One-Minute Book Reviews

May 24, 2012

What I’m Reading … ‘Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School’ by Ysenda Maxtone Graham

Filed under: Biography,History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:32 pm
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What I’m reading: Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School (Slightly Foxed, 199 pp., £11), by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. Introduction by A.N. Wilson. Afterword by Julian Fellowes.

What it is: A history of St Philip’s school in London and its idiosyncratic founding headmaster, Richard Tibbits.

Why I’m reading it: Alison Pearson raved about it in a Telegraph column that begins: “While David Cameron was writing in these pages about the shocking mediocrity of many comprehensives in leafy suburbs, I was reading Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School, a wonderful book by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. It’s the history of St Philip’s school for boys in Kensington, started in 1934 by Richard Tibbits, who is described by one former pupil as ‘like a Beatrix Potter drawing of a very nice old pig.’

“The headmaster was known for ‘extreme strictness and loss of temper on occasions, mixed with the deepest kindness, compassion and care for the forming of boys’ minds and souls… He was a genius at teaching.’ When it came to eccentricity, Mr Tibbits faced stiff competition from his staff.”

Quote from the book: “The teaching was old-fashioned, and sometimes downright out-of-date. Textbooks had not been renewed since the founding of the school: in geography lessons, 1960s boys found themselves learning about the exciting new invention of the mechanical combine harvester – which had actually come into widespread use in the 1930s.”

Probability that I will review the book: 100%

Publication date: 2011

Read A.N. Wilson’s introduction to Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School.

To learn more about the book or buy a copy, visit the site for Foxed Quartely. Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School is also available from Crawford Doyle Booksellers in New York.

About the author: Ysenda Maxtone Graham also wrote The Real Mrs Miniver, a finalist for the Whitbread biography prize.

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 26, 2012

Are School Reading Assignments Making Your Child Dumber?

Filed under: News,Reading — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:50 am
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High school students are reading books appropriate for fifth graders, often assigned by teachers

By Janice Harayda

Schools are supposed to make you make you smarter. Are American teachers routinely assigning books that make kids dumber? You might think so after reading a major new report by Renaissance Learning, which develops hardware and software that helps schools measure students’ educational progress.

The top 40 books read by teenagers in grades 9–12 have an average of reading level of grade 5.3, appropriate for the third month of fifth grade, the report said. And the picture wasn’t much prettier for younger students. The book most read by seventh graders is Diary of a Wimpy Kid (reading level: grade 5.5). For eighth grade, it’s The Outsiders (grade 4.7). And students often read these books because their teachers assign them.

Students sometimes can benefit from reading books that are below their level. Easy books can build confidence, keep reading fun, and reinforce educational gains. But a steady diet of too-simple books won’t prepare students for the demands of life after high school. David Coleman, a contributor to the Renaissance Learning report, notes that the most important predictor of success in college is the ability to read and understand challenging material. And many books on the top 40 lists aren’t “complex enough to prepare them for the rigors of college and career.” Students may also lose interest in reading for pleasure if they find easy books boring.

That’s why parents need to fight back when schools frequently require children to read books that are below their reading level. Here are three ways to do that:

Check the reading levels of books that seem too easy. You can find the levels of many books used in schools by entering their titles in the search box on the AR BookFinder site. You can find the levels of others by pasting text from them into the box at ReadabilityFormulas.com. The Renaissance Learning report “What Kids Are Reading, 2012″ has the reading levels of the top 40 books read by grades K-12.

Talk to teachers who assign too-easy books. Find out why they thought your child would benefit from the books. If the reasons aren’t convincing, ask teachers to substitute others suited to your child’s level.

Let the principal know. Don’t quit if teachers won’t assign books at your child’s level or if your concerns go beyond one assignment – for example, if an entire summer reading list is too easy. In some schools or districts, most lists are dumbed-down, and the problem requires action at a higher level.

Some children will find their way to harder books if you do nothing. But most won’t, Coleman says. Children, he says, “need to be challenged  and supported to build  their strength as readers by stretching to the next level.”

For more information: Read the Huffington Post summary of the Renaissance Learning report. You may also want to read this One-Minute Book Reviews post on how Mitch Albom is writing at a third-grade reading level, which compares his level to that of other bestselling authors.

