One-Minute Book Reviews

April 3, 2015

The Best Book of Bible Stories for Children

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Egermeier CoverA perennial favorite includes many tales left out of other collections

EGERMEIER’S BIBLE STORY BOOK: Fifth Edition. Stories by Elsie E. Egermeier. Story Revision by Arlene S. Hall. Illustrated by Clive Uptton. Warner Press, 640 pp., varied prices. Ages 3–adult.

By Janice Harayda

Children’s Bible-story books tend to be highlight reels. They tell a scattering of tales connected loosely or not at all — those of Noah’s Ark, Moses in the bulrushes, Jesus’ birth and resurrection, and a perhaps dozen or two others. This episodic approach may have benefits at bedtime, but it fails to convey that the Bible tells a larger story of how God has revealed himself, in words and actions, over time.

A timeless antidote is Egermeier’s Bible Story Book. The fifth edition tells all of the major stories of the Bible from Genesis through Revelation — a total of 321 tales, each with its own title — and has virtues that go beyond its wide scope. Its tone is conversational but not dumbed-down, which is well suited to reading aloud, and it retains the spirit of the original biblical texts even in its most generous paraphrases. (“Lot moved toward Sodom. … What a mistake!”) Frequent quotations from the King James or other versions add depth and are usually simple enough for 3- and 4-year-olds to understand. (“Let there be light.” “His name is John.”) The painter Clive Uptton supports the respectful vision of authors Elsie Egermeier and Arlene Hall in his 121 full-page color illustrations: His picture of the crucifixion depicts shadowy forms on three crosses in the distance, not the bloodied close-ups that sometimes upset children.

All of this makes Egermeier’s Bible Story Book resemble — appropriately for its age group — a grand adventure story more than a collection of moral tales. It brims with turbulent events often left out of Bible-story collections: a shipwreck, an earthquake, a victory by thousands of men led into battle by the prophet Deborah. It may not have a snow queen, but it has more than enough action to satisfy many young fans of Frozen. And it is full-bodied enough for adults looking for an easier substitute that Bible-as-history course they never in college, or just an introduction to stories left out of the Old or New Testament highlight reels of their own childhoods.

This review applies only to the fifth edition pictured above. Other editions may differ.

Best line/picture: “At its heart, the Bible is a story – a story of how God has dealt with his people and revealed himself to them across the centuries.” A nice touch by Clive Uptton: a picture of Jesus on page 351 shows, realistically, a tuft of hair on his chest. When have you seen that in Renaissance art?

Worst line: A paraphrase of lines from Luke 7:36–50: “There was a rich man who loaned money to two poor men. To one he loaned 500 pence. To the other he loaned 50.” It’s “lent.”

Published: 1922 (copyright date for first edition, Gospel Trumpet Press), 1969 (revised Warner Press edition).

Furthermore: Egermeier’s Bible Story Book has sold more than two million copies. Unlike many similar volumes, it cites the Bible verses that inspired each of its stories.Without evangelizing, it supports the traditional Christian view that, as the preface notes, Jesus came into the world “to show us what God is like, to live and die and rise again that we might know eternal life.” Elsie Egermeier was a children’s book editor and Sunday School teacher.

Jan is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. She tweets at @janiceharayda.

© 2015 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 25, 2013

Jon Klassen’s ‘This Is Not My Hat’ – 2013 Caldecott Medal Winner

A picture book that works as a crime story, a Robin Hood tale with a twist, and a critique of capitalism in an age of banking scandals

This Is Not My Hat. By Jon Klassen. Candlewick, 40 pp., $15.99. Ages 4 and up.

By Janice Harayda

A small fish appears to suffer an unfair punishment for the crime of stealing a blue derby hat from a much bigger fish in this undersea suspense tale that won the 2013 Caldecott Medal. Jon Klassen’s noir-ish pictures serve as a witty a counterpoint to the thief’s tragicomic rationalizations for the snatch, which include: “It was too small for him anyway. / It fits me just right.”

