One-Minute Book Reviews

February 10, 2012

‘Joy and Woe Are Woven Fine’ in Maurice Sendak’s ‘Bumble-Ardy’

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:20 pm
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A birthday party goes haywire in a tale of an adopted pig whose parents “got ate”

Bumble-Ardy. By Maurice Sendak. Michael Di Capua/Harper Collins, 40 pp., $17.95.

By Janice Harayda

Maurice Sendak has often spoken of his admiration for William Blake, and in his latest book he develops a variation on the poet’s idea that “joy and woe are woven fine” in human life. Or, in this case, porcine life.

The author of "Where the Wild Things Are" returns with another wild rumpus

Bumble-Ardy transposes into a darker key a brief animated segment that Sendak and Jim Henson created for Sesame Street in 1970. Its hero is no longer a boy who throws a birthday party for himself on a whim while his mother is out. Bumble-Ardy is an 8-year-old pig who has survived the slaughter of parents who never gave him a birthday party. He lives with his adoptive aunt Adeline, who can’t see that he wants a big celebration when he turns nine. So he invites a group of swine to a masquerade after she leaves for work. He soon finds their sty full of costumed revelers — a jester, a pirate, Louis XIV and others – whose carousing turns into a six-page bacchanal reminiscent of the “wild rumpus” in Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. The party’s over when Adeline returns and threatens to turn the outsiders into ham if they don’t leave.

Sendak’s pictures express an idea larger than that of a birthday party gone haywire: the irretrievability of time. Bumble-Ardy brims with images of objects found in vanitas paintings, those symbol-filled art works about the transience of earthly life, or in their modern counterparts. His frontispiece and title spread show a birth certificate, a June 2008 calendar and the “Hogwash Gazette” along with pictures of Bumble-Ardy’s dead parents. Nearly every subsequent page has a memento mori, such as a skull, or another traditional symbol the brevity of life — a watch, mirror, dead flower, flickering candle, musical instrument, broken plate or a number representing minutes, days or years.

These images may have a melancholy undertone, but Bumble-Ardy isn’t funereal. Sendak applies his watercolors with a light hand and surrounds his memento mori with images full of  life. He also writes in lively rhyming poetry, beginning with a “Simple Simon” trochaic meter — “Bumble Ardy had no party when he turned one” — and moving on to iambic and anapestic couplets or triplets. If some verses work less well than in the more light-hearted Sesame-Street video, where music masked their imperfections, they offer a welcome counterpoint to the reminders of death. They have the spirit of “Three Blind Mice,” a nursery rhyme so bouncy you don’t dwell on the farmer’s wife who “cut off their tails with a carving knife.”

But Bumble-Ardy is at heart the story of a lonely and misunderstood pig who is — as child psychologists say — “resilient.” Its hero doesn’t sulk when nobody gives him a birthday party. He plans one for himself. And he tries desperately to please an aunt who is furious afterward: “I Promise! / I Swear! / I Won’t Ever / Turn Ten!” Adeline covers him with kisses, so the story ends happily enough, but Bumble-Ardy’s plight remains sad. He copes by denying reality: He “won’t ever” turn ten.

Sendak’s unwillingness to preach about such situations has always set him apart from authors who favor tidy solutions and has helped to earn him a deserved reputation as one of the world’s finest picture-book illustrators.  Bumble-Ardy stays the course. Sendak isn’t warning parents to do better than those of its hero. He is saying: This is reality for some children. His message isn’t a “message.” It is closer a question, written on a sign held by a pig: “Where Do We Go From Here?”

Best line/picture: The six-page of the bacchanal, which includes visual references to Sendak’s earlier books and to those of other artists.

Worst line/Picture: Sendak says of Bumble-Ardy’s fifth, sixth, and seventh birthdays: “And five six seven just simply were not.” The line is wordy: It didn’t need both adverbs, “just” and “simply.” And the story includes an inherent contradiction. The book casts Bumble-Ardy as a young pig, but eight years old isn’t young for a pig: It’s at least middle-aged.