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

June 27, 2009

A Teacher With Large Breasts and a Small Brain Gets Her Comeuppance in ‘The Dunderheads,’ A Picture Book by Paul Fleischman, Illustrated by David Roberts

Students seek revenge when Miss Breakbone calls them dunderheads

The Dunderheads. By Paul Fleischman. Illustrated by David Roberts. Candlewick, 56 pp., $16.99. Age range: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

A cynic might call The Dunderheads an ideal book for anyone who believes that children are never too young to learn that some women with large breasts do have small brains. But that view may be too harsh. David Roberts’s pictures are often funny even if the protagonist of this book looks like a refugee from a wacky Hooters franchise staffed by middle-aged teachers-union members.

The cruel Miss Breakbone seems not to have gotten the message that she might crush her students’ fragile self-esteem if she never assigns essays on topics like, “Why I’m Special.” She brazenly calls her class a bunch of dunderheads – at least when she isn’t confiscating their cell phones and vowing not to give them back.

But her students have self-esteem to spare, fostered by their many achievements, and Miss Breakbone is too dumb to see how smart they really are. A female student nicknamed Hollywood is typical: “She’s got every movie that was ever made and has watched them all 11 times.” So one day when Miss Breakbone goes too far, her students take their revenge in a breaking-and-entering caper that ends when she finds a note that says, “The Dunderheads were here!”

All of this is reasonably diverting, owing largely to Roberts’s flair for visually amusing details, such as the skull-shaped lamp on Miss Breakbone’s dresser. But the plotting isn’t as clever nor is the writing as sharp as in in many other tales of a classroom revolt, such as Miss Nelson Is Missing!. Miss Breakbone’s name, for example, is somewhat labored and not as funny as that of Viola Swamp in Harry Allard and James Marshall’s back-to-school tale.  And a goggle-eyed character named “Google-Eyes” may leave some children using the incorrect phrase for a lifetime.

Best line / picture: Roberts’s spread showing the movie addict named Hollywood in a bunker-like room full of cables, DVDs, Oscar statues, and a television and larger-than-life remote control.

Worst line / picture: “That’s when Google-Eyes went to work.” The girl shown on this spread isn’t “Google-eyed” but “goggle-eyed.” Fleischman also writes: “Spider went up the drainpipe like malt up a straw.” That similie sounds dated coming from a young narrator whose classmates bring cell phones to school, all members of a generation that might never drink a malted milk (if that’s what’s meant here).

Suggested age range: The publisher recommends this book for ages 6–10. This suggestion is unrealistic for many children given that The Dunderheads has a picture-book format and children often begin to spurn picture books at about the age of 6 or 7 (and to crave picture books that have more than 32 pages, as this one does, one starting at 4 or 5). School Library Journal says the book is for Grades 2-5 (roughly ages 7-10). But, again, it seems too optimistic to believe this book would appeal to many 8- and 9-year-olds who have enjoyed, for example, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The natural audience for the format of The Dunderheads might seem to be 4- and 5-year-olds who want picture books with more than the usual 32 pages, such as the original Flat Stanley with words by Jeff Brown and illustrations by Tomi Ungerer. But — speaking just for myself — I wouldn’t give this one to a literal-minded child who start school soon because of its message, however humorously developed, that some teachers just hate children and, if you get one, you may feel better if you take criminal acts of revenge.

Published: June 2009

About the author and illustrator: Fleischman, a Californian, won the 1989 Newbery Medal for Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices and has posted an excerpt from it on his Web site. Roberts lives in London and has illustrated many books for children, some of them prize-winners.

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews.  To avoid missing these reviews, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed. Books that will reviewed on this site are sometimes announced in advance at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

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

February 4, 2009

The Book That Started the Backlash Against Self-Esteem as a Cure-All for Children’s Woes – William Damon’s ‘Greater Expectations’

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:08 am
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Greater Expectations was one of the three or four best books about children that I reviewed in my 11 years as the book critic for the Plain Dealer, and it’s the one I’ve recommended most often to parents. This trailblazing indictment of many popular educational theories was among the earliest to expose the myth that raising children’s self-esteem leads to higher achievement in school and elsewhere.

The arguments in Greater Expectations: Nurturing the Moral Child (Free Press, 304 pp., $20.95) are powerful in their own right. They have all the more force because they come from one of the nation’s most distinguished educators: William Damon, director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence at Stanford University and editor-in-chief of the latest edition of The Handbook of Child Psychology.

Damon maintains that something has gone badly wrong in “the passing of essential standards between the generations.” Children at all levels of society grow up in an unwholesome atmosphere that goes beyond drugs, violence and similar woes: It involves a focus on the self and a devaluation of spirituality and faith. Damon blames part of this on influential childrearing experts such as David Elkind and Penelope Leach, whose approaches may encourage adults to infantilize children on the pretext of protecting them.

