One-Minute Book Reviews

June 27, 2009

A Teacher With Large Breasts and a Small Brain Gets Her Comeuppance in ‘The Dunderheads,’ A Picture Book by Paul Fleischman, Illustrated by David Roberts

Students seek revenge when Miss Breakbone calls them dunderheads

The Dunderheads. By Paul Fleischman. Illustrated by David Roberts. Candlewick, 56 pp., $16.99. Age range: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

A cynic might call The Dunderheads an ideal book for anyone who believes that children are never too young to learn that some women with large breasts do have small brains. But that view may be too harsh. David Roberts’s pictures are often funny even if the protagonist of this book looks like a refugee from a wacky Hooters franchise staffed by middle-aged teachers-union members.

The cruel Miss Breakbone seems not to have gotten the message that she might crush her students’ fragile self-esteem if she never assigns essays on topics like, “Why I’m Special.” She brazenly calls her class a bunch of dunderheads – at least when she isn’t confiscating their cell phones and vowing not to give them back.

But her students have self-esteem to spare, fostered by their many achievements, and Miss Breakbone is too dumb to see how smart they really are. A female student nicknamed Hollywood is typical: “She’s got every movie that was ever made and has watched them all 11 times.” So one day when Miss Breakbone goes too far, her students take their revenge in a breaking-and-entering caper that ends when she finds a note that says, “The Dunderheads were here!”

All of this is reasonably diverting, owing largely to Roberts’s flair for visually amusing details, such as the skull-shaped lamp on Miss Breakbone’s dresser. But the plotting isn’t as clever nor is the writing as sharp as in in many other tales of a classroom revolt, such as Miss Nelson Is Missing!. Miss Breakbone’s name, for example, is somewhat labored and not as funny as that of Viola Swamp in Harry Allard and James Marshall’s back-to-school tale.  And a goggle-eyed character named “Google-Eyes” may leave some children using the incorrect phrase for a lifetime.

Best line / picture: Roberts’s spread showing the movie addict named Hollywood in a bunker-like room full of cables, DVDs, Oscar statues, and a television and larger-than-life remote control.

Worst line / picture: “That’s when Google-Eyes went to work.” The girl shown on this spread isn’t “Google-eyed” but “goggle-eyed.” Fleischman also writes: “Spider went up the drainpipe like malt up a straw.” That similie sounds dated coming from a young narrator whose classmates bring cell phones to school, all members of a generation that might never drink a malted milk (if that’s what’s meant here).

Suggested age range: The publisher recommends this book for ages 6–10. This suggestion is unrealistic for many children given that The Dunderheads has a picture-book format and children often begin to spurn picture books at about the age of 6 or 7 (and to crave picture books that have more than 32 pages, as this one does, one starting at 4 or 5). School Library Journal says the book is for Grades 2-5 (roughly ages 7-10). But, again, it seems too optimistic to believe this book would appeal to many 8- and 9-year-olds who have enjoyed, for example, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. The natural audience for the format of The Dunderheads might seem to be 4- and 5-year-olds who want picture books with more than the usual 32 pages, such as the original Flat Stanley with words by Jeff Brown and illustrations by Tomi Ungerer. But — speaking just for myself — I wouldn’t give this one to a literal-minded child who start school soon because of its message, however humorously developed, that some teachers just hate children and, if you get one, you may feel better if you take criminal acts of revenge.

Published: June 2009

About the author and illustrator: Fleischman, a Californian, won the 1989 Newbery Medal for Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices and has posted an excerpt from it on his Web site. Roberts lives in London and has illustrated many books for children, some of them prize-winners.

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews.  To avoid missing these reviews, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed. Books that will reviewed on this site are sometimes announced in advance at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

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

February 26, 2009

2009 Delete Key Awards Finalist #6 — Andrew Blechman’s ‘Leisureville’

Filed under: Delete Key Awards,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:02 pm
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Delete Key Awards Finalist #6 comes from Andrew Blechman’s Leisureville: Adventures in America’s Retirement Utopias (Atlantic Monthly Press, 244 pp., $25).

