One-Minute Book Reviews

September 20, 2008

Books About Halloween for Children Who Are Learning to Read

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Orange You Glad It’s Halloween, Amber Brown?: An “A Is for Amber” Book. By Paula Danziger. Illustrated by Tony Ross. Putnam, 48 pp., $13.99. Ages 4–8, younger for reading aloud.

Grandmas Trick-or-Treat: An “I Can Read” Book. Story and pictures by Emily Arnold McCully. HarperCollins, 48 pp., varied prices. Ages 4–8, younger for reading aloud.

By Janice Harayda

Early readers — illustrated books for children who are starting to read on their own — often fail for the same reason that many picture books do: An author-illustrator draws better than he or she writes or vice versa. Or, if the words and pictures come from different people, the writer and artist are mismatched.

The late Paula Danziger’s popular books about the elementary-school student Amber Brown owe much of their success to Tony Ross’s entertaining pictures. Ross’s line drawings resemble those of his countryman Quentin Blake in their ability to evoke many moods in a believable way. And the sure-footedness of his pictures may help to explain why Danziger was able to spin off the “A Is for Amber” early-readers series from her orginal chapter books about Amber Brown.

The chapter books follow the upbeat, pun-loving Amber as she deals with events such as her best friend’s move to another state and the divorce and new loves of her parents. And the early readers are, in effect, an extended prequel to them. Along with the chapter books, these easier books offer a welcome alternative to Barbara Park’s novels about Junie B. Jones, who at times acts like a charter member of the Future Sociopaths of America. Amber has high spirits that she expresses without the unrepentant nastiness that characterizes much of Junie’s behavior.

But I was at first confused by the early reader Orange You Glad It’s Halloween, Amber Brown?, which I picked up after having enjoyed several of the chapter books. Why does Amber notice, as she prepares Pumpkin Day at school, that her mother and father haven’t been getting along? Have her divorced parents gotten back together? Why is Justin, her best friend who has supposedly moved away, decorating pumpkins with her? And why does Ross’s art look different?

With help from the Internet, I sorted it out: I was reading an installment in the six-book prequel about events that occurred before the divorce and Justin’s move, a newer series with simplified color art by Ross instead of the black-and-white drawings of the original. No doubt all of this will be less confusing to children, who will read the early readers first, than it was to me. And Orange You Glad Its Halloween, Amber Brown? has many of the virtues of the chapter books, particularly Amber’s engaging first-person narration. But the added backstory — as in so many prequels — is just padding.

Grandmas Trick-or-Treat comes from an author-illustrator who won the Caldecott Medal for Mirette on the High Wire, and it may appeal anyone who has wondered: Why do so many children’s books still show grandmothers stereotypically baking cookies? This is the fourth book about a girl named Pip and her two grandmothers, Nan and Sal, whose clashing personalities drive much of the humor in the series. Proper Grandma Nan goes trick-or-treating with Pip in her street clothes — a miniskirt, striped tights, and dangling earrings. Playful Grandma Sal wears a mummy’s costume. But the two women team up to outfox a bully who taunts Pip on Halloween, showing that people with different temperaments can work together.

Neither of these books evokes as much emotion as such superior early readers as Cynthia Rylant’s “Henry and Mudge Ready-to-Read” books oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/12/07/. But both come from authors who know how to hold the attention of 4-to-8-year-olds. Intended for children who are starting to read on their own, these books would also work as read-aloud stories for some younger ones.

Best line/picture: Ross’s picture of Amber Brown pretending to be a werewolf with candy corn fangs.

Worst line/picture: Amber’s observation, “It will be a sad Halloween if my parents are not getting along.” A child might have a sad holiday because her parents were fighting, but this comment has little context in the story. Its only emotional authenticity comes from what we know from other books in the series.

Published: 2005 (Orange You Glad It’s Halloween, Amber Brown?) and 2001 (Grandmas Trick-or-Treat).

