One-Minute Book Reviews

January 23, 2009

A Good Children’s Poem About February

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[This is the first of several posts about children's books that will appear this weekend. The others will deal with candidates for the Newbery and Caldecott medals to be announced Monday morning. One-Minute Book Reviews will also have a post about the awards on Monday.]

A lot of children’s poems about February are sentimental odes to Valentine’s Day that ignore the less commercial joys of the month. Not John Updike’s “February,” a 16-line rhyming poem collected in the A Child’s Calendar (Holiday House, 32 pp., $6.99, paperback, ages 4 and up), which won a Caldecott Honor citation.

Updike focuses in the poem on seasonal changes such as snow, icicles and chickadees at a feeder. But he refers indirectly to Valentine’s Day in the last of his four quatrains: “And snipping, snipping / Scissors run / To cut out hearts / For everyone.” And Trina Schart Hyman beautifully supports his words with a warm, full-page watercolor image of children making valentines from tape, glue, crayons and pink and red paper. Just beyond a nearby picture window, an adult shows another kind of love for living things by refilling a bird feeder.

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

December 28, 2008

Good Children’s Poems About January

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:24 pm
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Do poets have trouble finding rhymes for “hangover”? Or believe that all kids go to bed early on Dec. 31? For whatever reason, there are few good children’s New Year’s Day, compared with the many about Christmas, Thanksgiving and other major holidays.

But John Updike has written a lovely poem about January that appears in his A Child’s Calendar (Holiday House, 32 pp., ages 4-8), and in The Random House Book of Poetry for Children (Random House, 248 pp., $22.99, ages 12 and under), selected by Jack Prelutsky. “January” doesn’t mention the New Year and instead celebrates the charms of the month with rhyming iambic quatrains: “The days are short, / The sun a spark / Hung thin between / The dark and dark.” The Random House Book of Poetry for Children also includes Sara Coleridge’s poem “The Months,” which consists of 12 rhyming couplets, one for each month, that begin: “January brings the snow, / makes our feet and fingers glow.”

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 27, 2008

A Book That Makes It Fun to Learn to Read – ‘I Saw You in the Bathtub: And Other Folk Rhymes’

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I saw you in the street,
I saw you in a tree,
I saw you in the bathtub –
Whoops! Pardon me!

I Saw You in the Bathtub: And Other Folk Rhymes (An I Can Read Book 1) By Alvin Schwartz. Illustrated by Syd Hoff. HarperTrophy, 64 pp., $3.99, paperback. Ages 5–8 (for independent reading), ages 2 and up (for reading aloud).

By Janice Harayda

A couple of months ago, I mentioned I Saw You in the Bathtub in the context of a couple of its poems that relate to Halloween. But this book is so much fun, it has a year-round appeal.

Alvin Schwartz has collected 40 ageless folk rhymes that consist mainly of words of one or two syllables: “I scream, / You scream, / We all scream / For ice cream!” So this book is a good choice for many kindergarten-though-third-graders who are starting to read and need short words and strongly patterned text.

But children as young as age 2 also love rhymes like: “Teacher, teacher made a mistake — / She sat down in a chocolate cake!” and “Three little chickadees / Looking at you, / One flew away / And then there were two.” And because variations on most of the rhymes seem to have existed since Cain, the book has an intergenerational appeal: It gives parents and grandparents a chance to share the versions they know. Am I the only one who learned the title rhyme as: “I saw you in the river, / I saw you in the sea, / I saw you in the bathtub — / Oops! Pardon me!”?

Best line: The title rhyme. But “Mary, Mary, strong and able, / Keep your elbow off the table” may be better known.

Worst line: A few rhymes are taunts that some adults may want to skip when reading the book aloud, such as the deathless: “Kindergarten baby, / Stick your head in gravy!” Speaking just for myself: I’d rather hear those lines than some words that arepopular among 3-year-olds, such as “dickhead.”

Recommendation? High value for the dollar as holiday gift for a family with children ages 2 and up. This $3.99 paperback is much more entertaining than most $16.99 hardcover picture books.

Published: March 1989 (first edition), 1991 (HarperTrophy paperback) www.harpercollins.com/books/9780064441513/I_Saw_You_in_the_Bathtub/index.aspx

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear every Saturday on this site, which will also post a list of suggested gift books for children and teenagers during the holiday season. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing these posts.