“Women who once burned their bras now pay handsomely for expensive brassieres and plastic surgery.”

How long will writers keep repeating the myth that women once “burned their bras”? Feminists wanted to burn their bras during the 1968 Miss America pageant. But they didn’t, because Atlantic City officials wouldn’t give them a fire permit: They threw their bras in a garbage can instead. Even if Blechman’s statement were true — which, repeat, it isn’t — it would be a wild distortion, suggesting that all over America women who once burned their bras are having eye bobs instead. “Bra burners” became a cliché about 15 minutes after it surfaced in the New York Post. And when was the last time anybody under the age of 90 used the stilted word “brassiere”?

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 8, 2008

The ‘How I Survived Middle School’ Series – Nancy Krulick’s Fiction for Preteens, ‘Can You Get an F in Lunch?’ and ‘Madame President’

The first novels in a popular series tell fourth-graders how to apply eye shadow and cope with “hot” boys

Can You Get an F in Lunch? (How I Survived Middle School Series). By Nancy Krulik. Scholastic, 112 pp., $3.99, paperback. Ages: See discussion below.

Madame President (How I Survived Middle School Series). By Nancy Krulik. Scholastic, 112 pp., $3.99, paperback. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

The advance reading copies of these novels included publicity material that recommended them for 8-to-12-year-olds – a surprising age range for books that offer a full page of makeup tips and a quiz called “What Kind of Girl Are You?” that begins, “There’s a new boy in school and you think he’s really hot …”

Did Scholastic think that third-graders needed to read about how to put on eye shadow and cope with “hot” boys? I went to its Web site and found that that the answer was “No”: Scholastic thinks fourth-graders need to read about them. It apparently raised the lowest recommended age for the books by a year after printing the advance reading copies.

This change was hardly reassuring. Tips on makeup and boys may be fine for girls at the upper end of the age range for these books, the first in a popular series. But their heroine is 11 and ½ when her story begins, and children generally prefer to read about characters who are slightly older than they are. So most readers of these early books are apt to be 10 or younger. What will a 9-year-old fourth grader find it in them? Tips like these from Can You Get an F in Lunch?:

“BLUE-EYED BABES: Brown and rose eye shadows were made for you. Apply the shadow from lash lines to creases in your eyelids. Then top it with some dark brown or black mascara.”

Any publisher who tried to sell 9-year-olds a nonfiction book of makeup tips might face parental anger and resistance from school libraries. But Scholastic has found a way around the problem by incorporating the advice into novels and a companion Web site that its heroine consults and young readers may also visit.

You can read this marketing ploy as either as a) a harmless sign of the times and a logical extension of girls’ interest in toys like Bratz dolls or b) another sick example of premature sexualization and a publisher’s hope that people have forgotten the horror of seeing pictures of JonBenét Ramsey in full makeup. Either way, girls are finding their way to the novels. Jenny McAfee, the main character, has a blog on the series Web site that drew more than 700 comments for one post alone. And you wish that the books repaid that interest with more literary merit.

Jenny is kind and wholesome — her worst word is “Yikes” — and tells her story through down-to-earth first-person narration. She recovers quickly from her early setbacks in middle school (in Can You Get an F in Lunch?). And she wages a clean campaign against the odds when she runs for sixth-grade class president against her nasty ex-best friend, Addie, who has dropped her for a popular clique (in Madame President). Both novels spell out their themes plainly: Difficult situations get easier, hard work pays off, and true friends like you for who you are, not for what you own.

But this is standard tween series fare, built not on character development but on a fast pace and familiar anxieties – homework, new teachers, bad cafeteria food, taunts from older students, and off-again, on-again plans for trips to the mall. The “How I Survived Middle School” novels differ from others mainly in the women’s-magazine-style tips and pop quizzes scattered throughout the books and their Web site. And the advice raises its own problems.

