One-Minute Book Reviews

September 26, 2010

A Middle-School Student Auditions for a Music Video ‘Cinderella Cleaners: Rock & Role,’ a Preteen Series Set in Weehawken, NJ

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An eighth-grader likes clothes, music and acting, but not having a stepmother

Cinderella Cleaners #3: Rock & Role. By Maya Gold. Scholastic, 173 pp., $5.99 paperback. Ages 8–11.

By Janice Harayda

Are stereotypes of stepmothers making a comeback? You might wonder after dipping into a new preteen-fiction series about a middle-school student who helps out at her family’s dry cleaning shop in Weehawken, NJ.

Thirteen-year-old Diana Donato loves clothes, music, acting and her three best friends. But she wishes her kind-hearted father had never married her stepmother, Fay, who “always says no.”

In Rock & Role, Diana gets a chance to try out for a music video when, on her way to make a delivery for Cinderella Cleaners, she meets a 16-year-old pop star. Will her stepmother thwart her hopes? Fay is so bland that she turns out to be less of an obstacle than the questionable judgment Diana sometimes shows while pursuing a role in the video.

But the outcome is never really in doubt. Rock & Role is Cinderella story on more than one level. Apart from her unwelcome stepmother and her overindulged stepsisters, Diana has a counterpart to the industrious mice in Cinderella – a friendly tailor at Cinderella Cleaners who whips up a vest for her to wear in the video. Rock & Role is also as sanitized as 1950s Disney movie, a novel free of sex, profanity and descriptions of the adolescent body changes that some preteens have been reading about for years in Judy Blume. And yet, on its own terms – which are the terms of literary fast food – it has more going for it many similar books. Diana is an upbeat, hardworking eighth-grader who has goals and faith in her ability to achieve them. She knows brand names – Converse, Hollister, iPod – without being obsessed with them. Her friends aren’t mean-spirited.

Even so, you wish Maya Gold had tried harder to avoid stereotypes, and not just of evil stepmothers. Diana’s friend Sara Parvati, whose family comes from India, gets straight A’s in school. Literary images of brainy Asian children may not be damaging as ethic slurs, but they’re still stereotypes. And equal opportunity won’t exist in children’s books until young Indian, Korean and Japanese characters have the same freedom that others do – the right, at times, to be mediocre students.

Best line: “Now it’s like we’re stuck halfway out on this wobbly bridge between Just Friends and We’re Going Out …”

Worst line: “Sara gets straight A’s and once won a regional spelling bee.” Again, are any Asians in children’s fiction not brainy (or, alternately, computer geeks)?

Published: June 2010

Furthermore: Other books in the Cinderella Cleaners series include Change of a Dress and Prep Cool (both published by Scholastic, April 2010), and Mask Appeal (Scholastic, August, 2010).

You can follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 30, 2010

Girl Meets Gun in Lois Lowry’s First Picture Book, ‘Crow Call’

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A girl spends a day with her father who has returned from World War II

Crow Call. By Lois Lowry. Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. Scholastic, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages: School Library Journal recommends for grades K-4.

By Janice Harayda

Two-time Newbery Medal winner Lois Lowry can write what she pleases at this stage of her career, and this fact may help explain her tepid first picture book. Crow Call tells the story of a pigtailed girl whose father, just back from World War II, takes her along when he sets out to kill crows that are eating the crops on nearby Pennsylvania farmlands.

Liz feels happy, if shy, about spending time with someone who “has been gone for so long.” But she worries about the crows, and her father, sensing this, takes her home without shooting any – a change of heart that causes the plot to sputter out in the last pages. Liz also tells her story through slightly affected first-person, present-tense narration. You don’t fully believe she would have all of her thoughts, which include self-conscious lines like “our words seem etched and breakable on the brittle stillness.”

Lowry says in an afterword that the events of Crow Call happened to her and her father in 1945, and her publisher casts the story as an allegory that “shows how, like the birds gathering above, the relationship between the girl and her father is graced with the chance to fly.” Maybe so. But the text has much less loft than the art by Bagram Ibatoulline in the color palette and social-realist style of Christina’s World, which his fellow Pennsylvanian Andrew Wyeth painted three years after the events that inspired Crow Call took place. His lovely pictures are the saving grace of a book that, you sense, Lowry needed to write more than children need to read.

Best line/picture: A picture of Liz’s father stretching his neck out, imitating a giraffe, as she tries to stifle a laugh.

Worst line/picture: The last line: “Then I put it into the pocket of my shirt and reach over, out of my enormous cuff, and take my father’s hand.” This line isn’t strong or credible enough for its position in the book. Lizzie and her father have spent quite a bit of time alone together by the time she takes his hand, and you don’t believe she wouldn’t have done so before then.

