One-Minute Book Reviews

February 24, 2012

Albert Marrin’s ‘Flesh and Blood So Cheap’ – A Children’s Book on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and Its Aftermath

The true story of a blouse-factory disaster that killed 146 people, mostly young women

Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy. Knopf, 192 pp., $19.99. By Albert Marrin. Ages 10 & up.

By Janice Harayda

Four hundred thousand people lined the streets of New York on a rainy day in 1911 for the funeral procession of the victims the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Nearly all of the dead were young, female Italian or Russian immigrants. And nearly all are known today, if they are known at all, for how they died rather than how they lived.

This excellent book shows how the victims lived — in their home countries, on ships bound for America, and in New York tenements — and how they found a legacy in workplace reforms that eased the shocking conditions that led to their deaths. It focuses on the Italian Catholic and Russian Jewish garment workers at the Triangle blouse factory in Lower Manhattan.

But Albert Marrin makes clear that the 146 victims of the fire shared hardships with people from other countries — especially Greece, Hungary, Romania and Poland — who became the grandparents of baby boomers. And if children see this book as the fascinating story of a tragedy that better safety rules could have prevented, their elders may find in it a part of their family history. Many adults have heard that their grandparents came to America “in steerage,” the lowest deck that held the steering cables for ships, but know little about what that means. They might gain a new respect for their elders’ fortitude if they knew that throughout the transatlantic crossing, two- to four-hundred steerage passengers shared two toilets.

Best line: Many. An example that deals with the garment industry at the time of the Triangle fire: “Textile workers, often 9- and 10-year-olds, tended the looms that wove the thread into cloth. Textile machines lacked safety devices like guardrails and automatic shutoff switches. A machine might pull in a child, grown drowsy and careless with overwork, crushing limbs or worse.” Flesh and Blood So Cheap also has a fascinating discussion of the similar conditions that exist today in other countries. The book quotes economist Jeffrey D. Sachs of Harvard, who argues that banning child labor and closing sweatshops throws poor people out of work, which can hurt them. Marrin writes that children “had no place to go” after garment-factory owners in Bangladesh fired them: “To survive, many lived on the streets as beggars. Many others became prostitutes or starved.”

Worst line: “Eventually, the partners [of the Triangle Waist Company] paid the victims’ families $75 for each life lost” in the fire. Actually, that’s a good line  — and money couldn’t compensate for these deaths — but you wonder what $75 would be in today’s dollars.

Published: February 2011

Furthermore: Flesh and Blood So Cheap was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for young people’s literature. Albert Marrin’s website describes his other works of juvenile nonfiction.

Read an excerpt from Flesh and Blood So Cheap.

Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews is ranked one of the top 40 book blogs by Technorati and top 40 book-review blogs by Alexa Internet was named one of New Jersey’s best blogs by New Jersey Monthly.

You can also follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

September 12, 2010

Full of Trash but Not Trashy: ‘Here Comes the Garbage Barge!’

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:41 pm
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A children’s book fictionalizes the plight of a garbage barge that couldn’t find a port

Here Comes the Garbage Barge! Story by Jonah Winter. Art by Chris Sickels of Red Nose Studio. Schwartz & Wade/Random House, 36 pp., $17.99. Ages 4 and up.

By Janice Harayda

When is a picture book full of trash but not trashy? One answer is: when it’s Here Comes the Garbage Barge!, a satirical morality tale based on the true story of a floating garbage barge that couldn’t find a port.

In the late 1980s, New York City regularly exported thousands of tons of trash a day that nearby landfills couldn’t accommodate. Trucks hauled much of the garbage to Pennsylvania and West Virginia, but barges carried some of it by sea to other places. In 1987, a barge headed south, heaped with trash from New York City and Islip, Long Island. Its intended port-of-call, a town in North Carolina, refused to allow it to unload. At least six states and Mexico and Belize eventually rejected its rotting cargo. After months at sea, the barge returned to New York and a legal battle that ended when a Brooklyn incinerator burned the garbage and sent its ashes to a landfill in Islip.

Jonah Winter turns this near-surrealistic episode into a lively story that plays fast-and-loose with facts on many levels, some acknowledged in an author’s note and some not. His techniques include exaggerating ethnic, regional, sexual and age-related stereotypes for comic effect. And he has drawn fire for an obviously Italian and mob-connected waste-hauler who says things like: “Here’s da deal: Brooklyn’s gonna take dat garbage and burn it. A judge told ’em dey had to.” (Yes, a gangster who apparently speaks in colons and says “da” and “dat” but not “dem.”) Winter also tries to jazz up his text with italics, exclamation points and capital letters when it needs stronger words.

