One-Minute Book Reviews

April 17, 2011

‘The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy)’ – Life With Father

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Mark Twain said his daughter used “no sandpaper” on him

The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy). By Barbara Kerley. Illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham. Scholastic, 48 pp., $17.99. Ages: 4–8.

By Janice Harayda

In this picture-book biography Barbara Kerley takes a humorous approach as she tries to prove that Mark Twain was more than a humorist. Children may not be persuaded, but this crowd-pleaser has other virtues, including larger-than-life digital art and 11 folio insets with lines from 13-year-old Susy Clemens’s account of her father’s life, which inspired the volume.

Best line: Twain on the book by his daughter that inspired The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy): “This is a frank biographer and an honest one; she uses no sandpaper on me.”

Worst line: “The animals on the farm could not care less that Papa was a world-famous author …” (Kerley).

Recommendation: The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy) isn’t for children who are old enough to debate the moral questions raised by the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn but for those young enough to enjoy lifting the letters out of the envelopes in “The Jolly Postman” series.

Published: January 2010

Furthermore: The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy) appeared on the Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal lists of the best books of 2010.

About the author and illustrator: Kerley and Fotheringham collaborated on What to Do About Alice?, a picture-book biography of Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

You can also follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 27, 2011

Did ‘A Sick Day for Amos McGee’ Deserve the 2011 Caldecott Medal?

The latest in a series of posts on whether winners of major awards earned their honors

A Sick Day for Amos McGee. Written by Philip C. Stead. Illustrated by Erin E. Stead. Neal Porter/Roaring Brook Press, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 2–5.

By Janice Harayda

Erin Stead won that healthiest of picture-book prizes, the Caldecott Medal, for her illustrations for A Sick Day for Amos McGee. And she might have earned it for her fine draftsmanship alone.

Just as great painters may succeed at landscapes but fail at portraiture, some acclaimed picture-book illustrators can’t draw – and especially can’t draw faces – well. They excel at working with paint, collage, or mixed media instead of a pencil or pen. Or they illustrate stories good enough to mask or offset their deficiencies as draftsmen.

But pencil drawings have provided the spark for many of the best picture books of the past 50 years, including Caldecott winners such as Chris Van Allsburg’s Jumanji and Peter Spiers’s Noah’s Ark. And the medium may attract fewer illustrators as computer-generated art proliferates. So it’s cheering that Erin Stead shows a gift for the form in A Sick Day for Amos McGee, a picture book written by her husband, Philip. She draws with a pencil on softly colored woodblock prints to give warmth and depth to this comic fantasy about animals who repay the kindness of their zookeeper.

A Sick Day for Amos McGee has little in the way of plot. A faithful zookeeper always makes time to visit his animal friends – to play chess with an elephant and sit with a shy penguin – until the day he stays home in bed with a cold and he and his companions reverse their caretaking roles. The creatures help the sniffling Amos by assuming, as children tend to do, that others have needs identical to theirs. The rhino with allergies hands him a handkerchief. The owl who is afraid of the dark – “knowing that Amos was afraid of the dark” – reads him a story.

Philip Stead develops his theme — you get what you give — with an appealing absence of didacticism and pretense. But his writing has less power than that of Caldecott winners such as Where the Wild Things (in which the last line – “and it was still hot” – uplifts all that has preceded it). And A Sick Day for Amos McGee ends on a slightly derivative note when, in an echo of Goodnight Moon, everyone says “goodnight”:

So Amos said goodnight to the elephant.
And good night to the tortoise.
And goodnight to the penguin.
And good night to the owl …

But Erin Stead extends the story with her talent for portraiture and more. Every face in the book — human or animal — shows emotion and personality, whether it’s that of the contemplative elephant, the long-suffering rhinoceros, or the sweetly child-like Amos. And Stead’s use of color heightens the mood she creates for each page. On several spreads, she sets her characters against wide, vertical yellow stripes that could represent wallpaper, beams of sunlight, and more. That several interpretations would make sense helps to show why this book would stand up to many rereadings.

