One-Minute Book Reviews

June 6, 2009

Why Children Need High-Quality Fiction and Other Imaginative Literature

Filed under: Children — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:35 am
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Most children need to read more than nonfiction and the poor quality fiction that often appears on school reading lists. Here’s a good explanation of why:

“Practical books with facts in them may be necessary, but they are not everything. They do not serve the imagination in the same way that high invention does when it allows the mind to investigate every possibility, to set itself free from the ordinary, to enter a world where paradox reigns and nothing is what it seems. Properly engaged, the intelligent child begins to question all presuppositions, and thinks on his own. In fact, the moment he says, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if …?’ he is on his way and his own imagination has begun to work at a level considerably more interesting than the usual speculation on what it would be like to own a car and make money.”

Gore Vidal in Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays 1952–1972 (Random House, 1972). The illustration shows the cover of Natalie Babbitt’s modern classic, Tuck Everlasting, an example of high-quality imaginative fiction that encourages children “to enter a world where paradox reigns and nothing is what it seems” and also appears on many school reading lists.

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May 30, 2009

Why Do Children Like SpongeBob SquarePants?

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:31 am
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The appeal of SpongeBob SquarePants always struck me as nakedly Freudian: Even kindergarteners must sense that there’s something racy about a character who lives in a place called Bikini Bottom, or just about the words “bikini” and “bottom.” But James Parker makes clear in the June issue of the Atlantic that this oversimplifies the allure of the police-tape-yellow sea sponge who works as fry cook at the Krusty Krab undersea diner. “SpongeBob is one of the greatest believers in the American dream in all of children’s entertainment,” an expert on corporate branding told Parker. “He’s courageous, he’s optimistic, he’s representing everything Mickey Mouse should have represented but never did.” He’s also inspired a board book along with picture and other books, so the first story many American babies hear today may be a SpongeBob tale. Read the full Atlantic article here.

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May 23, 2009

Allons, Enfants! Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read – ‘Anatole,’ a Caldecott Finalist by Eve Titus and Paul Galdone

Filed under: Children's Books,Classics — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:02 am
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A friendly is mouse is startled to find that Parisians dislike his nibbling on leftovers

Anatole. By Eve Titus. Illustrated by Paul Galdone. Fiftieth Anniversary Edition. Knopf, 40 pages, $14.95, ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Some runners-up for the Caldecott award have had longer and more active lives than the books that defeated them. A famous example is Madeline, a 1940 finalist edged out by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire’s Abraham Lincoln.

Another case in point is the delightful Anatole, a tale of French mouse shocked to learn that humans dislike his feasting on their leftovers. The book that defeated it for the 1957 medal, A Tree Is Nice, remains popular and admired. But if you factor in the sequels, Anatole has the edge with children. Adults have reason to love the book, too.

Anatole has a plot that – if strong in its heyday – looks Herculean by the standards of the washed-out storylines of so many contemporary picture books. Anatole is happy to sneak into houses and nibble on leftovers until Parisians offend his pride by complaining about the scavenging. A mouse has to feed his family – in this case, his wife, Doucette, and six children – but Anatole has a conscience and self-respect. “If only we could give people something in return — ” Doucette says.

Inspired by his wife’s words, Anatole begins slipping into the Duval Cheese Factory by moonlight, tasting the products, and pinning onto the cheeses notes that suggest ways to improve them. “Less black pepper … more grated onion … another pinch of salt.”

Will Anatole get caught? This question in itself makes for an exciting story. But Anatole also develops a worthy theme nondidactically: Giving back makes you feel good even if you can’t repay others in kind. And as Meghan Cox Gurdon has noted, the book gives English-speakers a chance to enliven a reading by adopting an outrageous French accent, either for the English text or the scattering of French words like, “Touché!”

