One-Minute Book Reviews

January 30, 2010

A Review of the 2010 Newbery Medal Winner, ‘When You Reach Me': Enjoyable? Yes. The Year’s ‘Most Distinguished’? Maybe Not.

A 12-year-old girl tries to figure out who’s sending her mysterious notes in a novel that pays homage to Madeleine L’Engle

When You Reach Me. By Rebecca Stead, 197 pp., Wendy Lamb/Random House, $15.99. Ages 9–12.

By Janice Harayda

When You Reach Me won the American Library Association’s latest John Newbery Medal, and it’s certainly an enjoyable and well-written book. But is it the year’s “most distinguished contribution” to children’s literature?

Maybe it depends on how you define “distinguished.” By my lights, the ALA citation implies: “a book that will seem as great decades from now.” And I’m not convinced that When You Reach Me passes that test, or that Rebecca Stead will hold her own against Newbery winners like Russell Freedman (Lincoln: A Photobiography) and Katherine Paterson (Bridge to Terabithia, Jacob I Have Loved).

Stead tells a cleverly plotted story about a bright 12-year-old named Miranda, who tries to decipher a series of mysterious and slightly ominous notes from an unknown sender in 1978–1979. The sender — whose knowledge of events seems to transcend the laws of time and space — may or may not live near the apartment Miranda shares with her mother on the Upper West Side of New York.

Miranda’s favorite book is Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, a novel about time-traveling children. And like that 1963 Newbery winner, When You Reach Me raises the question: Is time travel possible? Stead handles the issue well, offering enough science to keep her story plausible without turning it into a treatise.

But When You Reach Me deals with less complex questions than – and appears derivative in comparison to – L’Engle’s modern classic. Like most suspense novels, this one gets much of its appeal from its quick pace and ability to keep you guessing, not from its depth of characterization. Miranda’s mother has a boyfriend, “who is German but not strict or awful,” and whose German-ness resides mainly in his Aryan looks: You never understand why Stead made him German instead of another nationality.

Far more complex characterizations appear in Deborah Heiligman’s 2009 National Book Award finalist, Charles and Emma, which won a nonfiction award from the ALA. And Phillip Hoose tells a more powerful story in his Newbery Honor Book, the biography Claudette Colvin. Those books seem more likely to be important decades from now. If I had to assign grades, I’d give Charles and Emma and Claudette Colvin each an A or A-minus and When You Reach Me a B.

So why did the novel win the Newbery? Hard to say. It can’t have hurt that Stead’s novel subtly flatters the ALA by ratifying its choice for 1963 Newbery, or that its allusions to A Wrinkle in Time are a bonanza for teachers who love to assign compare-and-contrast exercises. Nor can it have hurt that, like the 1991 winner, Maniac Magee, the latest testifies to the joy of reading. When You Reach Me was also popular — a bestseller on Amazon — before it won, so it was a safe choice. And I’ve read few of the fiction candidates for the 2010 Newbery: If the judges wanted to honor a novel, though they didn’t have to, Stead’s may have been the best. So When You Reach Me gets a qualified endorsement: Amble to your library or bookstore for it if you’re inclined, and save your sprint for National Book Award winner Claudette Colvin.

Best line: Miranda has proprietary feelings about A Wrinkle in Time: “The truth is that I hate to think about other people reading my book.”

Worst line: “At the meetings, during which Mr. Nunzi has usually burned a new hole in our couch with his cigarette …” Doesn’t ring true. Most sofas sold in the U.S. contain polyurethane foam stuffing, which is highly flammable, and one cigarette burn can send them up in flames.

Art notes: The cover of this book does not serve it well. It shows greenish-gray grid that looks like a patchwork of lawns and suggests that the action takes place in a northern New Jersey suburb that faces New York skyline when, in fact, it’s set in Manhattan. And the book as a whole begged for illustrations.

Published: July 2009

Furthermore: Two reviews of When You Reach Me by librarians: Amanda Pape’s on her blog Bookin’ It and Elizabeth Bird’s on the School Library Journal blog.

Janice Harayda is a novelist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and the book columnist for Glamour. You can also follow her on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. She satirizes American literary culture and the publishing industry at www.twitter.com/fakebooknews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 10, 2009

Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ in ‘Five on a Hike Together’: ‘I Say — This Has Boiled Up Into Quite an Adventure, Hasn’t It?’