Published: September 2011

Furthermore: Sendak won a Caldecott Medal for his picture book, Where the Wild Things Are, which One-Minute Book Reviews reviewed in its “Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read” series.  Bumble-Ardy is the first book that he has written and illustrated since Outside Over There in 1981. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the follow button in the sidebar on this site.

You may also want to read “American Library Association to Little Kids: Women Are Second Best,” a post about male artists’ dominance of the Caldecott awards.

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

January 23, 2010

A Second Look at a Controversial Newbery Medal Winner, Susan Patron’s ‘The Higher Power of Lucky’

Note: I’m reading the 2010 Newbery medalist, When You Reach Me, and will review it soon. This is a repost of a review of the controversial 2007 winner.

The Higher Power of Lucky: A Novel. By Susan Patron. Illustrated by Matt Phelan. Atheneum: A Richard Jackson Book, 135 pp., $16.95. Age range: 9-11. [See further comments about these ages at the end of the review.]

By Janice Harayda

Who would have thought that the American Library Association would give its most prestigious award for children’s literature to a novel that uses the word “scrotum” on the first page? Not those of us who have observed its choices for years and have found that they tend to suffer from an excess of caution, often rewarding deserving books only after children have embraced them.

So it was, in a sense, startling that the ALA gave the 2007 Newbery Medal to Susan Patron’s The Higher Power of Lucky, which tells the story of a 10-year-old orphan named Lucky Trimble who hears what an Amazon reviewer has called “the s word” while eavesdropping on a 12-step meeting through a hole in the wall. Patron writes on the first page:

“Sammy told of the day when he had drunk half a gallon of rum listening to Johnny Cash all morning in his parked ’62 Cadillac, then fallen out of the car when he saw a rattlesnake on the passenger seat biting his dog, Roy, on the scrotum.”

This is hardly shocking language when many 3-year-olds know the words “penis” and “vagina” and psychologists routinely urge parents to introduce the medically correct terms for genitalia as soon as their children can understand them. You would think that librarians would rejoice in the arrival of a book that supports this view instead of rolling out words you are more likely to hear from children, such as “dickhead” and “butt-head” and, of course, the deathless “poopy-head.”

But some people have reacted to The Higher Power of Lucky though Patron had issued a manifesto in favor of kiddie porn. At least a few libraries have banned the novel, the New York Times reported yesterday. And a librarian in Durango, Colorado, accused Patron of using “a Howard Stern-type shock treatment” to attract attention.

All of this distracts from the more important question: How good is this book?

Answer: Not bad. I’d give it a B or B-minus, though it was far from the best work of children’s literature published last year. I haven’t read all the candidates for 2007 Newbery, including the Honor Books. But among those I have read, Patron’s novel has less literary merit than Kate DiCamillos’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane or Laura Amy Schlitz’s A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, both rumored on library listservs and elsewhere to have been contenders for the award.

But The Higher Power of Lucky does have virtues, some of which are more therapeutic than literary. Patron describes the principles of 12-step programs not just for alcoholics but for “gamblers, smokers, and overeaters.” This may help many children who have relatives in such programs and don’t understand them. And Lucky is an intrepid and often amusing heroine who defies a few female stereotypes. She loves science, has close male friends, and lives in a trailer in the Mojave Desert, which has a dramatic landscape that Patron describes vibrantly. No one could accuse this novel of fostering the rampant materialism you see in so many children’s books. The Higher Power of Lucky also has evocative black-and-white illustrations by Matt Phelan that add so much to the book that you wonder if it would have had a shot at the Newbery without them. Perhaps above all, the novel has a worthy theme: What constitutes a “family”?