Paul Galdone adds to the Gallic flair by illustrating his early 20th-century Parisian scenes with just three colors – red, white, and blue – and to the suspense by alternating tricolor pictures with black-and-white spreads. Some spoilsports might wish that Eve Titus had set her story in China, which would have allowed for shop signs in Mandarin – a language that that has spiked in popularity among preschoolers – instead of French. As Anatole’s helper Gaston says, “C’est la vie!” A Chinese version might have had its advantages, but would it have had as many pictures of delicious cheeses?

Best line/picture: Anatole is mortified to hear Parisians complaining about mice: “ ‘But I never dreamed they regarded us this way,’ cried the unhappy Anatole. ‘It is horrible to feel scorned and unwanted! Where is my self-respect? My pride? MY HONOR?’”

Worst line/picture: None.

Published: 1956 (McGraw-Hill first edition), 2009 (Knopf 50th Anniversary Edition).

Furthermore: Galdone won Caldecott Honor Book citations for Anatole and the first of more than a half dozen sequels, Anatole and the Cat.

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews.

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

May 22, 2009

‘Anatole’ — A Classic Picture Book Every Child Should Read — Coming Tomorrow

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:11 pm
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For more than 50 years, American children have enjoyed Anatole,  a Caldecott Honor Book that tells the story of a friendly French mouse who is shocked to discover that humans don’t like it when he feasts on their leftovers. What does the tale offer in the age of Webkinz and Dora the Explorer? And why has it inspired more than a half dozen sequels? A review will appear tomorrow in the “Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read” series on One-Minute Book Reviews, which reviews books for children or teenagers on Saturdays.

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Win These Books for Children or Adults – Summer Reading Giveaway

Filed under: Contests — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:07 am
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[Update, June 4: This contest has closed.]

Late last year, I promised to bring back my former contests that let you win books reviewed on this site. It’s taken me a bit longer than I’d hoped, but here’s the first in the new series of occasional giveaways. Happy Memorial Day! Jan

You can win any book on the list below if you’re the first to link to One-Minute Book Reviews after you read this post. To enter, link to this site, then send the link and your mailing address to the e-mail address on the contact page, and tell me which book you’d like. (Please do not leave a comment with the link — e-mail entries only.) You don’t have to link to the review of the book you want or to say anything special; you can link to any post or page, and winners are determined solely by the time of arrival the e-mail.

You need to be over 18 and a resident of the U.S. to enter. If you win, I’ll put the book in the mail to you within a week. You can win only one book, but if more than one interests you, you’re welcome to mention an alternate choice in case someone has won the book you want. Winners’ names are not announced on the site.

All books are the copies I used to review them, so they’ve been read gently but are in very good condition unless specified. As noted below, some are advance reader’s copies or ARCs (uncorrected proofs with the art for the cover of the hardcover edition on the front).

Here are the books you can win.

Children’s Books
The Poky Little Puppy: A Little Golden Book Classic. By Janette Sebring Lowrey, illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren. This book is reported to be the bestselling American hardcover children’s picture book of all time. Hardcover edition. (Won)

Baby Farm Animals: A Little Golden Book Classic. Illustrated by Garth Williams (who illustrated the best-known editions of Charlottes Web and Little House on the Prairie). Hardcover edition. (Won)

Walt Disney’s Cinderella: A Little Golden Books Classic. Story adapted by Jane Wenner. Illustrated by Retta Scott Worcester. Art from the 1950 movie (with Cinderella in her pre-princess garb on the cover). Hardcover edition.

What a Great Kid! Coupon Book: 52 Ways to Tell Kids “You’re Loved.” A tear-out coupon for every week.

Advance Reader’s Copies/Children

PerpetualCheck. By Rich Wallace. A short novel about two brothers who face off at a chess tournament. This ARC shows a bit of wear, but a young chess player might enjoy it. See note about ages in review.

Books for Adults

No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club: Diary of a 60th Year. By Virginia Ironside. The hardcover edition of a comic novel recently out in paperback.

