One-Minute Book Reviews

September 12, 2008

A Boy Runs for President of the U.S. in the Picture Book ‘President Pennybaker’

A young candidate campaigns in Iowa, New Hampshire and other politically influential states after setting his sights on the White House

President Pennybaker. By Kate Feiffer. Illustrated by Diane Goode. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

It’s probably safe to say that many adults would find it easier explain to young children how babies are made than how U.S. presidents are made. Libraries and bookstores abound with good picture books on conception, pregnancy and birth. But how many show the importance of putting up posters, taking part in debates and campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire?

Most authors seem to assume that presidential campaigns are too complex a topic for young children and that they may write only about elections that occur in school or neighborhood settings. These writers may be giving too little credit to their potential audience. Child psychologists tell us that children are aware of changes in their environment even if they don’t understand them. So they’ll notice if campaign signs are sprouting on lawns, Dad is wearing a shiny red-white-and-blue lapel button, or Mom is spending a lot of time on the telephone asking people she doesn’t know for money.

Kate Feiffer and Diane Goode cast a national election in terms young children can understand in President Pennybaker, the story of a boy who sets his sights on the White House after his father’s edicts convince him that life is unfair and that he can bring about his own form of social justice. Luke does many things that adult candidates do: He sets up a campaign office, puts up posters and solicits contributions. And as he travels to politically important states like Iowa and New Hampshire, he makes promises he’ll never be able to keep. Campaigning as the candidate of the Birthday Party, Luke vows that under his administration kids will get to eat cake and open gifts every day. After winning by a landslide, he realizes that he’s in over his head and resigns after a week on the job, leaving Oval Office to his hand-picked vice-president — his dog, Lily.

Goode leavens Feiffer’s somewhat abrupt ending with entertaining watercolors that set President Pennybaker mostly in the early 20th century — when voters tooled around in Model Ts – except for a few anachronisms such as television sets and a female governor of California. Her pictures also suggest some of the comedy in Luke’s serious motive for seeking the White House. In real life, when children ask their elders why people run for president, the adults tend to fall back on bromides like, “They want to make the world a better place.” That explanation is far too dull and abstract for many children. Luke’s rationale for his candidacy is likely to be much more appealing to its intended audience: Life is not fair. What 4- or 5-year old couldn’t relate that?

Best line/picture: All of Goode’s pictures show her flair for retro details, but Bruce Springsteen fans may especially like the page that shows Luke campaigning on “on the beach at the Jersey shore” in what looks like old Asbury Park.

Worst line/picture: Anachronisms such as the television set are clearly intentional and often amusing but weren’t essential to the story.

Recommendation? A good choice for parents who want to explain to young children why Dad starts swearing every time he sees a certain candidate on television. This book may especially interest schools and libraries in the places where Luke campaigns or whose elected officials are mentioned in it — the cities of Detroit, Cincinnati, New York and Washington, D.C., and the states of Iowa, Maine, Kansas, Colorado, California, New Jersey and New Hampshire.

Editor: Paula Wiseman

Published: August 2008 www.katefeiffer.com and www.dianegoode.com. Feiffer is a Massachusetts filmmaker who also wrote Henry the Dog With No Tail, illustrated by Jules Feiffer. Goode is a New Jersey artist who won a Caldecott Honor for her art for Cynthia Rylant’s When I Was Young in the Mountains and also illustrated Mind Your Manners, a guide to table manners for young children www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/12/23/.

Furthermore: Click here to read about other new children’s books about elections, including Rosemary Wells’s Otto Runs for President www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/09/05/.

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.

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

March 8, 2008

One of the Year’s Best Books About High School Sports, Mark Kreidler’s ‘Four Days to Glory,’ Returns in a Paperback Edition

Filed under: Paperbacks,Sports,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:53 pm
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Masterly reporting sheds light on an athletic subculture little-known outside the Midwest

You can’t envy parents, teachers and librarians who are looking for sports books for high school students. So many books in the category are cheesy celebrity biographies that foster the worship of false demigods instead of a love of reading or a real understanding of competition. Not Mark Kreidler’s Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland (Harper, 285 pp., $13.95, paperback, ages 13 and up), which recently came out in paperback www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/08/07/. Two high school wrestlers prepare to compete in the Iowa state championship in this book of masterly reporting that offers a fascinating portrait of a little-known athletic subculture www.markkreidler.com and www.harpercollins.com. Mary Ann Harlan rightly said in School Library Journal: “Teen wrestlers will appreciate a book that speaks to them and respectfully about them, and sports fans may find a new area to appreciate.”