But the big fish is hardly a passive victim. He takes swift and pitiless revenge for his loss, and the hat does fit the smaller creature better. Had the big fish stolen it? Was the theft an act of reclamation? Klassen leaves the questions open. And the moral uncertainty allows the story to work on several levels: as a mystery, a Robin Hood tale with a twist, and a critique of bullying or capitalism in the age of Enron and banking scandals in which small investors have paid for the crimes of larger predators.

Rarely do picture books of such high artistry allow for so many levels of interpretation or so successfully flout the picture-book convention that calls for an unambiguously happy ending. Along with it’s author’s earlier I Want My Hat Back, This Is Not My Hat establishes Klassen as an heir to the grand tradition of Maurice Sendak, Chris Van Allsburg, Tomi Ungerer and other artists who fearlessly have broken ground while retaining a sense of fun that appeals to children and adults alike.

Best line/picture: All. But Klassen has noted rightly that the drama begins when the eyes of the big fish pop open after the smaller one says that the hat-wearer “was asleep” at the time of the theft “probably won’t wake up for a long time.”

Worst line/picture: None.

Published: 2012

Furthermore: This Is Not My Hat won the 2013 Caldecott Medal, given by the American Library Association to “the most distinguished American picture book for children.” Klassen, who lives in California, talks about the book in a brief video. Many critics, including Roger Sutton in the New York Times Boook Review, have referred to the small fish as a “he” when the sex of the fish is unidentified and girls can wear derby hats, too.

Jan is an award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle. She cohosts a monthly conversation about classic books on Twitter at the hashtag #classicschat.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

August 19, 2012

‘Moo’ – An Obese Touch-and-Feel Book About Barnyard Animals

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Lifting the flaps will easier for children than lifting the book

Moo. By Matthew Van Fleet. Photography by Brian Stanton. Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 18 pp., $16.99.Ages 2–4.

By Janice Harayda

There are books that children can’t put down. Then there are books, like Moo, that some can’t pick up.

This obese book weighs nearly two pounds, about 10 percent of the average weight of the group most likely to respond to it, 2-year-olds. Would you want to lift 10 percent of your weight every time you felt inclined to pick up a book? If you aren’t sure, consider: The average American adult weighs 191 pounds if male and 164 pounds if female, according to government research. So you’d be lifting — and hauling around — a 16- or 19-pound tome.

Yes, 2-year-olds could turn the pages of this book if you laid it on a table, and no doubt many would enjoy it. Moo is a touch-and-feel, lift-the-flap book that uses bold color photographs and a scant rhyming text to describe the sounds and behavior of seven baby and barnyard animals – cows, pigs, sheep, goats, ducks, chickens and horses. But the book lacks a signal charm of its ancestor Pat the Bunny, dimensions that allowed it to fit into small hands. Why read a new behemoth before a well-proportioned classic?

Best line/picture: “Now the day is done and with a / Moo cow, moo / Goodbye from all the animals … / cock-a-doodle doo!”

Worst line/picture: “Mommy hen, / Fuzzy chicks,  / Roosters strut and stretch. / Cluck chicken, / Eat chicken – peck, peck, peck!” Stretch does not rhyme with peck.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2102 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

June 10, 2012

‘A Ball for Daisy’ – A Review of the 2012 Caldecott Medal Winner

Chris Raschka brings the spirit of modern art to to American picture books, but is that good?

A Ball for Daisy. By Chris Raschka. Schwartz & Wade/Random House, 32 pp., $16.99, Ages 2–4.

By Janice Harayda

A vacancy has existed at the summit of American picture book illustration since the death of Maurice Sendak, who shared that spot with Chris Van Allsburg and Nancy Ekholm Burkert. Some critics might usher in Chris Raschka, who won his first Caldecott Medal for The Hello, Goodbye Window and his second for A Ball for Daisy. And it’s easy to see why reviewers like the more than 40 books for children that he has produced alone or with authors such as Norman Juster and Jack Prelutsky.