Enid Blyton has been translated into more languages than anyone except Walt Disney Productions, Agatha Christie, Jules Verne and Shakespeare

The Famous Five: Five on a Hike Together. By Enid Blyton. Illustrated by Eileen A. Soper. Hodder Children’s Books, 196 pp., varied prices. Ages 12 and under.

By Janice Harayda

Enid Blyton is the Agatha Christie of children’s literature. Not all of her books are mysteries. But like Christie, she was born in Britain in the 1890s and achieved an unparalleled fame for her suspenseful plot-driven novels that remain popular worldwide with readers and filmmakers. And like Christie, she has drawn fire from critics who have accused her of perpetuating the stereotypes of her era and social class.

Blyton is best known for the 21 novels in her “Famous Five” series, most of which have been adapted for television. Each book involves three English siblings, their cousin, and a mutt named Timmy. Five on a Hike Together is the tenth, and it suggests why the novels still appeal to children: Blyton gives her young characters a freedom that if allowed by real-life parents might bring a visit from the Department of Youth and Family Services, if not an arrest.

In Five on a Hike Together the four children and their dog spend several days hiking unchaperoned on moors during a long weekend in October. They are undeterred by their discovery that the heather may shelter a convict who has escaped from a local jail. But they split up when Timmy gets hurt chasing a rabbit down a hole. Julian and Georgina, known as George, set out to find someone who can tend to the dog’s injury, and Dick and Anne go off to look for Blue Pond Farmhouse, where all of them hope to spend the night. Nothing goes quite as expected. Dick and Anne get lost and end up at a ramshackle house where Dick gets a message from the escaped convict, who passes him a cryptic note through a broken window pane. All of the children realize when they reunite the next day that they must take the note to the authorities, but when a policeman scorns their efforts to help, they resolve to decipher the clue on their own. Soon the four are paddling a raft with Timmy on board in search of a treasure that may lie at the bottom of a lake.

Five on a Hike Together has several of Blyton’s hallmarks — a fast pace, well-controlled suspense and little character development. The four children don’t grow so much as carom from one exciting adventure to another, and their appeal lies partly in their enthusiasm for all of it. They are cheerful, intelligent, self-sufficient and generally kind and well-mannered. For all their limits, you can’t help but agree when a policeman tells the children in the last pages, “You’re the kind of kids we want in this country – plucky, sensible, responsible youngsters who use your brains and never give up!”

Best line: No. 1: “I say – this has boiled up into quite an adventure, hasn’t it?” (A comment by Julian, the oldest of the Famous Five.) No. 2: “A wonderful smell came creeping into the little dining-room, followed by the inn-woman carrying a large tray. On it was a steaming tureen of porridge, a bowl of golden syrup, a jug of very thick cream, and a dish of bacon and eggs, all piled high on brown toast. Little mushrooms were on the same dish.” Both lines suggest an appealing quality of the Famous Five: their infectious enthusiasm for their circumstances, whether they are lost on a moor or getting a good breakfast.

Worst line: Blyton wrote most of the “Famous Five” novels during the 1940s and 1950s, and they reflect their era. Julian, for example, tells his cousin Georgina, known as George: “You may look like a boy and behave like a boy, but you’re a girl all the same. And like it or not, girls have got to be taken care of.” George puts Julian in his place by telling him that he’s “domineering” and she doesn’t like being taken care of. But some critics see the series as sexist, though the girls of the “Famous Five” novels show far more courage than many contemporary heroines. Other books by Blyton have been faulted for racial characterizations that are today considered slurs.

Published: 1951 (first edition), 1997 (Hodder reprint).

About the author: Blyton is the fifth most widely translated writer in the world, according to UNESCO’s Index Translationum Statistics. The five most often translated authors are “Walt Disney Productions,” Agatha Christie, Jules Verne, Shakespeare, and Blyton, followed by Lenin, Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steel, Hans Christian Andersen, and Stephen King.

Furthermore: Helena Bonham Carter will star in a forthcoming BBC movie of Blyton’s life.

Children’s book reviews appear on this site on Saturdays.

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

May 10, 2009

Rick Riordan’s ‘The Last Olympian,’ the New Book in His Percy Jackson Series

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Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series has well-entrenched spot in the pantheon of books worshipped by boys (typically, by strong readers over the age of 8 or 9 and by others over 10). In a sense, it’s life following art: The novels involve a modern 12-year-old who learns that he is the son of a Greek god. And in my suburb, the series (which I haven’t read) may have gotten entire soccer leagues excited about Greek mythology. Meghan Cox Gurdon reviews the latest installment, The Last Olympian (Hyperion, 381 pp., $17.99) in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, and a teacher gives his view of Riordan in a post I wrote in February.