But Chris Sickels has filled Here Comes the Garbage Barge! with amusing illustrations more inspired than the unexceptional writing. He created the pictures by sculpting human forms from polymer clay and baking them in a kitchen oven, then photographing them on intricate hand-built three-dimensional sets. This technique enables him to create characters who have agile faces with cavernous eye sockets and strong noses (one holds a clipped-on clothespin as the garbage rots) and jutting ears. The humans in many children’s books are cartoonish, but Sickels’s have the force of good caricature. And his garbage barge has a personality of its own, teeming found or created whimsy – a football, a red birdcage, a Rubik’s cube, a shopping cart, computer monitor.

The moral of Here Comes the Garbage Barge! might be stern enough to qualify as eco-propaganda, but the art reflects the spirit of an incident that once provided rich material for late-night comedians. On a back endpaper, Sickels shows the last words of the book on a hand-lettered sign attached to a buoy floating on an “ocean” made from blue drycleaners’ bags: “DON’T MAKE SO MUCH GARBAGE!!!”

Best line/picture: Many. But children may especially enjoy a picture of the Statue of Liberty holding her nose as the barge filled with rotting garbage returns to New York.

Worst line/picture: No. 1: A picture that says “Mexico: Land of Enchantment.” This is confusing. “Land of Enchantment” is the state slogan of New Mexico, not Mexico. No. 2: The cover and title page credit the art to Red Nose Studio, which Sickels runs. Sickels may have left off his name as an act of generosity toward a support staff, but his omission was confusing and unfair to readers, who have a right to know up front who illustrated the book. Many intelligent adults and children will look at the cover above and conclude wrongly that Here Comes the Garbage Barge! was written and illustrated by “Jonah Winter of Red Nose Studio.”

About the author and illustrator: Winter collaborated with his mother, the author and illustrator Jeanette Winter on Diego, a children’s biography of the artist Diego Rivera. He talks about his work in an interview in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Sickels tells how he created the art for Here Comes the Garbage Barge! in this YouTube video.

Furthermore: As of June 2010, Here Comes the Garbage Barge! was a School Library Journal blogger’s top pick for the 2011 Caldecott Medal. You’ll find background on the garbage barge in a New York Daily News story.

Published: February 2010

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist and former vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. She has been the book columnist for Glamour and book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

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

October 29, 2009

Remembering Oct. 29, 1929 — A Crowd ‘Wild-Eyed With Fear’

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:06 am
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How did New Yorkers react when the market crashed on Oct. 29, 1929? Catherine Gourley writes:

“On that overcast autumn morning in New York City, rumors swirled through the narrow streets like wind. Something had gone terribly wrong. The stock values weren’t just dropping. They were crashing. America’s banks and businesses were losing money. By afternoon ten thousand people had jammed the streets and sidewalks. Some had climbed onto the statue of Alexander Hamilton outside the stock exchange building because it was the only space left to stand and wait. A reporter for the New York Times described the crowd as ‘wild-eyed’ with fear. Men wept. A few days ago they had been wealthy. Now they were penniless.”

From Gourley’s “Black Tuesday” in War, Women, and the News: How Female Journalists Won the Battle to Cover the World War II (Atheneum, $21.99, ages 10–14, 2007), a nonfiction book about great war correspondents.

This post first appeared in 2008.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 4, 2009

Eve Pell Airs the Monogrammed Laundry in ‘We Used to Own the Bronx: Memoirs of a Former Debutante’

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:48 pm
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The great-great-great granddaughter of tobacco baron Pierre Lorillard remembers her overprivileged childhood and her involvement with the Black Panthers

We Used to Own the Bronx: Memoirs of a Former Debutante. State University of New York Press/Albany, 225 pp., $23.

By Janice Harayda

Eve Pell notes perceptively that there was something “curiously un-American” about the values of her parents, members of the last generation who believed that if your blood was blue enough, you didn’t have to redeem yourself through work or philanthropy. “Horatio Alger, for example, would not have been welcome in our circle,” she writes, “since we looked down on people who actually made their own money (after we did) as ‘latecomers.’”

