One-Minute Book Reviews

January 9, 2010

A Lion Shares in Matthew McElligott’s Fable ‘The Lion’s Share’

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A lion and an ant act courteously when other animals make pigs of themselves

The Lion’s Share: A Tale of Halving Cake and Eating it. By Matthew McElligott. Walker, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

A children’s librarian suggested I read this book when I couldn’t find Jerry Pinkney’s The Lion and the Mouse, and I’m not sorry she did. The almost-too-cute homophone in the subtitle — halving your cake — is the sort of device that can bode ominously. And the wordplay doesn’t end there. The Lion’s Share is a literary triple-layer cake — a fable, an etiquette lesson, and an introduction to fractions — about a lion who shares the lion’s share of his triple-layer cake with an ant and other animals.

But Matthew McElligott integrates the wordplay well into in a story amusingly illustrated with digitally enhanced ink and watercolor. And he offers lively lessons in fractions, and practice in counting to 256, as all of his creatures except the lion and the ant make pigs of themselves at dinner. In a tale with an Aesopian flavor, an ant who politely waits her turn for cake seems at first to lose but wins in the end.

Best line/picture: McElliggott devotes one page to nothing but pictures of 256 peanut-butter cakes and makes it interesting.

Worst line/picture: Still not sure about that “halving cake” in the subtitle …

Ages: In schools this book is most likely to be used in grades 1–3. But it would suit any child who hasn’t outgrown picture books and is starting to learn multiplication and division.

Published: February 2009

Furthermore: McElligott teaches at Sage College in Albany, NY.  Besides a lion and an ant, The Lion’s Share involves a beetle, frog,  macaw, warthog, tortoise, gorilla, hippo, and an elephant.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter. She comments on books at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda and satirizes American literary culture and the publishing industry at www.twitter.com/fakebooknews.

December 20, 2009

Gift Ideas for Kids — The Winners of 2009 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards for Excellence in Children’s Literature

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We won’t know the next winners of American Library Association’s Newbery and Caldecott medals until Jan. 18. But if you’re looking for ideas for children’s gifts before then, you might want to print and save this list of books that won the most recent Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards for excellence in children’s literature. Only American authors are eligible for ALA honors. But the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards are open to anyone who has had a book published in the U.S., so they can show more diversity than the librarians’ awards. Two examples: The latest winners include Nation, the British Terry Pratchett’s young-adult novel about two 19th-century children who create a society from scratch, and Bubble Trouble, by the New Zealander Margaret Mahy, illustrated by England’s Polly Dunbar. And this month the Horn Book posted its list of the best books of 2009 for children and teenagers, which also includes Bubble Trouble.

November 27, 2009

A Lift-the-Flap Book About Transportation — William Low’s ‘Machines That Work’

An artist born in a taxi shows a train, fire truck and other vehicles in action

Machines Go To Work. By William Low. Holt, 42 pp., $14.95. Ages 5 and under.

By Janice Harayda

William Low was born in the back seat of a taxi in the Bronx, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that he has written an excellent book about transportation. Machines Go to Work unfolds as a series of small dramas about familiar conveyances, all described in a clear and at times onomatopoetic text – a backhoe, fire truck, cement mixer, tow truck, tugboat, container ship, freight train, and news helicopter.

In each case Low introduces a machine, then asks a question or makes a statement that encourages you to lift a flap and see it in action. He writes on one spread: “When the drawbridge opens, the container ship may pass. Will it fit through the narrow gap?” You lift a flap and see the ship passing under the raised bridge with the help of red tugboat. On another spread Low shows a helicopter rushing toward a news event: “Is there an accident ahead?” No, just a row of ducklings crossing a street.

Cynics may see Low’s ducklings as a form of brazen pandering to American Library Association awards judges — who gave their 1942 Caldecott Medal to Make Way for Ducklings — while others may view them as a lovely homage to Robert McCloskey’s classic. But Machines Go to Work is so good, it hardly matters. Low suggests the power of his machines through rich, saturated colors and what appear to be thick oil-paint brushstrokes but are, in fact, digital art created with Photoshop and Painter software.