The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America. By John Demos. The hardcover edition of a National Book Award nonfiction finalist now in paperback. (Won)

Advance Reader’s Copies/Adults

Take Your Shirt Off and Cry: A Memoir of Near Fame Experiences. By Nancy Balbirer. An actor’s story of the big breaks that got away.  This ARC shows wear.

My Little Red Book. Edited by Rachel Kauder-Nalebuff. Girls and women remember their first menstrual periods.

Not Becoming My Mother: And Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way. By Ruth Reichl. Memories of a difficult other by the editor-in-chief of Gourmet.

Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa. By R. A. Scotti. True crime about a famous art heist.

How to Buy a Love of Reading. By Tanya Egan Gibson. A novel about a teenager whose parents hire a novelist to write a book for her.

Old World Daughter, New World Mother: An Education in Love and Freedom.By Maria Laurino. An argument for a new vision of feminism by the author of Were You Always an Italian?

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April 29, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda — How to Find Out How Dumbed-Down a Book Really Is

Filed under: Late Night With Jan Harayda,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:53 pm
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You know how I reported back in 2006 that Mitch Albom is writing at a third-grade reading level in For One More Day, according to the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics on Microsoft Word? I’ve since posted the levels of other books, including Stephenie Meyer’s The Host. And it’s always – shall we say? – enlightening to learn how dumbed-down some books really are. It’s also time-consuming: To find a reading level, I have to type passages from a book into my computer, then run the spell-checker or paste the text into a site that has a measuring tool other than Flesch-Kincaid’s.

So I was delighted to learn from a visitor about the site for the Accelerated Reader progress-monitoring software, which lists many popular books and their reading levels. The AR site seems to focus on books schools might use, so you can’t turn to it for the reading level of anything on your nightstand. But if you compute these levels as often as I do, this one could delay the onset of carpal tunnel syndrome for a couple of years.

“Late Night With Jan Harayda” is an occasional series of posts that appear after 10 p.m. Eastern Time and do not include reviews, which typically appear early in the day.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
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April 25, 2009

Rich Wallace’s Tale of Young Chess Players, ‘Perpetual Check’

Teenage brothers face off in a novel about a chess tournament

Perpetual Check. By Rich Wallace. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 128 pp., $15.99. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

Perpetual Check has a warning for parents who overpraise their children’s modest talents, hoping to enhance self-esteem. The caution comes from Zeke Mansfield, a high school senior who is a good athlete but less than the star his father imagines. Zeke realizes at a chess tournament:

“Having his father telling him what a star he is for all those years hasn’t been a plus after all. Somehow it made him decide that an extra hour of working on his ball control was plenty, no need to make it two; that 50 sit-ups after practice were just as good as a hundred; that sometimes it wasn’t worth running hills in the pouring rain. He was great; he was unbelievable. His natural talent would carry him as far as he wanted to go. It was heady stuff at 12 or 13 or 15.”

That “heady stuff” gets tested at the Northeast Regional of the Pennsylvania High School Chess Championship, held during a snow-encrusted weekend at a hotel in Scranton. Zeke and his pudgy younger brother, Randy, a freshman, have both qualified for the event. Randy can beat his brother nine times out of ten and outranks him in other ways: He’s better student, has a girlfriend, and can guess the colors of M&Ms in his mouth with his eyes closed.

So when the two brothers meet in the semifinals, there’s a showdown, complicated by the presence of their father. Mr. Mansfield is a hypocritical, overcontrolling, sexist who tries live out his failed dreams through Zeke. His boorishness has fueled the natural rivalry between his sons, a reality that emerges in chapters told from the brothers’ alternating points of view.

Will one son outperform the other in the tournament? Or might both embarrass their father by losing to – oh, the horror! – a girl? Wallace controls the suspense well in a lightweight, fast-paced book that portrays Zeke and Randy with more subtlety than their father, who is a caricature. By the time the tournament ends, the brothers have had insights into more than chess strategy: They understand better the role their father has played in their relationship and in their parents’ shaky marriage. Zeke reflects early in Perpetual Check that “he never had a chance to be the big brother in the equation” with his sibling, because Randy had so many strengths. The equation may not be solved by the last page, but the boys have the formula.