Published: October 2009

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 13, 2009

The True Story of a Girl Captured by Mohawks in 1704 During the Slaughter of Colonists in Deerfield in 1704 – John Demos’s ‘The Unredeemed Captive’

Why did young Eunice Williams stay with Indians who had murdered her mother?

The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story From Early America. By John Demos. Vintage 336 pp., $14.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In 1704 a French and Indian war party slaughtered dozens of men, women, and children in a predawn attack on Deerfield, Massachusetts. Recent histories have sanitized the incident known as the Deerfield Massacre, calling it “the Raid on Deerfield.”

The term “raid” hardly fits the events described in this memorable true story of Eunice Williams, who lived through the terror that was masterminded by the French but largely carried out by Mohawks and other Indians. Eunice was a 7-year-old Puritan minister’s daughter when she was kidnapped in the attack – oops, sorry, “raid”! – on Deerfield at about 4 a.m. on February 29. Her mother died on a subsequent forced march to Canada, killed by an Indian who “slew her with his hatchet at one stroke,” a son wrote. Her father and siblings were eventually released.

But Eunice stayed with the Indians, one of whom she married, for puzzling reasons: Was she a prisoner or a willing expatriate? The Yale University historian John Demos explores the question in this fascinating finalist for 1994 National Book Award (inexplicably described on the cover as the winner of the prize).

Enough gaps remain in the record that Demos has to tease out answers, partly by exploring relations between the English, French, and Indians in 18th-century America. (“Some things we have to imagine.”) So The Unredeemed Captive isn’t a Jon Krakauer tale with muskets. But its story matters for more than its complex portrayal of colonial life. Demos doesn’t take the fashionable path of romanticizing American Indians, but he doesn’t spare the Puritans, either. He notes that in our era, “fundamentalism” has become a shorthand term for “radical Islamists, evangelical Christians, ultra-Orthodox Jews, militant Hindus” and others. “By the same token,” he writes, “it’s not a long stretch to characterize the early Puritans, surrounding and including the Williams family, as ‘fundamentalists’ themselves; witness their sense of utter certainty in what they were about, their intolerance of difference and dissent, their zeal for conversion of infidel natives, and their readiness to fight, die, and kill in the cause of advancing their faith.”

Best line: “Who can tell what sorrows pierced our souls?,” a rhetorical question asked by
Rev. John Williams after the massacre.

Worst line: Demos tells much of Eunice’s story in the present tense, which works less well than the past tense he uses to give it context.

Recommendation? An excellent choice for history books clubs and others that like serious nonfiction.

Editor: Ashbel Green

Published: 1994 (Knopf hardcover), 1995 (Vintage paperback).

Read John Demos’s summary of the Deerfield Massacre in American Heritage. Several Deerfield museums have an excellent interactive Web site that shows a representation of the attack and tells more about the people mentioned in this review.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

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

May 2, 2009

Christine Schutt’s Pulitzer Finalist and Novel About a Girls’ School, ‘All Souls’ — A Reality Check Coming Next Week

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:50 am
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A review  of Christine Schutt’s All Souls, a runner-up for the most recent Pulitzer Prize for fiction, will be the next post in the “Reality Check” series that explores whether the winners of or finalists for major prizes deserved their honors. All Souls involves a student at a girls’ prep school in Manhattan whose classmates learn that she has a grave illness, and the review will deal in part with whether the novel might also appeal to teenagers.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

March 31, 2009

A Book About Menstruation That Only a Man Could Love — True Stories of Girls’ First Periods Collected in ‘My Little Red Book’

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:16 pm
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My Little Red Book. By Rachel Kauder Nalebuff. Hachette/Twelve Books, 217 pp., $14.99.

By Janice Harayda

This is a messy collection of 90 true stories about a messy subject, girls’ first periods.  There’s certainly a place for a book that might clear up some of the confusion about menstruation that lingers decades after the publication of Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Our Bodies, Ourselves. And Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, a student at Yale, tries to provide one in this anthology packaged like Mao’s Little Red Book (a device that, perhaps inadvertently, implies that women belong to a biological proletariat, a theme that most entries  don’t support).

My Little Red Book collects reports from girls and women of many backgrounds — Korean and Comanche, feminist and traditionalist, and Christian and Muslim.  It also includes Gloria Steinem’s  essay “If Men Could Menstruate” and poems by Maxine Kumin, Jill Bialosky and others. But if its entries are at times interesting, the book as a whole is disorganized and perpetuates the kind of misinformation it seems intended to correct.

