One-Minute Book Reviews

December 27, 2008

A Book That Makes It Fun to Learn to Read – ‘I Saw You in the Bathtub: And Other Folk Rhymes’

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I saw you in the street,
I saw you in a tree,
I saw you in the bathtub –
Whoops! Pardon me!

I Saw You in the Bathtub: And Other Folk Rhymes (An I Can Read Book 1) By Alvin Schwartz. Illustrated by Syd Hoff. HarperTrophy, 64 pp., $3.99, paperback. Ages 5–8 (for independent reading), ages 2 and up (for reading aloud).

By Janice Harayda

A couple of months ago, I mentioned I Saw You in the Bathtub in the context of a couple of its poems that relate to Halloween. But this book is so much fun, it has a year-round appeal.

Alvin Schwartz has collected 40 ageless folk rhymes that consist mainly of words of one or two syllables: “I scream, / You scream, / We all scream / For ice cream!” So this book is a good choice for many kindergarten-though-third-graders who are starting to read and need short words and strongly patterned text.

But children as young as age 2 also love rhymes like: “Teacher, teacher made a mistake — / She sat down in a chocolate cake!” and “Three little chickadees / Looking at you, / One flew away / And then there were two.” And because variations on most of the rhymes seem to have existed since Cain, the book has an intergenerational appeal: It gives parents and grandparents a chance to share the versions they know. Am I the only one who learned the title rhyme as: “I saw you in the river, / I saw you in the sea, / I saw you in the bathtub — / Oops! Pardon me!”?

Best line: The title rhyme. But “Mary, Mary, strong and able, / Keep your elbow off the table” may be better known.

Worst line: A few rhymes are taunts that some adults may want to skip when reading the book aloud, such as the deathless: “Kindergarten baby, / Stick your head in gravy!” Speaking just for myself: I’d rather hear those lines than some words that arepopular among 3-year-olds, such as “dickhead.”

Recommendation? High value for the dollar as holiday gift for a family with children ages 2 and up. This $3.99 paperback is much more entertaining than most $16.99 hardcover picture books.

Published: March 1989 (first edition), 1991 (HarperTrophy paperback) www.harpercollins.com/books/9780064441513/I_Saw_You_in_the_Bathtub/index.aspx

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear every Saturday on this site, which will also post a list of suggested gift books for children and teenagers during the holiday season. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing these posts.

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

December 4, 2008

‘Unplug the Christmas Machine’ – How to Explain to Children Why You Plan to Give Them Fewer Gifts This Holiday Season

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“First, talk to your children as soon as possible about your plans to give them fewer presents.”

Do publishers have a sense of irony? You might wonder after seeing all the double-digit price tags on books about how to simplify your holidays. So here’s an alternative: Head for the library and look for Unplug the Christmas Machine: A Complete Guide to Putting Love and Joy Back Into the Season (Harper, 208 pp., $12.95, paperback), a field manual for the walking wounded in the annual holiday battle that advertisers and others wage for your soul and wallet.

This book grew out of workshops that authors Jo Robinson and Jean C. Staeheli began to lead in the late 1970s, and some of its material reflects the ideas of that era. But many of its suggestions are evergreen, and the advice never gives you the sense, as Martha Stewart’s does, that the glue gun can be a lethal weapon. A typical passage in the first edition tells how to ease your family into a celebration less focused on gifts:

“First, talk to your children as soon as possible about your plans to give them fewer presents. Be clear about what they can expect. Second, explain to children who are old enough to understand why it’s important to you to minimize gifts. Finally, give your children something else to look forward to, like a special trip or family activity. Focus on what they will be getting, not on what they won’t.”

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

November 29, 2008

A Good Christmas Story for Children — ‘Father Christmas and the Donkey’

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A holiday tale broadcast on the BCC has an enduring appeal

Father Christmas and the Donkey. By Elizabeth Clark. Illustrated by Jan Ormerod. Viking, 32 pp., varied prices. Ages 2 and up.

By Janice HaraydaFather Christmas and the Donkey (Picture Puffin)

The story of the birth of Christ is at once poignant and joyful, and great Christmas stories – including Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol – reflect both aspects. One of the rare picture books that does this is the exquisite Father Christmas and the Donkey.

