One-Minute Book Reviews

January 9, 2009

Adultery for Third-Graders — A Review of ‘What I Saw and How I Lied,’ Winner of the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

A tale of theft, blackmail, adultery, anti-Semitism and a possible murder, written at an 8-year-old reading level

What I Saw and How I Lied. By Judy Blundell. Scholastic, 284 pp., $16.99. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

What would you do if you were a publisher who knew that reading test scores were declining as children were seeing more sex and violent crimes in the media? Maybe play both sides against the middle as Scholastic has done with What I Saw and How I Lied, the winner of the 2008 National Book Award for young people’s literature.

This stylish literary thriller deals with subjects appropriate for the 13-to-18-year-old age range that the publisher recommends on its site — theft, blackmail, adultery, anti-Semitism and a possible murder. But Judy Blundell writes at a third-grade reading level in the novel, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word.

So who, exactly, is this book for? Much of the content is too mature for 8-year-olds. But the reading level is too low for the sophisticated adolescent and teenage girls likely gravitate to its glamorous, noir-ish cover, which shows a thin, beautiful model applying red lipstick. Blundell is condescending to them even if they enjoy its page-turner of a plot: Anyone who is ready for the subjects covered in this novel is also ready for a higher reading level.

Evie Spooner is 15 years old when her stepfather, Joe, returns from Austria in 1947, having overstayed the end of the war for murky reasons. Evie’s seductive mother has quit her job at Lord & Taylor – “Either that or get fired”— because veterans needed jobs. And she’s surprised her husband by learning to make Sunday suppers and perform other domestic tasks. “Son of a bitch,” Joe says of the change.

But the glow of the family reunion fades after Joe packs up the three of them for what he casts as an overdue Florida vacation. They settle into a Palm Beach hotel (aptly named Le Mirage), nearly deserted in the off-season. And Evie becomes swept up in a riptide of events that involves looted gold, a hurricane, an inquest into a possible homicide and her crush on a seductive 23-year-old who says he served with Joe overseas.

The plotting is tight and ingenious until an improbable last scene, and well-supported by details that evoke the era (including the chocolate cigarettes that Evie buys to “practice smoking”). And the book deals with larger issues than whether a murder occurred: What is loyalty? What do we owe the dead? Do truth and justice differ and, if so, how?

Questions like these appeal strongly to adolescents and teenagers, and this book could provide a framework for exploring them. As for their reading test scores: They’re not likely to improve if more publishers — encouraged by the National Book Award for this novel — put a senior prom dress on a third-grader’s soccer shorts.

Best line: A warning heard on the radio as a hurricane approaches Palm Beach: “Watch out for flying coconuts.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Our pipsqueak attorney had turned into a pretty decent linebacker.” It’s a stretch that a 15-year-old girl living in 1947 would know enough about linebackers to use the word in this way. No. 2: “Lana Turner was every man’s dream, sultry and blond. It was Lana filling out a sweater at a drugstore that got her a Hollywood contract.” That Turner was discovered at a drugstore is a myth. Even if the teenagers of 1947 believed the myth, the book is perpetuating this legend for a new generation of readers.

About the reading level: The reading level comes from the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on any recent version of Microsoft Word. To find it, I entered a minimum of 300 words from each of the following two-page sections of What I Saw and How I Lied: pages 36-37 (Grade 4.2), pages 136-137 (Grade 2.6) and pages 236-237 (3.7). I also entered all of last two pages (Grade 3.0). The post “Does Mitch Albom Think He’s Jesus?” lists the reading levels of authors and tells how to use Word to find the level of a book.

Furthermore: What I Saw and How I Lied
won a 2008 National Book Award. The National Book Foundation.
has posted an excerpt from and the citation for the novel on its site.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 5, 2008

A 13-Year-Old Slave Seeks Her Freedom in 1776 in Laurie Halse Anderson’s ‘Chains,’ a National Book Award Finalist (Countdown to the Caldecott and Newbery Awards, #3)

A black teenager in New York City hopes to win her freedom by exposing a plot to kill George Washington

Chains (Seeds of America Series). By Laurie Halse Anderson, 316 pp., $16.99. Ages 10 and up.

By Janice Harayda

On the eve of the American Revolution, thousands of slaves lived in New York City. In Chains Laurie Halse Anderson tells the story of a fictional 13-year-old owned by a cruel Loyalist couple with a regal townhouse on Wall Street in 1776.

Isabel Finch learns of a plot to kill George Washington as she serves wine and cheese on a silver platter to the Locktons’ Tory friends, and she later sneaks away to warn Continental Army soldiers of the danger to their commander. She hopes her spying will persuade the Patriots to free her and her 5-year-old sister, Ruth, also owned by the Locktons. The soldiers have more urgent concerns after the British invade New York, and without reliable allies on either side, Isabel forms a dangerous plan to win her freedom on her own.

