One-Minute Book Reviews

December 20, 2009

Gift Ideas for Kids — The Winners of 2009 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards for Excellence in Children’s Literature

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We won’t know the next winners of American Library Association’s Newbery and Caldecott medals until Jan. 18. But if you’re looking for ideas for children’s gifts before then, you might want to print and save this list of books that won the most recent Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards for excellence in children’s literature. Only American authors are eligible for ALA honors. But the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards are open to anyone who has had a book published in the U.S., so they can show more diversity than the librarians’ awards. Two examples: The latest winners include Nation, the British Terry Pratchett’s young-adult novel about two 19th-century children who create a society from scratch, and Bubble Trouble, by the New Zealander Margaret Mahy, illustrated by England’s Polly Dunbar. And this month the Horn Book posted its list of the best books of 2009 for children and teenagers, which also includes Bubble Trouble.

November 20, 2009

A Midwestern Gothic Boyhood – David Small’s Graphic Memoir for Adults and Teenagers, ‘Stitches’

An illustrator found that during a painful childhood, “Art became my home.”

Stitches: A Memoir. By David Small. Norton, 329 pp., $24.95. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

David Small’s mother had her heart in the wrong place — literally. Elizabeth Small was born with her heart on the wrong side of her chest, and the defect serves as a metaphor for her coldness to her son in this graphic memoir and Midwestern Gothic tale of growing up in Detroit in the 1950s.

As a teenager, Small had surgery for throat cancer caused by high doses of radiation given to him by his physician father for sinus problems. His parents didn’t tell him he had cancer, and he learned of it from a purloined letter. He discovered that his mother was a lesbian when he found her in bed with another woman and that his grandmother was insane when she set her house on fire.

Small blends real and imagined scenes as he describes these and other traumas in a book that fittingly bears many hallmarks of neo-gothics: a madwoman, night terrors, family secrets, a locked drawer, mysterious passageways, a church with pointed arches. He also nods to Alice in Wonderland through both words and pictures, including images of a psychiatrist-as-White-Rabbit who helps him burrow into his past and find redemption through art.

Working in pen-and-ink washed with black and white, Small has filled Stitches with artistically and psychologically rich illustrations that help to offset the limits of the weaker, solipsistic text. In his pictures he vividly shows the world from a child’s point of view, often by casting himself as a small figure looking up at adults whose eyes are obscured by glasses that suggest their inability to see him for who he is.

But Small writes from the point of view of an adult looking back on his childhood, which at times makes for subtle discontinuities between the images and words. The back matter suggests that he knows his mother comes across as a monster and that he became aware of some aspects of her grief only after she died. And yet countless writers have made you feel both their youthful sorrow and that of the parents who caused it.

The pain of unhappy housewives like Elizabeth Small was powerful enough to help launch the modern feminist movement. Hers must have been that much greater because she had the added burden of having to hide her sexual identity. But Stitches gives you little sense of that pain; you see its roots in her own upbringing, but you never feel it. Perhaps a sequel will capture more of the spirit of a quotation in Small’s afterword about his mother, which comes from the poet Edward Dahlberg, “Nobody heard her tears; the heart is a fountain of weeping water which makes no noise in the world.”

Ages: Stitches made the shortlist for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature, and some people questioned whether it belonged there or in an adult category. It’s a judgment call: This is a crossover book that may appeal both to mature teenagers and to adults who enjoy graphic novels and memoirs.

Best line/picture: No. 1: “Art became my home.” No. 2: In a review in the Washington Post, Michael Sims described one of the finest pictures in the book, which appears on the frontispiece and elsewhere: “The boy sits on the floor, on a sheet of drawing paper almost as large as he is. Crayons lie scattered nearby. He leans forward, resting the top of his head on the paper. Then he begins to literally sink through the floor, to disappear into the paper. A last kick of his legs reveals that he wasn’t sinking so much as joyously diving head-first into the world he created, leaving behind the world he was born into.”

Worst line/picture: “On the one hand, I felt the fear, humiliation and pain … While on the other, for reasons I could not quite understand, I felt that she was justified … and that I deserved everything I had gotten.” This passage supposedly describes Small’s feelings at the age of six but sounds more like something he worked out later in therapy. It is also involves telling rather than showing. Small doesn’t trust you to understand his feelings from his pictures, as he does in many other parts of the book, so he overelaborates here.

Published: September 2009

About the author: Small also wrote Imogene’s Antlers and illustrated Judith St. George’s So You Want to Be President?, which won the 2001 Caldecott Medal. His work has appeared in the New Yorker and other magazines. Born in 1945, he lives in Michigan.

Children’s book reviews appear on this site on Saturday’s. You can also follow Jan on Twitter (@janiceharayda) www.twitter.com/janiceharayda, where further comments on them sometimes appear during the week.

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

October 15, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda – The World’s Best Acknowledgments in a Book

Yesterday Deborah Heiligman made the shortlist for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature for her captivating dual biography, Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Holt, 268 pp., $18.95, ages 9 and up). And she might win in a walk if the judges gave the prize for the acknowledgments section of a book alone. Heiligman amusingly tweaks the clichés of the genre in her thanks to her husband, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jonathan Weiner:

“You put up with a lot as I wrote this book. You owed me, sure, but you have paid me back in spades. I’m ready for your next one. Jon read the book front to back in many drafts, and if there are any mistakes, blame him.”