Some of the tips in the series might help younger middle school students. But even the best raise the question of whether girls benefit from such an early indoctrination into the idea that they need advice on beauty, popularity and similar topics from people besides their parents, teachers and others who know them.

This series makes you wonder: Is anybody giving such advice to 9-year-old boys? You might argue, correctly, that boys tend to read other kinds of books. But to the degree that that’s true, this series reinforces stereotypes of girls no matter how much interest Jenny may have in playing basketball and running for class president.

If I had a 9- or 10-year old daughter, I wouldn’t refuse to buy these books for her. But I would offer her many other things to read, too – classics, good contemporary fiction and nonfiction, and, yes, the novels her brothers like. If she wanted advice on dealing with cliques and the other topics covered in the series, I would encourage her to visit the appropriate pages (“Kids” or “Teens”) of the award-winning Web site, KidsHeath, including kidshealth.org/kid/feeling/friend/clique.html. And in gentle way, I would suggest a potential drawback to those recommended “rose eye shadows”: Instead of turning her into” blue-eyed babe,” they could make her look as though she got a chronic eyelid disease at sleepaway camp.

Best line: From Can You Get an F in Lunch?: “If Addie and Dana and the rest of their clique were supposed to be so popular, how come there were so few of them? Didn’t being ‘popular’ mean that you were liked by everyone?”

Worst line: Also from Can You Get an F in Lunch?: “Soon, Addie, Dana, and Claire were exchanging pots of eye shadow and blush with the older girls, bonding over their collections of Cover Girl, Hard Candy, and Jessica Simpson Dessert makeup.”

Caveat lector: In this series, middle school begins with the sixth grade — not with the fifth as at many schools – and Jenny McAfee is 11 ½ years old in its first book. The upper age limit for these novels would probably be 10 or 11 in places where middle school begins in fifth grade. But there’s a weird disconnect: At least in the first two books, the series doesn’t deal with topics that would naturally interest girls who are old enough to wear makeup, including menstruation and breast development. This review was based on an advance reading copy, and some material in the finished books may differ.

Read an excerpt from the series at www2.scholastic.com/browse/collateral.jsp?id=10789.

Published: June 2007 www.middleschoolsurvival.com The latest novel in the “How I Survived Middle School” series is Who’s Got Spirit?.

Better choices: A few that are available in most bookstores and libraries: The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the 2008 Caldecott Medal winner and perhaps the year’s biggest hit among 9-year-olds; The Higher Power of Lucky, the 2007 Newbery Medal winner, which may appeal to 10-year-olds; and Russell Freedman’s fine biographies for ages 9-12 Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery and Martha Graham: A Dancer’s Life.

Furthermore: Nancy Krulik has written many popular books for children and teens.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who reviews books for children or teenagers every Saturday on this site, often in more depth than publications such as School Library Journal do. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing these reviews.

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

February 26, 2008

Does ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ Perpetuate Stereotypes of Mexicans?

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,Latin American,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:07 am
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This week I’ve been slogging through books that all seem to read like bad translations from an extinct language, like Coptic or Proto-Slavic. To reward myself, I’ve been rereading Nobody’s Perfect (Vintage, 752 pp., $16.95, paperback), a collection of Anthony Lane’s writing on books and movies for The New Yorker.

I began with Lane’s witty account of reading all the books on the New York Times fiction bestseller list for May 15, 1994 (a companion piece to a report on the list for the July 1, 1945). The essay includes this comment on Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, a tale of a woman doomed to spinsterhood in early 20th-century Mexico:

“Mexican readers fell on this book avidly, it seems, although its subsequent global triumph should surely give them pause; the main effect, after all, has been to perpetuate the myth of their homeland as lust-ridden, superstitious, and amusingly spicy.”

Why is this point so rarely made by books and Web sites that recommend Like Water for Chocolate to reading groups? The novel may have other qualities that make it worthy of consideration by book clubs. But shouldn’t the stereotypes be mentioned, too?

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation. The site will announce the shortlist for the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books beginning at 10 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 29.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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