One-Minute Book Reviews

December 7, 2007

‘The Supreme Christmas Poem in the English Language’ Is … Quote of the Day (Reynolds Price)

This is the Month, and this the happy morn
Wherein the Son of Heav’ns eternal King,
Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring …

From John Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”

What is “the Supreme Christmas poem in the English language”? This must have been more of a stumper than I thought, because I asked the question Tuesday, and nobody got it right. I may have thrown you off by saying I’d give an American writer’s answer when the poem wasn’t written here. (Oh, sons and daughters of Cambridge! Where were you when a fellow Cantabrigian needed you?) The novelist Reynolds Price argues – and many others would agree – that the poem is John Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” Price says of Milton and his poem:

“The most powerful early component of his genius became visible in December 1629. While on the winter vacation from his studies at Cambridge, he wrote his initial indispensable poem, an ode ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.’ It was, almost certainly, the result – only two weeks after his twenty-first birthday – of his eagerness to exhibit a first fruit of the high calling he sensed within himself. And in the freewheeling rhetorical rapture which pours out memorable phrases in joyous profusion, in its complex musical urgency, and its unquestioned Christian sense of God’s immanence in nature, the ode continues to be the supreme Christmas poem in the English language.”

Reynolds Price in an essay on Milton in the just-published Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English and American Literature (Paul Dry Books, $18.95, paperback) www.pauldrybooks.com, selected and edited by Joseph Epstein with wood engravings by Barry Moser. Price, the poet and novelist, is the James B. Duke Professor English at Duke University www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reynolds_Price.

The first lines of Milton’s poem appear at the top of this post. You can read the annotated full text in the Milton Reading Room on the Dartmouth College site http://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/nativity/index.shtml. Please note that on this template I can’t indent the lines as Milton did.

Did you know the answer to Tuesday’s question? An easy way to become better acquainted with Milton’s poetry is to go to the free site Cyber Hymnal and listen the hymn “Let Us With a Gladsome Mind,” which you can hear by clicking on this link: http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/l/e/letuglad.htm. (You will hear the music immediately when you click.) The words to “Let Us With a Gladsome Mind” come from Milton’s poem with the same title, which he wrote when he was 15. You can read the poem and listen to the music simultaneously at Cyber Hymnal www.cyberhymnal.org, which also offers at no cost the words and music to thousands of other hymns, including religious Christmas carols.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

http://www.janiceharayda.com

May 24, 2007

Robert Cording’s Poem “Pentecost in Little Falls, New Jersey’

Filed under: Poetry,Religion — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:34 pm
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A reminder for anyone observing Pentecost (Sunday, May 27) …

Robert Cording’s eloquent collection Common Life: Poems (CavanKerry, $16, paperback) includes the poem “Pentecost in Little Falls, New Jersey.” A review of Common Life appeared on this site on April 5, 2007, and is archived in the “Poetry” category and with the April posts. You can find more information on Cording, a professor of English at Holy Cross, at www.cavankerrypress.org. Click on the “Reading Room” page on that site to read his poem, “A Prayer to Adam,” the first poem in Common Life.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 17, 2007

The Best Versions of the Easter Story for Children

Filed under: Children's Books,Religion — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:37 am
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Picture books that use the King James Version to tell the Easter story

[The following review has been expanded since the original post. The added material appears in square brackets like those of this note. It includes an Easter book for ages 1-to-3 with African-American characters. I have also added comments on Elizabeth Winthrop’s He Is Risen in the “Furthermore” section at the end. The review below deals only with books that explain the religious meaning of Easter to children. You can also find good, brief versions of the Easter story that are suitable for young children in many general Bible story books that have stories from both the Old and New Testaments. You may also want to read the April 1, 2007, post on this site about books about rabbits (“Who Framed Peter Rabbit?”) often given as Easter gifts www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/04/01/.}

Easter: The King James Version – With Pictures. By Jan Pienkowski. Knopf, standard edition, varied prices. Ages 8 and up. Easter – Mini Edition. By Jan Pienkowski, Knopf mini edition, varied prices. Ages 4–8. [See further discussion of ages below.]