One of the Damon’s main contributions is that he documents painstakingly the lack of a connection between high self-esteem and high-achievement. Researchers have tried many times to link the two but “have not even provided convincing correlational data,” let alone causal links. Quite the opposite: High-self esteem doesn’t lead to high achievement but high achievement may increase self-esteem. Developing either, Damon says, is a slow process:

“There are no easy shortcuts to this. The child cannot be quickly inoculated with self-confidence through facile phrases such as ‘I’m great’ or ‘I’m terrific.’”

If there’s no evidence that self-esteem fosters academic success, why have school systems thrown so much money at programs that claim to build it? Damon deals with that, too. And his reasoning no doubt has helped to fuel the recent and overdue backlash against the self-esteem frenzy, so that many psychologists now urge adults to focus on giving children sincere and thoughtful praise, not cheerleading for trivial efforts. Some parents may see the new moderation as too late, given how much money schools have squandered on programs of no proven value. If so, it’s only the common sense that has arrived belatedly. First published in 1995, Greater Expectations was – and, in some ways, still is – ahead of its time.

This is the third of the daily posts this week about some of my favorite books. Monday’s post dealt with Now All We Need Is a Title and Tuesday’s with Middlemarch.

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

August 29, 2008

Laura Bush and Jenna Bush Campaign for Books in ‘Read All About It!’

The first lady stumps for John McCain at the Republican National Convention next week and for reading in a picture book about a boy who becomes a convert to literature

Read All About It! By Laura Bush and Jenna Bush. Illustrated by Denise Brunkus. HarperCollins, 32 pp., $17.99. Ages 4 and up.

By Janice Harayda

The good news is: This book isn’t as bad as Millie’s Book, the bestseller that Barbara Bush wrote entirely in the voice of her pet spaniel. The bad news is: It’s a close call.

Read All About It! is a stump speech posing as a storybook. First lady Laura Bush and her daughter Jenna lobby hard for reading in this tale of a boy who prefers freeze tag to books. One day Tyrone decides to pay attention instead of clowning around when his teacher, Miss Libro, reads to his class, and — presto! — his view changes. The characters in books become real to him: “During a story about our Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin stepped into our classroom, flying a kite.” A dragon appears “as the prince was about to save the princess” in a fairy tale, and a ghost and pig turn up when the teacher reads other books.

But the characters vanish when their stories end. Alarmed, Tyrone and his friends search the school for them, talking with people like Ms. Gravy (a cook in the cafeteria) and Ms. Tonedeaf (the music teacher). The students find the missing characters in the library, and on the last page Tyrone begs with the zeal of the newly baptized, “Miss Libro, let’s read here, in the library!”

The theme of Read All About It! is that if you give books a chance, you may enter magical worlds. And who would disagree that reading can seem magical? But there’s a weird similarity between the Bushes’ just-say-yes-to-reading theme and Nancy Reagan’s just-say-no-to-drugs platform. Whether you’re talking about books or drugs, you don’t usually convert kids with moralizing. Apart from the problems a just-say-yes approach might present for students with ADD or learning disabilities, the plot of Read All About It! is too weak to rescue it from its didacticism.

Roger Sutton, editor-in-chief of the children’s literature journal the Horn Book, wrote in the New York Times Book Review that “kids who don’t like stories won’t be persuaded otherwise” by this one:

“As Tyrone would say, it’s not real. The point is laboriously made, the teachers’ names are dorky, the plot is hectic and the suspense and dialogue are artificial.”

Given that Laura studied to become a librarian and Jenna wrote an earlier book, Sutton wondered: “How could such confirmedly bookish types write an I-love-reading book so fundamentally tone deaf as to why reading can inspire love?”

The tone-deafness goes beyond the dippy names of characters. Princesses still exist in fairy tales – and girls still love to read about them – but in modern stories they are much less likely than in older ones to have a prince “save” them as envisioned in Read All About It!. And in textbooks the phrase “Founding Fathers” is giving way to “founders.” The authors seem to be trying to have it both ways – to appeal to liberals by sometimes using “Ms.” and to conservatives by alluding to princes who “save” princesses and by bringing up those “Founding Fathers.” Apart from any external political considerations that are involved, this approach makes for an internally inconsistent story. And you wonder if it’s a coincidence that Miss Libro is on all levels a more attractive character than the presumptive feminists, Ms. Gravy and Ms. Tonedeaf.

Read All About It! gets what little life it has from its spirited color illustrations by Denise Brunkus, illustrator of the Junie B. Jones series. The book also has six brief reading lists of picture books or early readers, which appear on Miss Libro’s blackboard and which children may find useful. Even those call for caution: More than half of the recommended books come from HarperCollins, publisher of Read All About It!.