So what’s not to like about the book? The writing — vivid as it can be — is at times careless or clunky. Patron confuses “lay” and “lie” in a line of dialogue on page 4, and while you could argue that this misuse is in character for the speaker, she makes similar lapses in expository passages. She tells us that a character had “a very unique way of cooking.” She does not appear to have mastered the use of the semicolon and overuses it, including in conversation, in a book for children who may themselves be struggling to figure out its purpose. She also italicizes so many words — a sign of weak writing — that her book reads at times like a children’s version of the old Cosmopolitan edited by Helen Gurley Brown.

Most of all, some aspects of the plot and Lucky’s character are thin and underdeveloped. Toward the end of the book, Lucky behaves recklessly and is also dangerously mean to a friend. And while such events might have made less difference earlier in the book, they come so late that Patron has left herself too little time to persuade us that her heroine has learned from them. Other late events are insufficiently foreshadowed to make them believable. And that brings us back to that incendiary “scrotum.”

Lucky finally does learn the meaning of the word. But it turns out to have so little relation to the rest of the plot that its use in the beginning looks gratuitous. The metaphorical gun on the wall in the first act turns out to be firing blanks. The Higher Power of Lucky is not about its heroine’s sexual development or anything else that might have justified the use of the word. Patron could have reworked the offending passage with no loss to the book. In that sense, she may have made a mistake. But libraries would be making an even more serious one if they ban a book that has much to offer children.

Best line: This book has many good descriptions of the landscape of the Mojave, such as this image of a dust storm: “Tiny twisters of sand rose up from the ground, as if miniature people were throwing handfuls in the air.”

Worst line: Clearly many people think it’s the one about the scrotum. For variety I’ll go with the ungrammatical first line of the third chapter, which includes a dangling modifier: “Out of the millions of people in America who might become Lucky’s mother if Brigitte went home to France, Lucky wondered about some way to trap and catch exactly the right one.”

Age range: The publisher recommends this book for ages 9-to-11. But The Higher Power of Lucky has a much less complex plot and smaller cast than many novels beloved by children in that age group, such as the Harry Potter novels. And its heroine is a 10-and-a-half-year-old fifth-grader, and children tend to read “up,” or prefer stories about characters who are older than they are. So this book may have much more appeal for children below its age range, including 7- and 8-year-olds, than 11-year-olds. This fact may explain much of the controversy about the book. Many librarians and teachers who would have no trouble with the word “scrotum” in a book for fifth-graders may be upset because they know that this one will end up in the hands of many second- and third-graders.

Furthermore: A reading group guide to The Higher Power of Lucky is saved in the “Totally Unathorized Reading Group Guides” category. One-Minute Book Reviews also posted an analysis of why the novel might have won the Newbery.

Published: November 2006

Furthermore: Patron’s name is pronounced “pa-TRONE.”

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter, where she comments on books at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda and satirizes American literary culture at www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews.

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent literary blog created by Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist and who has been book editor of  the Plain Dealer and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle.

(c) 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 5, 2007

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier’ by Ishmael Beah

Discussion Questions for A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Solider

by Ishmael Beah

Source: One-Minute Book Reviews

http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

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

A Long Way Gone is a memoir by Ishmael Beah, who claims that he joined the government army in Sierra Leone to save his life after rebels destroyed his village and separated him from his parents. A review of this book appeared on Feb. 27, 2007, on One-Minute Book Reviews www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com and is archived in the “Memoirs” category and with the February 2007 posts on that site. [Note: Since this guide appeared, many of the claims in A Long Way Gone have been disputed by reputable journalists, and the publisher of the book has produced no proof that Beah was ever a child soldier.]

The publisher of A Long Way Gone has posted an extensive reading group guide to the book at www.fsgbooks.com that contains questions your club may want to use as a starting point for its discussions. That guide includes samples of the praise the book has received from respected authors or critics. Like most publishers’ promotional materials, the online guide does not encourage criticism of the book, cite concerns raised by reviewers, or suggest that you are reading anything other than a flawless work. The following Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide is not intended to be comprehensive but only to raise questions not covered by publisher’s guide.