Easter. By Fiona French, editor. HarperCollins edition [Excerpts from King James Version], 32 pp., $16.95. Ages 8 and up [ages for 4 and up for reading aloud]. Ignatius Press edition of the same book [Excerpts from Revised Standard Version], 32 pp., $16.95. [Ages 8 and up, ages 4 and up for reading aloud.]

[Easter. By Miriam Nerlove. Whitman, 24 pp., $4.95, paperback. Ages 1 to 3.]

By Janice Harayda
How could perhaps the best picture book version of the Easter story have gone of print? Back in 1989, the Polish-born artist Jan Pienkowski won raves for his Easter, a Passion narrative told through excerpts from the King James Version and haunting silhouettes set against a field of vibrant color and symbols of rebirth. A reviewer for School Library Journal wrote:

“Dazzling beauty and poignant emotion suffuse these illustrations, which give an intensely personal interpretation of the King James version of the Easter gospels … Jesus’s slender, often hunched figure aches with human suffering.”

Pienkowski’s use of black silhouettes gave his pictures an advantage over the bloodier images of some other artists: They had a drama appropriate to the story but lacked the elements that could frighten children. They were also were among the best work of an illustrator who won the Kate Greenaway Medal for Haunted House and The Kingdom Under the Sea. And while it’s disheartening that both editions of Easter have gone out of print. Pienkowski is popular enough that many libraries have his books. If yours doesn’t have this one, you may be able to find it through an online bookseller or eBay.

You may also want to look for Fiona French’s Easter, shown at right, a 2002 picture book that remains in print. I haven’t seen it, but School Library Journal said: “Spectacular spreads inspired by the stained-glass windows of English cathedrals are the focal point of this abbreviated version of Jesus’s last days. Swirling scenes in incandescent jewel tones and bold black lines illustrate excerpts from the King James Version of the Bible, which are selected highlights rather than a continuous narrative.” [I’ve seen this book since the original post and agree with School Library Journal. This beautiful book is by far the best version of the Easter story for preschoolers and young school-age children that is widely available in stores and online. But the Ignatius Press edition uses excerpts from the Revised Standard Version instead of the KJV excerpts found in the earlier edition published by HarperCollins. The language of the RSV is more contemporary than that of the KJV, so it may be easier for some children to understand. And because the RSV is the the version used in most Protestant churches in the U.S., the language may also be more familiar to many children.)

Though less well-known than many American authors, French is one of England’s finest picture-book artists. She won the Kate Greenaway award for her Snow White in New York among many other honors.

[Miriam Nerlove's Easter differs in several ways from the books of Pienkowski and French. Hers is a book for toddlers and younger preschoolers, not the older preschoolers and young school-age children for whom the other books are intended. It does not focus tightly on the last days and Resurrection of Jesus, events mentioned on only four of its 24 pages. Instead it shows a modern black family dyeing eggs, spotting a bunny, going to church, and enjoying a holiday dinner. And unlike the other two authors, Nerlove tells her story through simple -- and at times strained -- rhymes and muted watercolors that lack the depth the art in the other books. So her Easter is likely to appeal most to families who are more interested in encouraging very young children get excited about fun aspects of the holiday, such as the arrival of "the Easter bunny," than in teaching them about its religious significance.]

The usual warning applies to all these books: Seasonal books may sell out before a holiday. Look into this one now want to your child to read about something other than jolly bunnies this Easter.

Age ranges. The publishers recommend the HarperCollins edition of French’s book and the Pienkowski standard edition for about ages 8 and up because of their King James texts. But because these are picture books, they may not appeal to strong chapter-book readers. Unless I knew a child’s reading level well, I might get them for ages 4–7 and help them with the text or let them grow into them. Nerlove’s book is book is for younger children, such as those who enjoy Goodnight Moon.