A donkey – old, lame and abandoned – finds his life transformed by helping Father Christmas deliver the last of his gifts in this timeless fable. The plot could have devolved into treacle. But Elizabeth Clark invests the story with real feeling by showing, in the subtlest of ways, how the old donkey yearns to be needed: “The sack was heavy, but donkey’s back was strong, and though his leg was stiff, it was wonderful how little it hurt.” And Jan Ormerod’s pictures enhance the deft blend of realism and magic that helps to make the story so appealing. Ormerod begins by using mainly tones of blue, gray, black and white accented with silver. As the donkey’s life begins to change, she adds others until full color appears in the last page.

More than a decade ago, the BBC broadcast Father Christmas and the Donkey, and it has had a well-deserved afterlife. Like The Polar Express, this is a picture book that many children will enjoy long after they have started reading longer works of fiction.

Published: 1993. Father Christmas and the Donkey first appeared in the collection Twilight and Fireside.

Furthermore: Elizabeth Clark (1875–1972) was a well-known author, storyteller and lecturer in Britain and the United States. In the 1920s she was a broadcaster on the BBC Children’s Hour program. Born in Australia, Jan Ormerod www.harpercollins.com/authors/17930/Jan_Ormerod/index.aspx?authorID=17930 is a well-known illustrator of children’s books. Her first book, Sunshine, won the Australian Picture Book of the Year Award and other honors. She lives in England.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com/

November 23, 2008

Watch a Slide Show of the New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2008

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Every year since 1952, the editors of the New York Times Book Review have asked a group of judges to pick the best illustrated children’s books of the year. The 2008 list appeared in the NYTBR on Nov. 9, and if you missed it, you can watch a slide show that includes a picture from each of the 10 honorees here
www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2008/11/06/books/20081109ILLUSTRATEDBOOKS_index.html.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 22, 2008

Countdown to the 2009 Caldecott and Newbery Medals #2: ‘Zen Ties,’ the Sequel to ‘Zen Shorts’ — A for the Art, C-Minus for the Prose and Poetry

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The American Library Association will hand out its annual Caldecott and Newbery medals for children’s books on Jan. 26, 2009. In the next month or two I’ll be focusing closely — but not exclusively — on books that, deservedly or not, are likely to receive serious consideration for those awards. Posts about these books will be labeled “Countdown to the 2009 Caldecott and Newbery Medals.” You may may also want to read the May 10 review of Pale Male, which I have retroactively tagged as part of this series www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/10/.

Stillwater the panda returns and gets a visit from his nephew who speaks only in haiku

Zen Ties. By John J. Muth. Scholastic, 40 pp., $17.99. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

What would you say are the chances that any author would be equally good at prose, poetry and painting? If your answer is “close to zero,” you’ll have no trouble seeing the problem with this sequel to John J. Muth’s bestseller about a giant panda named Stillwater and the three Western children he befriends.

Muth’s beautiful watercolors give his Zen Ties a fresh and modern look. But the stuffy text is a New Age equivalent of one of the Victorian moral tales pushed aside decades ago by the work of pioneers like Margaret Wise Brown and Virginia Lee Burton and more recently by great author-illustrators like Maurice Sendak and Chris Van Allsburg.

In Muth’s new book, Stillwater has abandoned his boxer shorts and donned a red necktie for a visit from his nephew, Koo. You know you’re in for a slog when the gentle panda greets Koo, who speaks only in haiku, with, “Hi, Koo!” The problem with the greeting isn’t that children won’t get the pun — in good story, they wouldn’t need to — but that it’s cute instead of witty and typical of the weak writing in the book.

The becalmed plot befits a tale about a character named Stillwater. On a summer day in a well-kept American town, the panda decides to visit an ailing old lady who frightens children. He takes along four potential victims of that fear: Koo and young Karl, Addy and Michael. The children find that — surprise — Miss Whitaker is nice and helps Michael win a ribbon at a spelling bee. Why anybody would be taking part in a spelling bee in the summer, presumably at school, goes unexplained.

You might wonder if Zen Ties imparted worthy Buddhist teachings that would offset weaknesses in the writing. Not unless child-rearing experts like Penelope Leach and Michael Riera are Buddhists, because Stillwater dispenses advice that might have come straight from their books. And some of Muth’s implicit messages seem bizarrely anti-Buddhist. To entertain Koo, Addy invents a game called “Jump on Stillwater,” which looks sadistic. When she cleans Miss Whitaker’s house, she snaps at Karl, “Karl, hold the dustpan still!” No please, no apology for her rudeness.