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

December 12, 2008

A Good Hanukkah Poem for Children

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:50 pm
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Good Christmas poems are easy to find (starting with the standard-bearer, “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which is out of copyright and readily available for free on sites like Bartleby www.bartleby.com/248/27.html). But good Hanukkah poems are harder to track down. One of the best I’ve found for children of varied ages — from preschoolers through about 8th grade — is Aileen Fisher’s “Light the Festive Candles,” which appears in The Random House Book of Poetry for Children (Random House, 248 pp., $22.99), selected by Jack Prelutsky and illustrated Arnold Lobel. Fisher explains how and why Jews light the menorah in the poem, which begins: “Light the first of eight tonight — / The farthest candle to the right.” The poem has the strong rhymes, clear language and relatively short lines that children ages 9 and under typically prefer.

“Light the Festive Candles” also has aspects that may appeal to older children. The poem is a Hanukkah sonnet that has 15 lines instead of the usual 14 and an aa bb cc dd ee ff ggg rhyme scheme (instead of, for example, the Shakespearean abab cdcd efef gg). Fisher arranges the lines into 6 couplets and a tercet, a variation on the form known as the couplet sonnet. And she uses the traditional iambic meter only in later lines, such as “The Festival of Lights – well-named.” Sonnet-form variations like these, once taboo, have become common. And adolescents who have learned about sonnets in school might like to compare “Light the Festive Candles” to others such as Robert Frost’s couplet sonnet, “Into My Own.”

The Random House Book of Poetry for Children has more than 500 new and classic poems for children, including the full text of “A Visit From St. Nicholas” and other good Christmas poems. First published 25 years ago, this is one of the best all-around poetry collections for children that is widely available in stores and from online booksellers I picked up a copy last week in the children’s-poetry section of a large Barnes & Noble. If you’re looking for a good collection for young children, go thou and do likewise.

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

December 11, 2008

And Today’s Gusher Award for Hyperbole in Reviewing Goes to …

Filed under: Gusher Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:19 pm
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Clive James in the essay “Little Low Heavens” in the September 2008 issue of Poetry:

“ … think of ‘Spring,’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Everyone knows the first line because everyone knows the poem. ‘Nothing is so beautiful as Spring’ is a line that hundreds of poets could have written, and was probably designed to sound that way: designed, that is, to be merely unexceptionable, or even flat. Only two lines further on, however, we get ‘Thrush’s eggs look like little low heavens’ and we are electrified. I can confidently say ‘we’ because nobody capable of reading poetry at all could read those few words and not feel the wattage.”

and

“Previously in this magazine I mentioned the Amy Clampitt poem with the exquisite few lines about the cheetah whose coat, when she ran, turned from a petalled garden into a sandstorm. Nobody who has ever read that poem can possibly have forgotten that moment.”

Clive James www.clivejames.com is a wonderful critic whose many sparkling reviews include a much-anthologized evisceration of Judith Krantz’s Princess Daisy that remains a model of its form nearly 30 years after its publication. And “Little Low Heavens” makes the worthy argument that the structure of a poem matters.

But James loses it in “Everyone knows the first line because everyone knows the poem,” “nobody capable of reading poetry at all could read those few words and not feel the wattage,” and “Nobody who has ever read that poem can possibly have forgotten that moment.” These lines are just gush. It’s pure snobbery to say that if you can’t “feel the wattage” of Hopkins’s words you’re not “capable of reading poetry at all.” People respond to poetry on different levels.

As for James’s comment that nobody “can possibly have forgotten” the Clampitt line: I mentioned earlier this week that I had forgotten seven lines from Hamlet, a work I revere above all others in English literature. Alas, poor Clampitt, I could forget hers, too.

Read James’s essay here www.poetryfoundation.org/journal/feature.html?id=182120.

Previous winners of Gusher Awards include Jonathan Franzen and Claire Messud www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/06/13/. Enter the word Gusher (without quotation marks) in the Search box at right to find others.

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

December 8, 2008

Christmas in Shakespeare? Astound Us With Your Memory, English Majors

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I’ve been looking for good Christmas poetry and found enough of it that I split the material into two posts: one on the seasonal offerings for children, posted on Saturday, and a one on the possibilities for teenagers and adults, which will appear Wednesday, Dec. 10.

The biggest surprise was that I came across a wonderful passage in Shakespeare that I’d be tempted to use on my Christmas cards if I didn’t already have this year’s batch. How I could have forgotten this one is a mystery given that I’ve read it or heard it many times on film or on stage — unless the explanation is that I majored in political science was reading Che Guevara’s diary when I could have been rereading some of the plays.