[Furthermore: Elizabeth Winthrop has written another KJV-based Easter story, He Is Risen: The Easter Story (Holiday House, $17.95), illustrated by Charles Mikolaycak. This book has much more text on each page than the other books in this review and illustrations that, although of high quality, are graphic. (The Easter lily on the cover is somewhat misleading about what's inside.) The scenes of Jesus's crucifixion may be the bloodiest in any picture book version of the Easter story. On one two-page spread, Jesus sprawls on the ground in a loincloth in obvious pain or sorrow with blood flowing from a nail the size of a railrod spike through his wrist. The crucifixion scene on the spread that follows it is no less dramatic. The illustrations on these pages are perhaps more realistic and historically accurate than those in other books. But they are so chilling and the text is so dense, this book would not suit most preschoolers and many young school-age children. He Is Risen is best for ages 9 and up, particularly those who have an understanding of what "crucifixion" means. The problem is that because this book has a picture book format, it may not appeal to 9-year-olds who prefer chapter books. So the audience is hard to define, which is why it doesn't appear on the "best books" list.]

Links: Jan Pienkowski’s http://www.janpienkowski.com/
has information about other books but not Easter. Go to www.ignatius.com and search for “Fiona French” for more on her Easter. The Ignatius site also has information on the sequel to Easter, Bethlehem, which tells the Christmas story partly through excerpts from the Revised Standard Version and art inspired by stained glass windows in English cathedrals. To learn about Miriam Nerlove’s Easter, go to www.awhitmanco.com and click on “Holiday Books,” then search for “Easter.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A new review of one or more books for children or teenagers appears every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing these reviews. This site does not acept free books from publishers or others, and all reviews are independent evaluations by Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com, an award-winning critic and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

December 8, 2006

Julie Vivas’s ‘The Nativity': The Best Version of the Christmas Story for Preschoolers

And the critic said, “Fear not, for this book takes its text from the Gospel of Luke, which shall be found in the King James Version of the Bible.”

The Nativity. Illustrated by Julie Vivas. Voyager Books, 36 pp., $7, paperback. Ages 4–8.

By Janice Harayda

It’s a miracle: For once I agree with the American Library Association www.ala.org, which named The Nativity a Notable Book of the year after its first American publication in 1988. I haven’t seen every version of the Christmas story for preschoolers. But as a former Sunday school teacher, I’ve seen a lot. And take it from somebody who knows how to make remarkably convincing angels – well, sort of convincing — by folding back the handles of coffee cups and glue-ing on ping-pong ball heads: This book is the best for its age group.

The Nativity has several big advantages over most other picture books about birth of Christ and the arrival of the shepherds and wise men. One of these is that it tells the story through the rich and resonant text of the Gospel of Luke from the King James Version of the Bible, dropping only a phrase or two here and there for clarity or space. (“Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” becomes “Fear not, I bring you tidings of great joy.”) Another advantage of the book is that the characters have no fixed race, so all kinds of families can identify with them. A third is that Vivas provides dynamic but offbeat and deglamorized watercolor illustrations — no gilt halos, no foil star, no flocked sheep. So The Nativity is more accurate than many of the books that have a Jesus, Mary, and Joseph who might have come straight from a DreamWorks casting call.

Then what’s not to like? For many families, nothing. But The Nativity has a painting that shows baby Jesus in what Hollywood calls “full frontal nudity.” I can only image the reaction of the mother who once wrote me angry letter after I praised a book by Maurice Sendak with similar anatomical detail. “Why on earth would I want to buy my child a book with pictures of naked babies?” she asked. And although The Nativity is widely available in bookstores, it’s so popular that it may sell out well before Christmas. My local bookstore had only one copy, much upstaged by newer titles. I snapped it up. Go thou and do likewise — this weekend – if you’d like to read The Nativity this season.

Best line: All.

Worst line: None.

Recommended if … you believe that a child who can sing “Baby Beluga” can understand: “And she brought forth her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn.”

Published: 1988 (first U.S. edition), 2006 (Restored Voyager Books edition).

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Check back for more reviews of books for preschoolers in the Children’s Corner, which appears every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews. Or read all the reviews archived in the Children’s Books category on www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com.

This blog was created by Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor and critic of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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