No less appealing are the visual subplots. One involves the reticent penguin who at first holds himself apart from other characters. Then he catches a red balloon that floats within his reach at the zoo. We next see him holding the balloon as he sits at the front of a bus that is taking the animals to the ailing Amos: He’s starting to shed his shyness. On the following spread, he stands tall as he walks at the front of a line of larger animals marching into the sick zookeeper’s bedroom. He has clearly gained confidence from holding a balloon, what psychologists might call a “security object,” and perhaps also from his mission. Only the pictures tell you about the change in the penguin, but they need no help from words.

Was this book worthy of a Caldecott Medal? A qualified yes. Erin Stead gets an A for her art and Philip Stead a B/B+ for his writing. But American Library Association rules say that Caldecott judges should’t consider the text unless it interferes with the pictures. And the writing in this book doesn’t interfere. By the rulebook, A Sick Day for Amos McGee gets an A. The greatest Caldecott Medal winners – which include Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House and Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are – are A+ books in which the words and pictures are equally superlative. But only the most unrealistic adult would expect a child to read nothing but A+ books. And A Sick Day for Amos McGee has literary traits that some of the ALA titans don’t, including that it’s short and gentle enough to make a fine bedtime story for any child who is getting tired of Goodnight Moon.

Sendak once wrote that Randolph Caldecott’s work marks the beginning of the modern picture book. The Victorian illustrator found a new way to juxtapose words and pictures, he noted: “Words are left out – but the picture says it. Pictures are left out — but the word says it.” Long after Caldecott’s death, artists must still to bring those ideals into harmony, and Erin Stead has done it in A Sick Day for Amos McGee.

Best line/picture: Two wordless spreads that tell the story entirely in pictures.

Worst line/picture: I don’t have children, but people who do say that you need to be careful about introducing the concept of “fear of the dark” to toddlers and preschoolers who don’t have it. Some adults might want to skip over the lines that refer to it. And all of the characters in this book are male.

Published: June 2010

Furthermore: The Caldecott Medal goes to the illustrator of a book, not the author. Erin Stead shows in this video the technique she used for A Sick Day for Amos McGee: drawing with pencil on top of woodblock prints. She made other comments about her work to the Wall Street Journal.  One-Minute Book Reviews also reviewed the Caldecott medalists FlotsamWhere The Wild Things Are and The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

About the author and illustrator: The Steads commute between New York City and Ann Arbor, Michigan.

You may also want to read “American Library Association to Little Kids: Women Are Second Best,” a response to the medals gap between male and female Caldecott winners.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and journalist who has been vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. You can also follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 26, 2011

Tomorrow – A Review of the 2011 Caldecott Medal Winner, Erin and Philip Stead’s ‘A Sick Day for Amos McGee’

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Erin Stead won the American Library Association’s highest honor for illustration, the Caldecott Medal, for A Sick Day for Amos McGee, a picture book about animals who repay the kindness of their zookeeper. Her art accompanied a bedtime story by her husband, Philip. How does her work compare to that of other Caldecott winners? A review will appear on One-Minute Book Reviews tomorrow.

October 17, 2010

Carin Berger’s ‘The Little Yellow Leaf’ Honored by Booksellers

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Carin Berger’s The Little Yellow Leaf has had a spot on my “best picture books about fall” list on its publication in 2008, when the New York Times named in one of the Best Illustrated Books of the year. So I’m happy to report that independent booksellers recently have chosen it as one of their 40 favorite children’s books of the past 40 years. Berger’s lovely story about an oak leaf that doesn’t want to leave its branch also works beautifully as a parable about the value of teamwork.

June 17, 2010

A New Picture Book From the Author of a Popular Edition of ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’ — Coming Saturday

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A red teddy bear ends up in a lost-and-found department after becoming separated from his young owner in Red Ted and the Lost Things, the latest picture book by the former British children’s laureate Michael Rosen. How does the tale compare with Rosen’s popular We’re Going on a Bear Hunt?  A review of Red Ted and the Lost Things will appear on One-Minute Book Reviews on Saturday.

April 30, 2010

Girl Meets Gun in Lois Lowry’s First Picture Book, ‘Crow Call’

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A girl spends a day with her father who has returned from World War II

Crow Call. By Lois Lowry. Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. Scholastic, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages: School Library Journal recommends for grades K-4.