Best line: “Randy knows that Zeke will often make a seemingly careless move early in the game. The strategy is to leave the opponent with ‘He must know something I don’t’ bewilderment.”

Worst line: “Dina giggles again.” Wallace casts Mr. Mansfield as a sexist, without using the word, but isn’t it sexist to have only female characters giggling, as in this book? Perpetual Check also has many lines such as, “He’s a dick,” “This guy I’m playing against is a prick,” and “No way you’re sitting on your fat ass for another summer.”

Published: February 2009

Ages: The publisher recommends this book for ages 12 and up, a label that appears based largely on its use of words such as “dick” and “ass.” This seems prudish and misguided given that many children start hearing these words in preschool.  Apart from the “bad words,” this short novel — a novella, really — would better suit ages 9-12 and strong readers as young as 8.

Read an excerpt form Perpetual Check.

About the author: Rich Wallace also wrote Wrestling Sturbridge and Playing Without the Ball.

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear on Saturdays on One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 24, 2009

A Review of ‘Perpetual Check’ — Coming Tomorrow

Filed under: Children's Books,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:23 pm
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Reviews of books for children appear on Saturdays on this site. Tomorrow: Rich Wallace’s new Pepetual Check (Knopf, 128 pp., $15.99), a short novel about two teenage brothers who compete in a Pennsylvania regional chess championship. Perpetual Check seems to have earned its “ages 12 and up” tag mainly for language like “your fat ass” and “He’s a dick.” Otherwise it’s for strong readers ages 8 and up.

April 22, 2009

Eco-Propaganda in Children’s Books by Carl Hiaasen and Others — It’s Always Earth Day in Recent Fiction for Young Readers

Meghan Cox Gurdon takes on eco-propaganda in children’s books in “Scary Green Monsters,” a Wall Street Journal essay that makes point similar to one I made more briefly back in January: A lot of trees are dying for books about rainforests. Gurdon writes in an article linked to Earth Day:

“The patriarch of the vogue for green-themed children’s books is surely Carl Hiaasen, the novelist and Miami Herald columnist who shot to eco-stardom in 2002 with Hoot, a novel for middle-schoolers about three children who foil a corporation’s attempt to build a pancake restaurant over a burrow of endangered miniature owls. Hoot won a Newbery Honor Award, and was followed in 2005 by Flush, a tale recounting the adventures of a different group of youthful oddball allies that is seeking to expose a casino-boat operator who’s been flushing raw sewage into harbor water….

“In all Mr. Hiaasen’s books for children, young readers are asked to sympathize with environmentalists who thwart businessmen, even when the good guys take destructive measures such as sinking boats or torching billboards. And the eco-tropes that have worked so well for Mr. Hiaasen — Good nature! Bad capitalist! — are steadily creeping into books across the age range.”

Gurdon also discusses Joan Bauer’s Newbery Honor book, Peeled (Putnam, 2008), Timothee de Fombelle’s Toby Alone (Candlewick, 2009), Katherine Hannigan’s “risibly didactic” Emmaline and Bunny (HarperCollins, 2009), and Joshua Doder’s popular “Grk” books, such as Operation Tortoise (Delacorte, 2009). She notes that children like routine:

“They’re not put off by predictability in stories. They’re accustomed to princesses being pretty, dragons being fearsome, and, it seems, alas, their fictional businessmen being corpulent and amoral. So it’s probably pointless to object to the eco-endlessness on the grounds of artistic feebleness.

“Yet there is something culturally impoverished about insisting that children join in the adult preoccupation with reducing, reusing and recycling. Can they not have a precious decade or so to soar in imaginative literature before we drag them back down to earth?”