More aggressively than any recent illustrator, Raschka has brought to American picture books the spirit and techniques of modern art: Fauvism’s symbolic use of color, Cubism’s fragmented geometric forms, Expressionism’s bold lines and emotional drama. That pattern holds in A Ball for Daisy, a wordless tale of a shaggy dog who suffers acute but fleeting heartbreak when a poodle punctures her adored red ball during a romp in the park. Raschka works with familiar materials – ink, watercolor and gouache – but uses them inventively enough to refresh an ageless theme: A new love eases the pain of losing an old one. His debt to the modernists shows up clearly in the destroyed ball, which in its shape and intensity of color resembles one of Matisse’s six-bladed leaf cutouts.

Raschka certainly deserves credit for originality in the conservative field of picture books – a realm that, as Sendak said, “is becoming a creatively exhausted genre.” But whether he should have won the latest Caldecott Medal is debatable. Novelty isn’t the same as greatness. And all the modernist influences on display in his book don’t lift it above some of the animal tales that the 2012 Caldecott judges rejected, including Ekholm Burkert’s Mouse & Lion. Like the 2011 winner, A Sick Day for Amos McGee, A Ball for Daisy is a sweet book unlikely to offend anyone.

Then there is the issue of the wordlessness of the story. The presence or absence of a written text is neutral in picture books, which can work with or without one. But words can add layers of meaning to a story. When they don’t exist, those layers must come from the art in order for a picture book to stand up to multiple rereadings. And A Ball for Daisy doesn’t really have them. What you see is what you get.

Three of the past six Caldecott winners have had no words, and that fact has led to speculation and some anger online. Have the judges bypassed worthy books because of fonts or stories when the medal is an award for illustration? Are they dumbing down America’s most prestigious picture book prize? The deliberations of the Caldecott judges are confidential, so it’s unclear why wordless books are winning a disproportionate number of medals. Whatever the reason, for the second year in a row they have played it safe. Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are still inspires spirited arguments more than a half-century after it won the 1964 Caldecott Medal. Gift-shoppers may see it as a strength — while others can only see it as a weakness — that  A Ball for Daisy gives you so little to debate.

Best line/picture: A wordless spread in that has eight roughly square pictures showing Daisy’s stages of grief for her destroyed ball, which include confusion, sorrow, anger, and finally a pained resignation. The spread makes the most sense when “read” horizontally across the two pages, which gives you a background that darkens with each image to show the dog’s growing despair. But it also works if you read the images on the left-hand page first (as some children will do) in an up-and-down, clockwise, or counterclockwise direction.

Worst line/picture: The young girl who owns Daisy remains headless until she and her beloved pet return home, more than halfway through the book, after the ball deflates. Raschka clearly did this to keep the focus on the dog’s emotions. But it distracts you from the story by adding a subplot: Who is Daisy’s owner?

Furthermore: A Ball for Daisy won the 2012 Caldecott Medal from the American Library Association, which also honored him for The Hello, Goodbye Window. Meghan Cox Gurdon reviewed A Ball for Daisy for the Wall Street Journal. One-Minute Book Reviews reviewed Jack Prelutsky’s Good Sports, which Raschka illustrated.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 19, 2012

A Collie Enters the Westminister Dog Show in ‘Lad: A Dog’

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Long before Malachy the Pekingese won “Best in Show” at the 2012 Westminster Kennel Club competition, Lad the collie had his own adventures at that annual event at Madison Square Garden. Albert Payson Terhune describes them in two tales in Lad: A Dog, a collection of 12 short stories inspired by an exceptional dog at a New Jersey kennel, which became an adult bestseller after it appeared in 1919 and which its publisher later repackaged as a children’s book. You can read “For a Bit of Ribbon” and “Lost!” online or in the attractive 1993 Puffin edition with illustrations by Sam Savitt.

February 10, 2012

‘Joy and Woe Are Woven Fine’ in Maurice Sendak’s ‘Bumble-Ardy’

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I’ve also posted an appreciation of Where the Wild Things Are on Medium.  If you admire Maurice Sendak, you might want to check it out.

A birthday party goes haywire in a tale of an adopted pig whose parents “got ate”

Bumble-Ardy. By Maurice Sendak. Michael Di Capua/Harper Collins, 40 pp., $17.95.