The lack of consistency shows up quickly. Kauder Nalebuff says in her first line, “Every woman remembers her first period — where and when it happened, who, if anyone, she told, and even what she was wearing.” This untruth soon takes a hit from novelist Michelle Jaffe, who writes, “I don’t remember my first period. At all.”

The most egregious misinformation comes from the novelist Jacquelyn Mitchard, who tells a daughter who asked if she could play sports when she had her period: “Best thing for it. That way you’ll never get the kind of cripple cramps girls used to get back in the day.” Menstruating girls can play sports, but the rest of that comment is scientifically inaccurate and contradicted in entries by women who describe getting cramps despite participating in vigorous sports. And in some cases Mitchard’s view would amount to blaming the victim. Take that, all you suffering teenagers who have made a priority of studying  for your AP English exam or babysitting to save money for college! If only you’d joined that travel soccer league, you’d never have those “cripple cramps.”

The causes of menstrual cramps have always been poorly understood in part because they have been little studied — that’s an implicit point of Steinem’s essay. But research suggests they are caused by contractions related to the release of prostaglandins and other substances when the uterus sheds its lining each month. Cramps  intensify when clots pass through the cervix. That’s especially true if the cervical canal is narrow or woman has a “tough cervix,” one that doesn’t dilate easily, which is why it’s an old wives’ tale that a woman who has severe cramps will have an easier childbirth. A tough cervix can make both periods and childbirth more difficult.

Some research suggests that sports may help to ease cramps for some women, but it is cruel and misleading to imply that they are a cure-all for a condition that can involve many factors. And My Little Red Book offers little hope to girls and women who suffer from them. It has  appendices such as a list of Web sites and a glossary of slang terms for menstruation — from warhorses like “falling off the roof” to the newer “rebooting the ovarian operating system” — but nothing on relief from pain or other physical symptoms. This book would have benefited from an afterword by a doctor or at least from the inclusion of a phrase such as “prescription-strength Advil.”

The sex of the editor of a book is usually irrelevant, but it’s perhaps worth noting that this one was edited by a man, the  respected Jonathan Karp, who writes in the foreword to the advance reader’s edition: “When literary agent Susan Ginsburg asked me if I wanted to read a book about first periods, I assumed the subject of the work was punctuation.”  Female editors may well have wanted to buy My Little Red Book and have been outbid by Karp.  Even so, you wonder if some  might have had the same reaction to this book that more than a few female readers may have: This is a book about menstruation that only a man could love. 

Best line: The entire poem “The Wrath of the Gods, 1970″ by the gifted poet and editor Jill Bialosky. And Gloria Steinem’s modern classic “If Men Could Menstruate,” first published in Ms. in 1978, which argues with tongue-in-cheek that if men could menstruate and women could not, menstruation would become “an enviable, boast-worthy” event: “Men would brag about how long and how much.”

Worst line: Mitchard’s line about how you’ll never have cramps if you play sports, quoted above.

Editor: Jonathan Karp

Published: February 2009

Furthermore: My Little Red Book comes from an adult division of Hachette but has, throughout the book, cutesy taglines for authors and other writing that appears pitched to adolescents, such as, “Is Jacquelyn Mitchard the chillest mom ever, or what?” 

Caveat lector:  This review was based on an advance reader’s copy. Some material may differ in the finished book. Kauder Nalebuff’s last name is not hyphenated on the ARC cover but is hyphenated in images of the cover of the finished book.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

http://www.janiceharayda.com/

October 6, 2008

‘Speaker Pelosi, I Named My Dog After You’ And Other Things Nancy Pelosi Has Heard in More than 20 Years in Politics

How do you become the highest-ranking elected female official in the U.S.? Pelosi didn’t iron her husband’s shirts

Know Your Power: A Message to America’s Daughters. By Nancy Pelosi with Amy Hill Hearth. Doubleday, 180 pp., $23.95.

By Janice Harayda

This book has inspired toxic comments on Amazon, apparently coming both from Republicans opposed to Nancy Pelosi’s liberal politics and Democrats enraged by her refusal to support impeachment proceedings against George W. Bush. Those diatribes may be too harsh. How bad can a book be when it includes an admission by the nation’s highest-ranking elected female official that she got where she is partly by declining to ironing her husband’s shirts?

Know Your Power isn’t a definitive autobiography but a brief memoir that its publisher optimistically but rightly categorizes as “motivational.” And it would be welcome if only because it offers an alternate model to any woman who thinks she could never meet Sarah Palin’s standard of running for high office as the mother of an infant and four other children. An implicit message of Know Your Power is: You don’t have to.