Pell maps the damage in this memoir of her overprivileged childhood on Long Island, her work with the Black Panthers in San Francisco, and her late-life success as a world-class marathon runner. She grew up fox-hunting and hearing about prominent forebears such as the tobacco magnate Pierre Lorillard, her great-great-great grandfather. One of her great-grandmothers gave seated dinners for 125 guests, “one course after another, with a footman in livery standing behind each chair”: “She never put on her own shoes – her lady’s maid did that.” And yet Pell hardly had charmed youth: Early on, her beautiful mother ran off with a lover and fought for custody of her daughter in a battle played out in the New York newspapers.

By telling her story, Pell aims show what happens to rich families when blood and money thin and, in the culture as a whole, an aristocracy of birth gives way to an aristocracy of achievement. And to some extent, she succeeds. Pell is a close observer of the mores of relatives such as an aunt who sold some of her diamonds to create and publish a version of the Bible that “excluded references to eating meat since she was a vegetarian.”

But We Used to Own the Bronx isn’t as enlightening as it could have been. Pell is better reporter than analyst and, as such, offers few insights into her world that go beyond the banalities of psychotherapy. She was in a unique position to shed light on the phenomenon known as radical chic or champagne socialism, but she makes little of it.

As a young mother, Pell became emotionally involved the Black Panther George Jackson, a prisoner at San Quentin, who was eventually shot to death while trying to escape. Why did she act in ways that might have endangered her three children? Pell says, in part, that Jackson “made me feel like a real woman.” She also says that in 1996 — when she would have been in her 60s — she was “surprised and shocked” (and “horrified” and “appalled”) to learn that a cousin felt no guilt about a nasty anti-Semitic prank in his youth. By then, she’d lived for more than six decades in a family teeming with men who belonged to private clubs that didn’t admit Jews, so it’s unclear why she was as startled by this as by her discovery that Jackson may have been a psychopath.

In such passages, Pell comes across as either naïve or sanctimonious and, in any case, lacking in self-awareness. She also shows little sense of humor about the foibles of the oddballs in her clan. Pell has tried not to allow herself to be defined by family – but she takes her clan so seriously as to leave the impression that, in many ways, she’s still in thrall to it.

Best line: “I had been raised to think that anyone who felt bad was not trying hard enough.”

Worst line: Pell writes of an ex-husband: “There were things I had to put up with. He routinely ate all the chocolate icing off the top of Sara Lee cakes and left the rest of it, stripped, in the fridge for us.” We’re supposed to sympathize with this?

Published: February 2009

Caveat lector: We Used to Own the Bronx has one of the worst titles I’ve seen on a book this year. It refers to a large tract of land once owned by the Pells, but leaves the impression that the book is about, say, the 1949 Yankees. The subtitle is fine.

About the author: Pell lives in San Francisco.

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

May 8, 2009

May 8, 1945 — VE Day in New York — When Broadway Was Ten Inches Deep In Fabric Thrown by Garment Workers

Filed under: History,News,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:26 am
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My father was an English-German interpreter in prisoner-of-war camps during World War II, and two of the questions I most regret not asking him were, “How did you celebrate the end of the war? And how did the prisoners?” Historian David Stafford tells how some Americans reacted to the German surrender in his Endgame, 1945: The Missing Final Chapter of World War II (Little, Brown, 2007), an account of the final days of the war and its immediate aftermath. He notes that New Yorkers started celebrating the day before Victory in Europe Day, May 8, 1945, because news of the surrender leaked before the official announcement:

“Office workers deluged the streets with tons of ticker tape, scrap paper, old telephone books, playing cards and anything else they could find. They were joined by the garment trade, whose workers threw not paper but bales and bolts of cloth of all kinds into the streets. The New York Times reported that ‘every possible remnant in every possible shade and hue turned and squirmed in the thin morning sunlight’ until Broadway was ten inches deep in fabric.’ Boats on the East River sounded their whistles while on land the cabbies honked madly.”

[Page364]

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

May 4, 2009

Pulitzer Prize Reality Check – Christine Schutt’s ‘All Souls’ — A Prep-School Student Gets Cancer in a 2009 Fiction Finalist

A New York City teenager’s overprivileged friends respond to her life-threatening illness

All Souls. By Christine Schutt. Harcourt, 223 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

Did the judges for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction intentionally set the bar low this year? Or did their tastes simply run to lightweight books with improbable feel-good endings?

Christine Schutt’s All Souls, a runner-up for the 2009 fiction prize, has odd similarities to the winner, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. The publishers of both books bill them as “novels.” But Olive Kitteridge is a cycle of short stories, a group of linked tales could stand alone.

