One-Minute Book Reviews

June 8, 2007

Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read #2: ‘Madeline’

In an old house in Paris
that was covered with vines
lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.

— The opening lines of Madeline

Madeline. Story and Pictures by Ludwig Bemelmans. Viking, 48 pp., $7.99, paperback. Also available in other editions. Ages 2 & up.

By Janice Harayda

One of the most delightful characters in children’s literature was born, figuratively speaking, in a saloon. Ludwig Bemelmans (1898–1962) may have gotten the idea for Madeline after a bicycle accident sent him to a French hospital, where a girl in the next room had just had her appendix out. But he wrote the first lines of his most famous book on the back of a menu at Pete’s Tavern in New York: “In an old house in Paris / that was covered with vines …”

Those words set the tone for this brief narrative poem that uses rhyming couplets and a loose anapestic meter to tell the story a fearless girl who attends a convent school near the Cathedral of Notre-Dame and other French landmarks. Madeline is the smallest and bravest of the girls in the care of a nun called Miss (not Sister) Clavel: “To the tiger in the zoo / Madeline just said, ‘Pooh-pooh.’” She makes such a fine adventure of having her appendix out – the central drama of the book – that by the last page her schoolmates are clamoring to have surgery, too.

Madeline was published in 1939 and is one the few picture books of its day that has never fallen from favor. But it has more going for it than nostalgia or its intergenerational appeal. The amusing line drawings are simple yet dynamic. Bemelmans suggests an entire world through his images of 12 girls who are always identically dressed, whether they wear broad-brimmed hats while visiting the Eiffel Tower or muffs while ice-skating near Montmartre. Like Helen Oxenbury’s pictures for We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, his illustrations alternate between color and black- and-white (plus a sunny yellow in Madeline). This technique helps to quicken the pace, so that the 48 pages of text hold the attention of preschoolers used to shorter books. And there’s another reason why Madeline and its five sequels work so well, astutely suggested by Anna Quindlen in her introduction to Mad About Madeline: The Complete Tales (Viking, $35), which contains all the books in the series:

“For those of us who believe that children feel secure with structure, part of the enduring charm of the books must surely be that Madeline’s confidence and fearlessness are set within a backdrop of utter safety,” Quindlen writes. Miss Clavel is “concerned but competent.” If Madeline’s life is regimented, it has an order and predictability that many children long for at a time when the family dinner is becoming a cultural artifact. Madeline and her schoolmates all eat their meals, brush their teeth, and go to bed at the same time. A caged tiger may bare its teeth at the zoo. But as Quindlen rightly notes, “life is safe” in that “old house in Paris / that was covered with vines.”

Best line: The first three, quoted at the top of this review.

Worst line: None. But some parents may prefer to skip two lines on the last page: “Good night, little girls! Thank the Lord you are well!”

Published: 1939 (first Simon & Schuster edition), 2000 (Viking paperback reprint).

Furthermore: A naturalized American citizen, Bemelmans was born in the Austrian Tyrol and moved to the U.S. as a teenager. Madeline www.madeline.com was a Caldecott Honor book, and its first sequel, Madeline’s Rescue, won the Caldecott Medal. More often associated with O. Henry than with Bemelmans, Pete’s Tavern still serves meals at the corner of 18th Street and Irving Place in Manhattan.

You may also want to read: Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read #1, Millions of Cats by Wanda Gág, reviewed on this site on Jan. 5, 2007 http://oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/01/05.

© 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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April 13, 2007

Greg Foley’s ‘Thank You Bear’: A Good Book for Toddlers That Panders to Library Story Hours at the Expense of Parents and Others

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:58 pm
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A young bear learns that a friend shares your values

Thank You Bear. By Greg Foley. Viking. 32 pp., $15.95, Ages 1–3.

By Janice Harayda

Thank You Bear has so much going for it that you wish it weren’t also an example of a disheartening trend: More and more, publishers are pandering to library story hours at the expense of parents and others who read to children.

This new picture book tells a simple yet highly effective story that’s in some ways reminiscent of “Goldilocks”: A little bear finds a small box he’s sure his friend Mouse will love — until he meets up with other animals, each of whom dismisses it for a different reason. (The elephant thinks it’s too small, the rabbit doesn’t have time to look at it.) Bear is starting to wonder if the box is so great after all when Mouse comes along and loves it as much as he had hoped.

In fewer than 200 words, Greg Foley develops the worthy theme that a friend shares your values. And like his text, his drawings are pared-down but expressive. Because I don’t have toddlers, I took Thank You Bear to church, corralled a two-year-old at coffee hour and read it to him as we sat in side-by-side armchairs. It was Palm Sunday, so the room was mobbed with children eating cookies and making Origami-like crosses from fronds. My young companion paid no attention to the crowd: He was riveted by the story and could easily identify the animals from Foley’s bold strokes.

