One-Minute Book Reviews

November 24, 2007

Jack Prelutsky’s Rhyming Animal Poems for Young Children


“Behold the bold UMBRELLAPHANT
That’s not the least afraid
To forage in the broiling sun
For it is in the shade.”

Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant: And Other Poems. By Jack Prelutsky. Illustrations by Carin Berger. Greenwillow, 32 pp., $17.89. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

For more than six months, a review of Jack Prelutsky’s collection of sports poems has appeared repeatedly among the top 10 posts on this site. I wish the distinction were going to a worthier book than Good Sports, which has uninspired rhymes, clichéd language and art that’s mismatched with the text.

Prelutksy’s 2006 Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant is in every way superior to it. This sparkling collection of poems about imaginary animals pays its respects to Lewis Carroll’s “The Crocodile.” (“How doth the little crocodile / Improve his shining tale, / And pour the waters of the Nile / On every golden scale!”) Because “The Crocodile” was a parody of an Isaac Watts poem, you might call “Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant” a parody of a parody.

But Prelusky’s book isn’t a parody so much as an homage. Like “The Crocodile,” most poems in “Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant” use the ballad stanzas known as common meter or “hymn” stanzas, or alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter with rhyming first and third lines. And Prelusky stays close enough to Carroll’s work that his book could have become a tired imitation of it.

Instead the poems in Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant have a freshness all their own, paired with sparkling mixed-media illustrations by Carin Berger. Each poem describes a creature that is part animal and part familiar object – an elephant with an umbrella for a trunk in the “The Umbrellaphant,” an octopus with an alarm clock for a head in “The Clocktopus.” This device could have been too clever by a half. It isn’t, partly because Prelutsky keeps most poems as simple and descriptive as “The Panthermometer,” about a panther with a thermometer for a tail: “Here comes a PATHERMOMETER / A cat we fondly hail, / For we can tell the temperature / By looking at its tail.”

Will preschoolers will get the puns and other wordplay in poems like “The Lynx of Chain”? Wrong question. Like Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant is nonsense verse, a form that uses whimisical or incomprehensible words to comic effect. And not the least of the virtues of this book is that it may help to prepare children to appreciate Carroll and other masters of that vanishing art.

Best poem: Many, including the lines from “The Panthermometer” and “Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant” quoted above.

Worst line: The poem “The Circular Sawtoise” describes a creature that combines a tortoise and a circular saw and borders too clever, in part because of the pronunction of “sawtoise.” When you first see the title of the poem, you mentally pronounce it as “saw-toys.” You have to study the picture to realize that it’s “saw-tis” in “tortoise.”

Published: September 2006 www.harpercollinschildrens.com and www.jackprelusky.com

Caveat lector: The second and fourth lines should be indented four spaces in the lines quoted from the title poem, “Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant,” but this template won’t let me do that.

Furthermore: This book is also available on an unabridged audio CD, which I haven’t seen. To read the review of Good Sports, click here: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/05/12/. read Lewis Carroll’s “The Crocodile,” click here: www.poetry-archive.com/c/the_crocodile.html

Children’s book reviews appear on Saturdays on One-Minute Book Reviews.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

November 10, 2007

‘Hey, You!’ — A Picture Book Collection of Recent and Classic Poems for Children Ages 6 and Up

Tell me, O Octopus, I begs,
Is those things arms, or is they legs?

— From Ogden Nash’s light verse classic, “The Octopus”

Hey, You! Poems to Skyscrapers, Mosquitoes, and Other Fun Things. Selected by Paul B. Janeczko and Robert Rayevsky. HarperCollins, 40 pp., $16.89. Ages 6 and up.

By Janice Harayda

The thirty short poems in this picture book all speak to somebody or something — a shell, a horse, an astronaut – or use the literary device known as apostrophe.

Editor Paul Janeczko has chosen a mix of rhymed and unrhymed and comic and serious verse by living and dead poets, including Ogden Nash, X.J. Kennedy and Karla Kushkin. And some of the entries have an unexpected timeliness, such as Emily Dickinson’s “Bee, I’m Expecting You!,” which begins: “Bee, I’m expecting you! / Was saying yesterday / To somebody you know / That you were overdue.” (Could there be a better bedtime poem for a first or second grader who loved Bee Movie?) But the dark and heavy-handed illustrations – which hang over some pages like thunderclouds — are no match for the high quality of the poems. So this is a book to use selectively: Instead of reading straight through it, look for the pages most likely to appeal to a particular child. And just try to keep a straight face if they include Nash’s classic, “The Octopus,” which begins: “Tell me, O Octopus, I begs, / Is those things arms, or is they legs?”

Links: www.harpercollinschildrens.com, www.pauljaneczko.com, www.rayevsky.com

Furthermore: Janeczko is a Maine poet who also edited Dirty Laundry Pile: Poems in Different Voices, a companion to Hey, You!. Rayevsky lives in Parksville, NY, and illustrated Caroline Stutson’s Pirate Pup and other books for children.

Reviews of children’s books appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews. They often deal with poetry for ages 2 and up. You can find other reviews of children’s poetry books by clicking on the “Children’s Books” category at right (below the “Recent Posts” and “Top Posts” listings).

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

October 26, 2007

Steve Martin and Roz Chast Make Fun of Religious, Cultural and Physical Differences in a New Alphabet Book for Preschoolers — Is Your Two-Year-Old Ready for Ethnic Humor?