Wouldn’t acknowledgements be more fun if everybody wrote like this?

October 14, 2009

David Small’s Graphic Memoir of Throat Cancer, ‘Stitches,’ Makes Shortlist for National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

David Small has made the shortlist for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature for Stitches (Norton, 336 pp., $24.95), his graphic memoir of getting throat cancer after receiving high doses of radiation for a sinus condition while growing up in Detroit in the baby-boom era. The sponsor of the awards doesn’t give a separate prize for graphic novels or memoirs but considers them along with other submissions in the relevant category, so you could easily miss that this one has a different format from other books on the shortlist. Small talks about Stitches in a YouTube trailer that shows a generous number of pages from the book. He won the American Library Association’s 2001 Caldecott Medal for So You Want to Be President?, and his work has appeared in The New Yorker and other publications.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

October 9, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda — 2009 National Book Award Finalists to Be Announced Next Week, Winners on Nov. 18

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Update, Monday, 10/12: The 2009 National Book Awards finalists will be announced on Wednesday, Oct. 14, at 12 noon Eastern time.

Yes, it seems we’ve barely exhaled since the 2009 Man Booker and Nobel prize-winners were announced. But next week the National Book Foundation will name the five 2009 National Book Award finalists in each of the four categories – fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature. But the foundation may still be making up its mind about the date: One page of the awards site says the finalists will be announced on October 13 and another page says the finalists will be announced on October 14.  I will update this post as soon as the organization clarifies this. The winners will be announced at the 60th National Book Awards ceremony at Cipriani Wall Street in New York City on November 18.

February 29, 2008

2008 Delete Key Awards Finalist #7 – Sherman Alexie’s ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian’

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Delete Key Awards Finalist #7 – From Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian:

“ARGGHHHHHHHHSSSSSPPPPPPGGGHHHHHHHAAAAAARGHHHHHHHHHHAGGGGHH!”

Yes, Alexie won the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for this novel. And, yes, it’s possible that this line has an inner logic discernible only to teenagers. But the rest of us may wonder: Why does this line have five S’s and six P’s instead of six S’s and five P’s? Why does it have eight A’s and ten G’s instead of ten A’s and eight G’s? What, exactly, is the logic behind this manic sequence of letters? Does it help to know that it’s supposed to sound like “a 747 is landing on a runway of vomit”? Or that in the book the letters take up two lines (without punctuation) instead of one? The letters seem intended as onomatopoeia, but their arrangement is so random, you wonder if Alexie’s space bar just got stuck.

This line suggests how the language of e-mail – or perhaps Hollywood screenplays – is infecting novels for all ages. Will we someday get a novel written entirely in emoticons?

The ten Delete Key Awards finalists are being numbered but announced in random order.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

February 3, 2008

A Great Question to Ask Your Teenager (Quote of the Day / Michael Riera)

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I don’t review many childrearing guides, partly because most seem to recycle the same dozen or so tips. How many ways can you say, “Set limits” or “Be patient – this stage will pass”? And some of the books are so patronizing that you might wonder: Are their authors writing for children or for people who have them? But I love a comment that the writer and educator Michael Riera makes as part of a broader argument against lecturing children:

“In many ways, it all comes down to what Nobel Laureate Isadore Rabi’s mother used to ask him each day when he came home from school: ‘Did you ask any good questions today?’”

Riera is encouraging parents generally to ask questions instead of trying always to have definitive answers. But the question posed by Rabi’s mother is, in itself, great. Have you ever asked a child, “Did you ask any good questions in school today?” I wonder how this would work with teenagers who don’t aspire to become Nobel laureates.

Michael Riera in Staying Connected to Your Teenager: How to Keep Them Talking to You and How to Hear What They’re Really Saying (Perseus, 2003) www.perseusbooksgroup.com. Riera www.mikeriera.com is head of school at the Redwood Day School in Oakland, CA.

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

January 29, 2008

John Gunther’s Classic Memoir of His 17-Year-Old Son’s Courageous Effort to Survive a Fatal Brain Tumor, ‘Death Be Not Proud’

A sensitive teenager faced a devastating illness with grace and intelligence

Death Be Not Proud: A Memoir. By John Gunther. Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 224 pp., $13.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

You could argue that John Gunther idealizes his son, Johnny, who died of a brain tumor at the age of 17, in this classic memoir. But parents naturally want to remember the best in children they have lost. So the question isn’t whether Gunther idealizes his son but whether Johnny deserves the near-heroic portrayal he receives in this book. The answer is yes.

First published in 1949, Death Be Not Proud is a slim book that has little in common the sort of memoirs that recently have become fashionable: fat, self-dramatizing stories overstuffed with emotion and incident. Gunther describes with uncommon restraint how he and his ex-wife tried to save their son after he developed a glioma multiforme, a brain tumor that few people then survived.

