One-Minute Book Reviews

June 12, 2009

Good Free Reading Group Guides From the U.S. Government

On this site I’ve often faulted publishers’ reading group guides for their poor quality –- poor in part because they tend to pander to book-club members with loopy questions like: “The heroine of this novel is a one-eyed snake charmer whose parents were abducted by aliens. Have you ever known a one-eyed snake charmer whose parents were abducted by aliens?” Gee, I’ll have to think about that one! I might have known one-eyed snake charmer, but her parents got in the space ship voluntarily and technically weren’t abducted!  How about you?

So I was heartened to find that the U.S. Government has posted more than two dozen free reading group guides that are more objective and helpful. The guides come from The Big Read, a National Endowment for the Arts program intended to encourage reading, and most cover major American works of fiction for adults or children, such as My Antonia, The Great Gatsby, The Age of Innocence, The Call of the Wild, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. But a couple deal with books by authors from other countries — Naguib Mahfouz’s The Thief and the Dogs and Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich – and the NEA plans soon to post companions to the poetry of Emily Dickinson and others.

You can download the guides for free at the site for The Big Read. And some libraries can get printed versions and CDs with more information at no cost. (I learned about all of this when I found a stack of free reader’s guides and companion disks for To Kill a Mockingbird at a small-town library giving them away to patrons.) Along with warhorses such as The Grapes of Wrath, The Big Read guides deal with a couple gems that are less well known, including Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl.

www.janiceharayda.com

May 11, 2009

‘The Aeneid’ in Three Sentences (Quote of the Day / Robert Fagles)

Filed under: Classics,Poetry,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:08 am
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The problem with book reviewing in America isn’t usually that it’s unfair or inaccurate – it’s that it’s dull. And it’s dull partly because it’s timid. Reviews often tell you almost everything about a novel except what it is really “about” beyond the plot details.

This failing has less to do with dwindling review space and than with declining courage and intellectual confidence. You can express the theme or message of even a complex, multilayered work in a few sentences if you know it well enough. Here’s how the classics scholar Robert Fagles summed up The Aeneid:

“It says that if you depart from the civilized, then you become a murderer. The price of empire is very steep, but Virgil shows how it is to be earned, if it’s to be earned at all. The poem can be read as an exhortation for us to behave ourselves, which is a horse of relevance that ought to be ridden.”

As quoted by Charles McGrath in “Robert Fagles, Translator of the Classics, Dies at 74” in the New York Times, March 29, 2008.

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

April 20, 2009

2009 Pulitzer Prize Winners Are Strout, Meacham, Gordon-Reed, Merwin, and Blackmon

These books have won the five 2009 Pulitzer Prizes for books:

Fiction: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

History: The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed
Biography or Autobiography: American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham
Poetry: The Shadow of Sirius by W.S. Merwin
General Nonfiction: Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon

For more information and a list of the finalists, visit the 2009 awards page for the Pulitzer Foundation.

April 11, 2009

2009 Pulitzer Prizes to Be Announced on April 20 at 3 p.m.

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:17 pm
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The winners of the 2009 Pulitzer Prizes will be announced on Monday, April 20, 2009, at 3 p.m. Eastern Time at a press conference at Columbia University. The awards honor books in five categories — fiction, poetry, history, biography, and general nonfiction. The finalists will be named at the same time, and the judges may decline to give a prize in any category.

March 14, 2009

Good Poems for Middle-School Students (Grades 5, 6, 7 and 8)

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:47 am
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The middle school years are treacherous for reading in general and poetry-reading in particular. Up to a certain age, children enjoy poetry and may even prefer stories that rhyme. But by the time they reach middle school, they are often starting to lose interest. What books have poems that will hold their attention? Here are two possibilities:

Sad Underwear and Other Complications: More Poems for Children and Their Parents (Aladdin, 80 pp., $6.99, paperback, ages 9-12), by Judith Viorst. Illustrated by Richard Hull. The short and mostly rhyming poems in this book have the irreverent — and, at times rueful — wit that you expect from Viorst, author of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Some of the poems in Sad Underwear deal with near-universal childhood woes like mosquito bites and lost sneakers. Others describe the trials of a certain sort of worldly wise preteen or teenager. (“I’m freaking! I’m freaking! / My mom’s gone antiquing. / And guess who she’s dragging along?”) Sad Underwear has more than a few poems sophisticated enough to engage adults. But its picture-book format may limit its appeal mainly to younger middle-schoolers.www.simonsays.com/content/book.cfm?tab=1&pid=411400.