This well-written and beautifully designed young adult novel brims with interesting period details that serve a worthy theme: What is freedom? Why did white colonists, as they fought for independence, tolerate the enslavement of blacks?

Chains also has action so fast-paced — and at times over-the-top — that it borders on soap opera. Isabel joins the Locktons after her former owner breaks a promise to free her and her sister. She is beaten, thrown into a dungeon, hauled before a judge, put in stocks, and branded on the face with an I (for “Insolence”) after she tries to flee. She sees a hanging, the great fire of 1776, and dead bodies stacked at a prison that houses her friend Curzon, a former slave. She hears of a throat-slashing, a bayonet execution, and other atrocities.

Laurie Halse Anderson recounts all of this with an evenness of tone that robs her tale of some of its impact. Telling her story in her own voice, Isabel speaks matter-of-factly, whether she is describing her owners’ evil deeds or a rare joy such as the news that Curzon has survived a battle. Each new trauma gets the same emotional weight, a trait that places the book closer to high-quality genre fiction or a good newspaper story of long-ago events than to art. Chains describes Dickensian horrors without the Dickensian pathos. You follow Isabel’s story raptly, but you don’t feel nearly as much for her as you should.

Best line: Among the many good period details: “Madam opened an envelope and shock out two gray strips of mouse fur, each cut into an arch. Leaning toward the mirror, she glued the mouse fur onto her own eyebrows, making them bushy and think as fashion required.”

Worst line: “My bones were hollow sticks; my brainpan empty.” “My bones were hollow and my brainpan empty.” This repetition of a nearly identical line on back-to-back pages suggests a either a cutting-and-pasting oversight or that Halse Anderson couldn’t decide where to put or how to punctuate the line.

Newbery/Caldecott assessment: It will be interesting to see what the Newbery judges do with this one. Chains was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html. So it should get serious attention from the Newbery judges. But it has so much violence that, although none of it is inappropriate in context, you wonder if the judges might consider it instead for the Michael Printz Award, given to a book for older readers.

Published: October 2008. Chains is the first book in a series about Isabel that will continue with Forge.

If you like historical novels about independent girls, you might also like: A Drowned Maiden’s Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/10/. Schlitz won the 2008 Newbery Medal for her book of monologues and dialogues Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices From a Medieval Village. A review of and reading group guide to the book appeared separate in separate posts on One-Minute Book Reviews on Jan. 26,2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/26/.

For more on the Revolutionary War era: Jean Fritz has written an excellent series of illustrated books about the American Revolution for 9-to-12-year-olds that includes Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George (Putnam,1996) and Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? (Putnam, 1997). Books by Fritz www.cbcbooks.org/cbcmagazine/meet/jeanfritz.html are available in many libraries and in stock at online bookstores and many others.

Furthermore: Laurie Halse Anderson wrote Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving and other books www.writerlady.com. She lives in Mexico, New York.

Other posts in the “Countdown to the 2009 Caldecott and Newbery Awards” appeared on May 10, 2008 (Pale Male) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/10/ and Nov. 22 (Zen Ties) www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/11/22/.

Janice Harayda is a former judge for the National Book Critics Circle Awards. She has reviewed children’s books for more than a decade.

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

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Laurie Halse Anderson’s Historical Novel ‘Chains,’ a Finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

10 Discussion Questions for Young Readers
Chains (Seeds of America)
By Laurie Halse Anderson
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

On the eve of the American Revolution, thousands of slaves lived in New York City. In Chains, Laurie Halse Anderson tells the story a fictional 13-year-old girl owned by a cruel Loyalist couple with a regal townhouse on Wall Street in 1776. Young Isabel Finch learns of a plot to kill George Washington as she serves wine and cheese on a silver platter to the Locktons’ Tory friends, and she later sneaks away to warn Continental Army soldiers of the danger to their commander. She hopes her spying will persuade the Patriots to free her and her 5-year-old sister, Ruth, also owned by the Locktons. The soldiers have more urgent concerns after the British invade New York, and without reliable allies on either side, Isabel forms a dangerous plan to win her freedom on her own.

Discussion Questions for Young Readers

1. Isabel and Ruth Finch are slaves. How are their lives similar to those of other slaves you’ve read about? How are they different from them?

2. Did you know that slavery existed in places like New York City before you read Chains? Did Laurie Halse Anderson convince you that some New Yorkers really did have slaves? How did she do it?

3. Isabel and Ruth are sold to a married couple after their former owner refuses to honor a promise to free them. Elihu and Anne Lockton are “Loyalists.” [Page 38] Who or what are they loyal to? Who or what is Isabel loyal to? What role do clashing or divided loyalties play in the novel?

