Show” at the 2012 Westminster Kennel Club competition, Lad the collie had his own adventures at that annual event at Madison Square Garden. Albert Payson Terhune describes them in two tales in Lad: A Dog, a collection of 12 short stories inspired by an exceptional dog at a New Jersey kennel, which became an adult bestseller after it appeared in 1919 and which its publisher later repackaged as a children’s book. You can read “For a Bit of Ribbon” and “Lost!” online or in the attractive 1993 Puffin edition with illustrations by Sam Savitt.

November 27, 2009

Not Written in Lipstick – Sarah Dunn’s Novel ‘Secrets to Happiness’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:45 am
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A search-and-rescue mission for single New Yorkers and their dogs

Secrets to Happiness: A Novel. By Sarah Dunn. Little, Brown, 277 pp., $23.99.

By Janice Harayda

Sarah Dunn is that rarity among comic novelists — a moralist in the best sense of the word. She doesn’t preach or lecture. But her heroines have a solid moral core left over from the strict Christian upbringing they have rejected. They struggle to do the right thing even as friends are cheating on their partners or trolling for casual sex on LukesPlace, a site similar to Craigslist in Secrets to Happiness. If Dunn’s heroines fall for faithless men, it isn’t because these women are vapid or silly – it’s because they are confused. They don’t know how to reconcile their early lessons with those of the age of Sex and the City, when their peers deal with moral questions by handing them off to psychiatrists or blocking them out with drugs from a pharmacy in St. Kitts.

“It never ceased to amaze Holly, how therapists managed to spin things,” Dunn writes of her main character. After years in Manhattan, Holly suspected that psychotherapy aimed to make it possible for people “to do whatever they wanted to do, with whomever they wanted to do it, when and where and however they felt like it, while reaping no negative emotional consequences whatsoever.”

That passage alone might lift Secrets to Happiness above most novels about single New Yorkers, in which few plot devices are more clichéd than an emotionally gimpy heroine’s visit to a therapist whose banalities help her find love. But the book has much more going for it than that. This is a novel about the related questions: What is the cost of being emotionally abandoned? And when do you give up the fantasy that you can rescue a relationship?

Holly Frick thinks she still loves a husband who has left her when, in her mid-30s, she faces other swiftly arriving changes: She adopts a dog with brain cancer, becomes involved with a 22-year-old man, and learns that her married best friend is having an affair. She must also persuade her gay script-writing partner to do his share of the work for an afternoon TV show now that her masochistically titled novel, Hello, Mr. Heartache, is tanking at bookstores. Part of the suspense comes from whether Holly will stick with her canine and human companions or will abandon them as her husband has abandoned her.

Dunn doesn’t develop this plot quite as well as she did that of her first novel, The Big Love, which has no relation to the HBO series. Much of the charm of that book came from the quirky first-person narration of its heroine, a Philadelphia magazine writer. Dunn uses shifting third-person viewpoints in her new novel, and though she handles them well, the device leaves the book softer at its center. Holly is its emotional and moral anchor, and the omniscient narration dilutes her impact.

So the pleasure of reading Secrets to Happiness comes less from its plot than from Dunn’s sophisticated wit, social commentary, and sharp eye for how single people of both sexes rationalize their actions. The novel abounds with lines that are amusing or perceptive or both. One involves the its Craigslist-surrogate: “The thing Leonard liked about LukesPlace was that you didn’t have to be altogether on your game and yet you could still have sex with perfect strangers.” When a man asks Holly if she wrote “chick lit,” she responds, “I wrote the entire thing in lipstick, actually.” No one should confuse Secrets to Happiness with a book that might as well be sold at cosmetics counters.

Best line: “Betsy Silverstein was only half Jewish, but with Betsy, half was plenty.”

Worst line: “She pressed on like a trooper.” The word is “trouper.”

Recommended if … you’ve wonder, “Where are the novels about single women that aren’t mainly about shoes?” (though The Big Love offers a better introduction to Dunn’s work).

Published: March 2009

About the author: Dunn has written for Murphy Brown and other television shows. A post about The Big Love appeared on this site on Feb. 14, 2007.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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

September 3, 2009

‘Catie Copley’ – A Friendly Labrador Retriever Greets Guests at a Boston Hotel in a Children’s Book Inspired by a Real Dog

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:26 am
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Reviews of children’s books normally appear on this site on Saturdays, but I couldn’t post last weekend because of technical problems, so I’m catching up.

Catie Copley. By Deborah Kovacs. Pictures by Jared T. Williams. Godine, 32 pp., $17.95. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Anyone who enjoyed Robert McCloskey’s classic Make Way for Ducklings will find an interesting bit literary cross-referencing in this picture-book inspired by the real-life black Labrador retriever who greets guests at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston. Catie Copley became the “Canine Ambassador” for the hotel after eye problems kept her from her intended work as a guide for the blind. In this book, she performs a different service when her excellent sense of smell helps her find a teddy bear lost by Tess, a young female guest. Before the missing Milo turns up, Catie and Tess visit the Public Garden – the spot McCloskey’s ducklings were trying to reach when a policeman stopped traffic for them.

