One-Minute Book Reviews

March 26, 2011

Tomorrow – A Review of the 2011 Caldecott Medal Winner, Erin and Philip Stead’s ‘A Sick Day for Amos McGee’

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Erin Stead won the American Library Association’s highest honor for illustration, the Caldecott Medal, for A Sick Day for Amos McGee, a picture book about animals who repay the kindness of their zookeeper. Her art accompanied a bedtime story by her husband, Philip. How does her work compare to that of other Caldecott winners? A review will appear on One-Minute Book Reviews tomorrow.

March 2, 2011

‘The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton’ – A Biography for Young Readers

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The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton: A Biography. By Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge, Clarion, 184 pp., $20. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

Edith Wharton said that she hoped her biographer would “find the gist of me,” and Connie Wooldridge meets that test in this lively account of the life of one of America’s greatest novelists.

Born Edith Newbold Jones, Wharton came from the elite New York family that inspired the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses.” Her parents and their circle looked on writing anything except poetry as an unworthy profession, especially for women. And Wooldridge rightly credits Wharton with escaping from the social expectations that might have stifled her career while observing those mores closely enough to write The Age of Innocence, the first novel by a woman to win the Pulitzer Prize.

The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton also shows how Wharton defied sexual codes by having an affair with the journalist Morton Fullerton while married to the unstable Teddy Wharton, who was conducting his own adulterous romance. Of Wharton’s marital relations, Wooldridge writes: “The sexual side of her marriage to Teddy was a failure.”  This sentence will shock few children at the upper end of the suggested age range for this book. But the line comes across as a gratuitous attempt to justify or at least explain Wharton’s adultery, though Wooldridge doesn’t link her subject’s poor sex life to her infidelity. And young readers who are ready for such material could have handled more information on the great themes of Wharton’s fiction (especially that of the conflict between individual yearnings and the imperatives of a rigid social order), which get less attention than their creator’s fascinating life.

This biography has more than 80 black-and-white photos and illustrations of every stage of Wharton’s life from early childhood through old age, including pictures of her glorious homes in Newport, New York, Paris and Lenox, Massachusetts. And all of these help to make up for the few questionable judgments in the text. One page reproduces mock reviews that young Edith wrote of a novel called Fast and Loose that she began just before her 15th birthday. “A chaos of names apparently all seeking their owners,” Wharton-the-satirist said. She called “the sentiments weak, & the whole thing a fiasco.” Wooldridge need not fear that she will face similar assaults for The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton.

Best line: One of many good quotes from Wharton, in this case about her girlhood: “No children of my own age, and none even among the nearest of my grown-ups, were as close to me as the great voices that spoke to me from books.” The “great voices” included those of Plutarch, Homer and Milton.

Worst line: A caption on page 21 says: “One of Edith’s mock reviews of her first novel.” The book makes clear that Wharton started a novel at the age of 11 and that the mock reviews describe “another novel,” her second, that she began at the age of 15.

Ages: Clarion bills The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton as a book for ages 12 and up, and its mature content justifies the recommendation. But many preteens and teens reject books with the format of this one, which is that of a modified picture book: They want biographies that look like books for adults. So The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton, good as it is, may be a tough sell to strong readers over the age of 9 or so.

Published: August 2010

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at

© Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 23, 2011

‘Ballet for Martha’ – A Book a Tiger Mother Might Claw for

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When Martha Graham, Aaron Copland and Isamu Noguchi teamed up

Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring. By Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan. Illustrated by Brian Floca. Neal Porter/Roaring Brook, 48 pp., $17.99. Ages: See  below.

By Janice Harayda

Ballet for Martha will surely lift the heart of any Tiger Mother who is looking for something to read to a second-grader who needs a break from perfecting her Mandarin and practicing the piano for three hours a day. How often do you see a picture book not much larger than Where the Wild Things Are that describes how three people collaborated on an American masterpiece? And that shows the kids what they, too, can achieve if they are geniuses like Martha Graham, Aaron Copland and Isamu Noguchi?

Any Tiger Mother might claw to read aloud the lines in which Graham reacts to the discovery that some of her choreography won’t work with Copland’s music: “She has a tantrum. She screams. She yells. She throws a shoe.” A Tiger Mother might also love the way Graham keeps rejecting Noguchi’s ideas for the sets for Appalachian Spring, a dance about a 19th-century couple’s wedding and anticipation of their new life on the frontier. And a Tiger Mother would have no trouble answering unresolved questions such as: Why does the Pioneer Woman at the wedding – an older figure inspired by Graham’s grandmother – look so much younger and more seductive than the Bride? Is that a come-hither look she’s giving the Husbandman? And is it beyond second-graders to wonder if something is up between the Pioneer Woman and the groom?

