One-Minute Book Reviews

April 19, 2008

Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read — ‘The Story of Ferdinand’ — Burned by Hitler and Beloved by Children

Filed under: Children's Books,Classics — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:40 pm
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Three generations have grown up with a tale of a gentle bull who would rather smell the flowers than fight

The Story of Ferdinand. Story by Munro Leaf. Pictures by Robert Lawson. Many editions. Ages 2 and up.

By Janice Harayda

The Story of Ferdinand is regarded today as a classic parable about nonviolence. But this delightful tale has little in common with the dreary lectures you find in many picture books on the same topic.

Ferdinand is young Spanish bull who likes to sit under a cork tree and “smell the flowers” instead of butting heads with other bulls his age. So he doesn’t seem to have a chance when scouts come looking for “the biggest, fastest, roughest bull to fight in the bull fights in Madrid.” But when Ferdinand sits on a bumblebee, he turns for an instant into a different creature and is hauled off in a cart to face the matador. In the bull ring he sees the flowers in the hair of the female spectators and “just sat down quietly and smelled.” So people have to take Ferdinand home to his pasture with the cork tree. And there, we learn on the last page, “He is very happy.”

Robert Lawson’s black-and-white etchings add wit and drama to Munro Leaf’s story while allowing Ferdinand to remain a bull, not a four-legged boy. Lawson’s justly celebrated pictures include perhaps the most exciting endpapers ever to appear in a picture book: They show children on a Madrid street pointing to a poster of a bull that says: “El Toro Feroz … Ferdinando.” Who says four-year-olds can’t appreciate irony?

First published in 1936, The Story of Ferdinand has a unique place in American children’s literature as “the first picture book labeled subversive,” the children’s author Sheryl Lee Saunders writes in Anita Silvey’s The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators (Houghton Mifflin, 2002):

“Ferdinand created a global controversy overnight. The Story of Ferdinand was denigrated and banned in civil war–torn Spain, scorned and burned as propaganda by Hitler, and labeled in America as promoting fascism, anarchism, and communism. Others heralded the innocent bovine as an international emblem of pacifism.”

Leaf responded by saying that he wrote the story simply to amuse young children, and amuse it does. The Story of Ferdinand has appeared in more than 60 languages, has never gone out of print and has come out in a book-and-CD set. All of it makes this a supreme example of how children respond to a great story, told at the right level, even if their elders complain about its politics. As Saunders noted:

“Leaf’s ability to establish a strong character and comic situation with so few words is extraordinary; so, too, is Lawson’s gift at interpreting Leaf’s understated humor with spirited images that accurately reflect the emotions portrayed in the text. Both talents combined inseparably to craft the perfect picture book.”

Best line (the most famous): “He liked to sit just quietly and smell the flowers.”

Worst line: None. But the “just” in “He liked to sit just quietly” may sound to contemporary ears as though it’s in the wrong place in the sentence.

Published: 1936 (first edition), Most recent edition: September 2007 Puffin Storytime book-and-CD set, which includes the unabridged text of the original.

Furthermore: The Story of Ferdinand is one of many great picture books that didn’t get a Caldecott Medal or Honor designation. Leaf received a 1939 Caldecott Honor for his second picture-book collaboration with his friend Robert Lawson, Wee Gillis.

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear on Saturdays on One-Minute Book Reviews. “Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read” is an occasional series on the site.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 8, 2008

Remembering When Talking About Your Children Was Taboo at Dinner Parties – Phyllis Theroux’s ‘Peripheral Visions’

Filed under: Essays and Reviews — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:47 pm
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I came across this startling line while rereading Phyllis Theroux’s, Peripheral Visions (Morrow, 1982), one of best essay collections of the 1980s:

“There’s no quicker route to poor opinion than to be at a dinner party and say brightly at table, ‘Guess what our Jeremy said today?’ Children are taboo at dinner parties … “

Theroux wrote those words while living in Washington, D.C., where the table talk is sometimes as carefully choreographed as the second act of Swan Lake. But her comment suggests how tolerant of parental boasting our culture has become since her book appeared. When was the last time you went to a dinner party and didn’t hear a parent say, in effect, “Guess what our Jeremy said today?”