4. After moving in with the Locktons, Isabel tries to run away. A judge orders that she be branded with the letter I for Insolence. [Page 145] Branding is both physically and emotionally painful. Why might slaves like Isabel have felt humiliated by it?

5. Elihu Lockton hits his wife, Anne, during an argument. [Page 108] Why do you think the author put this scene in the book?

6. Isabel answers to several names. When the Locktons buy her, she is Isabel Finch. Anne Lockton changes her name to “Sal Lockton” (and calls her “Girl”). [Page 128] Isabel’s friend Curzon calls her “Country” (and has two names of his own). Why do the different names matter? Do you think Anne Lockton just liked the sound of “Sal Lockton” better than “Isabel Finch”? If not, why might she have wanted to change the name?

7. The title of this novel refers to more than one kind of chains. What are some of different types of “chains” it involves? What does Isabel mean when she says, “I was chained between two nations”? [Page 182]

8. The mayor of New York tells Isabel’s owner: “The beast has grown too large. If it breaks free of its chains, we are all in danger. We need to cut off its head.” Who or what was the “beast”? [Page 89]

9. There’s a lot of action in this book, some of it going on in the foreground (what happens to Isabel) and some in the background (what happens in places like Trenton and Princeton). Why do you think the author told you what was taking place in, for example, Philadelphia when this book is mainly about Isabel’s life in New York?

10. Isabel notices that the Patriots are fighting for freedom, but their idea of freedom doesn’t seem to include people like her. A male slave defends the Patriots by saying: “Some Patriots own slaves, yes, but you must listen to their words: ‘all men, created equal.’ The words come first. They’ll pull the deeds and the justice behind them.” [Page 164] What did he mean?

Extras:
11. “‘Freedom and liberty’ has different meanings,” Isabel’s master, Elihu Lockton says. What are some of the different meanings it has for people in this book?

12. Chains includes colorful facts about everyday life in 1776. What are some of the most interesting?

Vital Statistics:
Chains (Seeds of America Series). By Laurie Halse Anderson, 316 pp., Simon & Schuster. $16.99. Ages 10 and up. Published: Oct. 2008
Chains was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html.

A review of Chains appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Dec. 5, 2008, in the post that directly followed this one http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/12/05/.

Laurie Halse Anderson also wrote Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving and other books www.writerlady.com.

If you like historical novels about independent girls, you might also like: Laura Amy Schlitz’s A Drowned Maiden’s Hair www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/03/10/.

For more on the Revolutionary War era: Jean Fritz has written an excellent series of illustrated books about the American Revolution for 9-to-12-year-olds that includes Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George (Putnam,1996) and Will You Sign Here, John Hancock? (Putnam, 1997). Books by Fritz www.cbcbooks.org/cbcmagazine/meet/jeanfritz.html are available in many libraries and in stock at online bookstores and many others.

This reading group was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda, and its sale or reproduction in any form is illegal except by public libraries, which may reproduce it for use in their in-house reading groups. Other groups that wish to use this guide should link to this site or use “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

If you found this guide helpful, please consider adding One-Minute Book Reviews www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com to your blogroll so you won’t miss others. Reader’s guides appear on the site frequently but not on a regular schedule. One-Minute Book Reviews accepts no advertising and has been approved by and appears on Open Directory lists. It is one of the top 10 book review site in the world on the Google Directory of “Top Arts/ Literature” blogs: www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and the vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 20, 2008

Why Were So Many More Nonfiction Books Than Novels Nominated for the 2008 National Book Awards? (Late Night With Jan Harayda)

It costs $125 to nominate a book for a National Book Award. Why were so many more publishers willing to pay it for nonfiction than for fiction or poetry?

Do recent nonfiction books outshine novels? Many critics think so. And publishers seem to agree, based on their willingness to pay the $125-per-book entry fee for the National Book Awards.

The prize sponsor reports that in 2008 publishers nominated the following numbers of books by category: 540, nonfiction; 274, young people’s literature; 271, fiction; and 175, poetry. Publishers may have submitted nearly twice as much nonfiction as fiction because more of it gets published. Yet that explanation begs the question, because publishers presumably buy books for the same reason they nominate them for awards: They think they’re good.

More evidence of the superiority of nonfiction might seem to come from Wednesday night’s fiction winner: Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country, a reworking of an earlier trilogy. If this year’s novels had been stronger, would the judges have considered a book that includes previously published material? Was Matthiessen’s shortlisting a sign of desperation in judges who wanted a strong book on the final list even if it meant exhuming some work published as long ago as 1990?

Probably not. It’s more likely the judges wanted to reward a distinguished author in his 80s for his fiction and didn’t know if they’d have another chance. (Matthiessen won the 1980 National Book Award for nonfiction for The Snow Leopard.) It’s also possible that the judges just didn’t like some of the novels that many critics ranked among the best of the year, such as Netherland.