Zen Ties does introduce children to haiku through the poems spoken by Koo. But haiku is a quiet verse form close to natural speech, so you wonder if they will even notice. And some of the poems in this book are poor examples of it. Near the end of his visit, Koo says, “Summer fading / new friends’ faces / lighten the way home.” “Lighten” is confusing here. It could mean “make less heavy” or “illuminate,” and because isn’t clear which one Koo intended, children will probably assume that he meant “illuminate.”

The fine watercolors in this book throw the deficiencies of the text into higher relief. And because pictures count for more than words in the Caldecott Awards, Zen Ties is likely be a serious contender for the next medal. You hope the judges will look hard for a book will allow the nation’s highest picture-book award to go to a work that is, on every level, of exceptional quality.

Best line/picture: The endpapers that show Stillwater and his nephew doing side-by-side t’ai chi movements.

Worst line/picture: Quoted above: “lighten the way home.”

Wish I’d written that: Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) wrote in the New York Times Book Review: “I had hopes that Zen Ties might veer closer to the Buddhist sources [than Zen Shorts did] , but the sequel contains no ancient tales at all …The weak story is a real shame, as Muth’s illustrations have the yearning gorgeousness displayed in the first volume.” Read Handler’s full review:
www.nytimes.com/2008/05/11/books/review/Handler-t.html.

Published: February 2008 www2.scholastic.com/browse/book.jsp?id=5114 . Muth won a Caldecott Honor citation for Zen Shorts en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_J._Muth.

Furthermore: I will have more comments on the Caldecott and Newbery awards before and after the American Library Association www.ala.org hands them out at its midwinter meeting in January.

You may also want to read: A review of the 2008 Caldecott Medal winner, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and a reading group guide to it, posted on this site on Jan. 14, 2008. Click on this link and you will see both below the Orson Scott Card quote www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/14/.

Janice Harayda’s 2008 A-to-Z holiday gift-book list will appear soon. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing her recommendations for children and adults.

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

November 15, 2008

A Poem That Teaches You the Names of All 50 States

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California, Mississippi,
North and South Dakota.
New York, Jersey, Mexico, and
Hampshire. Minnesota.

— From “Someday Someone Will Bet That You Can’t Name All Fifty States”

Alas, poor Jeopardy! losers! Judith Viorst has written a book that could have helped you name that fourth state beginning with “I” that was all that stood between you and early retirement. Her Sad Underwear and Other Complications: More Poems for Children and Their Parents (Aladdin, 80 pp., $6.99, paperback) has dozens of short poems that find the humor everyday hazards like lost sneakers, mosquito bites and broken dishes. But none of those (mostly) rhyming verses may have earned her more gratitude than the list poem “Someday Someone Will Bet That You Can’t Name All Fifty States,” which teaches you how to win the dare in its title. Is Sad Underwear a book for the 7-to-10-year-olds that its packaging suggests? Or a cleverly subversive exercise in remedial reading for adults? Jeopardy! losers, you be the judge.

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

A Nonfiction Book That Explains Thanksgiving to Children

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From the Pilgrims to the Rocky and Bullwinkle float in the Macy’s parade

Thanksgiving: A True Book. By Dana Meachen Rau. Grolier/Children’s Press, 48 pp., varied prices. Ages 7 and up (for independent reading), younger for reading aloud.

By Janice Harayda

My parents once required my younger brothers to wear homemade Pilgrim hats, fashioned from rolled black construction paper, while my grandmother carved our holiday turkey. So it’s probably safe to say that they spared few visual effects to help their children understand the meaning of Thanksgiving.

But my parents didn’t prepare us for at least one ironclad tradition: As soon as the meal ended – and sometimes before it ended – all the men in our family would get up from the table and go into living room to watch a football game. And many children’s books approach Thanksgiving as my parents did: Their explanations focus on the Pilgrims, turkey and pumpkin pie, and giving thanks with family and friends.

Dana Meachen Rau casts a wider net in her documentary–style Thanksgiving: A True Book, which uses archival images and color photographs to introduce the holiday. She begins with the story of the Pilgrims and Indians at Plymouth Colony (and includes a picture of Plymouth Rock as it appears today). Then she tells how Thanksgiving became a national holiday and describes modern traditions associated with it: going to church, playing touch football, watching the Macy’s parade. In the last pages, she shows volunteers serving a holiday meal at a homeless shelter – a nice reminder that there’s more than one way to express gratitude.