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews, a site for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. You can find other reviews in the “Children’s Books,” “Young Adult,” “Caldecott Medals” and “Newbery Medals” categories at right.

© 2008 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 7, 2007

Mark Kreidler’s Peak Peformance in Sportswriting, ‘Four Days to Glory’

Teenage wrestlers hurl themselves at their limits as the Iowa state championship approaches

Four Days to Glory: Wrestling With the Soul of the American Heartland. By Mark Kreidler, 262 pp., $24.95

By Janice Harayda

Read enough books by newspaper sportswriters and you will eventually begin to question the principle of freedom of speech. It’s not that these journalists are lazy or unintelligent. But they typically write books about superstars who are so young and so focused on one sport that they have almost nothing to say. And because the athletes are in high demand, they also have little time to give to a book. The sportswriters have to stretch an inadequate number of interviews to tissue-thinness, then flesh them out with tedious rehashes of games that were far more dramatic on ESPN. To see how unedifying the result can be, you need only to read Moving the Chains, the 2006 biography of the Patriots’ Tom Brady by Charles Pierce of The Boston Globe. Any six-inch news story on recent events in Brady’s personal life might tell you more about the quarterback.

Meet Mark Kreidler, a sportswriter who makes you glad that the founders of our country wrote that Bill of Rights. The dust jacket of Four Days to Glory says he has worked for two California newspapers, but his book is far from the usual hagiographic cut-and-paste job. It’s a terrific portrait of high school wrestling in Iowa, a powerhouse in the sport, and a fascinating look at a subculture almost unknown outside the Midwest. If you think the people who bark after every touchdown at Browns games are obsessed, you should meet Iowa wrestlers.

Four Days to Glory tells the story of two high school seniors, Jay Borschel and Dan LeClere, both three-time state champions who aim to join the elite who have won a fourth title. But Kreidler has expanded his focus to include the boys’ families, coaches and teammates, so that his book is always about more than wrestling: It’s about the gut-wrenching impact of the quest on everybody involved. It’s also about the complexities of Iowa, a place where tickets to the state high school wrestling final sell out months in advance, yet nobody scalps tickets because, as one father said, “It would be unsportsmanlike to scalp at an event like this.”

As he follows Borschel and LeClere to the tournament, Kreidler avoids digressions into the less savory aspects of their sport – the steroids, the latent homoeroticism and the potential for eating disorders among athletes who must weigh in for every match. This may disappoint anyone looking for the wrestling equivalent of Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, Joan Ryan’s superb exposé abuses in gymnastics and figure-skating. But Four Days to Glory works beautifully on its own terms. Kreidler says that Iowa wrestlers adopt slogans such as PAIN IS TEMPORARY, PRIDE IS FOREVER. And although his young subjects may not know it yet, this book gives them another reason to feel proud.

Best line: Four Days to Glory has two great walk-offs in the endings for the book and its epilogue. They are close to perfection. Unfortunately, quoting them would be like telling you who dies at the end of the new Harry Potter novel.

Worst line: Kreidler says that Dan Gable, who won a gold medal in wrestling at the Munich Olympics in 1972, was “the most acclaimed athlete of his time.” Mark, does the name Muhammad Ali mean anything to you? How about Hank Aaron, John Havlicek, Mark Spitz or Billie Jean King? The statement about Gable is so bizarre, it has to be a mistake: Kreidler must mean that he was the “most acclaimed” in wrestling. You hope.

Recommendation? Parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, remember this one when you’re looking for a gift for that sports-loving teenage boy in December.

Editor: Dave Hirshey

Published: February 2007 www.markkreidler.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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