By Janice Harayda

Maurice Sendak has often spoken of his admiration for William Blake, and in his latest book he develops a variation on the poet’s idea that “joy and woe are woven fine” in human life. Or, in this case, porcine life.

The author of “Where the Wild Things Are” returns with another wild rumpus

Bumble-Ardy transposes into a darker key a brief animated segment that Sendak and Jim Henson created for Sesame Street in 1970. Its hero is no longer a boy who throws a birthday party for himself on a whim while his mother is out. Bumble-Ardy is an 8-year-old pig who has survived the slaughter of parents who never gave him a birthday party. He lives with his adoptive aunt Adeline, who can’t see that he wants a big celebration when he turns nine. So he invites a group of swine to a masquerade after she leaves for work. He soon finds their sty full of costumed revelers — a jester, a pirate, Louis XIV and others – whose carousing turns into a six-page bacchanal reminiscent of the “wild rumpus” in Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. The party’s over when Adeline returns and threatens to turn the outsiders into ham if they don’t leave.

Sendak’s pictures express an idea larger than that of a birthday party gone haywire: the irretrievability of time. Bumble-Ardy brims with images of objects found in vanitas paintings, those symbol-filled art works about the transience of earthly life, or in their modern counterparts. His frontispiece and title spread show a birth certificate, a June 2008 calendar and the “Hogwash Gazette” along with pictures of Bumble-Ardy’s dead parents. Nearly every subsequent page has a memento mori, such as a skull, or another traditional symbol the brevity of life — a watch, mirror, dead flower, flickering candle, musical instrument, broken plate or a number representing minutes, days or years.

These images may have a melancholy undertone, but Bumble-Ardy isn’t funereal. Sendak applies his watercolors with a light hand and surrounds his memento mori with images full of  life. He also writes in lively rhyming poetry, beginning with a “Simple Simon” trochaic meter — “Bumble Ardy had no party when he turned one” — and moving on to iambic and anapestic couplets or triplets. If some verses work less well than in the more light-hearted Sesame-Street video, where music masked their imperfections, they offer a welcome counterpoint to the reminders of death. They have the spirit of “Three Blind Mice,” a nursery rhyme so bouncy you don’t dwell on the farmer’s wife who “cut off their tails with a carving knife.”

But Bumble-Ardy is at heart the story of a lonely and misunderstood pig who is — as child psychologists say — “resilient.” Its hero doesn’t sulk when nobody gives him a birthday party. He plans one for himself. And he tries desperately to please an aunt who is furious afterward: “I Promise! / I Swear! / I Won’t Ever / Turn Ten!” Adeline covers him with kisses, so the story ends happily enough, but Bumble-Ardy’s plight remains sad. He copes by denying reality: He “won’t ever” turn ten.

Sendak’s unwillingness to preach about such situations has always set him apart from authors who favor tidy solutions and has helped to earn him a deserved reputation as one of the world’s finest picture-book illustrators.  Bumble-Ardy stays the course. Sendak isn’t warning parents to do better than those of its hero. He is saying: This is reality for some children. His message isn’t a “message.” It is closer a question, written on a sign held by a pig: “Where Do We Go From Here?”

Best line/picture: The six-page of the bacchanal, which includes visual references to Sendak’s earlier books and to those of other artists.

Worst line/Picture: Sendak says of Bumble-Ardy’s fifth, sixth, and seventh birthdays: “And five six seven just simply were not.” The line is wordy: It didn’t need both adverbs, “just” and “simply.” And the story includes an inherent contradiction. The book casts Bumble-Ardy as a young pig, but eight years old isn’t young for a pig: It’s at least middle-aged.

Published: September 2011

Furthermore: Sendak won a Caldecott Medal for his picture book, Where the Wild Things Are, which One-Minute Book Reviews reviewed in its “Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read” series.  Bumble-Ardy is the first book that he has written and illustrated since Outside Over There in 1981. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the follow button in the sidebar on this site.