All Souls, too, reads more like a collection of stories than a novel. But its tales are so short, they’re closer to vignettes. All Souls has nine sections, each divided into so many sub-units that you keep darting into and out of the minds of different characters. One of the micro-sections has fewer than 50 words. Many others aren’t much longer and read as though written for an iPhone screen. The problem isn’t the use of vignettes to tell a story: Evan Connell used a similar technique to brilliant effect in Mrs. Bridge, a minor classic of American literature. The problem is that the entries in All Souls are so short that – as John Updike said of Bruce Chatwin — Schutt sounds as though she’s always interrupting herself. Her technique makes for choppy reading and limits her ability to develop a rich and sustained narrative.

Like a high school yearbook, All Souls gives snapshots of its characters instead of fully realized portraits. In a sense this befits its subject. Pretty and well-liked, Astra Dell develops “anaplastic high-grade fibrosarcoma,” a rare connective-tissue cancer, at the start of her senior year of high school. How rare is her illness? If you paste “anaplastic high-grade fibrosarcoma” into a browser window, Google returns only one result, which involves the Unitarian minister Alison Miller, whom Schutt credits with inspiring this book.

Schutt shows the effect of the cancer on Class of 1997 at the fictional Siddons, an elite Manhattan prep school for girls, that she follows through an academic year. As Astra gets high-risk treatments such as having a radioactive rod sewn into her arm, her classmates and others tend to respond inadequately or use her illness for their own ends.

At times Schutt captures well the mix of naïveté and overconfidence that tends to characterize teenagers. A senior can’t believe Astra got cancer: “She’s been a vegetarian for three years!” Schutt also offers occasional telling glimpses of Siddons parents and teachers: The adults discuss rumors that the pipes at rival schools are rusting from “the acidic effects of throwing up” by girls with eating disorders.

What are we to take away from all of this? If always intelligent, Schutt’s prose is so elliptical and antiseptic that you don’t know whether it’s intended as satire, social realism or something else. And like Olive Kitteridge, All Souls pulls an unexpectedly rosy ending out of a hat of darkness. The girls of Siddons, we learn, are conscientious enough that they don’t use CliffsNotes much. Schutt has stripped away so much from her book that she often leaves you with the sense that you haven’t read a novel so much the sort of condensation that her fictional students would avoid.

Best line: Siddons girls have been warned that CliffsNotes are “as nutritious as bread someone else has chewed and spit out.”

Worst line: A line of of dialogue by Astra’s father, who tells his daughter about a party: “The Johnsons were not in attendance.” Who speaks like this?

Published: April 2008 (Harcourt hardcover), Harcourt paperback due out June 8, 2009.

Consider reading instead: Black Ice (Knopf, 1991), Lorene Carey’s memoir of her experiences as the first black female student at St. Paul’s prep school in Concord, New Hampshire, or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark‘s classic about an Edinburgh girls’ school.

About the author: Schutt lives and teaches in New York City. She wrote the novel Florida (Triquarterly, 2003), a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award for fiction. All Souls was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer for fiction.

Furthermore: Schutt says the inspiration for All Souls came from the minister Alison Miller, especially from her sermon, “Leap of Faith.” In the sermon at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, Miller spoke about developing anaplastic high-grade fibrosarcoma at the age of 16.

Read an excerpt from All Souls.

This post is the latest in a series on the winners of or finalists for major literary prizes and whether they deserved their honors. A reality check for  Olive Kitteridge appeared on April 27, 2009.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book critic for the Plain Dealer and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle.

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

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

September 15, 2008

A Guide to New York That’s Worth Waiting on Line for

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:26 pm
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AIA Guide to New York City: Fourth Edition. New York Chapter/American Institute of Architects. By Norval White and Elliot Willensky. Three Rivers, 1,056 pages, $37.50, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

No urban guidebook has brought more joy to my life than the American Institute of Architects’ AIA Guide to New York City, my indispensable companion when I lived in New York. This modern classic is the definitive street-by-street and building-by-building guide to the five boroughs, illustrated with thousands of clear postage-stamp–sized black-and-white photographs.

No matter where you are in the city, you can look up your spot, read about it, and, often as not, find something surprising or wonderful nearby. The authors focus on what is most interesting about the architecture of each building they include. But they can pack a remarkable amount of social, cultural and historical background into their pithy and opinionated descriptions. They write of 867 Madison Avenue, the site of the former Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo House and current Ralph Lauren flagship store:

“Every part of this building exudes personality: bay windows, a roof line bristling with dormers and chimneys. The extraordinarily ornamented neo-French Renaissance limestone palace has captured the imagination of the commercial world since 1921, when it was first occupied by an antiques firm. It has subsequently housed interior decorators, auction houses like Christie’s of London, the Zabar family’s East Side outpost E.A.T., and now fashion designer Ralph Lauren’s flagship retail outlet. Rhinelander Waldo, socialite, hero of the Spanish-American War, and police commissioner can be observed ‘in action’ in the novel and movie Ragtime.”