Furthermore: Read more about Tony Ross here magicpencil.britishcouncil.org/artists/ross/. McCully’s “I Can Read” include the baseball story Grandmas at Bat, another book about nonstereotypical grandmothers www.harpercollinschildrens.com/HarperChildrens/Kids/BookDetail.aspx?isbn13=9780064441933.

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

May 29, 2007

Virginia Ironside’s Comic Novel, ‘No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club’

An English grandmother hasn’t had sex in five years and isn’t sure she wants it

No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club: Diary of a 60th Year. By Virginia Ironside. Viking, 231 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Is a backlash building against all those articles that say that you’re never too old to don a zip line and swing through a Costa Rican jungle? First Nora Ephron told us in I Feel Bad About My Neck that it’s “sad” to be over 60. Now Virginia Ironside writes in this fictionalized diary that the great thing about being old is that there are so many things you can’t do. “You no longer have to think about going to university, or go bungee jumping!” her heroine tells an obtuse therapist. “It’s a huge release!”

This concept could be a tougher sell in U.S. than in Britain, where Ironside writes an advice column for the Independent. Her diarist, 60-year-old Marie Sharp, calls herself “old.” How many Americans in their 60s do you know who describe themselves that way? Don’t look to Ironside to soft-soap you with you with euphemisms like “older” for “old” and “midlife” for “anywhere between 40 and death.”

If Marie is blunt, she isn’t mean-spirited. She is kind, cheerful, active and devoted to her friends and a newborn grandson who lives near her home in west London. And although she hasn’t had sex in five years, she doesn’t lose sleep over it. She’s thinking of giving it up – if a nice, rich, attractive childhood friend doesn’t change her mind.

No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club isn’t as funny or polished as Bridget Jones’s Diary, or the comic masterpiece from which Helen Fielding’s novel descends, E. M. Delafield’s great Diary of a Provincial Lady. But Ironside’s book has much more to say about being old – sorry, “older” — than bestsellers like The Red Hat Club or Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman. And Marie’s opinions, if not the plausibility of the plot, give her story its own appeal.

Ironside mounts a worthy assault on many popular beliefs that were overdue for it, such as the idea that people help their survivors by planning their own funerals (and that funerals shouldn’t be funerals at all but rather “a celebration” of a life). And Marie is the rare heroine bold — or perhaps reckless — enough to question the motives of book club members: “I think they feel that by reading and analyzing books, they’re keeping their brains lively. But either you’ve got a lively brain or you haven’t.” Naturally, Viking has published a reading group guide the novel.

Best line: “I don’t think those oldies who spend their lives bicycling across Mongolia at eighty and paragliding at ninety, are brilliant specimens of old age. I think they’re just tragic failures who haven’t come to terms with aging. They’re the sort of people who disapprove of face-lifts, and yet, by their behavior, are constantly chasing a lost youth.”

Worst line: Marie makes a show of not wanting to learn Italian but seems unaware that her French needs help. For example, she thinks “Champs-Elysées” and “allô” have no accents. (My computer can’t show the one on the capital e.) Marie also quotes a French guest as saying “allô” in person. The French use “allô” only on the telephone. And isn’t credible that Marie’s guest would say this face-to-face, even as a bastardized “Hello,” when the correct bonjour is universally known. Marie also has an odd way of trying to show a friend that she knew what she “was talking about” in a discussion of AIDS. She speaks of “the HIV virus” when the V in HIV stands for “virus.”

Reading group guides: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to this book was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 29, 2007. You can find the Penguin guide in the reading groups page at http:us.penguingroup.com/.

Published: April 2007

Links: www.virginiaironside.org

You may also want to read: Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck (Knopf, 2006), reviewed on this site on Oct. 14, 2006, and archived with the October posts: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/10/page/1/.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. She also wrote The Accidental Bride (St. Martins, 1999), a comedy of Midwestern manners, and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004), a comedy of New York manners www.janiceharayda.com.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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