Classic Poems to Read Aloud (Kingfisher, 258 pp., $8.95, paperback, ages 9 to adult), compiled by James Berry. Illustrated by James Mayhew. Should you still read aloud with children in the fifth grade and beyond? Absolutely, if you read poems of the quality of the 138 in this book. The great virtue of Classics to Read Aloud is that it doesn’t patronize children. It has easy poems like Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat” and Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” And it has many that are more complex: Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” Robert Frost’s “After Apple-Picking” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare to a summer’s day?”). It also excerpts from epics such as “The Iliad” and “Hiawatha” (bereft of the famous lines, “By the shores of Gitchee Gumee, / By the shining Big-Sea-Water”) So children won’t outgrow Classics to Read Aloud. Neither will their parents. If you keep promising yourself that you’ll look up “that poem in Four Weddings and a Funeral,” you can stop now. Berry reproduces W. H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” on page 186.

You’ll find suggested books of sports poetry for middle-school students on the site for the Horn Book, the leading children’s literature journal
www.hbook.com/resources/books/sports.asp.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 25, 2009

How Badly Can You Write and Get a Book Published in America? Find Out Thursday, Feb. 26, When the Shortlist for the 2009 Delete Key Awards Is Posted

Are you tired of reading about what a hard time publishers are having? Do you wish that somebody would write about what a hard time we, the readers, are having with some of the clinkers they’ve thrown at us?

Stay right here. Tomorrow One-Minute Book Reviews will post the shortlist for the Third Annual Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books for adults or children. The finalists will be named in random order and numbered in reverse order, from No. 10 through No. 1, at roughly half hour intervals, beginning at 10 a.m. Eastern Time. The full shortlist will be posted by 5 p.m.

Last year John Brockman said on the blog for the Powell’s Books:

“Arguably the second-best online literary award after the TOB’s Rooster [co-sponsored by Powell’s] is the 2008 Delete Key Awards for ‘the year’s worst writing in books,’ awarded by the One-Minute Book Reviews blog.”

Please check back tomorrow to learn the finalists for this year’s booby prizes for clichés, bad grammar, psychobabble, stereotypes, mispunctuation, incoherence, dumbing-down and more.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books or other promotional materials from editors, publishers, authors, agents or others with ties to the industry.

© 2009 Janice Harayda
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

January 30, 2009

National Book Critics Circle Judges Snub Toni Morrison and Joseph O’Neill in Announcing Finalists for Awards

Filed under: Book Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:11 pm
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Just before the American Library Association named the winners of the Newbery and Caldecott medals that have preoccupied me for much of this week, the National Book Critics Circle announced the finalists for its annual awards in six categories: fiction, poetry, criticism, biography, general nonfiction and autobiography or memoir. The big news this year is the books that aren’t on the list: Toni Morrison’s A Mercy and Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. Both novels have won stellar reviews, and I predicted that O’Neill would win this one. (Neither book made the shortlist for the 2008 National Book Awards, either, but A Mercy came out after the deadline for entries.) Read the list of NBCC finalists and tell me what you think.

Good Valentine’s Day Poems for Children With All the Words Online

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:19 am
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More than a dozen poems appear in 'Valentine's Day'

Ages 4–8
At a certain age children love to know secrets, and Valentine’s Day lets them show it. An example: The following two out-of-copyright lines appear in “To a Baby Boy,” collected in Songs and Other Verse, by the American children’s poet Eugene Field (1850–1895):

Who I am I shall not say,
But I send you this bouquet

Children could attach the lines to a bouquet — or to a drawing (or sticker collage) of flowers — for an easy-to-make free card.

Ages 9–12
Tweens and older children may be embarrassed by overtly romantic sentiments, yet still want or need to send Valentine’s Day cards. The complete works of the Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton (1563–1631) include four out-of-copyright lines that might be sufficiently neutral:

Muse, bid the Morn awake!
Sad Winter now delines,
Each bird doth choose a mate;
This day’s Saint Valentine’s.