Low has also found a way around the problem with most lift-the-flap books: Children can too easily rip off the flaps. All of his “flaps” are sturdy full-page gatefolds, which should make the pages last for the life of the book. And at the back, Low explains what each machine does in a helpful thumbnail sketch. Low writes of the fire truck: “This truck is so long that it needs two steering wheels: one in the front and one in the back!” His deft blend of drama and facts would make this a fine gift for a 2-to-4-year-old who loves anything with wheels.

Best line/picture: The freight train gatefold opens out to four pages (instead of the three the other machines get) to show “its 22 cars and a caboose in the back.”

Worst line/picture: Low calls cherry trees “cherry blossom trees,” which may be how children see them but also leave a misimpression about their name.

Published: May 2009

Furthermore: Low explains how he creates his digital images in a three-part video on the Holt site.

About the author: Low‘s picture books include Old Penn Station, a New York Times Best Illustrated Book.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter (@janiceharayda) www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. Children’s book reviews appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 23, 2009

Halloween Poems and Picture-Book Fun for Children

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Looking for Halloween reading for children under the age of 9 or so? You might want to read these posts:

“Good Halloween Poems for Children”: Where to find short Halloween poems that rhyme, including Robert Graves’s “The Pumpkin,” which begins: “You may not believe it, for hardly could I: / I was cutting a pumpkin to put in a pie …”

“John Ciardi’s Halloween Limerick for Children”: Two books that have the poet’s witty limerick about a haunted house, “The Halloween House.” The first lines are: “I’m told there’s a Green Thing in there. / And the sign on the gate says BEWARE!”

“A Classic Halloween Poem and Jump-Rope Rhyme”: Jump-ropers, remember the one that goes, “Down in the desert / Where the purple grass dies / There sat a witch …”?

“James Stevenson’s ‘That Terrible Halloween Night,’ a Picture Book for Ages 3–8”: A grandfather tells a tale to children who try to scare him on Halloween.

No costume yet? You might enjoy “Literary Halloween Costumes for Children.”

September 19, 2009

Arthur Yorinks and Richard Egielski Hand in Their ‘Homework’

A pencil and other objects come to life to help a boy write a story for school

Homework. By Arthur Yorinks. Illustrated by Richard Egielski. Walker, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 4 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Household objects that come to life have been inspiring brilliant picture books since the Victorian era, when Randolph Caldecott drew a dish running away with a spoon for Hey Diddle Diddle. And few creative teams might have seemed better qualified to preserve the tradition than Richard Egielski, who won the 1987 Caldecott Medal for his pictures for Hey, Al, and Arthur Yorinks, who wrote the story for that book.

The plot of their latest collaboration certainly had promise: One night while he sleeps, a boy named Tony gets help with his homework from four objects on his desktop – a pencil, an eraser, a ballpoint pen and a fountain pen. The four decide to write a story for him about outer space. And the quartet’s bickering and attempts to improve one another’s work tell children something important about writing – that revision is a vital part of the process.

But the text of Homework begins with back-to-back clunky and ungrammatical sentences and moves on to worse. The eraser calls a pen “a jerk.” The pencil calls the eraser and a pen “nincompoops.” And in the interplanetary tale they concoct, the white captain of a spaceship gets attacked by a giant purple splotch and cries out for help to a black crew member – who runs away as his leader is being eaten and, apparently, killed. What message are children supposed to take away from this? That it’s okay to desert your friends in a crisis as long as you help them with small things like homework? And what will children make of a black character running away as a white one is devoured?

Yes, the tale is a fantasy and the objects return to inanimation after Tony awakens and finds inspiration in their work (suggesting that perhaps he dreamed what they wrote). But the lapses all the more lamentable because Richard Egielski – though his art is flatter than usual – uses a remarkable technique in Homework. Midway through the book, Egielski changes the look of the white Tony so that in his darkened bedroom he appears black and later Asian before he is white again when the lights come on again. He also does this so subtly that you might read the book several times before you even noticed it. This is near-genius not just because it allows boys of varied races to see themselves in the hero but because it reflects a truth: fantasy has an appeal that transcends race. For all the imperfections of Homework, a similar technique could enrich many other picture books.

Best line / picture: The first picture in which the white Tony appears black.