By Janice Harayda

Two-time Newbery Medal winner Lois Lowry can write what she pleases at this stage of her career, and this fact may help explain her tepid first picture book. Crow Call tells the story of a pigtailed girl whose father, just back from World War II, takes her along when he sets out to kill crows that are eating the crops on nearby Pennsylvania farmlands.

Liz feels happy, if shy, about spending time with someone who “has been gone for so long.” But she worries about the crows, and her father, sensing this, takes her home without shooting any – a change of heart that causes the plot to sputter out in the last pages. Liz also tells her story through slightly affected first-person, present-tense narration. You don’t fully believe she would have all of her thoughts, which include self-conscious lines like “our words seem etched and breakable on the brittle stillness.”

Lowry says in an afterword that the events of Crow Call happened to her and her father in 1945, and her publisher casts the story as an allegory that “shows how, like the birds gathering above, the relationship between the girl and her father is graced with the chance to fly.” Maybe so. But the text has much less loft than the art by Bagram Ibatoulline in the color palette and social-realist style of Christina’s World, which his fellow Pennsylvanian Andrew Wyeth painted three years after the events that inspired Crow Call took place. His lovely pictures are the saving grace of a book that, you sense, Lowry needed to write more than children need to read.

Best line/picture: A picture of Liz’s father stretching his neck out, imitating a giraffe, as she tries to stifle a laugh.

Worst line/picture: The last line: “Then I put it into the pocket of my shirt and reach over, out of my enormous cuff, and take my father’s hand.” This line isn’t strong or credible enough for its position in the book. Lizzie and her father have spent quite a bit of time alone together by the time she takes his hand, and you don’t believe she wouldn’t have done so before then.

Published: October 2009

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 29, 2010

Coming Saturday – A Review of Lois Lowry’s ‘Crow Call’

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Two-time Newbery Medal winner Lois Lowry is one of America’s most honored authors of middle-grade fiction. On Saturday One-Minute Book Reviews will have a review of her first picture book, Crow Call, with art by Bagram Ibatoulline, who illustrated Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.

March 26, 2010

Girl With a Gun – Deborah Hopkinson’s Sing-Along Picture Book, ‘Stagecoach Sal,’ Illustrated by Carson Ellis

Stagecoach Sal: Inspired by a True Tale. By Deborah Hopkinson. Pictures by Carson Ellis. Disney/Hyperion, 24 pp., $16.99. Ages 6 and under.

By Janice Harayda
“Based on a true story” often masks weaknesses in a plot. It may mean: “Hey, don’t blame us! It really happened that way.” A case in point is Stagecoach Sal, an attractive picture book “inspired” by the life of the first woman to carry the U.S. mail by stagecoach in California.

Deborah Hopkinson drew on promising historical material for her tale of a rifle-loving girl who thwarts a bandit intent on stealing the mail she carries on her stagecoach. But the plot doesn’t entirely make sense. Young Sal gets a clear warning from her parents before she sets out alone on a stagecoach to deliver mail: “No passengers!” Sal ignores this sensible advice when accosted at a remote spot by a man she recognizes as a famous poetry-spouting bandit. Instead of driving away, she invites the stranger to ride shotgun on her stagecoach. And you’re never sure why, when she has horses and the man seems to have none: Did she have a rebellious streak? Too much faith in her reputation as “a crack shot”? A misplaced desire to help?

Sal distracts the bandit from his desire to rob her by singing songs, Scheherazade-like, as they ride: “Polly Wolly Doodle,” “Sweet Betsy From Pike,” “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” and “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me!” Hopkinson integrates these toe-tappers well into her story. And given the gaps in her plot, the songs – and Carson Ellis’s warm and lively pictures – account for much of the appeal of the book. Stagecoach Sal is no Brave Irene, William Steig’s tale of a girl who plunges into snowstorm to deliver a dress made by her seamstress mother, a book that beautifully evokes its young heroine’s character and struggle. But Hopkinson and Eliis offer an easygoing introduction to several classic folksongs that many children know less well than “Baby Beluga.” And leaky plot ultimately may count for less than the fun of singing at bedtime, “Oh, I went down South / for to see my Sal / singing Polly wolly doodle all the day.”

Best line/picture: Ellis’s fine illustrations include nice touches such as a compass at the bottom of one page, a pig tied to a covered wagon on another.