Do you know which passage I’m thinking of? It’s not a free-standing poem – not one of the sonnets, in other words – but it’s entirely appropriate to the season. I’m throwing this one out there because there may be other Christmas-card–worthy lines by Shakespeare that I’ve forgotten or never known. If you can point them out in a comment, you may help people still casting about for these.

[As usual when reading poetry on the Internet, I’ve been struck by how much of it is misquoted, misattributed or plagiarized. So the Dec. 10 post will list more than a half dozen good Christmas poems for adults or teenagers with a brief commentary on each and links to trustworthy sites that have posted the full texts. Poetry may be a genteel art, but when it comes to online verse, it’s a jungle out there, and on Wednesday I will don my leopard-skin Tarzan suit and try to clear a path to the safer vines.]

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

December 7, 2008

Good Christmas Poems for Children With All the Words Online

Filed under: Children's Books,Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:01 pm
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Christmas has inspired more good poems than any other holiday. But many of the seasonal children’s poems on the Internet are insipid, badly written or otherwise not worth learning. (Do you really want to introduce your child to poem built on the theme of “stupid presents I didn’t like”?) And that doesn’t count all the poems that are plagiarized, misattributed or inaccurately reproduced.

Here are some of the best holiday or Christmas poems for young children and where to find their full texts from trustworthy online or other sources. As always, use caution with Wikipedia, listed here because it provides more background on “The Goose Is Getting Fat” than other sites:

For Toddlers, Preschoolers and Others (Ages 8 and Under)
“A Visit From St. Nicholas” (“’Twas the Night Before Christmas”). No poem has had more influence on children’s fantasies of Christmas than “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” first published in 1823 and generally attributed to Clement Clarke Moore. Even children too young to understand all the words are often captivated by its rousing anapestic meter, its “visions of sugarplums,” and its exciting plot, which ends with St. Nicholas wishing a “Happy Christmas” to all as he departs. Full text online at
www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=171924.

“Christmas Is Coming, The Goose Is Getting Fat.” Few American children today may know the tune that goes with the folk rhyme beginning: “Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat. / Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.” But the words stand on their own and appear in many poetry collections. You can ask toddlers and preschoolers to add gestures, such as dropping a penny into a hat, so this is a great poem for the Webcam. And the nature of folk rhymes is that they change over time, so you can vary the words with a spotless conscience. (“Please put a penny in your mother’s hat.”) If you’d like to charm the grandparents at a holiday gathering, ask your child to go around the room and hold out a hat for a penny after reciting a variation that includes her name: “Please put a penny in Samantha’s [or “your nephew’s” or “your grandchild’s”] hat.” Full text online at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_Is_Coming.

“December.” Young children who are reading on their own may enjoy “December” in John Updike’s A Child’s Calendar (Holiday House, 32 pp., $17.95), a Caldecott Honor book beautifully illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. This quiet, lovely poem has a first-grade reading level and takes a thoughtful view of the season in short, rhyming, iambic lines. Full text in the Holiday House book holidayhouse.com/title_display.php?ISBN=978082341445

Five other short winter, Christmas, or holiday poems appear in The Random House Book of Poetry for Children (Random House, 248 pp., $22.99, ages 9 and under), an excellent collection selected by Jack Prelutsky and illustrated by Arnold Lobel. The book includes all the words to Langston Hughes’s 3-line “Winter Moon” (“How thin and sharp is the moon tonight!”) and to Aileen Fisher’s 8-line “Merry Christmas” (“I saw on the snow / when I tried on my skis”). It also has a 15-line excerpt from David McCord’s “A Christmas Package” (“My stocking’s where / He’ll see it – there!”) and all the words to “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” The Random House Book of Poetry for Children is available from online and other booksellers, and I found a copy a few days ago in the children’s poetry section of a large Barnes & Noble stores.

A post on good Christmas or holiday poems for older children, teenagers and adults will appear later this week.

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

December 3, 2008

What’s Next? Marijuana-Laced Scent Strips in Children’s Books? — A Picture Book Version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’

[If you can't see the book cover at left, you can see it and hear "Forever Young" by clicking on the link to book trailer on YouTube at the end of this review.]

Forever Young. By Bob Dylan. Illustrated by Paul Rogers. Atheneum Books for Young Readers / Ginee Seo Books, 40 pp., $17.99. Age range suggested on Amazon.com: 4–8. Actual age range: 50–70.