Worst line / picture: The opening sentences, “One night, like almost every night, Tony’s mom yelled, ‘Tony! Do your homework!’ And like almost every night, Tony didn’t do his homework.”

Published: July 2009

Furthermore: Yorinks lives in Brooklyn, NY, and Egielski in Milford, NJ. They have collaborated on nine books. Egielski also illustrated the recent The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan.

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

September 5, 2009

‘Officer Buckle and Gloria’ – School-Safety Tips From a Caldecott Medalist

Do the kids need a few more school-safety lessons before their classes begin? Pick up Officer Buckle and Gloria (Putnam, 40 pp., $16.99, ages 7 and under). Peggy Rathmann won the 1996 Caldecott Medal for this picture book, and her art is no match for that of honorees like Maurice Sendak, Chris Van Allsburg and Virginia Lee Burton. But Officer Buckle and Gloria tells the lively story of a high-spirited dog who helps a luckless policeman teach schoolchildren vital safety lessons such as: Don’t stand on swivel chairs, and don’t leave thumbtacks where people could sit. If only it had a page on how to stay safe from swine flu.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

September 3, 2009

‘Catie Copley’ – A Friendly Labrador Retriever Greets Guests at a Boston Hotel in a Children’s Book Inspired by a Real Dog

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Reviews of children’s books normally appear on this site on Saturdays, but I couldn’t post last weekend because of technical problems, so I’m catching up.

Catie Copley. By Deborah Kovacs. Pictures by Jared T. Williams. Godine, 32 pp., $17.95. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Anyone who enjoyed Robert McCloskey’s classic Make Way for Ducklings will find an interesting bit literary cross-referencing in this picture-book inspired by the real-life black Labrador retriever who greets guests at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston. Catie Copley became the “Canine Ambassador” for the hotel after eye problems kept her from her intended work as a guide for the blind. In this book, she performs a different service when her excellent sense of smell helps her find a teddy bear lost by Tess, a young female guest. Before the missing Milo turns up, Catie and Tess visit the Public Garden – the spot McCloskey’s ducklings were trying to reach when a policeman stopped traffic for them.

Deborah Kovacs tells a fast-paced story from Catie’s point of view in serviceable prose with some weak spots. Kovacs says, for example, that “all the hard work in the hotel” goes on in downstairs rooms such as the kitchen and laundry – as though the upstairs maids, valets, and concierges don’t work hard, too. But Jared Williams offsets some of her lapses with engaging watercolors that invest both human and animal characters with warmth. And his dynamic endpapers draw you in to the book with dozens of images of Catie holding a teddy bear in her mouth in different positions.

Best line/picture: Williams’s pictures of Catie are expressive and realistic without anthropomorphizing her, especially the full-face images on the cover and elsewhere.

Worst line/picture: Kovacs’s workmanlike prose runs to lines such this one that might have appeared in a Zagat guide: “The food is great and my bed is comfy.”

Recommendation: Catie Copley or its sequel could be a good gift for a preschooler who has a labrador or plans to visit Boston. It could also help to prepare children for a visit to a fancy hotel.

Published: May 2007. Catie Copley has inspired sequel that came out in March 2009, Catie Copley’s Great Escape, also published by David R. Godine.

Furthermore: Children who enjoy Catie Copley can e-mail Catie at an address listed on the dust jacket.

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

August 22, 2009

Guy Billout’s Spot-the-Difference Book, ‘Something’s Not Quite Right’

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Something’s Not Quite Right. By Guy Billout. Godine, 32 pp., $14.95, paperback. Ages: 4 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Something’s Not Quite Right is a more sophisticated and intellectual French cousin of all those spot-the-difference books that require you to find minor variations in side-by-side pictures. Each page of this oversized picture book asks you to figure out what’s wrong with a painting by Guy Billout, an illustrator whose elegantly spare work has appeared in The New Yorker.