Most of all: a Tiger Mother might identify with the fiery revivalist preacher who marries the Bride and the Husbandman: “Towering, glowering, leaping like a cat. His long arms point toward the couple.” Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan don’t answer their rhetorical question: “Is he warning them of hard times ahead?” But they explain other things in their afterword. One is that Copland won a Pulitzer Prize for Appalachian Spring. Could a Tiger Mother ask for more than book that implies that even 7-year-olds can benefit from reading about what it takes to win a Pulitzer?

Best line/picture: A quote from Graham: “My dancers never fall to simply fall. They fall to rise.”

Worst line/picture: “She screams. She yells.” It’s redundant.

Ages: Ballet for Martha is informative and well-illustrated. But it embodies a paradox: Many children reject picture for chapter books starting at the age of 6 or 7, and this picture book seems pitched to the strong readers who may snub it because of its format. The publisher recommends Ballet for Martha for ages 6 to 10. But it lacks the high drama or comedy that many children at the younger end of its age range want. And older ones might prefer an illustrated chapter book like Martha Graham: A Dancer’s Life (Clarion, 1998), billed as a volume for ages 10 and up and written by Russell Freedman, who won a Newbery Medal for Lincoln: A Photobiography. Because Graham’s dances were a reaction to classical ballet, children might also get more from Ballet for Martha if they read a good book about ballet first.

Furthermore: Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan have won many American Library Association honors for their books, which include Action Jackson (Square Fish, 2007). Brian Floca wrote and illustrated Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 (Atheneum, 2009), a New York Times Best Illustrated Book. Ballet for Martha was a runner-up for the ALA’s 2011 Robert L. Sibert Medal for “the most distinguished information book” of the year for children.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 10, 2011

2011 Caldecott Goes to ‘A Sick Day for Amos McGee,’ Newbery to ‘Moon Over Manifest’ — Full List of ALA Winners

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A Sick Day for Amos McGee (Roaring Brook, 2010) has won the 2011 Caldecott Medal for the year’s most distinguished picture book. Erin Stead illustrated and Philip Stead wrote the book, which the New York Times Book Review called “gently absurd comedy.” Clare Vanderpool’s Moon Over Manifest (Delacorte, 2010) has won the Newbery Medal for the most distinguished work of literature for children. The American Library also named other winners today.

October 17, 2010

Carin Berger’s ‘The Little Yellow Leaf’ Honored by Booksellers

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Carin Berger’s The Little Yellow Leaf has had a spot on my “best picture books about fall” list on its publication in 2008, when the New York Times named in one of the Best Illustrated Books of the year. So I’m happy to report that independent booksellers recently have chosen it as one of their 40 favorite children’s books of the past 40 years. Berger’s lovely story about an oak leaf that doesn’t want to leave its branch also works beautifully as a parable about the value of teamwork.

September 26, 2010

A Middle-School Student Auditions for a Music Video ‘Cinderella Cleaners: Rock & Role,’ a Preteen Series Set in Weehawken, NJ

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An eighth-grader likes clothes, music and acting, but not having a stepmother

Cinderella Cleaners #3: Rock & Role. By Maya Gold. Scholastic, 173 pp., $5.99 paperback. Ages 8–11.

By Janice Harayda

Are stereotypes of stepmothers making a comeback? You might wonder after dipping into a new preteen-fiction series about a middle-school student who helps out at her family’s dry cleaning shop in Weehawken, NJ.

Thirteen-year-old Diana Donato loves clothes, music, acting and her three best friends. But she wishes her kind-hearted father had never married her stepmother, Fay, who “always says no.”

In Rock & Role, Diana gets a chance to try out for a music video when, on her way to make a delivery for Cinderella Cleaners, she meets a 16-year-old pop star. Will her stepmother thwart her hopes? Fay is so bland that she turns out to be less of an obstacle than the questionable judgment Diana sometimes shows while pursuing a role in the video.

But the outcome is never really in doubt. Rock & Role is Cinderella story on more than one level. Apart from her unwelcome stepmother and her overindulged stepsisters, Diana has a counterpart to the industrious mice in Cinderella – a friendly tailor at Cinderella Cleaners who whips up a vest for her to wear in the video. Rock & Role is also as sanitized as 1950s Disney movie, a novel free of sex, profanity and descriptions of the adolescent body changes that some preteens have been reading about for years in Judy Blume. And yet, on its own terms – which are the terms of literary fast food – it has more going for it many similar books. Diana is an upbeat, hardworking eighth-grader who has goals and faith in her ability to achieve them. She knows brand names – Converse, Hollister, iPod – without being obsessed with them. Her friends aren’t mean-spirited.

Even so, you wish Maya Gold had tried harder to avoid stereotypes, and not just of evil stepmothers. Diana’s friend Sara Parvati, whose family comes from India, gets straight A’s in school. Literary images of brainy Asian children may not be damaging as ethic slurs, but they’re still stereotypes. And equal opportunity won’t exist in children’s books until young Indian, Korean and Japanese characters have the same freedom that others do – the right, at times, to be mediocre students.

