One-Minute Book Reviews

November 29, 2007

Raise the Drawbridge and Lower the Portcullis! It’s David Macaulay’s Captivating ‘Castle’

A Caldecott Honor Book about the making of a medieval castle in Wales still appeals to children three decades after its publication

By Janice Harayda

This afternoon I found myself in the children’s section of our library with an 8-year-old friend whose mother had agreed to let me to pick out a book for him while she visited the adult stacks. The book I thought Cory might like wasn’t on the shelves. But David Macaulay’s wonderful picture books about the making of large structures – Cathedral, Pyramid, Castle and the new Mosque – stood near its spot.

Cory loves to read – especially The Invention of Hugo Cabret – but hadn’t seen these treasures, which helped to win a MacArthur grant for their creator. So I pulled a few of Macaulay’s books off the shelves and handed them to him. Cory gravitated right away to a picture of how a drawbridge works in Castle (Houghton Mifflin, 74 pages, $9.95 paperback, ages 7 and up), a Caldecott Honor Book about the construction of a medieval castle in Wales.

So I returned him to his mother with three of Macaulay’s books and checked back later. Cory was still poring over Castle – specifically, a picture of soldiers who seemed to be underground. I wondered if they were digging a moat. But Cory pointed to a witty drawing of several of their comrades, who were to trying to reach the ramparts. He explained that if “the enemy” couldn’t scale the castle walls, they tried to tunnel their way in. This he had just learned from the book.

I don’t know if every child reacts this way to Macaulay, a superstar in the field. But by now millions must have been captivated by his intelligent texts and intricate and amusing black-and-white cross-hatched drawings. And Castle, first published in 1977, makes an especially good introduction to his work, because it feeds interests kindled in children by fairy and folk tapes. Houghton Mifflin recommends it for 10-to-14-year-olds, but I’d give it to 7-to-9-year-olds and let them grow into it if they’re not quite ready. The pictures will draw in the younger children even if some words are unfamiliar. Just ask Cory.

Links: www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Macaulay and www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com

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© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 1, 2007

Highland Games Set the Stage for Murder in Kaitlyn Dunnett’s Mystery With a Scottish Accent, ‘Kilt Dead’

Kilt Dead: A Liss MacCrimmon Mystery. By Kaitlyn Dunnett. Kensington, 282 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

These are chilly times for amateur sleuths, those busybodies who solve crimes when they aren’t running bookstores or hair salons or catering services. Their efforts typically depend on a combination of legwork, intuition and the incompetence of the local police, who are too lazy or corrupt to find a killer who has turned up in a picturesque spot like the Ozarks or Cotswolds. And it’s getting harder to make their low-tech successes credible in an age of DNA testing, magnetic resonance imaging and other high-tech aids to crime-solving.

Kaitlyn Dunnett gets part way there in her first mystery about 27-year-old Liss MacCrimmon, who returns to her hometown in western Maine after suffering a career-ending injury while performing with a Riverdance-like Scottish dance company. Back in Moosetookalook, Liss becomes entangled in a murder committed at her aunt’s kilt-and-souvenir shop while the annual Highland Games are going on nearby.

Dunnett lacks a distinctive voice and draws her characters so broadly that most seem to wear hats as white or black as those in the “Spy vs. Spy” series in Mad. But she has staked out a part of New England that has few, if any, other takers in the mystery subgenre known as the cozy. And she has tapped into an enduring American romance with Scottish traditions, from bagpipes to single malts, that the infatuation with Tuscany and Provence hasn’t extinguished. Braveheart may have been ludicrouly unfaithful to the historical record, but it got one thing right: Scottish murders have a ghastliness all their own.

Best line: Dunnett sprinkles her story with bits of Scottish history or tradition, such as this one about a sgian dubh, the small dagger traditionally worn with a kilt: “Sgian dubh translates as ‘black dagger’ and in the old days warriors believed it should never be drawn and returned to its scabbard without spilling blood.”

Worst line: “Dan felt the back of his neck turn red.” He might have felt it getting warm, but could he feel it turning red? And some of Dunnett’s Scottish lore is misleading. One scene involves a man at the Highland Games who wears swimming trunks under his kilt while throwing the clachneart, similar to a shot put. Dunnett explains the bathing suit by saying, “A traditional Scot wasn’t supposed to wear anything at all beneath the kilt, but this was an American version of the Highland Games …” Men also wear trunks under their kilts during field events at Highland Games in Scotland and elsewhere. Even the British Army — which has much stricter rules than others about the wearing of the kilt — exempts from the “nothing underneath” rule any soldiers who are participating in these events and certain others, including parades.

Published: August 2007 www.kaitlyndunnett.com and www.kensingtonbooks.com

Furthermore: Dunnett is a former drummer with a bagpipe band. “Kaitlyn Dunnett” is an apparent pseudonym for Kathy Lynn Emerson, who holds the copyright to Kilt Dead, and plays off the “dunnit” in “whodunnit.” Emerson has written more than 30 books, including the Lady Appleton mystery series, set in 16th-century Scotland. The name of Liss MacCrimmon recalls Scotland’s most famous family of bagpipers, the MacCrimmons. In Scotland a great piper in sometimes called “a real MacCrimmon” in the way that a great musician in 18th century German was called “a real Bach.”