You may also want to read “American Library Association to Little Kids: Women Are Second Best,” a post about male artists’ dominance of the Caldecott awards.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

January 24, 2012

Nancy Ekholm Burkert’s ‘Mouse & Lion’ Re-Imagines Aesop

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The mouse is the star of a fresh version of “The Lion and the Mouse” 

Mouse & Lion. By Rand Burkert. Pictures by Nancy Ekholm Burkert. Michael Di Capua/Scholastic, $17.95. Ages 3–6.

By Janice Harayda

Nancy Ekholm Burkert established herself as one of America’s great illustrators of children’s books with her art for the original 1961 edition of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach. She has held that distinction for 50 years – along with Maurice Sendak, Chris Van Allsburg and a handful of others – and is perhaps the country’s best living female picture-book artist.

Ekholm Burkert works in the fine-art tradition of nuanced and often symbolic paintings, an approach pioneered by illustrators such as N.C. Wyeth and Arthur Rackham. She excels at re-interpretations of classics, which have included Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs, a retelling of a Brothers Grimm version translated by Randall Jarrell.

In Snow-White and elsewhere, Ekholm Burkert shows a deep understanding of how far you can go with ageless tales without betraying their spirit. Unlike artists who simply graft modern clothes or speech onto classics, she works from the inside out. She brings to each book a unity and originality of vision that extends to the most arcane detail. The dwarfs in her Snow-White aren’t elves or gnomes. They are real people, based on research suggesting that the tale may have roots in a medieval incident involving dwarfs. This approach gives Snow-White a warm humanity and depth that most versions lack.

Anyone who doesn’t know Ekholm Burkert’s work will find an excellent introduction to it in the elegant Mouse & Lion, her first picture book since Valentine & Orson in 1989. Capably written by her son, Rand, this retelling of Aesop’s “The Lion and the Mouse” sets the fable in the Aha Hills on the border of Botswana and Namibia. Ekholm Burkert gives the tale a baobab tree and a tawny African grass mouse with black and white stripes. That is where another artist would have stopped.

Ekholm Burkert goes further. Her book shows, perhaps better than any other, that this story is about the mouse, who is the protagonist to the lion’s antagonist. Most versions have both animals on the cover or just the lion. This one has only the mouse on the front. The lion is on the back.

Mouse & Lion is original in other ways. Many artists treat Aesop’s fable as a stern tale that instructs: Be kind, and others will repay you for it. Ekholm Burkert sees the humor in the story: The king of beasts needs help from a tiny creature in freeing itself from a hunter’s snare. This and other aspects would be comical in real life, and her pictures show it. In a witty series of images, the regal Lion treats Mouse like a court jester: He demands that his captive show he’s brave enough to repay the favor of a release. Lion laughs when Mouse tries to perform acrobatics on a blade of tall grass that breaks, an act that lands him on his head. The king-and-vassal relationship changes after Mouse gnaws a hole in the snare that has trapped Lion, and the book gains a second theme — the joy of small things — in closing pages that show Mouse’s mate and their babies and Lion admiring ethereal African flora and fauna. If the fable traditionally casts kindness as a duty or means of self-preservation, this one shows that it is also pleasure.

Ekholm Burkert admires Asian art, and more than her earlier books, Mouse & Lion shows its influence on her work through its agile lines and expansive use of white space. At the same time it retains the virtues of her earlier books: the subtle color sense, the superior draftsmanship and the rich textures — on the grain of a boulder, the fur on a mouse, the wings of a butterfly. Rand Burkert notes in an afterword that the lion was Aesop’s favorite “character,”  and Mouse & Lion is the rare retelling that makes you see why.

Best line/picture: No. 1: Mouse returning to his mate and their six melt-your-heart babies. No. 2: Burkert has found an subtle way around a challenge : the difficulty of showing in a single image actions occurring at different times. She uses an airy blue to show things that have occurred or will – for example, the pendulum route Mouse has swung above Lion’s jaws.

Worst line/picture: None, but Rand Burkert has a heavy hand with exclamation points. Do you really need them after “A net dropped and twisted around him!” and “ ‘Ah yes!’ he thought”?