By Janice Harayda

Just in time for the holidays, here comes the latest piece of sucker bait tossed to sentimental baby boomers by publishers: a picture book that has no words except for the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s hymn to youth, “Forever Young.” What’s next, Let’s Read and Find Out About “Lay, Lady, Lay”? Or My First Book of “Everybody Must Get Stoned”?

The kindest thing you can say about this book is that it lacks the appropriate special effects: marijuana-laced scent strips so preschoolers can get stoned out of their minds while reading it. Paul Rogers’s coolly antiseptic illustrations suggest none of the heat Dylan’s music generated: A critic for Publishers Weekly rightly said that “the flat, digitally manipulated compositions recall 1960s low-budget animation.”

Rogers’s illustrations amount to a visual biography of Dylan from his Minnesota childhood through his early years as a singer-songwriter in New York (though you wonder if he and his schoolmates fist-bumped and wore waist-length backpacks as in this book). The pictures show Dylan playing only an acoustic guitar, but some details nod to his later electric years. And the book has so many images of celebrities that children could well come away from this book with the idea that Joan Baez, Ben Shahn, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, Edie Sedgwick, Albert Einstein, DA Pennebaker and Martin Luther King Jr. once stood shoulder-to-shoulder at an antiwar march as they do here. Rogers needs two pages of end notes to explain all the visual references that will sail right over the heads of four-year-olds, which makes Forever Young something rare: a picture book with footnotes.

“Forever Young” is a sweet song from its opening lines (“May God bless you and keep you always” / May all your wishes come true”) through its closing refrain (“May you stay forever young”). But its simple rhyming lines don’t have anything close to the energy or poignancy – or just the poetry – needed to sustain a 40-page book without a companion tape or CD. And the words reflect a point of view few children are likely to share.

Although parents may wish their offspring to stay “forever young,” children typically want to grow up as fast as they can. This why psychologists advise parents to use such overworked as phrases as “big girl chair” or “big boy school” in talking about new and potentially frightening situations. Few things are scarier to many children than the idea that they may stay “forever young,” which they may equate with powerlessness.

So here’s a suggestion: If this book tempts you in the children’s section of a bookstore, don’t buy it for the kids. Buy it as a gag gift for one of those second-childhood–themed 50th or 60th birthday parties where everybody brings Mickey Mouse ears or Star Trek DVDs. For all its faults, Forever Young is still a lot cheaper than a gift certificate for six months’ worth of Botox or Viagra.

Best line: An end note quotes a 2004 Los Angeles Times interview in which Dylan said he wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 10 minutes: “just put words to an old spiritual, probably something I learned from Carter Family records.”

Worst line: Some end notes are glorified product plugs: “Highway 61 Revisited (1965) is a great album to listen to when you’re on the road – or not.”

Editor: Ginee Seo

Published: September 2008

Watch the trailer for this book on YouTube, which has Dylan singing “Forever Young” as the pages of the book turn, at www.youtube.com/watch?v=eCMgDc2uiWI.

Furthermore: Can’t get enough of the sucker bait publishers throw at boomers? Click here to read about Steve Martin and Roz Chast’s 2007 picture book, The Alphabet from A to Y www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/02/.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic.

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

November 28, 2008

A Good Children’s Poem About December That Doesn’t Mention Santa Claus

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:28 pm
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John Updike doesn’t use the word Christmas in “December,” a 16-line rhyming poem collected in the Caldecott Honor book A Child’s Calendar (Holiday House, 32 pages, $17.95 hardcover, $6.95 paperback, ages 4–8), beautifully illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. But the spirit of the day shines in lines like: “The shepherds wait, / The kings, the tree – “ / All wait for something / Yet to be.” “December” uses mainly words of one- or two-syllables – the publisher recommends it for first graders – so it would suit children who are starting to read on their own as well as younger ones.

Updike writes in iambic meter – the closest to natural speech – instead of the galloping anapests and dactyls so often found in rhymes for the very young. Partly for that reason, “December” has a more subdued tone than many poems about the season. But it’s so thoughtful, it might appeal to children older than 8 if you can get them to pick up picture book. A big if, but worth the effort if you’re looking for a good poem about December that doesn’t mention Santa Claus or reindeer. The Christmas tree in the illustration for it has a Star of David on it, so this one may appeal to interfaith families. holidayhouse.com/title_display.php?ISBN=978082341445

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

November 22, 2008

Countdown to the 2009 Caldecott and Newbery Medals #2: ‘Zen Ties,’ the Sequel to ‘Zen Shorts’ — A for the Art, C-Minus for the Prose and Poetry

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:35 am
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The American Library Association will hand out its annual Caldecott and Newbery medals for children’s books on Jan. 26, 2009. In the next month or two I’ll be focusing closely — but not exclusively — on books that, deservedly or not, are likely to receive serious consideration for those awards. Posts about these books will be labeled “Countdown to the 2009 Caldecott and Newbery Medals.” You may may also want to read the May 10 review of Pale Male, which I have retroactively tagged as part of this series www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/10/.