Teenagers
Teenagers who believe they are desperately in love can find many appropriate poems online. Among the best-known: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s iambic pentameter sonnet “How Do I Love Thee?” (Sonnet 43), which begins:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.

This much-parodied poem has become a cliché to many adults but doesn’t sound trite to teenagers hearing it for the first time (and might inspire some to have fun writing their own parodies). The same goes for the lyrics to that Beatles’s toe-tapper, “When I’m Sixty-Four”:

When I get older losing my hair,
Many years from now.
Will you still be sending me a valentine
Birthday greetings bottle of wine.

You can hear Paul McCartney singing this one on YouTube by searching for “When I’m Sixty-Four” + “lyrics” (though I’m not linking to it because I’m not convinced that any versions of the song on YouTube are legal).

Other good poems and ways to celebrate the day appear in Ann Heinrich’s Valentine’s Day: Holidays, Festivals, & Celebrations (The Child’s World, 2006), illustrated by Sharon Holm, and other books.

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

January 28, 2009

2009 Caldecott Honor Book ‘A River of Words’ Introduces the Poet William Carlos Williams, Whose First Book Sold Four Copies

William Carlos Williams broke with the traditions of Longfellow and others.

A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams. By Jen Bryant. Illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 32 pp., $17. Ages 7 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Melissa Sweet says in a note at the end of this book that her “Brownie troupe” once visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That gaffe is, alas, all too typical of this runner-up for the title of “the most distinguished American picture book for children.”

Jen Bryant has written a lively but unexceptional introduction to the life of William Carlos Williams (1883—1963), who combined practicing medicine in a New Jersey suburb with writing experimental verse that broke with the classical traditions of 19th-century lions like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. A River of Words is the rare book for its age group that shows a man — not a woman — balancing multiple roles.

Williams’s best-known book of poetry, the multivolume Paterson, is often called collage of that city. And Sweet tries hard to apply the artistic counterpart of that technique. Working with mixed media, she combines watercolors and items from Williams’s world: a map, a report card, sheet music, pages from an anatomy book, the stationery from his medical office.

The poet Sara London wrote diplomatically in the New York Times Book Review that Sweet’s pictures are “playfully distracting – the eye hops sparrowlike from leaf to leaf, uncertain where to settle.” At times the images are so frenetic, they’re confusing. On one spread, the left-hand page shows Williams sitting at his desk writing poetry as a boy. The right-hand page shows in childlike handwriting the first lines of his poem “Pastoral”: “The little sparrows / hop ingenuously / about the pavement / quarreling.” The juxtaposition suggests that Williams wrote the poem as a child when, in fact, he wrote it in early adulthood.

Some people have criticized the American Library Association for not honoring enough poetry, and they have a point. The ALA has snubbed prize-worthy books like Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant, which combines wonderful pictures by Carin Berger with some of the best recent work by Jack Prelutsky, the popular children’s poet.

But giving a 2009 Honor Book citation to A River of Words was doing the right thing — showing respect for poetry — for the wrong reason. A River of Words deserves a place in many libraries and bookstores for its spirited and in some ways successful portrait of what it takes to succeed as a poet. That is different from deserving a place on the medal stand.

Best line/picture: A chronology of Williams’s life at the end of the book includes this event for 1909: “His first verse collection Poems is printed and published by a friend. It sells only four copies.” The line is incorrectly punctuated – Poems should be set off by commas – but it offers a healthy jolt of shock therapy to would-be poets.

Worst line/picture: From the illustrator’s note at the end: “Living in northern New Jersey (not too far from where Williams grew up in Rutherford), my Brownie troupe took a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.”

Furthermore: A River of Words won a 2009 Caldecott Honor citation. The book has the full text of Williams’s most famous poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow”, and five others: “The Woodthrush,” “The Great Figure,” “Metric Figure,” “This Is Just to Say”, and “Pastoral.” It has excerpts from “Complaint,” “The Descent of Winter” and “Part X, Pictures from Brueghel.” All of the poems appear on the endpapers.

About the authors: Jen Bryant lives in Glenmoore, Pennsylvania. Melissa Sweet lives in Rockport, Maine.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

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

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

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