Thanksgiving: A True Book is intended for elementary-school students, but some preschoolers may enjoy the photos, especially a full-page picture of Rocky and Bullwinkle in the Macy’s parade. Rau takes a straightforward, no-frills approach to Thanksgiving, apparently intended for classroom use, that may help children doing their first school units on the holiday.

Published: 2000 Thanksgiving: A True Book is out of print but available online and in libraries. You may also want to read the Nov. 18, 2007, post about documentary picture books on Thanksgiving that remain in print www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/11/18/.

Best line/picture: The photo of volunteers, including children, serving Thanksgiving dinner out of big aluminum-foil pans at a homeless shelter.

Worst/line picture: Families who see Thanksgiving as a strictly secular holiday may want to skip the photos of people saying grace and singing a hymn in church. But those pictures may appeal to families whose celebrations have a religious component that picture books rarely acknowledge so directly.

Furthermore: Rau also wrote Christmas: A True Book, Kwanzaa: A True Book and Halloween: A True Book.

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

November 13, 2008

Andrew Bridge’s ‘Hope’s Boy’ – A Memoir of His Experiences in Foster Care, He Says

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A former foster child recalls his time in “the closest thing that Los Angeles County had to a public orphanage.”

Hope’s Boy. By Andrew Bridge. Hyperion, 306 pp., $22.95.

By Janice Harayda

Like Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, Hope’s Boy deals with a subject so tragic you wish the book were more credible. Andrew Bridge says he spent 11 years in foster care, part of it in “the closest thing that Los Angeles County had to a public orphanage,” after being snatched from his apparently psychotic mother on a street by authorities who made too little effort to reunite them after placing him with another family. And he makes a fair case that those things did happen to him.

But Bridge undercuts his credibility by describing early childhood and later events in implausible and gratuitous detail, including pages of line-by-line dialogue. Generations of creative-writing professors have said in effect to their students: If you want to get your character out of a parking lot, you can just have him drive away. You don’t have to say that he got out his keys, unlocked the door, and climbed in the car. Hope’s Boy is full of such padding and is consequently far longer than necessary. It is also overwrought. Bridge shows his love of purple when he describes going to bed at night when he was in kindergarten: “Tired, my mind emptied slowly into the raven night of the room’s deepening corners.”

Yet amid the surfeit of detail, Bridge leaves many questions unanswered. Why doesn’t he give the real name of his high school, where he clearly did well? Why does his say nothing about his time at Harvard Law School and instead go from his acceptance in once sentence to his graduation in another, though his book carries his story well into adulthood? Why doesn’t he mention the religion of the woman who served as his foster mother for 11 years, whom he says the Nazis had imprisoned in a Dachau satellite camp for children?

Bridge says he has changed “identifying details.” But if you change details, your story still needs to cohere. It’s natural to assume, for example, that a Holocaust survivor would be Jewish and Judaism would play a role in her life. And if this was true of his foster mother, Bridge doesn’t say so. He portrays her so unflatteringly that you wonder if he ignored the religious issue for fear of appearing anti-Semitic. But because he says his foster mother spent four years a labor camp, the issue is there, anyway. His silence just makes things murky. And Hyperion has billed his book as a memoir of “one boy who beat the odds.” Don’t we have a right to know if religion helped or hurt him along the way?

In an epilogue, Bridge tries to put his experiences in a national context by drawing on court records of the mistreatment at Alabama’s Eufaula Adolescent Center in the 1990s. This final section describes practices such as confining children for indefinite periods in six-by-nine foot cells, abuses that led to the appointment of a court-ordered monitor for Eufaula. Brief and direct, the epilogue is the strongest part of the book, because it reflects a principle too little in evidence elsewhere: Real tragedies are often so painful to read about that they are best served by understatement.

Best line: “Over half a million American children live in foster care. The majority of them never graduate from high school, and overwhelmingly, they enter adulthood only semiliterate. Fewer than ten percent of former foster children graduate college; many experts estimate the number is closer to three percent. Thirty to fifty percent of children aging out of foster care are homeless within two years.”