In this book Pelosi describes how she found her rewards sequentially. She got her start in politics when the mayor of San Francisco appointed her to the Library Commission while she was a full-time wife, mother, and volunteer who had given birth to five children in six years. But she didn’t become Speaker of the House until decades later. After becoming a Congresswoman, Pelosi seems to have accepted that she could never be the perfect wife envisioned by some of the women’s magazines: She has represented her California district since 1987, and her husband has never lived in Washington. A cornerstone of her philosophy of life is, “Organize, don’t agonize.”

Pelosi gives a strong sense of the rewards of a life in politics, some learned from her father, a Congressman from Maryland and mayor of Baltimore. She also sees the comic absurdities faced by elected officials of both sexes. One fan told her, “Speaker Pelosi, I named my dog after you.” One of the strongest sections of the book deals with her remarkable mother, who raised seven children — one of whom died at the age of three — and made sacrifices that indirectly underscore the need for elected female officials of both parties.

“My mother was a wonderful wife and parent, and she was also an entrepreneur and visionary,” Pelosi writes. “She started law school but had to stop when three of her sons had whooping cough at the same time. She made astute investments, but Daddy would not sign off on them (which, sadly, would have been necessary at the time). She had a patent on the first device to apply steam to the face, called Velex – Beauty by Vapor. It was her brainchild, and she had customers throughout the United States, but Daddy wanted her close to home.”

Amid such reminiscences, Pelosi offers advice to anyone who aspires to career in public service. “Don’t overstate what you will deliver, and always complete the task agreed to.” “Quality childcare is the missing link in the chain of progress for women and families.” Then there’s the advice she got from Lindy Boggs, former Congresswoman from Louisiana: “Never fight a fight as if it’s your last one.”

Some of the nastiness in politics today clearly results from the problem noted by Boggs, that many elected officials fight every fight as if it were their last. It’s easier to take an end-justifies-the-means view if you think you’ll never face your opponent — or American voters — again. Partly for that reason, if Know Your Power is billed as a book for “America’s Daughters,” it has a message for American’s sons, too.

Best line: On why she majored in history at Trinity College in Washington. D.C.: “I had intended to major in political science, but at Trinity at that time you had to major in history in order to study political science. Our teachers often quoted the great English historian J.R. Seeley’s aphorism: History without political science has no fruit. Political science without history has no root.” As someone who majored in political science major, I think Trinity had it right here. I had good poli sci professors but almost no history courses, which left me with an inadequate context for some of their lessons. If I had it to do over, I would major in history or English, which might have required me to take a few Shakespeare courses. I thought I had enough Shakespeare partly because I’d had a wonderful introduction to his greatest plays in high school. Wrong. You never have enough Shakespeare, especially if you’re a writer.

Worst lines: “This is an historic moment …” “This was a historic day in our house.” Pelosi apparently can’t decide whether its “an historic” or “a historic” and is hedging her bets. “A historic” is correct. To oversimplify: “An historic” dates to the early English settlers of our continent, many of whom dropped the “h” at the beginning of words, and the construction perpetuates the outdated language.

Recommendation? Know Your Power has crossover appeal. Doubleday has packaged it as a book for adults, and in bookstores and libraries, you’ll find it with the new adult nonfiction. But this book may especially appeal to teenage girls, including college students, who are hoping to go into public service.

Reading group guide: Doubleday has posted one at doubleday.com/2008/07/28/know-your-power-by-nancy-pelosi/, but this is a guide that’s almost worse than none. Sample questions: ” What roles do women occupy, or have they occupied, in your family? Did you have older female relatives who worked while raising a family?” These questions do not engage the serious issues Pelosi raises. You could ask them about almost any book by any female author from Edith Wharton to Toni Morrison.

Published: July 2008

Furthermore: Pelosi represents California’s 8th Congressional District, which includes much of San Francisco. She became Speaker of the House in January 2007 www.house.gov/pelosi/biography/bio.html.