Some of Billout’s surreal images show biological impossibilities or incongruities that 5- or 6-year-olds could spot easily — a zebra with stripes that form a bull’s eye, a pigeon with landing gear for feet, a butterfly perched on a lever that lifts a building off its foundation. Other paintings show visual paradoxes that children might have trouble understanding without adult help, such a snowball apparently fired by a war-memorial cannon (which might have come instead from an unseen hand). And all the pictures have titles that, in some cases, add to their ambiguity: What are we to make of the painting called “Writer’s Block,” which shows a human figure standing behind a railing on top of an overflowing dam? Does the scene represent wish fulfillment? Or perhaps an inability to tap the wellsprings of inspiration just out of reach?

The varied levels of meaning and complexity make Something’s Not Quite Right more challenging than most spot-the-difference books and add to its intergenerational appeal. This is the rare picture book that on a rainy day at the beach might interest not just the young children for whom it is intended but their older brothers and sisters and the grandparents who could identify for both groups some of the famous sites on its pages, including the Flatiron Building in New York and the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris.

Best line/picture: Some of Billout’s images can be read metaphorically. They include a picture of a World War II tank crossing a field of sunflowers without appearing to harm them. You can read the flowers as a metaphor for France or the French spirit uncrushed by the war.

Worst line/picture: The dust jacket of the hardcover edition says that a picture shows “a Boeing 747 about to touch down without landing gear.” If you hadn’t read that, you might imagine that the plane was taking off and had lifted its landing gear.

Published: October 2002 (hardcover), May 2004 (paperback).

Furthermore: Billout was born in France and lives in New York.  He has posted some images from Something’s Not Quite Right, unlabeled as such, on www.guybillout.com. He wrote the The Frog Who Wanted to See the Sea (Creative Editions, 2007).

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

August 8, 2009

Caldecott Medalist Richard Egielski Returns in a Picture Book About a Famous Musical Rift – Jonah Winter’s ‘The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan’

A  dual biography focuses on the creation of The Mikado

The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan. By Jonah Winter. Pictures by Richard Egielski. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, 40 pp., $16.99. Ages 4–6.

By Janice Harayda

Why do publishers bombard us with book-and-CD editions of books that don’t need them and fail to issue them when they might do some good? Does anybody really need that book-and-CD edition of Curious George Goes Camping? C’mon.

But a disk could have added a lot this slightly fictionalized dual biography of the librettist W.S. Gilbert and the composer Arthur Sullivan, which focuses the storied feud between the two men that ended when they reconciled to create their most popular light opera, The Mikado. Nobody can argue that the music involved – The flowers that bloom in the spring, / Tra la! – is too adult for children. So the omission of a CD seems mainly intended to avoid copyright fees or pander to the library market, where the book might sell fewer copies if it included a disk likely to disappear quickly from a pocket.

As it is, Jonah Winter plays Gilbert to Richard Egielski’s Sullivan in The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan. Winter tells a story that, if lively, gets much of its energy from hyper-italicizing and the use of capital letters and exclamation points. “I refuse to write any more music for Mr. Gilbert’s ridiculous operas,” Sullivan says. “It’s always the same ridiculous story, over and over over again!” Winter also invests his tale with a whiff of didacticism as he pursues two goals — telling the story of the rift and making a point:  “Sometimes even the best friends fight.”

But Egielski supplies the missing music with bold paintings that, like Maurice Sendak’s, evoke a mood not through intensely detailed facial expressions or body language but the imaginative use of such elements as tone, color, whimsy and framing. Winter’s opening lines suggest the appeal of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas in their day:

“There was a time when jolly old England was not so jolly. Children worked in factories. Queen Victoria frowned. Everything was grim. Everything was dark – except … in the make-believe kingdom of Topsy-Turvydom.”

Egielski illustrates this passage with a wonderfully balanced two-page spread that evokes the setting through cutaway images of multistory buildings in the rain. On the left-hand page, children work in a sweatshop as a coronet-topped Victoria rides in a carriage on cobblestones below them. On the right-hand page, just across the street, an actress puts on makeup as theatergoers approach the Savoy with umbrellas raised against oversized raindrops. This is late-Victorian London, rendered in terms a preschooler can grasp. And on it goes in the book, which reaches its climax with a wordless spread showing a scene from a The Mikado that blazes with sunny colors thrown into high relief by the dank weather on the first pages.

