One-Minute Book Reviews

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

February 2, 2008

A Tale by the Brothers Grimm Returns in ‘The Bearskinner,’ a Picture Book by Newbery Winner Laura Amy Schlitz and Max Grafe

A former soldier struggles to avoid losing his soul to the devil in a parable about faith, hope and charity

The Bearskinner. By Laura Amy Schlitz. Illustrated by Max Grafe. Candlewick, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 4 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Laura Amy Schlitz is the newest supernova in the field of children’s literature. For years, she had a passionate following mainly among the students who listened to her stories at the Park School in Baltimore, where she is the librarian. But her visibility soared after she earned raves for her 2006 novel for ages 10 and up, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair. This year she won 2008 Newbery Medal for her cycle of one- and two-person plays, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, and she would be equally worthy of a major award for The Bearskinner, her retelling of a Faustian tale by the Brothers Grimm.

The grave and eloquent opening lines of the book set the tone: “They say that when a man gives up hope, the devil walks at his side. So begins this story: A soldier marched through a dark wood, and he did not march alone.” In this tale a hungry and cold soldier returns from war to find nothing left of his home and the people he loved. At his lowest moment, he accepts an offer from the devil, a man with a goat’s hoof for a left foot: For seven years, the soldier will have unlimited gold. But he must wear a bearskin and may not wash, pray or tell anyone of his dark bargain. If he does, he will lose his soul.

Clad in the skin of a bear he has just killed, the ex-soldier goes off to indulge his desires. After three years, he looks like a monster, and people flee from him. He loathes himself, too, and is thinking of ending his life. But he sees a starving mother and child who give him an idea – he will use Satan’s money to feed the poor. This act of charity leads to others that enable him to outwit the devil, throw off his bearskin and marry a kind woman who has seen the good heart behind the repulsive appearance.

All of this has aspects of both a fairy and morality tale. But Schlitz neither sentimentalizes nor preaches, and Max Grafe’s wonderful illustrations remind you the work of the late Leonard Baskin in their boldness, their restricted color palette and their use of fluid body lines to suggest inner turmoil. Grafe sets the text on yellowing pages that resemble parchment, or perhaps charred tree bark, which locates the story in the distant past and may soften its potentially frightening aspects. And his devil is one of the most original to appear in a picture book in years in years. Grafe casts Lucifer as a handsome devil in the literal sense of the phrase, a man who resembles 1930s matinee idol with slicked-back hair and a flowing green cloak. No ogre with a scar, his devil is a smooth operator – just like a lot of devils in real life.

Best line: The first lines of the book, quoted in the review.

Worst line: “He rode to the gambler’s house on a dapple-gray horse.” The use of “dapple-gray” is confusing. Why not “dappled gray”?

Published: November 2007 www.candlewick.com

Furthermore: Schlitz, a Baltimore librarian, won the 2008 Newbery Medal from the American Library Association www.ala.org, for her book of monologues and dialogues, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village (Candlewick, $19.99), illustrated by Robert Byrd. She lives in Maryland. Grafe is a New York printmaker and illustrator.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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

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