Credit: Photo from the site for Theroux’s Nightwriters seminars and retreats for writers www.nightwriters.com. The next seminar will take place in Sonoma County May 4–9, 2008. I have ‘t attended one of these programs. But Theroux is a fine, highly respected writer who seems to keep the size of her seminars small enough that you’ll get personal attention. And the price isn’t much higher than for a comparable number of nights in a good hotel. I’d check out her site if you’re looking for a writers’ retreat with a difference.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 5, 2008

Jack Prelutsky’s Worst Book? The Magic Is Gone in ‘The Wizard,’ Illustrated by Brandon Dorman

A popular children’s poet casts no spell when he recycles earlier material

The Wizard. By Jack Prelutsky. Illustrated by Brandon Dorman. HarperCollins/Greenwillow, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 4–8.

By Janice Harayda

The Wizard is the only picture book that a bookstore clerk has ever tried to talk me out buying. I wish I had taken her advice.

You know that how critics say that there’s a curse of the Nobel that keeps writers from doing great work after they become laureates, which Gabriel García Marquez beat with Love in the Time of Cholera? Jack Prelutsky seems to suffer from a similar jinx. Two of his worst books have come out since the Poetry Foundation named him the children’s poet laureate of the U.S., a title unrelated to the honor conferred by the Library of Congress. Early in 2007 Prelutsky served up uninspired sports poems in Good Sports. Now there’s The Wizard, a picture book based on the time-honored literary principle that Maureen Dowd has described as: “Never sell once what you can sell twice.”

The Wizard consists of a brief rhyming poem about sorcery that first appeared in Prelutsky’s 1976 book, Nightmares: Poems to Trouble Your Sleep. A magician who might have been airlifted from Hogwarts to his gray stone tower in a suburbia turns a bullfrog into a flea and the flea in to mice. He then causes other transformations until he brings the frog back with a warning that departs from the iambic tetrameter used elsewhere: “Should you encounter a toad or lizard, / look closely … / it may be the work of the wizard.”

As those strained lines suggest, The Wizard is the kind of weak poem that works best in a collection that includes stronger ones. And it gets no help from the lurid, digitized pictures, long on a shrill lime green with silver glitter on the cover. “It’s so commercial,” protested the bookstore clerk who tried to talk me out of buying it. She was right: If the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders wore green and white instead of blue and white, they might choose the shades in this book.

There’s a place for honest commercialism in children’s literature – for, say good spin-offs television shows – but the illustrations for The Wizard are among the most pretentious I’ve seen in a picture book. Brandon Dorman scatters the pages with objects found in Dutch vanitas paintings — a skull, a clock, flickering candles. In art these are classic symbols of mortality and the flight of time. In this book they are just clichés.

Prelutsky has written many good books of children’s poetry, including Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant, that don’t pander as this one does to the marketplace. But he may have little incentive to do more of them: The Wizard was a No. 1 New York Times bestseller.

Best line / picture: None is a good as a typical line in Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant. But these two lines make clear that four-year-olds can understand iambic tetrameter: “He spies a bullfrog by the door / and, stooping, scoops it off the floor.”

Worst line / picture: The wizard has “a tangled beard that hangs from his skin.” But in nearly all of Dorman’s pictures, the beard is as smooth as satin.

Published: October 2007 www.jackprelutsky.com, www.brandondorman.com and www.harpercollinschildrens.com.

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

March 8, 2008

An Interactive Map of Storybook England for Children — Another Reason Why U.K. Tourist Services Are Better Than Ours

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:30 pm
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An interactive map of storybook England shows places associated with Alice, Black Beauty, Harry Potter and other famous characters

One of the great pleasures of visiting Britain is that the government hires a lot of people who can help you find your way around instead of doing what we do here in the U.S., which is to tell visitors: “You want information about our country? Pray for a taxi driver who speaks English.” Pause. “If that fails, you could always ask the person who mugs you.”

Many of the helpful Brits work for the tourist boards Visit Britain www.visitbritain.com, Visit Scotland www.visitscotland.com and Visit Wales www.visitwales.com. And some of them came up with a great interactive online map of England that lets children learn about places linked to characters in books like Black Beauty, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the Harry Potter series.

