One-Minute Book Reviews

November 1, 2008

Fiction, Nonfiction and Poetry About Sports for Grades K–8, Recommended by the Country’s Leading Children’s Literature Journal

Often I disagree with the reviews in the Horn Book, the country’s leading journal of children’s literature, which at times seem to favor books suited for schools and libraries at the expense of those that are pure fun. You probably aren’t going to find the magazine giving much play to Bob Phillips’s Awesome Good Clean Jokes for Kids (Harvest House, 207 pp., $3.99, paperback), which you can buy off the rack at CVS and might delight any 5-to-8-year-old on your holiday list.

But the Horn Book brings a seriousness of purpose to reviewing that’s all the more valuable now that so many book-review sections have died. And its editors have a leg up on most children’s book reviewers – to say nothing of bloggers — at gift-giving time: They see pretty much everything that gets published.

So if you’re looking for good books about sports for ages 5 to 13 or so, you could do worse than to look at its list of recommended fiction, nonfiction and poetry for grades kindergarten though 8 (and maybe higher)
www.hbook.com/resources/books/sports.asp. The Horn Book editors also suggest books about sports for preschoolers. I’ll post my gift suggestions for sports and other books in a few weeks.

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

October 29, 2008

A Classic Halloween Poem and Jump-Rope Rhyme From ‘I Saw You in the Bathtub’

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You want to know what’s really spooky about Halloween? All the plagiarized poems about it that you can find on the Web.

An astounding number of sites seem to operate on the principle that it’s okay to reproduce short poems in full if you credit their authors or source. This is generally untrue unless the poems are old enough to be out of copyright.

So although I’ve written about other Halloween poems, I want to post the full text of a short poem you can use with a clear conscience. Here’s a classic folk rhyme chanted by generations of jump-ropers:

Down in the desert
Where the purple grass dies,
There sat a witch
With yellow-green eyes.

This untitled poem (and another about a witch) appear one of my favorite books for beginning readers: I Saw You in the Bathtub: And Other Folk Rhymes (HarperTrophy, 64 pp., $3.99, paperback, ages 4–8), by Alvin Schwartz, illustrated by Syd Hoff. “Down in the desert” may appear in many other books.

I Saw You in the Bathtub consists of 40 of those deathless rhymes that seem to have existed since Cain. (“I scream, / You scream, / We all scream / For ice cream!”) They include one about the place where the plagiarists may end up:

Silence in the court
While the judge blows his nose
And stands on his head
And tickles his toes.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 26, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda – Literary Halloween Costumes for Children

Bandicoot-Lapin Lancelot

Not long ago the New York Times ran a story that described a $156 French-made Lancelot costume that you could buy for a baby and hang as a decoration until a future Halloween. My first reaction to the article was: A three-figure outfit for trick-or-treating? During a worldwide financial crisis? The idea might make some people want to impale the author of the Times story on Excalibur.

Then I started thinking about what children tend to own instead: superhero gear. Some parents clearly have spent far more than $156 on, say, Spider-man toys, games, sheets, pillowcases, T-shirts and more. And didn’t the greatest Knight of the Round Table en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lancelot deserve as much respect as Spidey? Something to think about, isn’t it? The costumes are made by Banticoot-Lapin web.tiscali.it/bandicootlapinparis/english/indexuk.htm and sold at John Derian in New York (which inexplicably has mislabed Lancelot’s hood and suit as a Camen outfit on its site www.johnderian.com/index_home.html). Bandicoot-Lapin makes more than a dozen other costumes based on fairy-tale or mythological characters, so its site could inspire your homemade literary costumes, too.

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

October 25, 2008

Good Thanksgiving Poems for Children

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Apple pie,
Pumpkin pie,
turkey on the dish!
We can see
we can eat
everything we
wish, wish, wish, wish.

From Else Holmelund Minarik’s “Apple Pie”

Merrily Comes Our Harvest In: Poems for Thanksgiving. Selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins. Illustrations by Ben Schecter. 32 pp., varied prices and editions. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Thanksgiving has resisted the tarting up that has tarnished other holidays, and this book is for families who want to keep it that way. Lee Bennett Hopkins has collected on its pages 20 short and poems, most with strong rhymes, by writers including Marchette Chute and Myra Cohn Livingston. And Hopkins’s upbeat selections give the book a warm and nostalgic air.

In simple and often witty language, these poems celebrate traditional pleasures such as turkey, pumpkin pie, cranberry sauce, grandparents and honoring the bond between the Pilgrims and Indians. “Simple” does not mean “dumbed-down.” Hopkins gives children credit for being able to understand metaphor by including Alice Crowell Hoffman’s “November’s Gift,” which begins: “November is a lady / In a plain gray coat / That’s very closely buttoned / Up around her throat.” He ends with Aileen Fisher’s alliterative acrostic poem, “All in a Word,” which expresses gratitude for things that begin with the letters in “thanks”: “T for time to be together, / turkey, talk, and tangy weather.”