Deborah Kovacs tells a fast-paced story from Catie’s point of view in serviceable prose with some weak spots. Kovacs says, for example, that “all the hard work in the hotel” goes on in downstairs rooms such as the kitchen and laundry – as though the upstairs maids, valets, and concierges don’t work hard, too. But Jared Williams offsets some of her lapses with engaging watercolors that invest both human and animal characters with warmth. And his dynamic endpapers draw you in to the book with dozens of images of Catie holding a teddy bear in her mouth in different positions.

Best line/picture: Williams’s pictures of Catie are expressive and realistic without anthropomorphizing her, especially the full-face images on the cover and elsewhere.

Worst line/picture: Kovacs’s workmanlike prose runs to lines such this one that might have appeared in a Zagat guide: “The food is great and my bed is comfy.”

Recommendation: Catie Copley or its sequel could be a good gift for a preschooler who has a labrador or plans to visit Boston. It could also help to prepare children for a visit to a fancy hotel.

Published: May 2007. Catie Copley has inspired sequel that came out in March 2009, Catie Copley’s Great Escape, also published by David R. Godine.

Furthermore: Children who enjoy Catie Copley can e-mail Catie at an address listed on the dust jacket.

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

June 13, 2009

Lisa Brown’s ‘How to Be’ — Fun With Animals for Very Young Children

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:39 am
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A witty picture book shows children how to imitate a bear, monkey, turtle, snake, spider, and dog

How to Be. By Lisa Brown. HarperCollins, 32 pp., $16.89. Ages 6 months and up.

By Janice Harayda

Is there a toddler or preschooler who doesn’t love to make animal sounds? San Francisco artist Lisa Brown urges very young children to take their copycat instincts a step further in this witty picture book about a brother and sister who imitate the behavior of six animals — a bear, monkey, turtle, snake, spider, and dog.

Each spread gives simple directions for acting like one of those creatures, illustrated by amusing line drawings that show how the siblings interpret the instructions. And I defy you to keep a straight face when you see how the two respond to last command on the “How to Be a Dog” pages: “Lick someone.” Oh, are parents and grandparents going to have fun watching children follow the instructions in this book! You might have almost as much fun as they’re going to have licking your elbow.

Best line/picture: Apart from the picture of the brother trying to lick his sister? A command on the “How to Be a Monkey” pages: “Eat with your toes.”

Worst line/picture: None unless you’re so heartless that you believe that children should never – not even once – be allowed to eat with their toes.

Recommendation? A good gift for ages newborn to 2 or 3. How to Be might especially appeal to children who like the imitative aspects of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. And it has an intergenerational appeal, because it will allow children to show off for their grandparents their impressive ability to slither on their bellies like a snake.

Furthermore: The bold line drawings and minimalist color palette give this book an unusually fresh look. How to Be would fit in well at Museum of Modern Art gift shop. Yet it’s not one of those pretentious books that please adults more than children. Both groups are likely to enjoy it.

Published: May 2006

This is a repost of a review that appeared on this site on June 30, 2007.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 3, 2009

A Good Warm-Weather Activity for Young Children

Filed under: How to,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:21 pm
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Maybe it’s because the sultry days of summer don’t feel as far away as they did a few weeks ago. Or maybe it’s because I haven’t forgotten how our family’s adored German shepherd mauled the sheet cake at my Sweet Sixteen party with a lunge toward the dining-room table.

Whatever the reason, I love this idea for warm-weather fun from Steve and Ruth Bennett’s 365 Outdoor Activities You Can Do With Your Child (Adams Media, 1993), which might especially appeal to an apartment-dwelling preschooler who can’t have a dog:

Let your child create an “invisible dog.” Tie piece of rope or string (with a loop at the end for the imaginary dog’s head) to a handle made of cardboard or another sturdy material. Then “walk around with the invisible dog, talk to it like a real dog, and try to teach it to speak (your child can bark for the dog in an attempt at ventriloquism), sit up, shake hands, roll over, and (this requires extra imagination) fetch,” the Bennetts suggest. Alternately, they say, you or the child could hold the leash while others try to guess what trick the dog has performed.

If you like this idea, head for your library, eBay or another good source of older books. If your library doesn’t have 365 Outdoor Activities You Can Do With Your Child, you can ask the staff to get it for you on an interlibrary loan. Or go to an online or retail bookseller and pick up the Bennetts’ 365 TV-Free Activities You Can Do With Your Child (Adams Media, 2002), which is just as good but easier to find. Among the many books of activities for children, but the Bennetts’ stand out for their abundance of easy, no- or low-cost activities that don’t involve television or other electronic devices.

For more ideas for free summer fun with children ages 3 and up, see the review on this site on June 20, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/20/.

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

April 2, 2009

Why Are Animal Stories So Popular Right Now?

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:14 pm
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I’ve been having computer problems this week that have limited my ability to post (but that should end tomorrow or Monday when my Mac returns). So today I’m just going to throw out a question that’s been on my mind: Why are animal stories so popular right now?

I’m thinking of books like Marley & Me, Alex & Me, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Dewey: The Small-Town Libary Cat Who Touched the World, and the others that have touched a nerve in the past year or two. Stories about animals have been popular in the U.S. for decades: Think of classics like White Fang, Black Beauty, and Charlotte’s Web. But it’s unusual to see as many of these on bestseller lists as have appeared lately.

My theory is that animal stories become more popular in hard times, or when people have less trust in elected officials or other authorities because it’s reassuring to read that you can still count on a dog or cat even if you can’t count on the politicians or bankers. What’s yours?

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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