Worst line: Another example of Bridge’s overwrought prose appears when he describes the school bell that rang daily to announce the start of classes at his high school: “Every morning, the claxon was loud enough to taunt the boundaries of silence. Pricking thousands of eardrums, the blast walloped though the wide corridors lined with amber-colored lockers, then with nothing to stop it other than exhaustion, it spread over the large campus, across the lines of concrete and grass, dicing through the chain link fences. Muted by it, students and teachers halted their progress for the slightest moment, then once it ceased, proceeded onward with their new day.”

Published: February 2008 www.HopesBoy.com

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

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

November 8, 2008

The ‘How I Survived Middle School’ Series – Nancy Krulick’s Fiction for Preteens, ‘Can You Get an F in Lunch?’ and ‘Madame President’

The first novels in a popular series tell fourth-graders how to apply eye shadow and cope with “hot” boys

Can You Get an F in Lunch? (How I Survived Middle School Series). By Nancy Krulik. Scholastic, 112 pp., $3.99, paperback. Ages: See discussion below.

Madame President (How I Survived Middle School Series). By Nancy Krulik. Scholastic, 112 pp., $3.99, paperback. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

The advance reading copies of these novels included publicity material that recommended them for 8-to-12-year-olds – a surprising age range for books that offer a full page of makeup tips and a quiz called “What Kind of Girl Are You?” that begins, “There’s a new boy in school and you think he’s really hot …”

Did Scholastic think that third-graders needed to read about how to put on eye shadow and cope with “hot” boys? I went to its Web site and found that that the answer was “No”: Scholastic thinks fourth-graders need to read about them. It apparently raised the lowest recommended age for the books by a year after printing the advance reading copies.

This change was hardly reassuring. Tips on makeup and boys may be fine for girls at the upper end of the age range for these books, the first in a popular series. But their heroine is 11 and ½ when her story begins, and children generally prefer to read about characters who are slightly older than they are. So most readers of these early books are apt to be 10 or younger. What will a 9-year-old fourth grader find it in them? Tips like these from Can You Get an F in Lunch?:

“BLUE-EYED BABES: Brown and rose eye shadows were made for you. Apply the shadow from lash lines to creases in your eyelids. Then top it with some dark brown or black mascara.”

Any publisher who tried to sell 9-year-olds a nonfiction book of makeup tips might face parental anger and resistance from school libraries. But Scholastic has found a way around the problem by incorporating the advice into novels and a companion Web site that its heroine consults and young readers may also visit.

You can read this marketing ploy as either as a) a harmless sign of the times and a logical extension of girls’ interest in toys like Bratz dolls or b) another sick example of premature sexualization and a publisher’s hope that people have forgotten the horror of seeing pictures of JonBenét Ramsey in full makeup. Either way, girls are finding their way to the novels. Jenny McAfee, the main character, has a blog on the series Web site that drew more than 700 comments for one post alone. And you wish that the books repaid that interest with more literary merit.

Jenny is kind and wholesome — her worst word is “Yikes” — and tells her story through down-to-earth first-person narration. She recovers quickly from her early setbacks in middle school (in Can You Get an F in Lunch?). And she wages a clean campaign against the odds when she runs for sixth-grade class president against her nasty ex-best friend, Addie, who has dropped her for a popular clique (in Madame President). Both novels spell out their themes plainly: Difficult situations get easier, hard work pays off, and true friends like you for who you are, not for what you own.

But this is standard tween series fare, built not on character development but on a fast pace and familiar anxieties – homework, new teachers, bad cafeteria food, taunts from older students, and off-again, on-again plans for trips to the mall. The “How I Survived Middle School” novels differ from others mainly in the women’s-magazine-style tips and pop quizzes scattered throughout the books and their Web site. And the advice raises its own problems.

Some of the tips in the series might help younger middle school students. But even the best raise the question of whether girls benefit from such an early indoctrination into the idea that they need advice on beauty, popularity and similar topics from people besides their parents, teachers and others who know them.

This series makes you wonder: Is anybody giving such advice to 9-year-old boys? You might argue, correctly, that boys tend to read other kinds of books. But to the degree that that’s true, this series reinforces stereotypes of girls no matter how much interest Jenny may have in playing basketball and running for class president.