March 14, 2009

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

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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 7, 2009

Jon Scieszka Courts Preteen Boys in ‘Knucklehead,’ a Memoir of Growing Up With Five Brothers in Michigan during the Baby Boom

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One of the country’s most popular children’s authors remembers his childhood

Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Mostly True Stories of Growing up Scieszka. Viking Juvenile, 106 pp., $19.99. Publisher’s suggested age range: 9–12. See further discussion of ages below.

By Janice Harayda

Jon Scieszka first captured the hearts of preteen boys when he launched his popular “Time Warp Trio” series about three time-traveling male friends whose escapades had wacky titles like Your Mother Was a Neanderthal. Scieszka has since become a supernova in children’s literature: He’s won awards for picture books, seen the “Time Warp Trio” tales made into a television series, and been named the first national ambassador for young people’s literature by the Library of Congress.

Now he returns to writing for preteen boys in a memoir as fresh and entertaining as his early books for them. The mixed-media cover of Knucklehead resembles that of a graphic novel about World War II: Young Jon emerges with a grin from the hatch of an armored tank – a pint-sized John Wayne in a bow tie – as bombers drop their payload overhead. But Knucklehead is actually an illustrated memoir with 38 breezy chapters, most with just a page or two of text, about growing up Catholic with five brothers in Flint, Michigan, during the baby boom. It teems with photos of the Scieszka family and memorabilia of the era: a Wiffle Ball logo, MAD magazine cover, image from a Dick-and-Jane reader.

Scieszka focuses on the zanier aspects of growing up with five brothers: the matching outfits, the torments inflicted on nuns, the backyard games with ominous names like Slaughter Ball. A photo of a report card shows that he would have started fourth-grade in 1963, but if the death of JFK made an impression on him, he doesn’t say so. And on the evidence of this book, the Elvis and the Beatles never made it north of Toledo, and the annual Michigan-Ohio State game completely escaped the notice of six sports-loving boys living in Flint.

Like many boys of their day, Jon and his brothers reveled in militarism: They played with toy soldiers, shot frogs with BB guns, and made Revell fighter planes from kits. But behind all of their war games lay a glowing love of family that pervades this book. One anecdote involves a family car trip with a cat that ate a Stuckey’s Pecan Log Roll with disastrous results. And the incident allows Scieszka to express the closest Knucklehead has to a theme: “Stick with your brothers. Stick up for your brothers. And if you ever drop a pecan nut log in a car with your five brothers and the cat … you will probably stick to your brothers.”

Best line: Scieszka tweaks Dick-and-Jane readers: “When I read the Dick and Jane stories, I thought they were afraid they might forget each other’s names Because they always said each other’s names. A lot.

“So if Jane didn’t see the dog, Dick would say, ‘Look Jane. Look. There is the dog next to Sally, Jane. The dog is also next to Mother, Jane. The dog is next to Father, Jane. Ha, ha, ha. That is funny, Jane.’

“Did I mention that Dick and Jane also had a terrible sense of humor?”

You don’t quite believe that Scieszka thought all of that in the second grade or so, but the comment is funny and perceptive.

Worst line: “Here are me, Brian, Tom, Jim and Gregg outside our house in flint Michigan.” Scieszka is identifying the brothers in order in a picture, but that “Here are me …” is hard on the ear.

Recommendation? A great family read-aloud book. The publisher recommends Knucklehead for ages 9-12, but many 7- and 8-year-olds will enjoy it, too. And the book has high intergenerational appeal, because the pictures of boomer memorabilia may inspire grandparents and others to tell stories of their own childhoods. All the war imagery is historically appropriate and relatively mild in context (in part because the book doesn’t show all the Revell model planes that had swastikas on their wings).

Watch the book trailer for Knucklehead on Scieszka’s blog.

Published: October 2008

Furthermore: Scieszka (pronounced SHEH-ska) collaborated with the gifted artist Lane Smith on the “Time Warp Trio” series and picture books that include The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! and The Stinky Cheese Man. For more on the “Time Warp Trip series,” see the One-Minute Book Reviews post “Beach Books for Ages 7 and Up.”

