One-Minute Book Reviews

January 27, 2009

2009 Caldecott Medal Honors an Attractive But Derivative Book — ALA Judges Play It Safe by Choosing the Poetry of ‘The House in the Night’

Beth Krommes used scratchboard and watercolor for 'The House in the Night.'

The House in the Night. By Susan Marie Swanson. Illustrated by Beth Krommes. Houghton Mifflin, 40 pp., $17. Ages 2–5.

By Janice Harayda

This lovely and thoroughly inoffensive 2009 Caldecott award–winner should hearten anybody who sees the American Library Association as a hotbed of Communists who keep trying to sneak into kids’ hands books on dangerous topics like sex education and environmentalism. The House in the Night is pretty as can be but shows the ALA in full retreat from the days when it gave medals to trailblazing books like The Little House, Where the Wild Things Are and Jumanji.

There’s no doubt that as the financial maelstrom rages, many people will welcome this gentle story about the comforts of home in the darkness. As night falls, a young girl receives a key to a tidy house that has glowing lamp. She enters and finds on a bed a book about a dove-like bird that carries her on its wings toward the moon and back to a home “full of light.”

None of the action in this tale has a catalyst that is remotely upsetting or disturbing, such as Max’s getting sent to bed without his supper in Where the Wild Things Are. Susan Marie Swanson found the inspiration for this cumulative story in one of the nursery rhymes collected by the estimable Iona and Peter Opie (“This is the key of the kingdom: / In that kingdom is a city”). And although nursery rhymes can be sadistic, this book minds its manners. Swanson tells her story in short-lined poetry so low keyed, most critics seem to have missed it despite lines like “the house in the night / a home full of light.”

Beth Krommes’s illustrations have a minimalist color palette unusually sophisticated for a picture book. Krommes uses just three colors – black, white and yellow – and watercolor and scratchboard techniques that give the art the look of wood engravings. She also reduces her images to essentials: a cat, a doll, a brush, teddy bears, sweaters in a bedroom drawer. Her “house in the night” is a cottage — the roof appears thatched — that could have come from a benevolent fairy tale. Even the sun has a smiling face with long eyelashes. The girl soars on her bird’s wings over a pastoral landscape that, the cars suggest, belongs to the 1940s.

All of these scenes have a cozy familiarity – too much of it for a Caldecott winner. Everything in this derivative book reminds you of something else. That brush in the bedroom? Goodnight Moon. That color palette? Wanda Gág’s Millions of Cats. The structure of the story? “This Is the House That Jack Built.”

The borrowed elements in The House in the Night generally work well together and add up to a good book. But you expect more than good from the winner of the Caldecott Medal, awarded to “the most distinguished American picture book for children.” You expect greatness, or at least a higher level of originality – the boldness of winners like Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House, which dealt with suburban sprawl decades before it became fashionable, or David Macaulay’s Black and White, which wove together multiple plots in way new to picture books.

The House in the Night leaves you wondering if the Caldecott judges wanted to find the best book, or just to administer a dose of bibliotherapy to a nation that needs it. You also wonder if the committee overreacted to recent criticisms that the ALA awards don’t honor enough poetry by honoring a book some may not recognize as poetry at all. And why are the organization’s judges such suckers for books about reading? This pattern goes back at least to the 1991 Newbery for Maniac Magee. But books about the power of reading aren’t inherently worthier of awards than those about plumbing or red-tailed hawks: Everything depends on the execution.

Certainly the Caldecott committee snubbed books as award-worthy as this one, including Pale Male and The Little Yellow Leaf. For all its virtues, The House in the Night has nothing so unusual about it that schools and libraries need to have it, the way they do need have the 2008 winner, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which has strong and unique merits. Oddly enough, if the Caldecott judges wanted to help a nation in financial turmoil, they did it, but not in the intended way: They selected a book that no one needs to rush out to buy.

Best line/picture: “the house in the night / a home full of light.”

Worst line/picture: This book depicts cars more than a half century old but a lamp that looks inspired by the latest Pottery Barn catalog.

Published: May 2008

About the authors: Swanson is an award-winning poet in St. Paul, Minnesota. Krommes is an illustrator in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

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 an award-winning journalist and former vice-president for Awards of the National Book Critics Circle.

© 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’

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:36 pm
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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.

January 20, 2008

Do We Need ‘Easier’ Poetry to Bring Back Readers? (Quote of the Day/William Logan)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:34 pm
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William Logan reviews the latest book by Geoffrey Hill, who writes perhaps the most complex and difficult poems of the 21st century, in today’s New York Times Book Review. Hill believes that “sinking to common ground betrays the high purpose of verse,” Logan says in his review of A Treatise of Civil Power (Yale University Pres, $30, cloth, and $16, paper) www.nytimes.com/2008/01/20/books/review/Logan-t.html. Should poets dumb down their work to attract readers? Logan expressed his own views on the question in his most recent collection of poetry criticism:

“Many have argued that to regain its lost audience poetry must become as easy to read as the instructions for opening a tin of sardines (no, easier), whimsical and ordinary in all the right whimsical and ordinary ways. This will bring back the common reader – once we have him, once he has that taste for poetry, by baby steps he will develop a passion for Alexander Pope. There have been a few such readers, no doubt, though they might have progressed to Pope just as quickly if they’d started with the backs of cereal boxes. The poems for prospective readers must be written in first person, in free verse, as often as possible in present tense, and as much like prose as possible, because metaphor is obscure, allusion elitist if not unjust, and something as strict as meter surely undemocratic, even (as has been claimed) the design of fascists. Oh, and such poems must be about the poet’s life, because we should always write about what we know, and what else does a poet know? How fortunate that Shakespeare was a close friend of Julius Caesar and that Milton supped frequently with the Devil.

“Poetry has for some time tried to dumb itself down to attract an audience; when any art becomes so desperate, it is already endangered. … Perhaps there is a place for disposable poetry; but let’s not fool ourselves that it’s better than it is, simply because the times are what they are. What we lack is not readers but a culture that teaches how to read.”

William Logan in the introduction to his most recent book of poetry criticism, The Undiscovered Country: Poetry in the Age of Tin (Columbia University Press, $29.50) www.columbia.edu/cu/cup/. Logan teaches at the University of Florida www.english.ufl.edu/faculty/wlogan/index.html and writes the Verse Chronicle for the New Criterion newcriterion.com:81/. He is author of three other works of criticism and seven books of poetry. His awards include a citation for excellence in reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review and inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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