Then why did publishers nominate so much more nonfiction? Two possible explanations. One is that nonfiction books have more opportunity to catch fire in the media or elsewhere: They don’t depend on reviews as much as novels do. And publishers know that momentum can affect judges. In paying those $125 entry fees, some may have invested in what they considered the safest bets.

A related explanation for all the nonfiction nominees is that fiction has two main genres: novels and short stories. Nonfiction has many — including history, memoirs, biography, essays and journalism — and more ways to make an impact. This year’s nonfiction shortlist reflected some of them: The Dark Side (exposé), Final Salute (feature writing), This Republic of Suffering (social history), The Suicide Index (memoir), and the winner, The Hemingses of Monticello (family history).

Yet nonfiction dates faster than nonfiction. This is why novels tend to define their eras better than works of nonfiction do. So the answer to “Were this year’s novels better than the nonfiction books?” rests with history. Decades from now, this year’s best nonfiction books may have yielded to others that have more recent reporting or more up-to-date research, while some of the novels may seem as fresh as ever, just as Jane Austen’s do nearly two hundred years after they appeared.

For a list of the National Book Awards entry fees and eligibility requirements, click here www.nationalbook.org/nbaentry.html.

Janice Harayda is a former judge of the National Book Critics Circle Awards for fiction, nonfiction, biograhy, poetry and criticism.

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

Comments on the 2008 National Book Awards — Tonight on Late Night With Jan Harayda

Filed under: Late Night With Jan Harayda,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:24 pm
Tags: , ,

I’ll have a few comments on the winners of the 2008 National Book Awards tonight on Late Night With Jan Harayda, which will appear after 10 p.m. Eastern Time. You’ll find the list of winners in the post that directly preceded this one.

What was your reaction to the prizes? If you have questions about these awards or book awards in general and would like to leave a comment, I’ll answer them then if I can.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 19, 2008

Matthiessen, Gordon-Reed, Doty and Blundell Win 2008 National Book Awards — Gordon-Reed Is First African-American Woman to Win the Nonfiction Prize

The winners of the 2008 National Book Awards are Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country (fiction), Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello (nonfiction), Mark Doty’s Fire to Fire (poetry) and Judy Blundell’s What I Saw and How I Lied. Each winner receives $10,000 and was selected by a different panel of five judges. The nonprofit National Book Foundation sponsors the prizes and has posted more information about them at www.nationalbook.org. The site includes interviews with all the winners and finalists and excerpts from their books.

The publishing news site GalleyCat www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/ will have pictures and more on the ceremony tomorrow. Ron Hogan, senior editor of GalleyCat, attended and posted the names of the winners on his Twitter feed with heroic speed. If you can’t wait for tomorrow’s news stories, you can read more about the event on his Twitter feed www.twitter.com/ronhogan, which includes snippets from the acceptance speeches.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Peter Matthiessen Wins 2008 National Book Award for Fiction for ‘Shadow Country’

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:32 pm
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Peter Matthiessen has won the 2008 National Book Award for fiction. An interview with the author and an excerpt from the book appears on the site for the National Book Foundation, www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html, which has promised to post a video of the ceremony later tonight.

The National Book Awards are, along with the Pulitzer Prizes for books, the most prestigious literary awards in the United States. Each winner receives $10,000 and is chosen by a panel of five judges, which differs for each category.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Annette Gordon-Reed Wins 2008 National Book for Nonfiction for ‘The Hemingses of Monticello’

Annette Gordon-Reed has won the 2008 National Book Award for Nonfiction for The Hemingses of Monticello. She is the first African-American woman to win the nonfiction prize. An interview with the author and an excerpt from the book appears on the site for the National Book Foundation, www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html, which has promised to post a video of the ceremony later tonight.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Mark Doty Wins 2008 National Book Award for Poetry for ‘Fire to Fire’

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:16 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

Mark Doty has won the 2008 National Book Award for Poetry for his Fire to Fire. An interview with the author and an excerpt from the book appears on the site for the National Book Foundation, www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html, which has promised to post a video of the ceremony later tonight.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Judy Blundell Wins 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for Her YA Novel, ‘What I Saw and How I Lied’

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:04 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Judy Blundell has won the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for What I Saw and How I Lied. The award carries a $10,000 cash prize and is sponsored by the nonprofit National Book Foundation. The winner in each of the four National Book Awards categories is chosen by a different panel of five judges. Check back in a few minutes for the other three names.

An interview with Blundell and an excerpt from her young adult novel appears on the site for the National Book Foundation, www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html, which has promised to post a video of the ceremony later tonight. In the meantime the site Librarian by Day has thoughts on the finalists in the young people’s literature category and good historical context for these prizes. librarianbyday.blogspot.com/2008/11/thoughts-national-book-awards.html

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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