I learned about this delightful storybook map from Ceri Radford, who wrote in her blog about books in the Telegraph: “You can browse by book title, then click to find out more about the work and its location. Kudos to Enjoy England, the marketing arm of Visit Britain, for coming up with the idea.” You can read more about it here blogs.telegraph.co.uk/arts/ceriradford/dec07/.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 1, 2008

Why Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘Little House’ Books Aren’t Just for Girls (Quote of the Day / Jonathan Yardley)

Filed under: Children's Books,Classics — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:05 am
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Many people think of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books as a series for girls. But is it true? Jonathan Yardley wrote about Wilder’s books his “Second Reading” series in the Washington Post and recalled how much he had enjoyed Little House on the Prairie and Little House in the Big Woods as a child:

“What surprises me a bit in thinking back to my own reaction to these books as a boy is that it seems to have made no difference at all that girls, not boys, were at the center of these stories. Most of my favorite books were about boys — Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s The Story of a Bad Boy, Booth Tarkington’s Penrod and Sam — but I remember with great affection, even if I can remember neither the title nor the author, a memoir of a girlhood spent in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park, and as my reading habits advanced I thought Little Women a much better book than Little Men, which of course it is.

“I say this not in order to lay claim to preternaturally premature feminism, but to make the point that Wilder’s books are open and accessible to readers of both sexes. The girls whom she portrays are thoroughly feminine, but they also know how to load guns and do chores in and out of the house. Indeed, the chief trouble with the Laura Ingalls Wilder industry as it now exists is that it idealizes the girls of the frontier far more than Wilder did. The front cover of my copy of Little House in the Big Woods shows two cute-as-buttons girls in a bright, sunny woods, wearing clothes that look right out of Ralph Lauren. That may be good TV, but it’s bad Laura Ingalls Wilder.”

To read all of Yardley’s comments on Wilder, click here: www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/11/07/AR2007110702595.html.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

February 14, 2008

It’s Easy Being Mean in Children’s Picture Books — Coming Saturday

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:07 pm
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Relentless meanness isn’t new in children’s books. What is new that it’s showing up in books aimed at younger and younger ages. On Saturday One-Minute Book Reviews will review a picture book for preschoolers that exemplifies the trend with a mean-spirited heroine who feels no remorse for her misbehavior.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 9, 2008

Natalie Babbitt’s Cycle of Stories About an Out-of-Work Pirate, ‘Jack Plank Tells Tales’

The author of Tuck Everlasting returns with a lighter book about a reformed plunderer-of-the-high-seas

Jack Plank Tells Tales. Story and pictures by Natalie Babbitt. Scholastic/Michael Di Capua, 128 pp., $15.95. Ages 7–9 (ages 4 and up for reading aloud).

By Janice Harayda

Jack Plank Tells Tales is the book many parents have been waiting for – a pirate story for children too old for picture books but too young for Treasure Island. It lacks the psychological heft and stylistic perfection of Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting, a modern classic. But it’s several nautical miles beyond many other recent pirate stories, including Peter Pan rip-offs and cheesy movie tie-ins.

Jack Plank is an amiable out-of-work pirate who is cast off the ship Avarice because he lacks a talent for plunder: “You have to yell and make faces and rattle your sword, and once you’ve got people scared, you take things away from them.” So he has to find a new job after he settles into a boarding house on Jamaica in about 1720.

Each day he looks for work, with the proprietor’s 11-year-old daughter as his guide, and finds something wrong with one of his options. He can’t fish because it reminds him of a shipmate’s story of a man who turned into an octopus and can’t work in a sugarcane field because he would have to cross a bridge that brings to mind a sailor’s account of a troll. Each night he entertains the boardinghouse residents with another tale of why he has come up empty-handed, which leads soon to a job that suits him the way a deep harbor suits a galleon.

The stop-and-go narrative makes this book good bedtime reading for children who can handle its two deaths by stabbing even as the lack of a strong forward momentum may make it easier for others to put down. And there’s not much thematic development – this is light entertainment, an amusing cycle of stories billed by the publisher as a novel.

But Babbitt’s engaging pencil drawings – and a handsome jacket and design by Kathleen Westray – help to offset the narrative limits. The refusal of American Library Association www.ala.org to give Tuck Everlasting a Newbery Medal or Honor Book citation may have been the organization’s greatest awards blunder of the past 40 years, compounded by its continual failure to recognize Babbitt with the Margaret A. Edwards award for lifetime achievement. Lois Lowry is a good writer. But why Lowry has won the Edwards award and Babbitt hasn’t is a mystery that this appealing book only deepens.