A few poems subtly mention God in their last lines, a radical act by the ideological standards of contemporary picture books. And Ben Shecter enhances all the entries with gentle brown-black line drawings, many cross-hatched, depicting eras that range from Pilgrim to Victorian times. His picture for “November’s Gift” casts the “lady” in the first line of the poem as a larger-than-life figure who hovers above a village as leaves fly, suggesting Mother Nature in a bonnet.

Best line/picture: Else Holmelund Minark’s “Apple Pie” isn’t the best poem in the book. But very young children may find it the easiest to remember because its opening lines have the rhythm of a jump-rope rhyme: “Apple pie, / pumpkin pie / turkey on the dish!”

Worst line/picture: Dean Hughes describes a holiday with: “Turkey toes and turkey beaks, / Turkey claws and turkey cheeks” and “Turkey juice and turkey leathers, / Everything, but turkey feathers.” Nice, jaunty rhythm, but that “turkey leathers” seems to be there only for the rhyme.

Caveat lector: Merrily Comes Our Harvest In is out of print and hard to find except at libraries. But you can read two of its poems for free at sites described under “Furthermore” below. And some of its poems appear in other books. “The Pumpkin” is also in Sing a Song of Popcorn. “All in a Word,” “A Thanksgiving Thought” and “The Little Girl and the Turkey” appear in Thanksgiving: Stories and Poems.

Published: 1978

Furthermore: Merrily Comes Our Harvest In includes “Harvest,” or “The Boughs Do Shake,” available for free at www.bbc.co.uk/schoolradio/earlylearning/listenandplay_spring05_programme03.shtml. The book also has “Thanksgiving Time,” posted at www.thanksgiving-day.org/thanksgiving-day-poems.html (along with weaker poems). Among poems not in the Merrily Comes Our Harvest In: NetHymnal makes available for free the text and music for 50 Thanksgiving and harvest hymns, or poems set to music, for anyone looking for religious poems for older children or teenagers. Search www.nethymnal.org for “Thanksgiving” and or click here to find all 50.

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews. To avoid missing these reviews, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

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

October 24, 2008

John Ciardi’s Halloween Limerick for Children – A Good Poem About a Haunted House

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The shortest good Halloween poem I’ve found is John Ciardi’s limerick, “The Halloween House,” an amusing send-up of children’s tendency to pretend they’re not afraid of haunted houses. It begins:
I’m told there’s a Green Thing in there.
And the sign on the gate says BEWARE!

For copyright reasons, I can’t quote all five lines of the poem. But you can find “The Halloween House” in Ciardi’s The Hopeful Trout and Other Limericks (Houghton Mifflin, 1992), illustrated by Susan Meddaugh, which is out of print but on the shelves of many libraries. You can also find “The Halloween House” in Scared Silly! A Halloween Book for the Brave: An Arthur Adventure (Little, Brown, 64 pp., $7.95, paperback), illustrated by Marc Brown, which is in print and available through online and other booksellers. The Hopeful Trout is used in grades 2 and up in schools. Scared Silly! has gentle not-so-scary poems, jokes and more for preschoolers, written by a variety of authors.

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

October 19, 2008

James Stevenson’s ‘That Terrible Halloween Night,’ a Picture Book for Ages 3–8

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I admire the offbeat comedy of James Stevenson, the illustrator and New Yorker cartoonist, particularly his children’s stories about a curmudgeon who longs to connect with others, The Worst Person in the World and The Worst Person in the World at Crab Beach. But I missed his That Terrible Halloween Night (Greenwillow, 1980), a picture book for ages 3–8. So I’ll quote what Michael Dirda, the Pulitzer Prize–winning critic for the Washington Post, says about it in Readings (Norton, 2003): “When the kids try to scare grandpa, he tells them about the shocking thing that happened to him in a forbidding old house many years before. One of a series of fine tall tales related by Grandpa.”

That Terrible Halloween Night is out of print, but Stevenson has written dozens of popular picture books. If you’re lucky, the children’s department of your library will have this one. If not, it may have other books by Stevenson, shelved near those of his equally gifted New Yorker colleague, William Steig, whose Spinky Sulks might make a fine consolation prize if you strike out www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/28/.

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

October 18, 2008

Good Sports Stories for Children and Teenagers – Alan Durant’s ‘Score!’

UPDATE on Dec. 3, 2009: Online booksellers in the US have sold out of this one, but it is available under its original title of Sports Stories from UK booksellers including the Book Depository, which offers free shipping to the US.

