One-Minute Book Reviews

May 12, 2007

Jack Prelutsky’s Rhyming Sports Poems for Young Children

The new “Children’s Poet Laureate” serves up rhymes about karate, skateboarding, gymnastics and other sports

Good Sports: Rhymes About Running, Jumping, Throwing, and More. By Jack Prelutsky. Illustrations by Chris Raschka. Knopf, 40 pp., $16.99. Ages: See below.

By Janice Harayda

This book of sports rhymes has a gold medal on the cover identifying its author as the “Children’s Poet Laureate” of the U.S. But don’t confuse that honor with that the one bestowed by Library of Congress, most recently on the Donald Hall. The title of “Children’s Poet Laureate” was created by the Poetry Foundation, a nonprofit organization that awarded it for the first time last year. And while the foundation may have had admirable goals in creating the post, you wish that Good Sports had been worthier of that medal on its dust jacket.

Jack Prelutsky is best known for The New Kid on the Block and other collections, including Read-Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young. And it’s easy to see why the Poetry Foundation wanted to honor him: At his best, he’s a hilarious, and he’s probably done more to foster an interest in poetry than any living children’s author.

But Good Sports seems designed more to fill a market niche than to delight children. There’s an obvious need for more good children’s books about sports – their publication hasn’t kept pace with the rise in participation. And many of the children’s sports books that do exist are cheesy celebrity biographies that promote hero-worship instead of a love of reading or a real understanding of sports.

Prelutsky sprinkles a few drops of water this parched landscape with a picture book of 17 rhyming poems about girls’ and boys’ individual and team sports – soccer, baseball, basketball, football, gymnastics, swimming, figure skating, skateboarding, karate and Frisbee. Some of the poems are mildly amusing, such as a ballplayer’s lament: “I had to slide into the plate, / It was my only chance. / Though if I hadn’t slid, then I / Would not have lost my pants.” But most lack the zest of Prelutsky’s best work and sometimes descend into the breathless clichés of the broadcasting booth.

A larger problem is that the audience for Good Sports is unclear. School Library Journal recommends the book for grades kindergarten through five, and, on one level, that makes sense. Some poems show children getting clobbered in football or taking part in other competitive team sports that the American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t recommend for children under age 6.

But Good Sports has the form of a typical picture book for 4-to-8-year-olds. It’s the size and shape of the hardcover edition of Where the Wild Things Are, which appeals to many 2-year-olds. The book has just one or two poems per spread and large watercolor and pen-and-ink drawings by Chris Raschka, who illustrated the 2006 Caldecott Medal winner, The Hello, Goodbye Window. And the pictures, though spirited, resemble finger-paintings more likely to appeal to preschoolers than children at the upper end of the K–5 range. The poems might have had much more appeal for children beyond kindergarten or first grade if they had been packaged as a chapter book and illustrated by an artist who really knows how to reach that audience, such as Quentin Blake, the genius behind the art for such Roald Dahl books as The B.F.G. and The Twits.

As it is, Good Sports is another book, like Greg Foley’s recent Thank You Bear, that panders to library story hours with large fonts and pictures (and a price tag driven by that format) instead of serving parents who want to read their children poetry without paying $16.99 for mostly so-so rhymes. It’s sad to see the Poetry Foundation lending its imprimatur to this racket instead of bringing attention to gifted children’s poets who have had less attention than Prelutsky, a writer whose latest book would no doubt have sold well without a medal on its cover.

A much better choice for ages 8 and up is Ernest L. Thayer’s classic sports poem “Casey at the Bat,” available in many editions, including the Caldecott Honor book Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888 (Handprint, 2000), illustrated by Christopher Bing. Children may soon forget Prelutsky’s trendy poems about karate and skateboarding. But who can ever forget Thayer’s tragicomic tale of the day there was “no joy in Mudville” because “Mighty Casey has struck out”?

Best line: Quoted above: “ … would not have lost my pants.”

Worst line: Sports clichés like, “The competition’s tough” and “I’ve saved the day.”

Published: March 2007

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 8, 2007

Robert Service’s ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’

Filed under: Classics,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:33 am
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A classic ballad of the Klondike gold rush retains its appeal for people who like strong rhymes, a dramatic story and a mordant wit

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
And the Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold …

Oh, what thrills those words gave those of us who first heard them, say, around a campfire! The opening lines of ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee” were among the most popular of the 20th century and may be among the few lines of poetry that many American adults still know by heart. And because the poem is out of copyright in the U.S., you can download it for free at sites that include Poetry Out Loud www.poetryoutloud.org/poems/, a project of the Poetry Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts, which also has Service’s “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.”

Why seek out a poem that first appeared a century ago in The Spell of the Yukon (Dodd, Mead, 1907)? Its masculine themes and folksy diction are out of fashion in a liberated age that values detached sophistication. But this frontier ballad still has charms for anyone who likes strong rhymes, a dramatic story and a mordant wit.