Recommended? This beautiful children’s book may also appeal to adults who admire fine-art illustration. I liked Jerry Pinkney’s almost wordless 2010 Caldecott winner, The Lion & the Mouse. But Mouse & Lion offers more insights into the fable, and the two retellings are so different that many people will want to read both.

Furthermore: Publishers Weekly named Mouse & Lion one of the best picture books of 2011. Nancy Ekholm Burkert won a 1973 Caldecott Honor for Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs. Her other honors include a show of her work at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. A New York Times review of Mouse & Lion discusses varied interpretations of Aesop.

About the author: A short biography of Nancy Elkhom Burkert appears on the blog We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie.

You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right. She is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and book editor of the Plain Dealer.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda

January 1, 2012

‘War Horse,’ Michael Morpurgo’s Anti-War Novel for Ages 8–12

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A farm horse adapts to life as a cavalry mount and more in World War I

War Horse. By Michael Morpurgo. Scholastic, 165 pp., $6.99, paperback. Ages 8 and up.

By Janice Harayda

War Horse is narrated by a horse that has mastered the use of the semicolon. If you can accept this, you will probably have no trouble believing the rest of his adventures, which begin when a Devon farmer sells him to a British officer in World War I and which take him to the Western Front, where he serves as a cavalry mount and a hauler of guns and carts full of wounded soldiers and ammunition.

Joey has a white cross on his reddish brown forehead and bears his suffering with the saintliness that the mark implies. He gallops through so many odds-defying escapes that the suspense depends less on whether he will survive than on whether he will again see Albert Narracott, the farmer’s son who misses him back in England.

Michael Morpurgo invests this plot with an anti-war message uncluttered by the ambiguities that combat involves. He gives no sense that some ideals are worth fighting for or that World War I had causes beyond “some old duke that’s been shot somewhere.” After being commandeered by Germans in France, Joey falls under the care of a soldier known as Crazy Old Friedrich, who insists that he is “the only sane man” in his regiment:

“It’s the others who are crazy, but they don’t know it. They fight a war and they don’t know what for. Isn’t that crazy? How can one man kill another and not know why he does it, except that the other man wears a different color uniform and speaks a different language. And it’s me they call crazy!”

Adults may hear a faint echo of Catch-22 and  All Quiet on the Western Front in the observations of Friedrich and others. But preteens who haven’t read those books are likely to find the ideas in War Horse fresh and expressed in terms they can understand. And the historical setting of the novel offers 8-to-12-year-olds an appealing change from the contemporary realism and paranormal fantasy more often pitched to them.

Like Black Beauty, War Horse takes the form of an interior monologue by a beloved English horse whose hardships reveal a purity of spirit. Joey has a gentle nature and treats his companions better than many characters in recent children’s fiction treat their classmates. His friends, human and equine, repay his kindness and support the ageless theme of War Horse: People and animals comfort each other amid the sorrows of war. For all of Joey’s valor in combat, the title of his story has an ironic aspect. War Horse could have been called Peace Horse.

Best line: No. 1: “Within minutes the mist began to clear away and I saw for the first time that I stood in a wide corridor of mud, a wasted, shattered landscape between two vast unending rolls of barbed wire that stretched away into the distance behind me and in front of me. … This was what the soldiers called ‘no-man’s-land.’”

Worst line: “For just a few short moments, we moved forward at the trot as we had done in training.” All moments are short.

Recommendation: The direct, conversational writing style of War Horse lends itself well to reading aloud.

About the author: Morpurgo is a former children’s laureate in England.

Published: 1982 (first UK edition), 1910 (Scholastic paperback edition).

Links for the movie version: Watch the trailer and see an interactive map of the trip Joey takes in the film.

You can follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 12, 2011

Chris Van Allsburg’s ‘Queen of the Falls’ – A Barrel of Female Heroism

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Annie Edson Taylor learned that some things are harder than going over Niagara Falls in a barrel

Queen of the Falls. By Chris Van Allsburg. Houghton Mifflin, 40 pp., $18.99. Ages 6 and up.

