One-Minute Book Reviews

April 3, 2015

The Best Book of Bible Stories for Children

Filed under: Children's Books,Classics — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:43 pm
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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

January 26, 2013

Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s 2013 Caldecott Honor Book, ‘Green’

Filed under: Children's Books,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:13 am
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A romanticized view of a popular color honored by the American Library Association

Green. By Laura Vaccaro Seeger. Neal Porter/Roaring Brook Press, $16.99. Ages 2–5.

By Janice Harayda

A half century ago, Dr. Seuss helped children learn about colors with his rhyming trochees: “One fish / two fish / red fish / blue fish.” Laura Vaccaro Seeger takes a similar approach in her celebration of every environmentalist’s favorite color, which begins: “forest green / sea green / lime green / pea green.”

This 32-word book introduces different kinds of green by pairing thumping rhymes with boldly painted pictures and cutouts that, like windows, show a different view depending on whether you’re looking in or out (or, in this case, at the first page on which they appear or the next): A cutout that defines a pea on one page turns into the eye of a tiger on the next.

Green has no rhymes like “bile green / sickly green / vile green / prickly green,” and its romanticized green-is-good subtext borders on an environmental cliché. But Vaccaro Seeger is a fine painter who can make impasto acrylics rest as lightly on the page as a firefly. You just wonder how may 2-year-olds will come away with the idea that zebras have green stripes after seeing such a creature in the illustration for the final line of the quatrain: “Jungle green / khaki green / fern green / wacky green.”

Best line/picture: The picture of the “wacky green” zebra is great even if drags the concept of the book sideways and the joke will sail over the heads of 3-year-olds who have no idea what a zebra is.

Worst line/picture: All of the lines in the book begin with lower-case letters except for “Jungle green / khaki green …” which begins, senselessly, with a capital J. And as others have noted, the one of the cutouts of fireflies on the “glow green” spread doesn’t line up perfectly with what it’s supposed to reveal.

Published: March 2012

Furthermore: Update: The American Library Association named Green a 2013 Caldecott Honor Book on Jan. 30, 2013. Green has emerged as a favorite for the Caldecott Medal (which will be awarded Jan. 28, 2013) in the Mock Caldecott contests sponsored by libraries and others.The trailer for Green shows much of the book. The headline on this review has been changed to reflect its Caldecott honor.

About the author: Vaccaro Seeger wrote First the Egg, a Caldecott Honor book. She lives on Long Island.

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

© 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

April 1, 2012

What Made the ‘The Little Engine That Could’ So Popular? / Quote of the Day

Filed under: Children's Books,Classics,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:12 am
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Few picture books influenced mid-20th-century children as did The Little Engine That Could, written by the pseudonymous Watty Piper. Its pictures lack the high distinction of other favorites of the era, including The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. But  some baby boomers who recall no other line from their early reading remember: “I-Think-I-Can …” What explains the appeal of this story of a small engine that agrees to pull a long train up a hill after larger engines refuse to help? An answer appears in The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived, which ranks the “little engine” as No. 31 on a list compiled by authors Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan and Jeremy Salter. They write:

“Each of us has reserves of strength, imagination, and intelligence. If we concentrate and focus our attention, we can tap those reservoirs and meet challenges that might otherwise have seemed overwhelming. This is the simple yet powerful lesson of The Little Engine That Could. It is especially worth the attention of its target audience because The Little Engine That Could is a morality play for children. It is also very much an American tale in which an individual accomplishes what the establishment is unable or unwilling to do. …

“A valuable lesson for children is that being big doesn’t always make the difference. Those big engines refused to do what the tiny hero of our story accomplished. And she teaches us that we should believe in ourselves, to believe we can do it.”

February 24, 2012

Albert Marrin’s ‘Flesh and Blood So Cheap’ – A Children’s Book on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and Its Aftermath

The true story of a blouse-factory disaster that killed 146 people, mostly young women

Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy. Knopf, 192 pp., $19.99. By Albert Marrin. Ages 10 & up.

By Janice Harayda

Four hundred thousand people lined the streets of New York on a rainy day in 1911 for the funeral procession of the victims the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Nearly all of the dead were young, female Italian or Russian immigrants. And nearly all are known today, if they are known at all, for how they died rather than how they lived.

This excellent book shows how the victims lived — in their home countries, on ships bound for America, and in New York tenements — and how they found a legacy in workplace reforms that eased the shocking conditions that led to their deaths. It focuses on the Italian Catholic and Russian Jewish garment workers at the Triangle blouse factory in Lower Manhattan.

But Albert Marrin makes clear that the 146 victims of the fire shared hardships with people from other countries — especially Greece, Hungary, Romania and Poland — who became the grandparents of baby boomers. And if children see this book as the fascinating story of a tragedy that better safety rules could have prevented, their elders may find in it a part of their family history. Many adults have heard that their grandparents came to America “in steerage,” the lowest deck that held the steering cables for ships, but know little about what that means. They might gain a new respect for their elders’ fortitude if they knew that throughout the transatlantic crossing, two- to four-hundred steerage passengers shared two toilets.

Best line: Many. An example that deals with the garment industry at the time of the Triangle fire: “Textile workers, often 9- and 10-year-olds, tended the looms that wove the thread into cloth. Textile machines lacked safety devices like guardrails and automatic shutoff switches. A machine might pull in a child, grown drowsy and careless with overwork, crushing limbs or worse.” Flesh and Blood So Cheap also has a fascinating discussion of the similar conditions that exist today in other countries. The book quotes economist Jeffrey D. Sachs of Harvard, who argues that banning child labor and closing sweatshops throws poor people out of work, which can hurt them. Marrin writes that children “had no place to go” after garment-factory owners in Bangladesh fired them: “To survive, many lived on the streets as beggars. Many others became prostitutes or starved.”

Worst line: “Eventually, the partners [of the Triangle Waist Company] paid the victims’ families $75 for each life lost” in the fire. Actually, that’s a good line  — and money couldn’t compensate for these deaths — but you wonder what $75 would be in today’s dollars.

Published: February 2011

Furthermore: Flesh and Blood So Cheap was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for young people’s literature. Albert Marrin’s website describes his other works of juvenile nonfiction.

Read an excerpt from Flesh and Blood So Cheap.

Janice Harayda has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews is ranked one of the top 40 book blogs by Technorati and top 40 book-review blogs by Alexa Internet was named one of New Jersey’s best blogs by New Jersey Monthly.

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

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

February 19, 2012

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

Filed under: Children's Books,Children's literature,Classics — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:36 am
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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’

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:20 pm
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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

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