Robert Service (1874–1958) found the inspiration for “The Cremation of Sam McGee” after the Canadian Bank of Commerce sent him to the Yukon Territory in the early 1900s. The poem both celebrates and sends up Klondike gold rush. The speaker is a parka-clad dog-musher fighting the cold on Christmas Day with a hapless adventurer who underestimated the perils of his quest:

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam ’round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell
Though he’d often say in his homely way that “he’d sooner live in hell.”

Sam believes he that he will perish from the cold but insists that he isn’t afraid of dying – only of an “icy grave” – and begs to be cremated after he dies. When the narrator tries to oblige, Service throws in a twist suggested by the last lines:

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Like many of Service’s poems, “The Cremation of Sam McGee” begs to be read aloud. Each line has an internal and end rhyme that create a distinctive rhythm that listeners quickly begin to anticipate. And Service creates a brisk pace through his use of anapestic meter — resembling the gallop of a horse – that also drives “Paul Revere’s Ride.”

The dust jacket of an early edition of The Spell of the Yukon says that Service “has caught the spirit of wanderlust latent in every one of us.” Words like those are often fool’s gold. But the boom in Alaskan cruises and wildness vacations suggests that if the Klondike gold rush is as dead as Dan McGrew, people will always want to know if those Northern Lights “have seen queer sights.”

“The Cremation of Sam McGee” appears in many books, such as Best Tales of the Yukon: Including the Classic “Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee. By Robert W. Service. Running Press, 160 pp. $12.95, paperback.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 5, 2007

Good Picture Books About Noah’s Ark

“High and long, / Thick and strong, / Wide and stark, / Was the ark.”
From Peter Spier’s Caldecott Medal–winning Noah’s Ark

By Janice Harayda

No Bible story has fared better at the hands of picture-book illustrators than that of Noah’s Ark. Preschoolers love stories about animals, so picture books and the Flood are a natural fit. And there are so many outstanding versions of the story in Chapters 6–9 of Genesis that many bookstores and libraries have several or more.

The best book for toddlers and younger preschoolers is Noah’s Ark (Dell, 48 pp., $7.99, ages 2–6), illustrated by the Dutch-born American artist Peter Spier, who won the 1978 Caldecott Medal for it. Noah’s Ark begins with a translation of a Dutch poem about the Flood that has singsong rhymes simple enough for 3-year-olds: “Dog and cat, / Mouse and rat, / Fly and vole, /Worm and mole … In they came, / Pair by pair, / Gross and fair.”

From then on, Spier uses only pictures – his signature black line drawings washed with color – to tell the story of the Ark from the gathering of the animals through the appearance of the rainbow symbolizing God’s promise never to send another flood like the one Noah survived. And Spier’s vibrant and sympathetic illustrations suggest both the gravity of the situation and the potential for humor in crowding so many species onto a wooden boat. Within the larger story of the Flood, his drawings tell hundreds of smaller stories of the endless tasks faced by Noah and his family, such as milking cows and gathering eggs from hens. Noah’s Ark has stayed in print for decades partly because you see something new each time you return to it.

An excellent book for older preschoolers and young school-age children is Arthur Geisert‘s The Ark (Houghton Mifflin/Walter Lorraine, 48 pp., $7.99, ages 4–8). Geisert tells Noah’s story through a spare, interpretive text and black-and-white etchings that include wonderfully detailed cross sections. The pictures in his book may fascinate even children who shun traditional Bible stories, because they show how ships of any kind might transport animals. Larger creatures like bears and elephants take up the lower decks while flamingoes strut and peacocks spread their tails on the upper ones.

Jerry Pinkney won a 2003 Caldecott Honor citation for his Noah’s Ark (North-South/SeaStar, 40 pp., $16.99. ages 4–8). It tells the story of the Flood in modern words arranged on the page like stanzas of free verse: “The zebras munched their hay. / The geese gobbled up the grain. / The monkeys nibbled on sweet grapes / and climbed to the roof / where the sparrows / perched and sang.”

As usual in Pinkney’s books, the exquisite illustrations steal the show. Pinkney works on a dramatic artistic scale. His illustrations bleed across gutters and off the page. And he zooms in so closely on faces – human or animal – that you can see the whites of Noah’s eyes and up the nostrils of a bear. Among living picture-book artists, perhaps only David Wiesner has more skill at creating stylized watercolors that are dreamy yet realistic.

Pinkney’s book is harder to find than Spier’s and Geisert’s but available in many libraries. And children who like it may enjoy learning about his unusual techniques, which he described in The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators (Houghton Mifflin, 542 pp., $17), edited by Anita Silvey. “In illustrating stories about animals, as with people, research is important,” Pinkney said. “I keep a large reference file and have over a hundred books on nature and animals. The first step in envisioning a creature for me is to pretend to be that particular animal. I think about its size and the sounds it makes, how it moves, where it lives. When the stories call for anthropomorphic animals, I’ve used Polaroid photographs of myself posing as the animal characters.”

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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