By Janice Harayda

No living American picture-book artist hits notes as high as Chris Van Allsburg does as often as he does. For more than thirty years he has been writing books that are at once dramatic and restrained by elegant taste. He never panders to children or their parents with cuteness or dumbing-down. And because he writes and illustrates his stories, his words and pictures work as a duet instead of dueling solos.

Van Allsburg achieves his effects partly through superb pencil draftsmanship. He collects Mission Style furniture, which has clean horizontal and vertical lines that set off the grain of the wood, and his illustrations have a similar quality. Every image reveals the texture of what it depicts — a chair, blades of grass, the mutton-chop sideburns on a turn-of-the-century newspaper reporter.
A recent case in point Queen of the Falls, Van Allsburg’s first nonfiction book. It tells a story of female heroism and its aftermath. In 1901 Annie Edson Taylor became the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive. Some sources say that Taylor took her plunge on her 63rd birthday, and while she is known to have lied about her age, photographs show that she was well past youth. In the fashion of the day, she wore an ankle-length skirt.

Van Allsburg evokes his setting with shifting perspectives tones that resemble sepia but have more warmth. Taylor enters her barrel watched by a box turtle with design on its shell that echoes the ribs of her container, a visual rhyme. Then comes a two-page bleed of Niagara Falls with a barrel atop them and the line: “ ‘Oh, Lord,’ she whispered, and then she was gone.” The next spread shows the onlookers, including a bull terrier, Van Allsburg’s artistic signature.

Why would anyone undertake such a reckless act? Taylor seems to have embarked on her mission out of desperation more than daredevil streak. She was a widow living a boarding house in Bay City, Michigan, after her once-busy charm school failed, and she hoped that her feat would bring fame and enough money for a secure old age. That it didn’t work out that way makes her story as poignant as it is exciting and gives a double meaning to the title of Queen of the Falls. Van Allsburg writes:

“When Annie was still back in Bay City, imagining her path to fame and fortune, she believed going over Niagara Falls in a barrel would be the hard part, but she was wrong.”

That comment amounts to a chilling understatement. Taylor faded from view after the initial fascination with her ride wore off. Hucksters exploited her, and people snubbed her lecture tour because she lacked the glamour they had expected. Faced with indifference to an act for which she had risked her life, she stopped touring, sold postcards for pennies near the falls, and died poor.

Queen of the Falls is about the vulnerability of older women to poverty and neglect, but it is also about hope. Van Allsburg invests Taylor with dignity and courage amid continual hardship. In a typical passage, he avoids speculating about how she felt when she saw all the empty seats on her lecture tour but writes gently that, after a while, “The widow had run out of steam.” For all her disappointments, Taylor kept her self-respect, and Van Allsburg makes you see why that may have been as much of an achievement as the one that led to her evanescent fame. Many full-scale biographies of exceptional Americans have said less about the character of their subjects than Van Allsburg does in this short book about the Midwestern widow who remains the only woman to have gone over the falls alone.

Best line/picture: The two pages that show Annie’s barrel about to go over the fall and the single line of text: “ ‘Oh, Lord,’ she whispered, and then she was gone.”

Worst line/picture: “The [charm] school’s owner and only teacher was a short, plump, fussy 62-year-old widow named Annie Edson Taylor.” Some sources disagree that Taylor was 62 when she began planning her feat, and others agree but say that because of the time it took to design her barrel, she made her trip over the falls on her 63rd birthday. Queen of the Falls would have benefited from an endnote about the source Van Allsburg used for her age and why he chose it.

Recommendation? A teacher described Queen of the Falls on Twitter it a “spectacular read-aloud book” that engaged her students and inspired “plenty of questions.”

Furthermore: A review of Van Allsburg’s alphabet book, The Z Was Zapped, also appeared on this site.

About the author: Van Allsburg won Caldecott medals for Jumanji and The Polar Express. His The Mysteries of Harris Burdick inspired the new collection The Chronicles of Harris Burdick.