Last revised during the Giuliani administration, the AIA Guide to New York City has some out-of-date material. But it hardly matters when it has so much that you can’t find anywhere else in such a compact and appealing form. The Michelin Green Guide to New York City is better for tourists and new residents who want a guide to the city’s landmarks. But if you say “wait on line” instead of “wait in line” and wouldn’t dream of referring to Sixth Avenue as “Avenue of the Americas,” this is your book.

Best line: White and Willensky are unafraid to show a little New York attitude, and their book is times as entertaining as it is authoritative. The entry for Tavern on the Green says: “The entrance to this chronically remodeled eating-drinking-dancing spot, built around Central Park’s 1870 sheepfold, is at 67th Street and Central Park West. Expensive. (At night the trees, wrapped to the roots in their minilights, suggest an invasion of bulb people.)”

Worst line: Some of us will forever miss a few of the vanished factoids of the first edition. Among them: the egg cream – a drink that used to be as much of a New York culinary staple as the Coney Island hot dog – contains neither egg nor cream.

Recommendation? A great gift for anybody who loves art, architecture, antiques or history as much as New York City.

Furthermore: There are AIA Guides of varying quality to other major cities, including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis and St. Paul. The AIA Guide to New York City is the gold standard in the field.

Links: New York Times article on the making of the AIA Guide to New York City query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9407E3D61638F931A1575BC0A96F958260; Michelin Green Guide to New York City www.langenscheidt.com/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=3184.

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

August 22, 2008

‘Lyle, Lyle Crocodile’ – A Picture Book That Celebrates the Joys of City Life

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:13 pm
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An upbeat crocodile savors pleasures such as ice-skating at Rockefeller Center and having a picnic in Central Park

Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile. By Bernard Waber. Houghton Mifflin, 48 pp., $6.95, paperback. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

It’s not easy being green and living in a bathtub in New York City. Just ask any young fan of Lyle, an anthropomorphic crocodile who made his picture-book debut in 1962 in The House on East 88th Street and has reappeared in more than a half-dozen sequels that celebrate the joys of urban life.

Lyle lives with Mr. and Mrs. Primm and their son, Joshua, in a New York City brownstone that has a high stoop, fanlight window, and claw-foot bathtub in which he relaxes. He revels in urban life even as he startles shoppers and irritates a neighbor whose cat he has frightened.

One of Lyle’s endearing traits is an almost pathological optimism. In Lyle, Lyle Crocodile, he is exiled to a zoo after he follows Mrs. Primm to a department store and creates a commotion by putting on an exuberant show with Signor Hector P. Valenti, his former partner in a traveling stage act, who now sells pajamas. Lyle weeps during his first night in a cage but rebounds when visitors arrive and he becomes the biggest star in the zoo. Still, he misses the Primms until a heroic deed enables him to go home and, at last, win over the testy neighbor whose cat he had upset.

Bernard Waber combines strong black lines and blend of bold and subtle watercolors to suggest the depth and variety of New York City. And he brings Lyle’s personality to the fore by alternating full-color pages with black, white and green spreads. Partly because he draws better than he writes, his work ranks several notches below that of Chris Van Allsburg and David Macaulay and others who also have been nurtured by his editor, the esteemed Walter Lorraine of Houghton Mifflin.

But few fictional characters can match Lyle’s infectious enthusiasm for joys of city life – riding taxis, feeding pigeons, ice-skating at Rockefeller Center. Many good children’s books deal with the urban experiences of a specific group – blacks, Hispanics, white girls rich enough to live at the Plaza. And we need those books. We also need books that say: Great cities like New York abound with joys that transcend your race, ethnicity or bank balance. Lyle, Lyle Crocodile does that, and nearly two generations of children have been grateful for it.

Best line/picture: “Lyle could spend hours watching building construction.” The focus on free or low-cost pleasures in this book is all the more appealing when a good seat for a Broadway show costs $100 and even a one-way subway ride will set you back $2.

Worst line/picture: A sign at an information desk says: “On parle francais” and “Aqui se habla español.” Using the tilde on español but not the cedilla on français is sloppy. And the some of the characters’ names are cute rather than witty or apt.