If I had a 9- or 10-year old daughter, I wouldn’t refuse to buy these books for her. But I would offer her many other things to read, too – classics, good contemporary fiction and nonfiction, and, yes, the novels her brothers like. If she wanted advice on dealing with cliques and the other topics covered in the series, I would encourage her to visit the appropriate pages (“Kids” or “Teens”) of the award-winning Web site, KidsHeath, including kidshealth.org/kid/feeling/friend/clique.html. And in gentle way, I would suggest a potential drawback to those recommended “rose eye shadows”: Instead of turning her into” blue-eyed babe,” they could make her look as though she got a chronic eyelid disease at sleepaway camp.

Best line: From Can You Get an F in Lunch?: “If Addie and Dana and the rest of their clique were supposed to be so popular, how come there were so few of them? Didn’t being ‘popular’ mean that you were liked by everyone?”

Worst line: Also from Can You Get an F in Lunch?: “Soon, Addie, Dana, and Claire were exchanging pots of eye shadow and blush with the older girls, bonding over their collections of Cover Girl, Hard Candy, and Jessica Simpson Dessert makeup.”

Caveat lector: In this series, middle school begins with the sixth grade — not with the fifth as at many schools – and Jenny McAfee is 11 ½ years old in its first book. The upper age limit for these novels would probably be 10 or 11 in places where middle school begins in fifth grade. But there’s a weird disconnect: At least in the first two books, the series doesn’t deal with topics that would naturally interest girls who are old enough to wear makeup, including menstruation and breast development. This review was based on an advance reading copy, and some material in the finished books may differ.

Read an excerpt from the series at www2.scholastic.com/browse/collateral.jsp?id=10789.

Published: June 2007 www.middleschoolsurvival.com The latest novel in the “How I Survived Middle School” series is Who’s Got Spirit?.

Better choices: A few that are available in most bookstores and libraries: The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the 2008 Caldecott Medal winner and perhaps the year’s biggest hit among 9-year-olds; The Higher Power of Lucky, the 2007 Newbery Medal winner, which may appeal to 10-year-olds; and Russell Freedman’s fine biographies for ages 9-12 Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery and Martha Graham: A Dancer’s Life.

Furthermore: Nancy Krulik has written many popular books for children and teens.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who reviews books for children or teenagers every Saturday on this site, often in more depth than publications such as School Library Journal do. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing these reviews.

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

November 1, 2008

Children’s Poems About November by J. Patrick Lewis and John Updike

The words May and June are easier to rhyme. But November has inspired its share of poetry, including children’s poems by J. Patrick Lewis and John Updike that build toward a Thanksgiving meal.

Lewis celebrates the joys of the month in “November,” a 16-line rhyming poem collected in Thanksgiving: Stories and Poems (HarperCollins, 1989, ages 7 and up), edited by Caroline Feller Bauer and illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott. He writes of pumpkin pies, “the thank-you bird” and other seasonal pleasures:

Red squirrels, busy packing
Oak cupboards for weeks,
Still rattle the branches
With seeds in their cheeks.

The meaning of that quatrain is clearer than the first lines of the poem: “The bottoms of autumn / Wear diamonds of frost.” Are the lines talking about part of the natural landscape, such as the low areas next to rivers known as “bottoms”? Or are they referring to the patterns left on our clothes when we sit on frost-covered park benches?

John Updike’s more eloquent “November” is among the 12 poems, one for each month, collected in A Child’s Calendar (Holiday House, 32 pp., $6.99, paperback, ages 4 and up), a Caldecott Honor book beautifully illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. His “November” is a quiet poem, written in iambic meter – the closest to natural speech – instead of high-stepping anapests and dactyls. But it’s so thoughtful, you wish it were also available in a chapter-book format, too. Updike’s “November” describes a region — it looks like northern New England — that by Thanksgiving has lost more than the leaves on the maples and the birds in the air: “And yet the world, / Nevertheless, / Displays a certain / Loveliness.”

Updike suggests that in the barren trees of November, we see the world exposed to the bone, the way God must “see our souls” – an extraordinary subtle idea compared with so much of the pap that publishers fling at 4-to-8-year-olds. Older children – who might see more of the layers in his poem — might snub it because it appears in a picture book. Teenagers would have another reason to give thanks if Updike produced a young-adult book that combined all the poems in A Child’s Calendar with those in his earlier collections.

To read about A Child’s Calendar and see the cover if you can’t see it here, visit the Holiday House site. holidayhouse.com/title_display.php?ISBN=978082341445

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

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