You can also follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda or by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar on this site.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

June 6, 2011

In Defense of Meghan Cox Gurdon, Children’s Book Reviewer

Does a reviewer have a right to say that books for adolescents are “ever-more-appalling”?

By Janice Harayda

For years Meghan Cox Gurdon has been reviewing books for children and teenagers for the Wall Street Journal – at first biweekly and, since the launch of the paper’s book review section in late 2010, weekly. Her reviews are consistently intelligent and well-written and almost always favorable.

Cox Gurdon clearly has made it her mission to look for and call attention to high-quality books for children and teenagers on many topics and in a variety of genres. She has praised books as different as Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which won the 2008 Caldecott Medal from the American Library Association, and Ruth Krauss’s reissued classic The Backward Day.

Over the weekend the Wall Street Journal published “Darkness Too Visible,” one of the rare articles by Cox Gurdon that faulted a major trend — the burgeoning array of novels for adolescents that involve violence, abuse or other bleak topics. For this she has been pilloried in blogs and on Twitter at the hashtag #YASaves, which was created  in response her story and has generated more than 15,000 responses, according to the trade newsletter ShelfAwareness. Cox Gurdon has been called “biased” (@KelliTrapnell), “idiotic” (@fvanhorne), “a right-wing nut” (@annejumps), full of “ugliness” (@AprilHenryBooks), and “brittle, ignorant, shrewish” (@Breznian).

What did Cox Gurdon do to earn this torrent of vitriol? She did what critics are supposed to do – to look beyond plot and characterization and consider the deeper themes and issues raised by novels. In “Darkness Too Visible,” she questioned the effects of books like Jackie Morse Kessler’s Rage, a “gruesome but inventive” 2011 book about a girl whose secret practice of cutting herself “turns nightmarish after a sadistic sexual prank.” Cox Gurdon quotes a passage from the novel that says: “She had sliced her arms to ribbons, but the badness remained, staining her insides like cancer. She had gouged her belly until it was a mess of meat and blood, but she still couldn’t breathe.”

It is entirely legitimate for a reviewer to ask, as Cox Gurdon does, how this might affect a vulnerable child or teenager:

“The argument in favor of such novels is that they validate the teen experience, giving voice to tortured adolescents who would otherwise be voiceless. If a teen has been abused, the logic follows, reading about another teen in the same straits will be comforting. If a girl cuts her flesh with a razor to relieve surging feelings of self-loathing, she will find succor in reading about another girl who cuts, mops up the blood with towels and eventually learns to manage her emotional turbulence without a knife.

“Yet it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue. That is not to discount the real suffering that some young people endure; it is an argument for taking care.”

Anyone who writes about children’s books regularly knows that Cox Gurdon hasn’t made up this trend: Books, like movies, keep getting more lurid. Or, as she puts it, the publishing industry is serving up “ever-more-appalling offerings for adolescent readers.” If this issue might not concern all adults, it would surely concern some, given how many buy books as gifts for children without having time to look at much more than the cover and flap copy. And Cox Gurdon isn’t saying: Never read young-adult books. She’s saying: Know what’s in those books, and use judgment, as you would with movies.

Contemporary child-rearing experts urge parents to protect their children in ways that would have been unthinkable a couple of generations ago, when psychologists warned of about the dangers of “overprotectiveness.” This shift has resulted from social changes that require more caution, and Cox Gurdon has encouraged adults to apply to their children’s reading the level of care that they bring to all other areas of their lives. Is this so terrible? Thousands of people on Twitter have said, “Yes.” Anyone who believes that adolescents’ reading habits matter as much as their viewing habits may disagree. In her latest article and others, Cox Gurdon has paid young people’s literature the highest compliment:  She has given children’s books the close scrutiny that, in an age of shrinking book-review sections, typically goes only to those for adults. For that, she deserves gratitude.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer, the book columnist for Glamour, and vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She has written for the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, and many other publications Since 2006 she has edited One-Minute Book Reviews, named one of New Jersey’s best blogs in the April 2011 issue of New Jersey Monthly. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

(c) 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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