One-Minute Book Reviews

January 24, 2012

Nancy Ekholm Burkert’s ‘Mouse & Lion’ Re-Imagines Aesop

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:55 am
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The mouse is the star of a fresh version of “The Lion and the Mouse” 

Mouse & Lion. By Rand Burkert. Pictures by Nancy Ekholm Burkert. Michael Di Capua/Scholastic, $17.95. Ages 3–6.

By Janice Harayda

Nancy Ekholm Burkert established herself as one of America’s great illustrators of children’s books with her art for the original 1961 edition of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. She has held that distinction for 50 years – along with Maurice Sendak, Chris Van Allsburg and a handful of others – and is perhaps the country’s best living female picture-book artist.

Ekholm Burkert works in the fine-art tradition of nuanced and often symbolic paintings, an approach pioneered by illustrators such as N.C. Wyeth and Arthur Rackham. She excels at re-interpretations of classics, which have included Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs, a retelling of a Brothers Grimm version translated by Randall Jarrell.

In Snow-White and elsewhere, Ekholm Burkert shows a deep understanding of how far you can go with ageless tales without betraying their spirit. Unlike artists who simply graft modern clothes or speech onto classics, she works from the inside out. She brings to each book a unity and originality of vision that extends to the most arcane detail. The dwarfs in her Snow-White aren’t elves or gnomes. They are real people, based on research suggesting that the tale may have roots in a medieval incident involving dwarfs. This approach gives Snow-White a warm humanity and depth that most versions lack.

Anyone who doesn’t know Ekholm Burkert’s work will find an excellent introduction to it in the elegant Mouse & Lion, her first picture book since Valentine & Orson in 1989. Capably written by her son, Rand, this retelling of Aesop’s “The Lion and the Mouse” sets the fable in the Aha Hills on the border of Botswana and Namibia. Ekholm Burkert gives the tale a baobab tree and a tawny African grass mouse with black and white stripes. That is where another artist would have stopped.

Ekholm Burkert goes further. Her book shows, perhaps better than any other, that this story is about the mouse, who is the protagonist to the lion’s antagonist. Most versions have both animals on the cover or just the lion. This one has only the mouse on the front. The lion is on the back.

Mouse & Lion is original in other ways. Many artists treat Aesop’s fable as a stern tale that instructs: Be kind, and others will repay you for it. Ekholm Burkert sees the humor in the story: The king of beasts needs help from a tiny creature in freeing itself from a hunter’s snare. This and other aspects would be comical in real life, and her pictures show it. In a witty series of images, the regal Lion treats Mouse like a court jester: He demands that his captive show he’s brave enough to repay the favor of a release. Lion laughs when Mouse tries to perform acrobatics on a blade of tall grass that breaks, an act that lands him on his head. The king-and-vassal relationship changes after Mouse gnaws a hole in the snare that has trapped Lion, and the book gains a second theme — the joy of small things — in closing pages that show Mouse’s mate and their babies and Lion admiring ethereal African flora and fauna. If the fable traditionally casts kindness as a duty or means of self-preservation, this one shows that it is also pleasure.

Ekholm Burkert admires Asian art, and more than her earlier books, Mouse & Lion shows its influence on her work through its agile lines and expansive use of white space. At the same time it retains the virtues of her earlier books: the subtle color sense, the superior draftsmanship and the rich textures — on the grain of a boulder, the fur on a mouse, the wings of a butterfly. Rand Burkert notes in an afterword that the lion was Aesop’s favorite “character,”  and Mouse & Lion is the rare retelling that makes you see why.

Best line/picture: No. 1: Mouse returning to his mate and their six melt-your-heart babies. No. 2: Burkert has found an subtle way around a challenge : the difficulty of showing in a single image actions occurring at different times. She uses an airy blue to show things that have occurred or will – for example, the pendulum route Mouse has swung above Lion’s jaws.

Worst line/picture: None, but Rand Burkert has a heavy hand with exclamation points. Do you really need them after “A net dropped and twisted around him!” and “ ‘Ah yes!’ he thought”?

Recommended? This beautiful children’s book may also appeal to adults who admire fine-art illustration. I liked Jerry Pinkney’s almost wordless 2010 Caldecott winner, The Lion & the Mouse. But Mouse & Lion offers more insights into the fable, and the two retellings are so different that many people will want to read both.

Furthermore: Publishers Weekly named Mouse & Lion one of the best picture books of 2011. Nancy Ekholm Burkert won a 1973 Caldecott Honor for Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs. Her other honors include a show of her work at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. A New York Times review of Mouse & Lion discusses varied interpretations of Aesop.

About the author: A short biography of Nancy Elkhom Burkert appears on the blog We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right. She is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and book editor of the Plain Dealer.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda

February 13, 2010

A Review of the 2010 Caldecott Medal Winner, Jerry Pinkney’s ‘The Lion and the Mouse’

A vibrant interpretation of an Aesop’s fable roars its way to the American Library Association’s highest award for illustration

THE LION AND THE MOUSE. By Jerry Pinkney. Little, Brown, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 6 and under.