But the authors’ reading lists mercifully include E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, a children’s novel that exemplifies the spirit of a comment Sutton made in his review of Read All About It! in the New York Times Book Review: “Children’s librarians could tell you: if you want to convince children of the power of books, don’t tell them stories are good. Tell them a good story.”

So if you want to get children excited about reading, you might skip Tyrone and go straight to Fern, the girl who in Charlotte’s Web saves the scrawny last pig of a litter. White once said, when a critic sent him a scholarly disquisition on that modern classic, “It’s good I did not know what in hell was going on. To have known might well have been catastrophic.” The authors of Read All About It! do know what’s going on, and that’s the problem.

Best line/picture: On the title page a pig nuzzles Tyrone with a Babe-like sweetness that isn’t cloying.

Worst line/picture: No. 1: “Ms. Toadskin thinks she can gross us out with her science experiments. But I live for that stuff!” No. 2: “The library is a boring place! All I will meet there are stinky pages.” No. 3: “And then I had the most brilliant idea EVER. ‘Miss Libro, let’s read here, in the library!’

“’Take it from me, Tyrone! You never know who you are going to meet when you look in a book!’”

Take it from me, everybody! Overusing exclamation points is a sign of weak writing! And italics and boldface, too! The authors don’t get that this is shouting at kids!

Published: May 2008

Consider reading instead: Max’s Words, a far more effective picture book about a boy who discovers the joy of words www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/08/16/.

Futhermore: Read Roger Sutton’s full review here www.nytimes.com/2008/05/11/books/review/Sutton-t.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss. Listen to Laura Bush and Jenna Bush talk about how they wrote their book here www.harpercollinschildrens.com/harperchildrens/parents/gamesandcontests/features/readallaboutit/.

Increased library use helps libraries justify requests for increased funding. Please support public libraries by checking out books or using other services regularly.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 27, 2008

Why Read the Classics? (Quote of the Day / Michael Dirda)

Why is it important to read the classics? Michael Dirda, who won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for criticism as a staff critic for the Washington Post, responds in his Bound to Please: An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education: Essays on Great Writers and Their Books (Norton, 2005):

“People sometimes ask teachers or critics, ‘Which books should I read to become educated?’ The short answer is either ‘As many as you can’ or ‘A small handful that you study to pieces.’ But a better question might be this one: ‘Which books should I read first?’

“The answer to that is ‘The great patterning works of world literature and culture, the poems and stories that have shaped civilization.’

“Without a knowledge of the Greek myths, the Bible, ancient history, the world’s folktales and fairy tales, one can never fully understand the visual arts, most opera, and half the literature of later ages. Homer tells us about Ulysses in The Odyssey; then Dante, Tennyson, James Joyce, Wallace Stevens, and Eudora Welty add to, enrich, and subvert that story in great works of their own. The classics are important not because they are old but because they are always being renewed.”

Michael Dirda’s most recent book is Classics for Pleasure (Harcourt, 2007).

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 3, 2007

What Is One-Minute Book Reviews?

One-Minute Book Reviews is a site for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. It is also for people who dislike long-winded weasel reviews that are full of facts or plot summaries but don’t tell you what the critic thought of the book. You may not agree with the opinions you read here, but you will always know what they are.

This blog focuses on book reviews and does not cover literary news or gossip. Occasional exceptions may occur when other media cover literary news slowly or not at all or when news relates to a book this site has reviewed or will review. I recently wrote about the Bad Sex in Fiction Award because it related directly to my review of On Chesil Beach and because the nominated passages clearly weren’t going to make it into most American newspapers.

Some of the unique features of One-Minute Book Reviews include the Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides, free reading group guides without the hype of publishers’ guides, and the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books, announced annually on the Ides of March. The site does not accept free books or other promotional materials from editors, publishers, agents or authors.

If you know someone who might enjoy this site, I’d be grateful if you would forward a link to this post. In addition to hundreds of links from personal blogs, this site has many links from schools, colleges and libraries. That’s why the “Top Posts” on this site regularly include both reviews of new books and a quote about literary symbolism from a nearly 50-year-old textbook: Colleges are apparently linking to this site from class wikis, syllabi or reading lists.