Published: 1965 (first edition) www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/authors/waber/

Caveat lector: Some reviews suggest that the quality of this series falls off with later books, which I haven’t read. I welcome comments from teachers, librarians and others who can speak to this issue. And contrary to what you might expect from its title, Waber has written Lyle, Lyle Crocodile in prose, not poetry.

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

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

May 10, 2008

Countdown to the 2009 Caldecott and Newbery Medals #1: Janet Shulman and Meilo So’s Hale ‘Pale Male’ Makes Way for Hawklets

Filed under: Children's Books,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:03 am
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A picture book tells the story of an urban red-tailed hawk and the international outcry that erupted when the management of a Fifth Avenue co-op destroyed its nest

Pale Male: Citizen Hawk of New York City. By Janet Schulman. Illustrated by Meilo So. Knopf, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 4 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Make way for hawklets. This delightful picture book tells the true story of a red-tailed hawk who became a star after he and his mate began raising chicks on a ledge on posh building on Fifth Avenue in the 1990s. Birdwatchers named him Pale Male and gathered in Central Park to study his family with binoculars and telescopes.

But residents of 927 Fifth Avenue disliked having their sidewalk littered with feathers, bird droppings and the remains of rats, pigeons and the occasional squirrel that the hawks ate. They persuaded the owners of the building to remove the hawks’ nest, an act that set off an international outcry and homegrown protests that — even in a city full of exhibitionists — commanded attention.

“Two protesters dressed as birds urged cars on Fifth Avenue to ‘Honk 4 Hawks.’” Janet Schulman writes. “Taxis, cars, and city buses honked. Trucks let out ear-piercing blasts of their air horns. Even fire trucks let loose their sirens.”

After the Audubon Society and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service got involved, the owners of the building restored the nests. And all of it could have turned into another of the dreary lectures on environmentalism that have come to infest picture books.

But Pale Male has less in common with those sermons-in-print than with Robert McCloskey’s endearing 1941 Caldecott Medal–winner Make Way for Duckings. Like that tale of Boston policeman who stops traffic so a family of ducks can cross the street, this book isn’t a brief for animal rights. It’s a celebration of wild creatures and the joy they can bring when, against the odds, they cross our urban paths.

Schulman clearly sympathizes with the hawks, but her text suggests why others might have different views, as do the wonderful illustrations, created with watercolor inks and colored pencils. One picture shows a sweeper in the hands of the pained-looking doorman who has to clean up the mess left by the hawks. Meilo So uses shifting visual perspectives to show New York City as it might look to the varied players in this drama — Pale Male soaring above Central Park, birdwatchers tracking him with their binoculars, a rich couple despairing in their plush co-op about the din caused by honking taxis and protestors. Schulman’s afterword on Pale Male is good, too: “He has now won the status of a true New York celebrity: his building is pointed out by tour-bus operators.”

Best line/picture: Both Schulman and So tweak wealthy residents of 927 Fifth in ways that are amusing but not mean. The rich couple despair in a living room that has faintly Victorian décor, including red walls and a rolled-arm red velvet sofa. It’s a subtle way of suggesting that they’re out of touch.

Worst line/picture: “Most of the tenants had been irked for years that they couldn’t legally get rid of the hawks. Then in 2003, during a time when many conservation and wildlife laws were being relaxed by President George W. Bush’s administration, the Migratory Bird Treaty was changed. It now permitted destruction of nests as long as there were no chicks in the nest. Hawks lay their eggs in March and the chicks fledge in June. In December Pale Male’s nest was empty. The owners of the hawk building were quick to take advantage of the new law.”

The problem with this paragraph isn’t really the jab at Bush but that, atypically for Schulman, it’s confusing. Why the sudden jump from June to December? Why does the paragraph say that the nest was “empty” then when the following one suggests that it was gone? And why does it call the people who lived in 927 Fifth Avenue “tenants” instead of “residents” when the building was a co-op?

Furthermore: Pale Male is likely to receive – and deserves – serious consideration for the American Library Association’s Caldecott Medal or one of its annual awards for “information books.” This is one of the year’s best gift books for children and maybe even a mother who loves bird-watching.

Update: Pale Male www.palemale.com and his current mate, Lola, still live on their ledge at 927 Fifth Avenue, but no more chicks have hatched since the nest was removed and restored. An update on their plight appeared in an article the May 1, 2008 New York Times, “Reprise: The Fifth Avenue Ballad of Pale Male and Lola.”

Published: March 2008 www.randomhouse.com/kids

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

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