Questions For Reading Groups About A Long Way Gone

1) Beah, now in his mid-20s, focuses on the upheavals that began when he was 12 and also covers some earlier events. How good is your memory for events in your life that occurred when you were that age? Can you recall events from that long ago in the detail Beah describes, including such things as hand gestures and a speaker’s pauses? If not, are you willing to give Beah credit for remembering them? Why or why not?

2) John Corry, who has reported from West Africa, wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “It is permissible to wonder whether Mr. Beah is accurately recalling events and people and what they said.” (Feb. 10, 2007, page P8.) Do you agree with Corry? If so, what are some of the things it’s permissible to question? Do your questions affect your overall view of A Long Way Gone? Corry is a senior editor of American Spectator, a conservative magazine. Do you believe that critics’ liberal or conservative biases affect their reviews? How might liberal and conservative critics have reviewed this book differently?

3) Corry noted in his review that, perhaps to forestall questions about the book, Beah writes: “To this day, I have an excellent photographic memory that enables me to remember details of the day-to-day moments of my life, indelibly.” [Page 51] Did you ever know anyone who had a “photographic memory”? Was the person sometimes able to recall events in the detail described in A Long Way Gone?

4) Beah says that the army supplied the young conscripts with “white capsules,” presumably amphetamines, to help them stay alert. He adds that the child soldiers also had easy access to other drugs. [Page 121] Beah writes:

“In the daytime, instead of playing soccer in the village square, I took turns at guarding posts around the village, smoking marijuana and sniffing, brown brown, cocaine mixed with gunpowder, which was always spread out on the table, and of course the white capsules, as I had become addicted to them.” [Page 121]

Are you willing to share with your group whether or not you ever took drugs and how they affected your perceptions of events? Or how drugs have affected the memory of someone you know who used them?

5) Beah describes in one scene how he and friends “lay in the dirt” on a coffee farm near a ruined village and eavesdropped on rebels who played cards and chatted “for hours.” [Page 97] He adds that he heard one rebel say his group had just burned three villages:

“Another rebel, the only one dressed in full army gear, agreed with him. ‘Yes, three is impressive, in just a few hours in the afternoon.’ He paused, playing with the side of his G3 weapon. ‘I especially enjoyed burning this village. We caught everyone here. No one escaped. That is how good it was. We carried out the command and executed everyone. Commander will be pleased when he gets here.’ He nodded, looking at the rest of the rebels, who had stopped the game to listen to him. They all agreed with him, nodding their heads. They gave each other high fives and resumed their game.” [p. 97]

Does it seem to you that Beah and his friends could have been close enough to overhear that conversation yet avoid detection “for hours” by the rebels? Or that if the boys could see a rebel “nod,” and others “nodding” in agreement, that the rebels could not see them? What are some possible explanations for how Beah could have observed a conversation in such detail while avoiding detection himself?

6) When this book was published, Beah worked for a respected international organization, Human Rights Watch www.hrw.org. He has also described his experiences at the United Nations and in other settings likely to have included experts who could have confirmed at least part of what he says. How does this affect your view of A Long Way Gone?

7) Beah is a young writer who has clearly survived tragedies that go beyond anything most of us will experience in our lives. Do you believe that because of his youth or suffering he should be held to different literary or journalistic standards than writers who are older or have not suffered as much? Or do you believe that there are standards that all authors should uphold? What are they?

Vital statistics:
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. By Ishmael Beah. Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Sarah Crichton, 229 pp., $22. Published: February 2007.

Your book group may also want to read:

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda (Picador, 1999) by Philip Gourevitch. This award-winning book describes the Rwandan genocide, which took place during a time that partly overlaps with that of A Long Way Gone. It also involves some similar events, such as machete killings. But Gourevitch places such events in a wider social and political context than Beah does. Comparing We Wish to Inform You … with A Long Way Gone may enrich your understanding of how events in Sierra Leone fit into the broader pattern of African history during the 1990s. It may also suggest ways Beah could have developed his story differently – for example, by adding more background about the events in his country – without sacrificing narrative power.