The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan may have its strongest appeal for Savoyards who want to inspire in a love of Gilbert and Sullivan in children. But unlike many books driven by similar motives, this one has enough drama that it isn’t mainly an appeal to parental vanity and pretense. And an author’s note at the end includes a link to a fantastic Gilbert & Sullivan Web site that has the full text and lets you listen to all the music of the operettas by the pair. (To hear any song from The Mikado music, click on “Mikado,” “MIDI Files,” the title of a song, and the speaker icon.) So even if there’s no CD, you can punctuate readings by singing merrily: “The flowers that bloom in the spring, / Tra la / Have nothing to do with the case.” For some adults, the link to so much beloved music might in itself be worth the cost of the book.

Best line/picture: An example of Eglielski’s imaginative use of frames: On one two-page spread he places his images in two circles against a black background, as though you were looking at them through opera glasses.

Worst line/picture: Winter uses British English inconsistently. He writes “dreamt” instead of “dreamed” but “Savoy Theater” instead of “Savoy Theatre.”

Published: April 2009

Furthermore: Egielski won the 1987 Caldecott Medal for his art for Arthur Yorinks’s Hey, Al. He and Yorinks also collaborated on the new picture book, Homework. Winter lives in Brooklyn, NY. Egielski lives in Milford, NJ. Contact the authors c/o Author Mail, Scholastic Books, 557 Broadway, New York, NY 10012.

Reviews of children’s books appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews, a site for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

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

July 25, 2009

Wanda Gág’s ‘Millions of Cats’ — An American Classic for Children

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Millions of Cats. By Wanda Gág. Putnam, 32 pp., varied prices. Ages 6 and under.

By Janice Harayda

Thirty years ago, an editor asked Maurice Sendak if he thought picture books were better in the past. Yes, he said, “there was Wanda Gág.” More recently, I asked the children’s author Jan Brett which artists had influenced her work, and she gave a similar answer: “Of course, there was Wanda Gág.”

Gág (rhymes with blog) was to picture books what Julia Child was to French cooking – the first American star in a field that has exploded in her wake. And just as Mastering the Art of French Cooking remains a standard-bearer for a generation, so does Gág’s Millions of Cats, first published in 1928.

Gág’s masterpiece is so unassuming by today’s measures that if you came across it on a library shelf, you might overlook it. Except for the cover, all of the illustrations are black-and-white. The book is relatively small, just over half the size of a typical book by Chris Van Allsburg, with a horizontal format. It has only two human characters — an old man and woman with no children – who might have stepped out of the story of Abraham and Sarah.

But Millions of Cats combines tenderness with powerful themes, including the human longing for companionship and the struggle to survive in the natural world, and it does so in a story 3- and 4-year-olds can understand. The old woman believes a cat would ease the couple’s loneliness, and her husband sets out to find one. But each cat he sees is so pretty, he goes home followed by what looks like a feline peace march. The horde inspires the refrain:

Cats here, cats there,

Cats and kittens everywhere,

Hundreds of cats,

Thousands of cats,

Millions and billions and trillions of cats.

The old man and woman can’t keep them all, so the cats compete for survival, except for a frightened and “very homely little cat” that others see as no threat and ignore. That is the cat that the couple come to see as the “the most beautiful cat in the world.”

Gág’s beautiful pen-and-ink drawing flow across gutters and move her story forward in waves instead of boxes that can make a book look flat or inert. Many of her details recall both folktales and her Bohemian ancestry – a kerchief, a tunic, a tidy fieldstone cottage encircled by flowers. And her humor comes not from visual gags but believable emotions, such as the old man’s astonishment on seeing the “millions of cats” for the first time. All of it makes for a book that a child can read again and again with delight. Millions of Cats was the first American picture book that had both popular and literary success, and it’s still one of the worthiest of its honors.

Best line: “Millions and billions and trillions of cats.”

Worst line: Some critics say it’s illogical that the text suggests that the cats “have eaten each other all up” at the end of their fight while the pictures offer no evidence that they have done this. I think that this view is too literal and the fight is a metaphor for the Darwinian struggle for survival. How “logical” was it for all those millions of cats to follow the old man home in the first place?

Published: 1928 (first edition), 1996 (Putnam reprint)

This is a re-post of a reviews that first appeared in 2007.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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