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an award-winning critic and former member of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society who has danced with Scottish dance groups throughout the U.S. and Scotland.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 25, 2007

Why Does This Picture-Book Cover Work? Elizabeth Matthews’s ‘Different Like Coco’

The latest in a series of occasional posts that rate the covers of books recently reviewed on this site

By Janice Harayda

The covers of children’s books often fail for the same reasons that the covers of adult books do: They’re dull, clichéd or too pallid to stand out at a bookstore or library. Or they tell you too little about a book or, worse, aggressively misrepresent the contents. And if they’re about people – instead of one of those riveting topics like Let’s Read and Find Out About Flypaper or My First Book About Dandruff – they may stereotype their subjects as nakedly as all those pink covers on novels marketed to women in their 20s and 30s.

Elizabeth Matthews avoids all those problems on the cover of Different Like Coco (Candlewick, $16.99, ages 4 and up) www.candlewick.com, which combines a pen-and-ink drawing with the artful use of watercolors. This picture-book biography of the fashion designer Coco Chanel sports a witty illustration of its subject in a brown-black dress on a yellow background with the title in an interesting copper-colored script. And it works beautifully for several reasons:

1. It has real “pop.” Put Different Like Coco on any bookstore or library shelf and it will stand out among its shelf-mates because of its strong design. It doesn’t need the special effects that make so many books look more like toys – lots of glitter, metallic images and overengineering in the form of punched-out or see-through spaces.

2. The image of Coco Chanel points to the right, or to the pages instead of the spine. This is so basic that no critic should have to mention it. In most cases you want to focus children’s attention where it will encourage them to open a book (though there are some notable exceptions that succeed). But a striking number of picture books ignore such fundamental design principles.

3. The cover represents both the book and its subject accurately and nonstereotypically (without a sea of pink). Chanel designed simple, unfussy clothes with flair. This is a simple, unfussy cover with flair. Matthews’ art reflects the spirit of Chanel’s designs so well that you might guess the subject of her book before you read the title. But the cover isn’t so sophisticated that it will appeal to adults more than children. The comic exaggeration (and that dog) will take care of that.

Some people might argue that Chanel’s arms look anorexic. But in the context of the book, the pencil-slim arms are clearly intended as a stylistic exaggeration and also appear on women with bodies of operatic proportions.

The only other thing might strike you as odd about this cover is that Matthews’s name appears in a much smaller font than you usually see for authors of her caliber. That’s because this is her first book. The general rule in publishing is: The bigger the author, the larger the font for his or her name relative to the font for the title (though less so for children’s books than others). Stephen King’s name, for example, appears on his covers in a larger font than the title of the book. It’s a safe bet that as Matthews’s reputation increases, the size of her name on the cover will, too.

The original review of Different Like Coco appeared on Oct. 21, 2007, www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/21/. You may also want to read a comment in yesterday’s post (Oct. 23) by lisamm, who says perceptive things about this cover, including the Chanel has her head held high.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

October 21, 2007

Elizabeth Matthews Makes a Stylish Debut in Her Picture-Book Biography, ‘Different Like Coco’

Different Like Coco. By Elizabeth Matthews. Candlewick, 40 pp., $16.99. Ages 4 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Elizabeth Matthews makes a few missteps in this sparkling picture-book biography of Coco Chanel that may cost her a shot at a Caldecott Medal. But Different Like Coco marks the arrival of a gifted new author-illustrator who will certainly be in the running in the future if she keeps turning out work of this quality.

Matthews slips a few quasi-anachronisms into her story of the poor but energetic French girl who learned to sew at a convent school, then revolutionized early 20th-century fashion with designs that both reflected and fostered the emancipation of women. Young Coco plays with a roll of toilet paper and uses electric lamps. And while such an impoverished girl could have had those luxuries in the late-19th century, it’s so unlikely that the images are jarring. It’s similarly distracting to read that Coco went to school “in Auvergne” instead of “in the Auvergne.”

But such small problems ultimately may matter about as much as the complaint often made about the creator of Where the Wild Things Are: “Maurice Sendak can’t draw faces.” Who cares when an author’s work has so much else going for it? Matthews has that signal virtue in her field: a lively and distinctive artistic style that children will recognize from one book to the next. In this one she works in pen-and-ink washed with watercolors that are subtle but not – as in so many picture books – insipid. Her characters have snout-like noses, prominent eyelids and mouths that convey a range of expressions, midway between realism and caricature. The images have a different style but an amusing spirit similar to that of some of Jean Fritz’s acclaimed books about the colonial era, including Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George? and Why Don’t You Get a Horse, Sam Adams?

Matthews has also entered a genre that needs writers of her talent. There are far too few good picture-book biographies for children under age 9. Because Matthews has a light touch, she would be an ideal author for picture-book biographies of female pioneers in comedy, such as Lucille Ball. From Different Like Coco to Funny Like Lucy? It could happen, especially if the American Library Association www.ala.org gives Matthews some encouragement when it hands out its awards in January.

Best line/picture: All display a fine ability to draw and sense of color. Different Like Coco also has outstanding endpapers, sayings by Chanel in a white font on a black field, that typify the attention to detail at Candlewick.

Worst line/picture: The electric lamps not only look anachronistic but don’t have seem to have cords or pull chains.

Published: March 2007 www.candlewick.com

Furthermore: Matthews lives in Rhode Island and attended that incubator of picture-book talent, Rhode Island School of Design.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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