Score!: Sports Stories. By Alan Durant. Roaring Brook, 264 pp., $6.95, paperback. First published as Sports Stories. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

Score! is an answer to the prayers of many adults who are looking for a gift for a child who likes sports. This outstanding book has 21 stories about young male and female athletes, written by authors from Homer and Matt Christopher. And it covers many popular sports, including soccer, tennis, football, baseball, basketball, swimming, wrestling, bicycling, ice hockey, horseback riding, and track and field.

That breadth alone might set Score! apart from other anthologies. But the book also contains an appealing variety of writing styles – formal and informal, serious and humorous, realistic and futuristic. An overconfident White Sox rookie writes hilariously inane and ungrammatical letters to a friend in Ring Lardner’s classic You Know Me Al. A young swimmer tries to qualify for the Rome Olympics after the death of her boyfriend in an excerpt from In Lane Three, Alex Archer by Tessa Duder, a former world-class swimmer for New Zealand. And a soccer contest 200 years in the future has undertones of wii and other digital games in Malorie Blackman’s “Contact.”

Alan Durant provides helpful introductions for some of his selections, including an excerpt from National Velvet. He writes that Enid Bagnold’s 1935 novel is “the most famous horse racing story in fiction” and inspired a movie that starred Elizabeth Taylor as the teenage horsewoman who disguises herself as a male jockey to enter the Grand National. Then he mentions an unusual aspect of the excerpt: “What makes this description of the race so memorable is the way it is viewed not from the perspective of the competitor, Violet, but from that of the horse’s trainer, Mi, who struggles to follow the race among the crowds of spectators.”

Most of the stories in Score! have a strong plot and would lend themselves to reading aloud. This virtue adds to their appeal in an age when fiction for children, as for adults, is becoming more fragmented and elliptical. Before television, the great radio broadcasters knew that had to use words to draw pictures of games for their listeners, and the best writers in this book do that and more for their young readers.

Best line: In The Iliad Ulysses asks Athena to help him in a foot race, and the goddess obliges by tripping his rival Ajax: “He fell headfirst into a pile of cattle dung, while Ulysses ran on to win the race.” What a brilliant way to get kids interested in Homer: Choose a scene that has somebody falling head first into a dung heap.

Worst line: A couple of stories deal with English sports in a way that may baffle some children. I love P.G. Wodehouse but have no idea what he means in a line about cricket match from his Mike at Wrykyn: “Burgess’s yorker was nearly too much for the latter in the first over, but he contrived to shop it away, and the pair gradually settled down.”

Recommendation? The publisher recommends Score! for ages 9–12. But some of the tales may also appeal to teenagers. The Lardner story, for example, was written for adults and first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post.

Caveat lector: This review was based on the hardcover edition, which has illustrations by David Kearney.

Publisher: 2008 (Roaring Brook paperback), 2000 (Kingfisher hardcover entitled Sports Stories).

Furthermore: Durant lives in England and wrote the “Leggs United” soccer series for children.

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

October 11, 2008

‘Katie Loves the Kittens’ – A Picture Book for Children Who Have Been Scolded for Being Too Affectionate With a Pet or New Sibling

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I haven’t seen John Himmelman’s new picture book, Katie Loves the Kittens (Holt, 30 pp., $16.95). But Meghan Cox Gurdon, who is usually right about these things, said in the Wall Street Journal: “On the face of it, this delightful story for children ages 3–8 tells how a small, exuberant dog named Katie must learn to curb her boisterousness in order to earn the trust of three kittens who have just arrived in her household. Subtly, it also works as a parable for any child who has ever been scolded for being too bouncily affectionate with a pet or newborn sibling.” Read Gurdon’s review at online.wsj.com/article/SB122307253831303537.html and about Himmelman at us.macmillan.com/author/johnhimmelman.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 26, 2008

John Burningham’s ‘John Patrick Norman McHennessy — the boy who was always late’ — A Great Picture Book Returns in Hardcover in Time for Holiday Gift-Giving

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A teacher doesn’t believe a boy’s fanciful stories about why he can’t get to class on time

John Patrick Norman McHennessy — the boy who was always late. By John Burningham. Knopf, 40 pp., $16.99. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

The Man Booker Prize judges snub Netherland. The Secret outsells Pride and Prejudice on Amazon. Oprah picks another book with woo-woo elements – this time, sentient dogs. A Long Way Gone appears on nonfiction lists even though its publisher has never produced any evidence that Ishmael Beah was a child soldier for so much as one day. The tanking economy won’t help any of this.

The publishing industry is a font of bad news, but sometimes it works as it should: John Burningham’s John Patrick Norman McHennessy — the boy who was always late, one of the great picture books of the 1990s, is back in American stores in the handsome hardcover edition it deserves. A boy gets the last word on a teacher who doesn’t believe his explanations for why he is late for class in this exceptionally imaginative and entertaining book, which has a fine subtext about the degree to which schools penalize creative children. And its large format and exciting pictures make it ideal for story hours, reading aloud, and holiday gift-giving.