As a high school student, Beah wrote an essay about his experiences as a boy solider that appears on the web site for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation www.wagingpeace.org. Search the site for his name or “When Good Comes From Bad.”

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter, where she writes about books and related topics.

© 2007 By Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 27, 2007

Ishmael Beah, Soldier Boy in Sierra Leone

Filed under: African American,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:30 am
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A young author with a “photographic memory” writes of learning to use an AK-47

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Sarah Crichton, 229 pp., $22.

By Janice Harayda

At the age of 13, Ishmael Beah practiced for combat in his native Sierra Leone by “stabbing the banana trees with bayonets.” He had fled into the bush months earlier, carrying a few cassettes by LL Cool J and other rappers, when rebel forces attacked village and scattered his family.

Beah stayed on the run, near starvation, until captured by government soldiers who promised that if he joined the army, he would have food and a chance to avenge the loss of parents. Afraid he would be shot if he refused, he became part of a squad of boys between the ages of 7 and 16 who learned to use AK-47s and other weapons against the rebels who were still terrorizing the countryside. He also became addicted to the marijuana, cocaine mixed with gunpowder, and “white tablets” – presumably amphetamines – that the army gave young conscripts to ease their fears and keep them awake on patrol. For more than two years, he says, killing was “a daily activity” that he describes in chilling detail in A Long Way Gone. Then one day United Nations workers showed up – as unexpectedly as rebels had attacked his old village — and demanded that the army release some of boys, including Beah, who made his way to Guinea and from there to New York.

These experiences make for a story that, if gripping, is at times hard to believe, and not just because the killings it describes are so savage. Now 26 years old, Beah could not have taken many notes as a soldier, because their discovery could have led to his death. Instead, he implies, he relied his “photographic memory” in telling his story. But you wonder if that memory might have been impaired by near-starvation or the chronic use of drugs, an issue that A Long Way Gone doesn’t address. And some of the events seem implausible regardless. In one scene Beah tells how he and several friends “lay in the dirt” on a coffee farm near a ruined village and eavesdropped on rebels who played cards and chatted “for hours.” He says he heard one rebel say that his group had just burned three villages:

“Another rebel, the only one dressed in full army gear, agreed with him. ‘Yes, three is impressive, in just a few hours in the afternoon.’ He paused, playing with the side of his G3 weapon. ‘I especially enjoyed burning this village. We caught everyone here. No one escaped. That is how good it was. We carried out the command and executed everyone. Commander will be pleased when he gets here.’ He nodded, looking at the rest of the rebels, who had stopped the game to listen to him. They all agreed with him, nodding their heads. They gave each other high fives and resumed their game.”

If Beah and his friends were close enough to hear that conversation, how did the rebels avoid hearing them “for hours”? If the boys could see a rebel “nod,” and others “nodding” in agreement, how could the rebels not see them? It appears that they could have avoided notice only by hiding behind bushes dense enough that neither group could see, or hear, the other.

Beah has described some of his wartime experiences at a United Nations conference and in other settings likely to have included experts who could have challenged aspects of his story that didn’t ring true. Even so, the tragic abuse of child soldiers is so important – and has received so little attention – that you wish he had made an airtight case for believing all that he has to say about it.

Best line: Beah writes his first visit to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone: “I was amazed at how many lights there were without the sound of a generator.”

Worst line: The scene at the coffee farm, described above, is one of a number that make you question the accuracy of some of Beah’s recollections.

Editor: Sarah Crichton

Published: February 2007

Furthermore: On Feb. 15, A Long Way Gone replaced Mitch Albom’s For One More Day as the only book sold at Starbucks coffee shops in the United States.

Reading group guides: The site for Farrar, Straus www.fsgbooks.com has a reading group guide. An additional reading group guide to A Long Way Gone was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on March 5. This unauthorized guide covers questions that do not appear in the official FSG guide. It is archived with the March posts and also in the Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides category.

Links: You can find other information at www.alongwaygone.com, the site for the book.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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