By Janice Harayda

Whoever decided that Jerry Pinkney should do a wordless book was a genius. For decades Pinkney has been creating beautiful art that has earned him a place in the first rank of American picture-book illustrators. But some of his books have had words so much weaker than their pictures that they were hard to recommend as highly as their art seemed to demand.

The cover of 'The Lion and the Mouse.'

That’s been true whether Pinkney wrote the books or illustrated someone else’s. And until this year unexciting writing may have deprived him of a Caldecott Medal, which he won last month for The Lion and the Mouse. Caldecott judges aren’t supposed to consider the text of a book unless it interferes with the pictures, but whether or not it “interferes” is a judgment call. And by my lights, the writing in Pinkney’s books sometimes did get in the way. You just don’t want to recommend bad free verse, however attractively packaged, to preschoolers.

Pinkney needed to get words of out of the way of his pictures, and he did it in his near-wordless version of an Aesop’s fable, The Lion and the Mouse. Set in the Serengeti of Kenya and Tanzania, his adaptation teems with creatures lushly rendered in sunny watercolors: monkeys, giraffes, elephants, butterflies, gazelles and what appear to be wildebeest. Pinkney adds a few elements to the original tale of a mouse who repays a lion for saving its life by returning the favor: Most notably, he gives the mouse babies, which adds a dimension to the sparing of its life. But his art stays close to the original story and faithful to its theme: No act of kindness is ever in vain. And “the meek can trump the mighty,” as Pinkney says in an afterword.

Children over the age of 4 or so should grasp easily the plot of all this, though the only words are animal sounds such as the squeaks of mice. Whether children will grasp the moral that is indispensable to any Aesop’s fable is less clear. So some might also want to read a more traditional version or watch a lively one-minute video of “The Lion and the Mouse” based on Tom Lynch’s Fables From Aesop (Viking, 2007). Either way, the revival of this fable shows again why stories become classics: They never shed their truth but allow each generation to interpret them in its own way.

Best line/picture: The cover. Not putting type on the cover was great for two reasons. One is that it suggests that The Lion and the Mouse is wordless. The other is that cover image is so strong, type might have detracted from it. The detail is clear and rich that you can count the lion’s whiskers. Not sure why the lion is looking toward the spine instead of the pages, though, which seems to take your eyes in the wrong direction.

Worst line/picture: None. But you wonder if lions and zebras ever stayed so peacefully side-by-side as on the beautiful front endpaper.

Published: September 2009

Furthermore: Jerry Pinkney won the 2010 Caldecott Medal for The Lion and the Mouse.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can also follow her Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. She satirizes American literary culture on Twitter at FakeBookNews (@FakeBookNews), which you can preview at www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews. Some of her satirical tweets involve the Newbery and Caldecott awards.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

January 19, 2008

Beverly Donofrio and Barbara McClintock’s ‘Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary’

A girl and a mouse share more than a house in an engaging bedtime story

Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary. By Beverly Donofrio. Illustrated by Barbara McClintock. Random House/Schwartz & Wade, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 2–6.

By Janice Harayda

This quiet, lovely bedtime story goes against the grain of almost everything that is fashionable in picture books. That’s partly what makes it so appealing: It won’t lose its appeal when a book with more glitz comes along, because it has no glitz. What it has is heart, lots of it, that shows up most clearly beguiling illustrations by Barbara McClintock.

Mary and the Mouse is a book of opposites. Mary lives in a big house in the early years of the baby boom. The Mouse lives a little house in Mary’s house. They meet by accident and wave to each other every night until they grow up and leave for new homes. When Mary becomes a mother, she and her family live in another big house. When Mouse becomes a mother, she and her family live in another little house inside Mary’s house. The daughters of Mary and the Mouse vary their mothers’ pattern – they smile at each other instead of waving – until one night each of them “did something brave”: They found the courage to say, “Good Night!”

This simple plot serves worthy themes – affections survive separations, children resemble their parents but are unique, and change may not occur in one generation — well-supported by the art. McClintock creates lively human and animal faces that show real expression. And her warm and painterly seem to catch gestures in midair, as motor-drive camera does. Her cover image has Alice-in-Wonderland quality, and it’s pleasure to fall down the rabbit hole – or mouse hole – into this book.

Best line/picture: As an adult, Mary lives in a beautiful glass-and-fieldstone home in the spirit of Philip Johnson’s Glass House. This is refreshing. You could easily get the idea from recent picture books that all American children live in a) trailers; b) suburban colonials; or c) brownstones. Architectural diversity almost doesn’t exist in them.

Worst line/picture: None.

Published: August 2007 www.randomhouse.com/kids

Furthermore: This is the first book for children by Beverly Donofrio www.beverlydonofrio.com, who lives in Mexico and wrote Riding in Cars With Boys. Barbara McClintock wrote and illustrated the children’s book Adèle & Simon. She lives in Connecticut.

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

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