Best line/picture: All.

Worst line/picture: None.

Published: 1999 (first American edition) and July 2008 (new hardcover edition).

Furthermore: Burningham won the Kate Greenaway medal, Britain’s Caldecott, for Borka: The Adventures of a Goose With No Feathers and Mr. Gumpy’s Outing. He earned other raves for John Patrick Norman McHennessy, some of which you can read here www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780375852206. The book doesn’t ascribe a nationality to its young hero, but the name “John Patrick Norman McHennesy” might delight families who are proud of their Irish heritage.

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

September 20, 2008

Books About Halloween for Children Who Are Learning to Read

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Orange You Glad It’s Halloween, Amber Brown?: An “A Is for Amber” Book. By Paula Danziger. Illustrated by Tony Ross. Putnam, 48 pp., $13.99. Ages 4–8, younger for reading aloud.

Grandmas Trick-or-Treat: An “I Can Read” Book. Story and pictures by Emily Arnold McCully. HarperCollins, 48 pp., varied prices. Ages 4–8, younger for reading aloud.

By Janice Harayda

Early readers — illustrated books for children who are starting to read on their own — often fail for the same reason that many picture books do: An author-illustrator draws better than he or she writes or vice versa. Or, if the words and pictures come from different people, the writer and artist are mismatched.

The late Paula Danziger’s popular books about the elementary-school student Amber Brown owe much of their success to Tony Ross’s entertaining pictures. Ross’s line drawings resemble those of his countryman Quentin Blake in their ability to evoke many moods in a believable way. And the sure-footedness of his pictures may help to explain why Danziger was able to spin off the “A Is for Amber” early-readers series from her orginal chapter books about Amber Brown.

The chapter books follow the upbeat, pun-loving Amber as she deals with events such as her best friend’s move to another state and the divorce and new loves of her parents. And the early readers are, in effect, an extended prequel to them. Along with the chapter books, these easier books offer a welcome alternative to Barbara Park’s novels about Junie B. Jones, who at times acts like a charter member of the Future Sociopaths of America. Amber has high spirits that she expresses without the unrepentant nastiness that characterizes much of Junie’s behavior.

But I was at first confused by the early reader Orange You Glad It’s Halloween, Amber Brown?, which I picked up after having enjoyed several of the chapter books. Why does Amber notice, as she prepares Pumpkin Day at school, that her mother and father haven’t been getting along? Have her divorced parents gotten back together? Why is Justin, her best friend who has supposedly moved away, decorating pumpkins with her? And why does Ross’s art look different?

With help from the Internet, I sorted it out: I was reading an installment in the six-book prequel about events that occurred before the divorce and Justin’s move, a newer series with simplified color art by Ross instead of the black-and-white drawings of the original. No doubt all of this will be less confusing to children, who will read the early readers first, than it was to me. And Orange You Glad Its Halloween, Amber Brown? has many of the virtues of the chapter books, particularly Amber’s engaging first-person narration. But the added backstory — as in so many prequels — is just padding.

Grandmas Trick-or-Treat comes from an author-illustrator who won the Caldecott Medal for Mirette on the High Wire, and it may appeal anyone who has wondered: Why do so many children’s books still show grandmothers stereotypically baking cookies? This is the fourth book about a girl named Pip and her two grandmothers, Nan and Sal, whose clashing personalities drive much of the humor in the series. Proper Grandma Nan goes trick-or-treating with Pip in her street clothes — a miniskirt, striped tights, and dangling earrings. Playful Grandma Sal wears a mummy’s costume. But the two women team up to outfox a bully who taunts Pip on Halloween, showing that people with different temperaments can work together.

Neither of these books evokes as much emotion as such superior early readers as Cynthia Rylant’s “Henry and Mudge Ready-to-Read” books oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/12/07/. But both come from authors who know how to hold the attention of 4-to-8-year-olds. Intended for children who are starting to read on their own, these books would also work as read-aloud stories for some younger ones.

Best line/picture: Ross’s picture of Amber Brown pretending to be a werewolf with candy corn fangs.

Worst line/picture: Amber’s observation, “It will be a sad Halloween if my parents are not getting along.” A child might have a sad holiday because her parents were fighting, but this comment has little context in the story. Its only emotional authenticity comes from what we know from other books in the series.

Published: 2005 (Orange You Glad It’s Halloween, Amber Brown?) and 2001 (Grandmas Trick-or-Treat).

Furthermore: Read more about Tony Ross here magicpencil.britishcouncil.org/artists/ross/. McCully’s “I Can Read” include the baseball story Grandmas at Bat, another book about nonstereotypical grandmothers www.harpercollinschildrens.com/HarperChildrens/Kids/BookDetail.aspx?isbn13=9780064441933.

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

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