One-Minute Book Reviews

May 31, 2008

More on ‘Pale Male,’ One of the Year’s Best Children’s Books

You can never predict the behavior of those wacky Caldecott judges at the American Library Association www.ala.org. These are the people who never gave a medal to Dr. Seuss! And instead insulted him with three Honor Book citations! What were those librarians thinking when they passed over Horton Hatches the Egg and so many other wonderful picture books? I have no idea and a lot of other critics don’t, either.

Even so, I went out on a limb a couple of weeks ago and predicted that the Caldecott committee will give serious consideration to Janet Schulman and Meilo So’s new picture book Pale Male (Knopf, $16.99), the true story of a red-tailed hawk that with its mate built a nest atop a luxury co-op building on Fifth Avenue www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/10/. The hawk had inspired a two earlier children’s books, Jeanette Winter’s The Tale of Pale Male: A True Story. (Harcourt, 2007) and Meghan McCarthy’s City Hawk: The Story of Pale Male (Simon & Schuster, 2007). Because I hadn’t seen them, I couldn’t discuss them in my review.

But John Schwartz read the earlier books before reviewing Pale Male for tomorrow’s New York Times Book Review. And he says that the 2007 books are intended for younger readers than the 6-to-9-year-olds who may enjoy Schulman and So’s work. He also says that while both have their pleasures, “Schulman tells the story of the city’s most popular predator since Michael Milken with more detail and verbal grace.”

Schwartz’s review has a much larger reproduction of one of So’s beautiful watercolors than I could show on this site, so if you’re on the fence about the book, you may want to read the review here www.nytimes.com/2008/06/01/books/review/Schwartz-t.html?ref=books.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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October 25, 2007

Why Does This Picture-Book Cover Work? Elizabeth Matthews’s ‘Different Like Coco’

The latest in a series of occasional posts that rate the covers of books recently reviewed on this site

By Janice Harayda

The covers of children’s books often fail for the same reasons that the covers of adult books do: They’re dull, clichéd or too pallid to stand out at a bookstore or library. Or they tell you too little about a book or, worse, aggressively misrepresent the contents. And if they’re about people – instead of one of those riveting topics like Let’s Read and Find Out About Flypaper or My First Book About Dandruff – they may stereotype their subjects as nakedly as all those pink covers on novels marketed to women in their 20s and 30s.

Elizabeth Matthews avoids all those problems on the cover of Different Like Coco (Candlewick, $16.99, ages 4 and up) www.candlewick.com, which combines a pen-and-ink drawing with the artful use of watercolors. This picture-book biography of the fashion designer Coco Chanel sports a witty illustration of its subject in a brown-black dress on a yellow background with the title in an interesting copper-colored script. And it works beautifully for several reasons:

1. It has real “pop.” Put Different Like Coco on any bookstore or library shelf and it will stand out among its shelf-mates because of its strong design. It doesn’t need the special effects that make so many books look more like toys – lots of glitter, metallic images and overengineering in the form of punched-out or see-through spaces.

2. The image of Coco Chanel points to the right, or to the pages instead of the spine. This is so basic that no critic should have to mention it. In most cases you want to focus children’s attention where it will encourage them to open a book (though there are some notable exceptions that succeed). But a striking number of picture books ignore such fundamental design principles.

3. The cover represents both the book and its subject accurately and nonstereotypically (without a sea of pink). Chanel designed simple, unfussy clothes with flair. This is a simple, unfussy cover with flair. Matthews’ art reflects the spirit of Chanel’s designs so well that you might guess the subject of her book before you read the title. But the cover isn’t so sophisticated that it will appeal to adults more than children. The comic exaggeration (and that dog) will take care of that.

Some people might argue that Chanel’s arms look anorexic. But in the context of the book, the pencil-slim arms are clearly intended as a stylistic exaggeration and also appear on women with bodies of operatic proportions.

The only other thing might strike you as odd about this cover is that Matthews’s name appears in a much smaller font than you usually see for authors of her caliber. That’s because this is her first book. The general rule in publishing is: The bigger the author, the larger the font for his or her name relative to the font for the title (though less so for children’s books than others). Stephen King’s name, for example, appears on his covers in a larger font than the title of the book. It’s a safe bet that as Matthews’s reputation increases, the size of her name on the cover will, too.

The original review of Different Like Coco appeared on Oct. 21, 2007, www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/21/. You may also want to read a comment in yesterday’s post (Oct. 23) by lisamm, who says perceptive things about this cover, including the Chanel has her head held high.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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