Maybe they should have called it “S” Is for Sucker

The Alphabet From A to Y: With Bonus Letter Z! Words by Steve Martin. Pictures by Roz Chast. Doubleday/Flying Dolphin, 64 pp., $17.95. Suggested ages: “Young Children” (Doubleday), “Baby/Preschool” (Powell’s), 9-to-12 (Amazon).

By Janice Harayda

Hey, kids! You’re never too young to laugh at people who are different from you! And if you’re an adult who wants to help, Steve Martin and Roz Chast are there for you! They use rhyming couplets to show 2-to-4-year-olds – the usual audience for alphabet books — just how easy it is to make fun of religious, cultural and physical differences!

Looking for the perfect Hannukah gift for a toddler? How about a book that explains the letter “K” by showing an ape-like woman (“King Kong’s aunt Frances”) saying, “Kids! Kome Back! Have Some Kosher Kasha!” Or need something to wrap up for Diwali? Why not a book that shows a funny-looking guy in a turban staring at a woman “indecent in her undies”? Those 2-year-olds have to learn about perverts sometime! And what could be better for kids celebrating the Day of the Dead than a book that introduces the letter “I” with a poster of “The Incans”? (Will those kids ever be surprised to learn that the plural of “Inca” is “Incans” and not “Inca” or “Incas”!) Martin and Chast even show how simple it can be to make fun of disabilities! And nuns! The “H” page says: “Henrietta the hare wore a habit in heaven, / Her hairdo hid hunchbacks: one hundred and seven.” And Martin and Chast aren’t talking about Quasimodo but people who look just like your Uncle Ed except with disabilities! Yes, they could easily have said “halfbacks” instead of “hunchbacks”! But they must have decided that people with disabilities are funnier than athletes!

Sure, you might see all of this as tasteless — not to mention, a little mature for kids who may be poring over Once Upon a Potty. So why didn’t the people at Doubleday pitch this book to the group who would enjoy it most, the adult fans of Chast’s New Yorker cartoons? Could it be that they figured out that they could make more money by selling it as a children’s book? Maybe they should have called it “S” Is for Sucker.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 29, 2007

Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read #5: Dr. Seuss’s ‘Horton Hatches the Egg’

Filed under: Children's Books,Classics — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:07 am
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“I meant what I said
And I said what I meant ….
An elephant’s faithful
One hundred per cent!”

— From Horton Hatches the Egg

Horton Hatches the Egg (Classic Seuss). Story and Pictures by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel). Random House, 64 pp., $14.95. Ages 2–up.

By Janice Harayda

Bennett Cerf, a founder of Random House, once said that he had published great writers like William Faulkner but only one genius: Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss). It’s easy to understand what he meant.

Geisel never got a Nobel Prize, or even a Caldecott Medal (though he picked up two Honor Book awards). But he may have done more than any author to instill a love of reading in American children in the second half of the 20th century. No less remarkably, he did it by writing good books, not the sort of commercial flimflam that publishers tend to rationalize with, “At least it gets children reading.”

Some critics consider Geisel’s first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, to be his best. But that book came out in 1937 and reflects stereotypes of its day. A better choice for many families might be Horton Hatches the Egg, a whimsical narrative poem about a gentle elephant who agrees to sit on the nest of a self-absorbed bird named Mayzie when she goes on vacation. First published in 1940, it was ahead of its time in several ways, including in its portrayal of sex roles.

Horton is a male or bull elephant. But Geisel drew him so androgynously – with long eyelashes and a curly trunk – that young children might mistake him for a female of the species. Horton is also a great nurturer. He refuses to leave the nest during thunder and lightning: “And then came the Winter … the snow and the sleet! / And icicles hung / From his trunk and his feet.” Still Horton guards the egg because: “An elephant’s faithful / One hundred per cent!”

Critics often describe this book, correctly, as a morality tale about the importance of loyalty and persistence. But it is also a story about every child’s desire to be “good” even when he or she is afraid, uncomfortable or uncertain about what to do. Horton struggles not just with external forces but with his inner longing to escape the taunts of friends: “Old Horton the Elephant / Thinks he’s a bird!” And because the egg he guards eventually produces an “elephant bird” that goes home happily with him instead of Mayzie, some people see the book as a poignant adoption story, too.

Seuss uses his signature meter, anapestic tetrameter — which resembles the gallop of a horse — to give his tale an exciting momentum although Horton goes nowhere for much of the tale. And the action-filled pictures add to the drama and deepen our knowledge of Horton’s character, especially after gun-toting hunters vow to sell him to a circus. One illustration shows Horton sitting regally on his tree branch, wearing an imperturbable expression, with his forelegs crossed. He leaves no doubt that if the hunters are going to cart him away, they’re taking the nest, too.

Geisel uses only two colors in the book, an orange-red and a blue-green. This restraint is striking by today’s standards, which favor explosive colors bleeding off every page. Children didn’t need razzle-dazzle effects in 1940, and they don’t need them now. What they need is what they get from Horton Hatches the Egg – a great story with characters who have a color all their own.

Best line: “I meant what I said / And I said what I meant …. / An elephant’s faithful / One-hundred per cent!”

Worst line: None.

Published: 1940 (first edition).

Furthermore: Horton returned in 1954 in Horton Hearts a Who! (Random House, $14.95), still in print in the Classic Seuss series.

Links: The Random House site for Dr. Seuss books is www.seussville.com. Another good site is www.catinthehat.org, maintained by the Springfield Library and Museums in the Massachusetts town where Theodor Geisel grew up.

If this book interests you, please consider checking it out of a public library. Increased library use helps libraries justify requests for increased funding. Please support public libraries by checking out books or using other services as often as you can even if you can afford to buy books.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. A new review of a book for children or teenagers appears every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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