Worst line/picture: Hopkinson says in an afterword that you can hear “some of Sal’s favorite songs” on the Kids’ Pages of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. True, but frustration awaits anyone who reads that “some” as “all.” I couldn’t find “Sweet Betsy From Pike” after many searches of the recommended site using varied spellings of Betsy, quotations from the lyrics and more. Eventually  the lyrics and part of the music on turned up on Wikipedia.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. She satirizes American literary culture, such as is its, on her Fake Book News page on Twitter (@FakeBookNews).

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 27, 2010

‘Tsunami!’ — A Picture Book That Explains a Monster Wave to Children

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A farmer sacrifices his rice crop to save his neighbors from a monster wave in Kimiko Kajikawa’s recent picture book Tsunami! (Philomel, 32 pp., $16.99, ages 4 and up), illustrated  by Caldecott medalist Ed Young and adapted from a story by Lafcadio Hearn. “Young knows how to evoke devastation without needless gore, and throughout the book he does with it vibrant collage-like images that, unlike his more realistic cover picture, have an abstract-expressionist spirit,” an Oct. 3 review on this site said. “He suggests – instead of showing in bloody detail – the power of a monster wave.” Read the full review here.

February 13, 2010

A Review of the 2010 Caldecott Medal Winner, Jerry Pinkney’s ‘The Lion and the Mouse’

A vibrant interpretation of an Aesop’s fable roars its way to the American Library Association’s highest award for illustration

THE LION AND THE MOUSE. By Jerry Pinkney. Little, Brown, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 6 and under.

By Janice Harayda

Whoever decided that Jerry Pinkney should do a wordless book was a genius. For decades Pinkney has been creating beautiful art that has earned him a place in the first rank of American picture-book illustrators. But some of his books have had words so much weaker than their pictures that they were hard to recommend as highly as their art seemed to demand.

The cover of 'The Lion and the Mouse.'

That’s been true whether Pinkney wrote the books or illustrated someone else’s. And until this year unexciting writing may have deprived him of a Caldecott Medal, which he won last month for The Lion and the Mouse. Caldecott judges aren’t supposed to consider the text of a book unless it interferes with the pictures, but whether or not it “interferes” is a judgment call. And by my lights, the writing in Pinkney’s books sometimes did get in the way. You just don’t want to recommend bad free verse, however attractively packaged, to preschoolers.

Pinkney needed to get words of out of the way of his pictures, and he did it in his near-wordless version of an Aesop’s fable, The Lion and the Mouse. Set in the Serengeti of Kenya and Tanzania, his adaptation teems with creatures lushly rendered in sunny watercolors: monkeys, giraffes, elephants, butterflies, gazelles and what appear to be wildebeest. Pinkney adds a few elements to the original tale of a mouse who repays a lion for saving its life by returning the favor: Most notably, he gives the mouse babies, which adds a dimension to the sparing of its life. But his art stays close to the original story and faithful to its theme: No act of kindness is ever in vain. And “the meek can trump the mighty,” as Pinkney says in an afterword.

Children over the age of 4 or so should grasp easily the plot of all this, though the only words are animal sounds such as the squeaks of mice. Whether children will grasp the moral that is indispensable to any Aesop’s fable is less clear. So some might also want to read a more traditional version or watch a lively one-minute video of “The Lion and the Mouse” based on Tom Lynch’s Fables From Aesop (Viking, 2007). Either way, the revival of this fable shows again why stories become classics: They never shed their truth but allow each generation to interpret them in its own way.

Best line/picture: The cover. Not putting type on the cover was great for two reasons. One is that it suggests that The Lion and the Mouse is wordless. The other is that cover image is so strong, type might have detracted from it. The detail is clear and rich that you can count the lion’s whiskers. Not sure why the lion is looking toward the spine instead of the pages, though, which seems to take your eyes in the wrong direction.

Worst line/picture: None. But you wonder if lions and zebras ever stayed so peacefully side-by-side as on the beautiful front endpaper.

Published: September 2009

Furthermore: Jerry Pinkney won the 2010 Caldecott Medal for The Lion and the Mouse.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can also follow her Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. She satirizes American literary culture on Twitter at FakeBookNews (@FakeBookNews), which you can preview at www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews. Some of her satirical tweets involve the Newbery and Caldecott awards.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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