One-Minute Book Reviews reviews books for children or teenagers every Saturday. To avoid missing these reviews, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

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

February 5, 2009

A Review of Jon Scieszka’s ‘Knucklehead’ — Coming Saturday

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:48 pm
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Jon Scieszka first captured the hearts of preteen boys when he launched his popular “Time Warp Trio” series about three time-traveling male friends whose escapades had wacky titles like Your Mother Was a Neanderthal. Scieszka has since become a supernova in children’s literature: He’s won awards, seen the “Time Warp Trio” tales made into a series on the Discovery Kids Channel, and been named the first national ambassador for young people’s literature by the Library of Congress. Now he returns to writing for preteen boys in Knucklehead : Tall Tales & Mostly True Stories About Growing Up Scieszka (Viking, 106 pp., $19.99), a memoir of growing up with five brothers in Michigan during the baby boom. How does it compare to his earlier work? One-Minute Book Reviews will have a review Saturday.

© 2009 Janice Harayda.

January 9, 2009

Adultery for Third-Graders — A Review of ‘What I Saw and How I Lied,’ Winner of the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

A tale of theft, blackmail, adultery, anti-Semitism and a possible murder, written at an 8-year-old reading level

What I Saw and How I Lied. By Judy Blundell. Scholastic, 284 pp., $16.99. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

What would you do if you were a publisher who knew that reading test scores were declining as children were seeing more sex and violent crimes in the media? Maybe play both sides against the middle as Scholastic has done with What I Saw and How I Lied, the winner of the 2008 National Book Award for young people’s literature.

This stylish literary thriller deals with subjects appropriate for the 13-to-18-year-old age range that the publisher recommends on its site — theft, blackmail, adultery, anti-Semitism and a possible murder. But Judy Blundell writes at a third-grade reading level in the novel, according to the readability statistics on Microsoft Word.

So who, exactly, is this book for? Much of the content is too mature for 8-year-olds. But the reading level is too low for the sophisticated adolescent and teenage girls likely gravitate to its glamorous, noir-ish cover, which shows a thin, beautiful model applying red lipstick. Blundell is condescending to them even if they enjoy its page-turner of a plot: Anyone who is ready for the subjects covered in this novel is also ready for a higher reading level.

Evie Spooner is 15 years old when her stepfather, Joe, returns from Austria in 1947, having overstayed the end of the war for murky reasons. Evie’s seductive mother has quit her job at Lord & Taylor – “Either that or get fired”— because veterans needed jobs. And she’s surprised her husband by learning to make Sunday suppers and perform other domestic tasks. “Son of a bitch,” Joe says of the change.

But the glow of the family reunion fades after Joe packs up the three of them for what he casts as an overdue Florida vacation. They settle into a Palm Beach hotel (aptly named Le Mirage), nearly deserted in the off-season. And Evie becomes swept up in a riptide of events that involves looted gold, a hurricane, an inquest into a possible homicide and her crush on a seductive 23-year-old who says he served with Joe overseas.

The plotting is tight and ingenious until an improbable last scene, and well-supported by details that evoke the era (including the chocolate cigarettes that Evie buys to “practice smoking”). And the book deals with larger issues than whether a murder occurred: What is loyalty? What do we owe the dead? Do truth and justice differ and, if so, how?

Questions like these appeal strongly to adolescents and teenagers, and this book could provide a framework for exploring them. As for their reading test scores: They’re not likely to improve if more publishers — encouraged by the National Book Award for this novel — put a senior prom dress on a third-grader’s soccer shorts.

Best line: A warning heard on the radio as a hurricane approaches Palm Beach: “Watch out for flying coconuts.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Our pipsqueak attorney had turned into a pretty decent linebacker.” It’s a stretch that a 15-year-old girl living in 1947 would know enough about linebackers to use the word in this way. No. 2: “Lana Turner was every man’s dream, sultry and blond. It was Lana filling out a sweater at a drugstore that got her a Hollywood contract.” That Turner was discovered at a drugstore is a myth. Even if the teenagers of 1947 believed the myth, the book is perpetuating this legend for a new generation of readers.

About the reading level: The reading level comes from the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on any recent version of Microsoft Word. To find it, I entered a minimum of 300 words from each of the following two-page sections of What I Saw and How I Lied: pages 36-37 (Grade 4.2), pages 136-137 (Grade 2.6) and pages 236-237 (3.7). I also entered all of last two pages (Grade 3.0). The post “Does Mitch Albom Think He’s Jesus?” lists the reading levels of authors and tells how to use Word to find the level of a book.

Furthermore: What I Saw and How I Lied
won a 2008 National Book Award. The National Book Foundation.
has posted an excerpt from and the citation for the novel on its site.