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

May 19, 2008

When Girls’ Sports Injuries Go Beyond the Soccer Field

Filed under: Nonfiction,Sports — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:11 pm
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On May 11 the New York Times Magazine published a cover story provocatively headlined: “Everyone Wants Girls to Have As Many Opportunities in Sports as Boys. But Can We Live With the Greater Rate of Injuries They Suffer?” www.nytimes.com/2008/05/11/magazine/11Girls-t.html. Written by Michael Sokolove, the article focused on soccer injuries, especially ruptures of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). Journalist Joan Ryan explores the physical and emotional risks of two other popular sports in Little Girls in Pretty Boxes The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters (Warner, 2000), a chilling exposé of the exploitation of young female gymnasts and skaters. The book grew out of an award-winning series Ryan wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle and became a 1997 made-for-TV movie www.imdb.com/title/tt0119551/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 4, 2008

Ewww, It’s ‘Purplicious’ by Victoria Kann and Elizabeth Kann

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:09 pm
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Seeing red about the “Pinkalicious” series

Purplicious. Story by Victoria Kann and Elizabeth Kann. Pictures by Victoria Kann. HarperCollins, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 4 and up.

By Janice Harayda

A reviewer for the American Library Association’s Booklist magazine said diplomatically that the art for Pinkalicious “won’t win any awards.” And a critic for School Library Journal showed a similar gift for understatement when she said that the title character can be “a bit obnoxious.” But the character known as Pinkalicious has inspired a New York show, Pinkalicious: The Musical. And the first book about her became a bestseller, aided by the pink-cupcake parties that the publisher urges parents to hold in her honor. What’s going on?

Pinkalicious is a young school-age girl with fixation on pink that borders on Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. In Pinkalicious she ate so many pink cupcakes that her skin and hair turned pink, then returned to normal after her doctor prescribed eating green vegetables. That premise might have seemed iffy enough in a book likely to reach many children who have a shaky grasp on biological cause-and-effect. But Pinkalicious and her companions were also so nasty, they set off a flurry of complaints on Amazon.com and elsewhere. And they clearly didn’t go to charm school before the sequel appeared.

In Purplicious, Pinkalicious cries into her pink hankie when her classmates taunt her about her love of pink. But she eventually makes a friend named Purplicious who decides that “Pink is powerful” after learning that she can change the color of a blue cake to purple by adding pink to the paint.

The problem with all of this isn’t really the stereotypical love of pink, though that alone might give some parents pause. A lot of preschoolers – and their older sisters – do love pink. And the creators of the series try to subvert the stereotype by having Pinkalicious’s classmates favor black, so that she’s the oddball.

The problem is partly that in Purplicious, Pinkalicious’s love of pink expresses itself, in part, in a rampant consumerism. Pinkalicious has “more than a hundred pink possessions” in her pink room: “I had a pink phone, a pink crayon, a pink piggy bank, pink underwear, a pink tiara, even a giant pink bunny.” She also sounds as though she’s competing in Junie B. Jones impersonation contest. She’s rude to her parents and brother and doesn’t apologize. And her friends are worse. “Pink is putrid,” one tells her. “Yeah, pink stinks!” adds another.

A more imaginative author – say, Rosemary Wells or Babette Cole – could have spun a girl’s fascination with pink into a witty fantasy without any of the meanness or commercialism. Another illustrator could have served up better art than Victoria Kann’s flat, digitized pictures of big-headed characters with bland features As it is, Pinkalicious is less an engaging character than an emerging brand. How long do you think it will take before some of her “hundred pink possessions” start showing up in stores?

Best line: None

Worst line: A typical line of dialogue: “Eww, it’s sooooo ugly.”

Published: 2007 www.elizabethkann.com

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

May 2, 2008

Why Are Some Parents Seeing Red About ‘Pinkalicious’?

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:36 am
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A reviewer for the American Library Association’s Booklist magazine said the pictures in Pinkalicious “won’t win any awards.” And School Library Journal admitted that its main character, a pink-obsessed girl named Pinkalicious, can be “a bit obnoxious.” But the book has inspired a New York musical and a new sequel. Has Pinkalicious become less obnoxious in Purplicious? Find out tomorrow when One-Minute Book Reviews reviews the series in its regular Saturday Children’s Corner.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 26, 2008

A Librarian-Approved Graphic Novel for Teenagers (And Maybe You)

Filed under: Novels,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:16 pm
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Looking for graphic novels for a teenager? Take a look at Boston Bibliophile, a blog by a librarian named Marie who reviews graphic novels every Monday. First in her weekly series was Breaking Up: A Fashion High Graphic Novel (Scholastic, 192 pp., $9.99, paperback) by Aimee Friedman with art by Christine Norrie. I haven’t read the book, but Marie calls it a “charming story” about friendship that may appeal not just to teenage girls but to some adults. (It has sexual content that probably makes it “inappropriate for younger kids”). “To say this book is light reading is an understatement, but I found it really enjoyable nonetheless,” she adds. “Friedman does a great job of showing what high school can be like — passing notes, hanging out with friends, crushes, parties.” Click her to read the review www.bostonbibliophile.com.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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