During his 15-month illness, Johnny endured a series of brutal, long-shot treatments: brain surgery, mustard gas injections, a primitive form of radiation. He showed his character and vivid intellectual curiosity best after the surgery, when father asked if he knew he’d had an operation. “Of course,” Johnny said. “I heard them drilling three holes through my skull, also the sound of my brains sloshing around. From the sound, one of the drills must have had a three-eights of an inch bit.”

A bestseller in its day, Death Be Not Proud appears today on high school reading lists, and many people see it as a book for teenagers. This is a shame. A sea-change has occurred in the advice that parents of sick children get from doctors (who urged Gunther to lie to Johnny to keep him from finding out how serious his illness was). A book club might spend hours talking about just one of the questions raised by this book: Would Johnny really have been better off if his parents had taken the advice of 21st-century doctors instead of their own?

Best line: Many passages attest to Johnny’s unusual intellectual and emotional maturity. His parents once asked him, while he was in prep school, if he wanted to see some home movies taken of him when he was a child. “Only if they’re not too recent – the past is tolerable if remote enough,” Johnny replied.

Worst line: Death Be Not Proud has a scattering of lines such as, “Johnny was as sinless as a sunset” and “Everybody loved him – down to the corner cop.” If these seem too rosy, the book wears them lightly. Gunther is not trying to convince you that Johnny was perfect but to portray his struggle against cancer.

Reading group guide: I can’t link directly to the publisher’s guide, posted at www.harpercollins.com, but here’s a link to it that you can paste into your browser: http://www.harpercollins.com/books/9780061230974/Death_Be_Not_Proud/.

Published: 1949 (first edition) and 2007 (Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition).

Furthermore: John Gunther (1901–1970), one of the best-known reporters of his day, wrote the popular “Inside” series that included Inside Europe, Inside Asia and Inside U.S.A.

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

January 16, 2008

Two Children’s Classics That Didn’t Win the Newbery — What Are the Others?

This week I was going to compile a list of 10 great children’s novels that didn’t win a Newbery Medal from the American Library Association www.ala.org, similar to my list of 10 classics that didn’t get Pulitzer (“Famous Pulitzer Losers,” www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/04/16/). But I ran out of time, so I’ll just mention two:

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White. A 1953 Newbery Honor Book that lost the top prize to Ann Nolan Clark’s Secret of the Andes.

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt. Shut out of all prizes in 1976. Lost to the Newbery medalist, Susan Cooper’s The Grey King, and Honor Books The Hundred Penny Box, by Sharon Bell Mathis, and Dragonwings, by Laurence Yep.

What are the other classics – books children have enjoyed for decades — that didn’t win the Newbery?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 14, 2008

‘Hugo Cabret’ Wins 2008 Caldecott, ‘Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!’ Gets Newbery

[Note: Additional posts about these awards will appear later today.]

Librarians honor one of their own for the second year in a row in giving Newbery to Laura Amy Schlitz

By Janice Harayda

Brian Selznick has won the 2008 Caldecott Medal for his bestselling illustrated novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Selznick merges the picture- and chapter-book formats in his tale of a young orphan and thief who lives in a Paris train station and tries to solve a mystery that involves a mechanical man begun by his late father. Books that win Caldecott medals typically have about 32 pages and suit 4-to-8-year-olds. The Invention of Hugo Cabret has 533 pages and may be the longest to win the award. It popular among 9-to-12-year-olds.

The American Library Association announced the award today at a meeting in Philadelphia. The Caldecott Medal honors the most distinguished American picture book for children. A review of and reading group guide to The Invention of Hugo Cabret appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on April 21, 2007, www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/04/21/.

Laura Amy Schlitz has won the Newbery Medal for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, a collection of monologues by characters from an English village in 1255. By giving the award to Schlitz, the librarians honored one of their own for the second year in a row. The 2007 Newbery Medal went to Los Angeles librarian Susan Patron for The Higher Power of Lucky. The medal honors the most distinguished work of American literature for children published in the preceding year.

The Caldecott Honor books are Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine and Kadir Nelson, First the Egg by Laura Vaccaro Seeger, The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by Peter Sis and Knuffle Bunny, Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity by Mo Willems. The Newbery Honor books are: Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis, The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt and Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson.

Christopher Paul Curtis won Coretta Scott King Award for an author for Elijah of Buxton.
The Honor awards for authors went to Sharon M. Draper for November Blues and Charles R. Smith Jr. for Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali.
Artist Ashley Bryan won the Coretta Scott King Award for an author for Let It Shine.
The Honor awards went to illustrator Nancy Devard for The Secret Olivia Told Me and Leo and Diane Dillon for Jazz on a Saturday Night.
Geraldine McCaughrean’s The White Darkness won the Michael L. Printz Award to www.ala.org/yalsa/printz for excellence in literature for young adults.
The Printz Honor Books are Dreamquake: Book Two of the Dreamhunter Duet by Elizabeth Knox, One Whole and Perfect Day by Judith Clarke, Repossessed by A. M. Jenkins and Your Own, Sylvia: A Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath by Stephanie Hemphill.
(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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