One-Minute Book Reviews ranks seventh in the world on the Google Directory of “Top Arts and Literature” blogs:
www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/. Thanks for visiting One-Minute Book Reviews.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

October 13, 2007

Remembering a One-Room School in Iowa in a New Memoir — When Mail-Order Catalog Pages Were Toilet Paper — Quote of the Day (Richard Willis)

Few Americans remember what it was like to learn in a one-room schoolhouse. One who does is Richard Willis, an 80-year-old New York actor and retired theater professor who played Asa Buchanan’s butler, Nigel, on the soap opera One Life to Live. He recalls the small white Aurora Schoolhouse in Long Gone (Greenpoint Press, 192 pp., $20, paperback), a new memoir of growing up on a farm in Marengo, Iowa, in the 1930s and ’40s. Here’s part of what he says about his education:

“Our school was heated by a big, jacketed stove placed a little off-center in the room. Midwest winter temperatures dropped to twenty, sometimes thirty, degrees below zero. A teacher’s quality was sternly tested when it came time to bank the fire so that it would hold the night. Only a real veteran could keep a fire going over the weekend. When the fire burned out, as it often did, kids coming to school after a freezing walk of a mile or two found the place icy cold. While the room warmed up – it seemed to take forever – the youngest of us sat with our feet up on a railing around the base of the stove, but older pupils had to endure (proudly) the chill at their desks. Ink froze solid, and all of the work had to be done in pencil until the schoolroom warmed up …

“Sanitary arrangements were primitive. Two outdoor privies were set at the edge of the schoolyard. They smelled bad. The older boys told me that if you carried any food into a privy (I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to do that) it would be poisoned.

“Regular toilet paper was a luxury our school district couldn’t afford. We made do with discarded mail order catalogs, the softer index pages much preferred over the stiff coated-paper pages. One of our neighbors stocked his privy with a crock full of clean corncobs instead of paper – I am not making this up – but things were never that bad at school.”

You can read other excerpts from Long Gone in the Summer 2005 and Summer 2006 issues of Ducts www.ducts.org, a webzine that specializes in personal stories. Greenpoint Press is a subsidiary of New York Writers Resources www.newyorkwritersworkshop.com.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

August 25, 2007

‘Miss Nelson Is Missing!’ A Back-to-School Favorite Returns in a Book-and-CD Set

The deliciously vile Viola Swamp is back in a new edition of a book that has sold more than a million copies

Miss Nelson Is Missing! Story by Harry Allard. Pictures by James Marshall. Houghton Mifflin, 32 pp., varied prices. Also available in a book-and-CD edition, $9.95. Ages 3–8.

By Janice Harayda

“More than a million copies sold” is often a publishing-industry code for, “This book is utter trash.” In the case of Miss Nelson Is Missing! it’s proof that a good picture book can find its way even if its illustrator was insufficiently honored in his lifetime by the American Library Association, which tried to make up for it by giving him the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award posthumously.

Harry Allard’s text tells a lively story of pupils who torment a kind teacher until she doesn’t show up and they get a loathsome substitute, Viola Swamp, who teaches them a lesson in “as you sow.” But James Marshall’s pictures send the text into orbit.

Marshall had “an intuitive grasp of how to reduce a visual object to its most basic elements, the type of genius found in the sculptures of Alexander Calder,” former Horn Book editor-in-chief Anita Silvey has rightly observed. But his art is so rich you can’t call it minimalist. Marshall defines Viola Swamp in a half dozen or so boldly drawn features, including a huge potato-shaped nose that is both memorable and symbolic in a genre in which liar’s noses grow. No less striking is her ski-slope chin, defaced by a large mole. It reminds you of Jay Leno’s until, a few pages later, you come across an illustrated reference to sharks and see that the chin foreshadows this.

Many back-to-school books are dreary examples of bibliotherapy, more therapeutic than artistic. In its way, Miss Nelson Is Missing! says the same thing that many of those books do: School can seem good and bad at different times. But it doesn’t bludgeon children with an educationally correct message. It’s pure fun. If you were a soon-to-be-kindergartener, which type of book would you rather read?

Best line/picture: A full-page image of Viola that makes her look at once sinister and, in horizontally striped green-and-yellow socks, comically absurd.

Worst line/picture: The good Miss Nelson has blond hair, and the bad Miss Swamp has black hair. Some people might object to this, because it perpetuates a stereotype. But among the children, bad behavior comes in all hair colors.

Published: 1977 (first edition). August 2007 (book-and-CD edition) www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/hmcochild/

Caveat lector: This review is based on the first edition. I haven’t seen the just-published book-and-CD package.

Furthermore: Marhshall is best known for George and Martha, a book about the friendship between hippos, and its sequels. The American Library Association www.ala.org gave him, besides the Wilder award, a Caldecott Honor for Goldilocks and the Three Bears (Puffin, $6.99, paperback), which he wrote and edited.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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