Best line: Many of the tales in this book develop folkloric motifs such as that of the mummy’s hand, and its story of a girl raised by seagulls has an especially memorable illustration of a feral child.

Worst line: The last: “But it seems to be sure that, as Waddy Spoonton pointed out, it’s never too late to be happy.” This ending is unusually sugary – and clichéd – for Babbitt. And the text doesn’t really prepare you for it.

Published: May 2007 www.scholastic.com

Furthermore: Babbitt won a Newbery Honor Book designation for Kneeknock Rise, a completely inadequate recognition of her body of work from the ALA. As a former vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle, I appreciate the great difficulty of getting literary prizes right. But the ALA is just embarrassing itself on this one.

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

February 3, 2008

A Great Question to Ask Your Teenager (Quote of the Day / Michael Riera)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:28 pm
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I don’t review many childrearing guides, partly because most seem to recycle the same dozen or so tips. How many ways can you say, “Set limits” or “Be patient – this stage will pass”? And some of the books are so patronizing that you might wonder: Are their authors writing for children or for people who have them? But I love a comment that the writer and educator Michael Riera makes as part of a broader argument against lecturing children:

“In many ways, it all comes down to what Nobel Laureate Isadore Rabi’s mother used to ask him each day when he came home from school: ‘Did you ask any good questions today?'”

Riera is encouraging parents generally to ask questions instead of trying always to have definitive answers. But the question posed by Rabi’s mother is, in itself, great. Have you ever asked a child, “Did you ask any good questions in school today?” I wonder how this would work with teenagers who don’t aspire to become Nobel laureates.

Michael Riera in Staying Connected to Your Teenager: How to Keep Them Talking to You and How to Hear What They’re Really Saying (Perseus, 2003) www.perseusbooksgroup.com. Riera www.mikeriera.com is head of school at the Redwood Day School in Oakland, CA.

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

February 1, 2008

Why Do Children Like Folktales? Quote of the Day (Laura Amy Schlitz)

Tomorrow One-Minute Book Reviews will have a review of a retelling of the Brothers Grimm story The Bearskinner (Candlewick, $16.99) www.candlewick.com, which has words by the 2008 Newbery Medal–winner Laura Amy Schlitz and pictures by Max Grafe. Schlitz is the librarian at the Park School in Baltimore and says that her children’s books reflect the influence of her years of telling folktales to its students:

“Folklore has a moral center to it. Folklore is always, always, always on the side of the underdog, and children have a natural instinct towards justice. They feel indignation at needless cruelty and wistfulness about acts of mercy and kindness.”

Laura Amy Schlitz as quoted by Meghan Cox Gurdon in “A Late-Blooming Talent in Full Flower” in the Wall Street Journal, Jan. 19–20, 2008.

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

January 31, 2008

My Baby Gift for Parents Who Are Serious Readers – ‘The New York Times Parent’s Guide to the Best Books for Children’

A veteran children’s book critic recommends fiction, nonfiction and poetry

More than seven years have passed since the arrival of Eden Ross Lipson’s The New York Times Parent’s Guide to the Best Books for Children: Third Edition: Fully Revised and Updated (Three Rivers, $18.95, paperback) www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl/9780812930184.html. This means that it omits many of the most admired books of the decade, including all the 21st-century Newbery and Caldecott medal–winners. But it’s still so much better than most books in its category that it’s one of my favorite baby gifts for parents who are serious readers.

This hefty paperback has more than a thousand brief reviews of fiction, nonfiction and poetry for the years from birth through early adolescence, all written by a former children’s book editor of The New York Times Book Review. It also has a half-dozen indexes that let you search for books by title, author, subject and age-appropriateness and more. So it’s easy to find books in popular categories, such as poetry and biography, and on topics such as sports, minorities, and grandparents. Many of the reviews give little more than plot summary. But Lipson’s opinions, when she risks them, are sound. She describes the popular picture book The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Fairy Tales as “smart-aleck central” and adds: “There’s a blithe, if mean-spirited, energy in both the text and the clever, angular, layered illustrations.”

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

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