Then what’s the problem? First, at nearly 10” by 10,” Thank You Bear is too big. I held it against the bodies of a couple of two-year-olds and found that it was as long as either of their arms from shoulder to wrist. How easily could you hold a book a long as your arm? Thank You Bear isn’t a book most toddlers could carry around like the paperback edition of Thomas the Tank Engine that my young friend had with him. And size helps to drive price. Thank You Bear is a $15.95 book that would serve children better if it were at least third smaller and less expensive. Oversized books make sense for authors like Maurice Sendak and Chris Van Allsburg, who do museum-quality work, or Jan Brett, who uses folkloric motifs and borders full of details easier to see in a large format. But the minimalist art of Thank You Bear doesn’t require that scope. On many pages Bear is becalmed in a sea of white space.

The gargantuan 4” x 3” font used for the title on the cover tells you a lot about this book. Few toddlers can read, so they don’t need it, and even bifocal-wearing grandparents don’t require something that big. So why use a blimp-sized font and comparably large pictures throughout the book? Clearly, so the children at the back of a semicircle can see them at story hours.

Publishers often bring out paperback or mini-editions of picture books within a year or so of their publication, and that may happen with Thank You Bear. Until then it’s sad that this book may exceed the financial – or physical – reach of many parents and toddlers who would enjoy it.

Best line/picture: An image that shows Bear wondering if his box is so great after all. Uncertainty is harder to show than stronger feelings, but Foley pulls it off.

Worst line/picture: The cover font. Thank You Bear is also punctuated incorrectly on the cover and title page, though not elsewhere in the book.

Recommended if … you either a) get the book from the library; b) wait for a paperback or mini-edition; or c) or can say truthfully, “I don’t care if the publisher is gouging me. Nothing is too expensive for my brilliant, wonderful, adorable grandchild. Want to see a picture?”

Published: March 2007

Furthermore: In the coming months, I plan to revisit aggressively the issue of overpriced children’s books. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing posts on this subject.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 25, 2006

Gift Books for Toddlers

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:41 pm
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Two fine artists from England reinvigorate a classic tale and nursery rhyme

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. Retold by Michael Rosen. Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury. McElderry, 32 pp., price $12.21. Ages: 1–6.

Five Little Ducks. Illustrated by Ivan Bates. Orchard, 24 pp., $12.99. Ages 1–6.

Is there a toddler on your gift list who is ready to move beyond Goodnight Moon but too young for the symbolism and shifting perspectives of Chris Van Allsburg? Two worthy picture books brim with elements that 1- and 2-year olds love – animal motifs, repeated words, and easy-to-imitate sounds.

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt has been delighting young listeners for nearly a generation with its retelling of a classic tale about a father and four children who go on a bear hunt. Michael Rosen’s story teems with adventures that children love to act out, such as crossing a river (“Splash splosh!”) and trudging through a blizzard (“Hoooo woooo!”). And it has dynamic illustrations by Helen Oxenbury, who has twice won the Kate Greenaway Medal, England’s equivalent of the Caldecott. One of the few potential drawbacks to giving this book as a gift is that it is so popular that families may already have a copy.

Children are less likely to own Five Little Ducks, illustrated by another gifted artist who lives in England. This is a new version of the nursery rhyme that begins: “Five little ducks/Went out one day/Over the hills and far away./Mother duck said, ‘Quack, quack, quack.’/But only four little ducks/came waddling back.” Ivan Bates uses sunny pencil-and-watercolor illustrations to depict the five ducklings that wander away from their mother one by one, then rush back all at once. And he invests his animals with tender emotion without over-anthropomorphizing them or dressing them, Peter Rabbit-like, in human clothes. His mother duck is clearly heartbroken when her young disappear and overjoyed when they return. Many books browbeat children with warnings about what could happen if they don’t stay near adults. Bates takes a more subtle and perhaps more effective approach to the subject: He shows children how sad their mothers would be if they didn’t return.

Best Lines: We’re Going on a Bear Hunt: “We’re going on a bear bunt … We’re not scared.” Five Little Ducks: Verses are traditional. A nice touch is that this book includes an easy-to-play musical score for the song with the same title.

Worst lines: None.

Recommended if … you’re looking for a book for a toddler or preschooler.

Published: We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, 1989. Five Little Ducks, February 2006. This review refers to the hardcover edition of We’re Going on a Bear Hun, also available in Aladdin paperback and Little Simon board-book editions. Board book editions may or may not contain the full text of the original.

Posted by Janice Harayda
© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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