Stillwater the panda returns and gets a visit from his nephew who speaks only in haiku

Zen Ties. By John J. Muth. Scholastic, 40 pp., $17.99. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

What would you say are the chances that any author would be equally good at prose, poetry and painting? If your answer is “close to zero,” you’ll have no trouble seeing the problem with this sequel to John J. Muth’s bestseller about a giant panda named Stillwater and the three Western children he befriends.

Muth’s beautiful watercolors give his Zen Ties a fresh and modern look. But the stuffy text is a New Age equivalent of one of the Victorian moral tales pushed aside decades ago by the work of pioneers like Margaret Wise Brown and Virginia Lee Burton and more recently by great author-illustrators like Maurice Sendak and Chris Van Allsburg.

In Muth’s new book, Stillwater has abandoned his boxer shorts and donned a red necktie for a visit from his nephew, Koo. You know you’re in for a slog when the gentle panda greets Koo, who speaks only in haiku, with, “Hi, Koo!” The problem with the greeting isn’t that children won’t get the pun — in good story, they wouldn’t need to — but that it’s cute instead of witty and typical of the weak writing in the book.

The becalmed plot befits a tale about a character named Stillwater. On a summer day in a well-kept American town, the panda decides to visit an ailing old lady who frightens children. He takes along four potential victims of that fear: Koo and young Karl, Addy and Michael. The children find that — surprise — Miss Whitaker is nice and helps Michael win a ribbon at a spelling bee. Why anybody would be taking part in a spelling bee in the summer, presumably at school, goes unexplained.

You might wonder if Zen Ties imparted worthy Buddhist teachings that would offset weaknesses in the writing. Not unless child-rearing experts like Penelope Leach and Michael Riera are Buddhists, because Stillwater dispenses advice that might have come straight from their books. And some of Muth’s implicit messages seem bizarrely anti-Buddhist. To entertain Koo, Addy invents a game called “Jump on Stillwater,” which looks sadistic. When she cleans Miss Whitaker’s house, she snaps at Karl, “Karl, hold the dustpan still!” No please, no apology for her rudeness.

Zen Ties does introduce children to haiku through the poems spoken by Koo. But haiku is a quiet verse form close to natural speech, so you wonder if they will even notice. And some of the poems in this book are poor examples of it. Near the end of his visit, Koo says, “Summer fading / new friends’ faces / lighten the way home.” “Lighten” is confusing here. It could mean “make less heavy” or “illuminate,” and because isn’t clear which one Koo intended, children will probably assume that he meant “illuminate.”

The fine watercolors in this book throw the deficiencies of the text into higher relief. And because pictures count for more than words in the Caldecott Awards, Zen Ties is likely be a serious contender for the next medal. You hope the judges will look hard for a book will allow the nation’s highest picture-book award to go to a work that is, on every level, of exceptional quality.

Best line/picture: The endpapers that show Stillwater and his nephew doing side-by-side t’ai chi movements.

Worst line/picture: Quoted above: “lighten the way home.”

Wish I’d written that: Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) wrote in the New York Times Book Review: “I had hopes that Zen Ties might veer closer to the Buddhist sources [than Zen Shorts did] , but the sequel contains no ancient tales at all …The weak story is a real shame, as Muth’s illustrations have the yearning gorgeousness displayed in the first volume.” Read Handler’s full review:
www.nytimes.com/2008/05/11/books/review/Handler-t.html.

Published: February 2008 www2.scholastic.com/browse/book.jsp?id=5114 . Muth won a Caldecott Honor citation for Zen Shorts en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_J._Muth.

Furthermore: I will have more comments on the Caldecott and Newbery awards before and after the American Library Association www.ala.org hands them out at its midwinter meeting in January.

You may also want to read: A review of the 2008 Caldecott Medal winner, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and a reading group guide to it, posted on this site on Jan. 14, 2008. Click on this link and you will see both below the Orson Scott Card quote www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/14/.

Janice Harayda’s 2008 A-to-Z holiday gift-book list will appear soon. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing her recommendations for children and adults.

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

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