Read all of “Scary Green Monsters” here.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 18, 2009

Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo! The Case for ‘Cinderella’ (Including, Yes, the Disney Version) — Classics Every Child Should Read

Filed under: Children's Books,Classics — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:46 pm
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The latest in a series of posts on classic children’s picture books

Walt Disney’s Cinderella: A Little Golden Book Classic. Story adapted by Jane Werner. Illustrated by Retta Scott Worcester. Golden Books, 24 pp., $2.99.

By Janice Harayda

For several decades, the story of Cinderella has been anything but a Cinderella story. Scholars have attacked it for promoting female passivity, for giving stepmothers a bad name, and for equating beauty with virtue: The pretty Cinderella is good and her ugly stepsisters are bad. I read a critique that accused it of promoting capitalist values because – at least in the Disney the version, the one most familiar today — Cinderella is rewarded for the hard work of scrubbing floors and churning butter, as though we’d want the kids to read books where characters were rewarded for sloth.

There’s some truth to the all complaints. Variations on Cinderella have existed for centuries or more, and they typically reflect ideals of an earlier time. But if I had children, I’d want them to know this tale of a mistreated girl who marries a king’s son, and not just because it’s a defining myth of our age. The case against Cinderella was stronger in the past. If the story is one of female passivity — that of a girl rescued by a prince — it used to reflect the expectations of society as a whole.

Those assumptions have changed. Girls today see more countervailing influences to Cinderella — the tortured marriage of Charles and Diana showed us all what can happen when you marry a prince — so there seems to be less harm in reading it. There are also more benefits when surveys of cultural literacy have shown that children are increasingly growing up without understanding the ideas that have shaped civilizations – not just fairy tales but myths, legends, fables, Bible stories, and more.

As a child, I loved an oversized tie-in edition to the 1950 animated Disney musical Cinderella — “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo”! – and read it until its corrugated pop-up pumpkin fell off. A few weeks ago, I was startled to find Walt Disney’s Cinderella in a Little Golden Book Classic format in the new-children’s-books section of a good bookstore. No pop-up pumpkin, but everything else is identical. No less surprising is that the Little Golden Book Classic is better than many recent editions, including some others from Disney, in part because its cover shows Cinderella in rags near a brick fireplace, which makes the meaning of the title clear right away. Some versions have a princess on the cover that dilutes the message and make the book look like just another princess fantasy, instead of the mother lode.

I’m sure that at the age of seven, I liked my Disney version partly because its Cinderella has blond hair and blue-green eyes like me (which plays into stereotypes of the fair-haired as virtuous, given that one of her stepsisters has black hair and another red). But today you can find a United Nations of Cinderella stories at bookstores and libraries, and they have title characters of varied ancestry: Jewish, Persian, Chinese, Mexican, Korean, Caribbean, Hispanic, Cambodian, Egyptian, Alaskan, Hmong. And if some of these still seem to be a font of stereotypes, they make clear it would be more accurate to call Cinderella something else: an archetype who has never lost her appeal.

Best line: Some modern versions of Cinderella don’t explain how the title character got her name. The Little Golden Book Classic does: “But alas! The kindly gentleman soon died. And his second wife was harsh and cold to her lovely stepdaughter. She cared only for her two ugly stepdaughters.

“Everyone called the stepdaughter Cinderella now since she sat by the cinders to keep warm as she worked hard, dressed only in rags.”

Worst line: Cinderella had “a puppy named Bruno” before her father died.  The name “Bruno” is odd in context. And the dog probably shouldn’t have a name at all, because it’s used only twice, and an old horse (which becomes a coachman) and the mice (which turn into horses) don’t have names.

Published: 1950

Listen to the song “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” from Walt Disney’s Cinderella on a site that doesn’t include a film clip from the movie. You can also hear it on YouTube sites that include a clip, but these may not be legal.

Other classic picture books reviewed on One-Minute Book Reviews include Millions of Cats, Madeline, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Where the Wild Things Are, The Backward Day, Horton Hatches the Egg, The Story of Ferdinand and Flat Stanley.

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

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