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

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

November 1, 2008

Fiction, Nonfiction and Poetry About Sports for Grades K–8, Recommended by the Country’s Leading Children’s Literature Journal

Often I disagree with the reviews in the Horn Book, the country’s leading journal of children’s literature, which at times seem to favor books suited for schools and libraries at the expense of those that are pure fun. You probably aren’t going to find the magazine giving much play to Bob Phillips’s Awesome Good Clean Jokes for Kids (Harvest House, 207 pp., $3.99, paperback), which you can buy off the rack at CVS and might delight any 5-to-8-year-old on your holiday list.

But the Horn Book brings a seriousness of purpose to reviewing that’s all the more valuable now that so many book-review sections have died. And its editors have a leg up on most children’s book reviewers – to say nothing of bloggers — at gift-giving time: They see pretty much everything that gets published.

So if you’re looking for good books about sports for ages 5 to 13 or so, you could do worse than to look at its list of recommended fiction, nonfiction and poetry for grades kindergarten though 8 (and maybe higher)
www.hbook.com/resources/books/sports.asp. The Horn Book editors also suggest books about sports for preschoolers. I’ll post my gift suggestions for sports and other books in a few weeks.

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

October 18, 2008

Good Sports Stories for Children and Teenagers – Alan Durant’s ‘Score!’

UPDATE on Dec. 3, 2009: Online booksellers in the US have sold out of this one, but it is available under its original title of Sports Stories from UK booksellers including the Book Depository, which offers free shipping to the US.

Score!: Sports Stories. By Alan Durant. Roaring Brook, 264 pp., $6.95, paperback. First published as Sports Stories. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

Score! is an answer to the prayers of many adults who are looking for a gift for a child who likes sports. This outstanding book has 21 stories about young male and female athletes, written by authors from Homer and Matt Christopher. And it covers many popular sports, including soccer, tennis, football, baseball, basketball, swimming, wrestling, bicycling, ice hockey, horseback riding, and track and field.

That breadth alone might set Score! apart from other anthologies. But the book also contains an appealing variety of writing styles – formal and informal, serious and humorous, realistic and futuristic. An overconfident White Sox rookie writes hilariously inane and ungrammatical letters to a friend in Ring Lardner’s classic You Know Me Al. A young swimmer tries to qualify for the Rome Olympics after the death of her boyfriend in an excerpt from In Lane Three, Alex Archer by Tessa Duder, a former world-class swimmer for New Zealand. And a soccer contest 200 years in the future has undertones of wii and other digital games in Malorie Blackman’s “Contact.”

Alan Durant provides helpful introductions for some of his selections, including an excerpt from National Velvet. He writes that Enid Bagnold’s 1935 novel is “the most famous horse racing story in fiction” and inspired a movie that starred Elizabeth Taylor as the teenage horsewoman who disguises herself as a male jockey to enter the Grand National. Then he mentions an unusual aspect of the excerpt: “What makes this description of the race so memorable is the way it is viewed not from the perspective of the competitor, Violet, but from that of the horse’s trainer, Mi, who struggles to follow the race among the crowds of spectators.”

Most of the stories in Score! have a strong plot and would lend themselves to reading aloud. This virtue adds to their appeal in an age when fiction for children, as for adults, is becoming more fragmented and elliptical. Before television, the great radio broadcasters knew that had to use words to draw pictures of games for their listeners, and the best writers in this book do that and more for their young readers.

Best line: In The Iliad Ulysses asks Athena to help him in a foot race, and the goddess obliges by tripping his rival Ajax: “He fell headfirst into a pile of cattle dung, while Ulysses ran on to win the race.” What a brilliant way to get kids interested in Homer: Choose a scene that has somebody falling head first into a dung heap.

Worst line: A couple of stories deal with English sports in a way that may baffle some children. I love P.G. Wodehouse but have no idea what he means in a line about cricket match from his Mike at Wrykyn: “Burgess’s yorker was nearly too much for the latter in the first over, but he contrived to shop it away, and the pair gradually settled down.”

Recommendation? The publisher recommends Score! for ages 9–12. But some of the tales may also appeal to teenagers. The Lardner story, for example, was written for adults and first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post.

Caveat lector: This review was based on the hardcover edition, which has illustrations by David Kearney.

Publisher: 2008 (Roaring Brook paperback), 2000 (Kingfisher hardcover entitled Sports Stories).

Furthermore: Durant lives in England and wrote the “Leggs United” soccer series for children.

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

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