Best line: “Now it’s like we’re stuck halfway out on this wobbly bridge between Just Friends and We’re Going Out …”

Worst line: “Sara gets straight A’s and once won a regional spelling bee.” Again, are any Asians in children’s fiction not brainy (or, alternately, computer geeks)?

Published: June 2010

Furthermore: Other books in the Cinderella Cleaners series include Change of a Dress and Prep Cool (both published by Scholastic, April 2010), and Mask Appeal (Scholastic, August, 2010).

You can follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 18, 2010

A Girl’s Imagination Blooms in the Picture Book ‘My Garden’

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The 2005 Caldecott medalist returns with a tale about the joys of solitude

My Garden. By Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow, 40 pp., $18.99. Ages 3–6.

By Janice Harayda

Kevin Henkes has won deserved praise for Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse and other picture books about a high-spirited mouse and her friends and family. But he also excels at telling quiet stories about the rewards people gain from spending time alone.

Nearly 30 years ago, Henkes made his picture-book debut with All Alone, which offered a boy’s view of things he could do on his own. Henkes returns to the theme of the joys of solitude in a book about a girl whose imagination blooms when she’s alone in the family garden. On the first spread, Henkes’s unnamed heroine helps her mother weed and water and “chase away the rabbits / so that they don’t eat all the lettuce” in their fenced-in garden. Then, until the last spread, the girl is alone on the page, and her imagination soars as she considers what life would be like “if I had a garden …”

Like a well-structured poem, My Garden links its young heroine’s fantasies with a refrain, “In my garden”: “In my garden, the flowers could change color / just by my thinking about it — / pink, blue, green, purple. Even patterns.” “In my garden, the rabbits wouldn’t eat the lettuce / because the rabbits would be chocolate / and I would eat them.” These lines reflect perfectly the thinking of children of a certain age – at once literal and wildly fanciful – and the illustrations are nearly as good. Henkes works in pen-and-ink and watercolor and doesn’t tart up his pictures with glitter, but when his heroine imagines strawberries that “glow like lanterns,” the fruit seems lit from within. And his palette — which runs to colors like pink and lilac and moss green — is soft-focused without being insipid.

Henkes’s pictures lack the depth and stylistic flair of the work of the best living picture-book illustrators, a group that includes Chris Van Allsburg, Maurice Sendak and Quentin Blake. But his words and pictures are so well integrated that My Garden works better than many books by greater artists who have written weak texts or were mismatched with authors who did. His heroine’s mother returns at just the right moment with her hands outstretched to show that people need both time alone and time with others. And if My Garden lacks the high comedy of the books about Lilly, its heroine has sly wit of her own. “What are you doing?” her mother asks on the last page. “Oh, nothing,” her daughter deadpans. “Just working in the garden.”

Best line/picture: “If I planted jelly beans, / I’d grow a great big jelly bean bush.” And there’s a nice echo of the nursery rhyme “Mary, Mary” in: “If I planted seashells, / I’d grow seashells.” The plaid sunflowers are also amusing, and the book has striking endpapers.

Worst line/picture: A hard-liner might argue that Henkes should have killed the italics and used stronger words in “I would eat them” and another line.

Published: February 2010

2011 Caldecott Medal scouting report: My Garden is less original than some books likely to receive serious consideration for the American Library Association’s award, such as Here Comes the Garbage Barge!. But it’s a safe choice, unlikely to cause trouble for any library that acquires it. Henkes won the 2005 Caldecott medal and an earlier Honor Book citation, and the ALA has a tradition of honoring the same authors repeatedly. No one should be surprised if this book wins.

About the author: Henkes won the 2005 Caldecott Medal for Kitten’s First Full Moon. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 12, 2010

Full of Trash but Not Trashy: ‘Here Comes the Garbage Barge!’

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A children’s book fictionalizes the plight of a garbage barge that couldn’t find a port

Here Comes the Garbage Barge! Story by Jonah Winter. Art by Chris Sickels of Red Nose Studio. Schwartz & Wade/Random House, 36 pp., $17.99. Ages 4 and up.

By Janice Harayda

When is a picture book full of trash but not trashy? One answer is: when it’s Here Comes the Garbage Barge!, a satirical morality tale based on the true story of a floating garbage barge that couldn’t find a port.

In the late 1980s, New York City regularly exported thousands of tons of trash a day that nearby landfills couldn’t accommodate. Trucks hauled much of the garbage to Pennsylvania and West Virginia, but barges carried some of it by sea to other places. In 1987, a barge headed south, heaped with trash from New York City and Islip, Long Island. Its intended port-of-call, a town in North Carolina, refused to allow it to unload. At least six states and Mexico and Belize eventually rejected its rotting cargo. After months at sea, the barge returned to New York and a legal battle that ended when a Brooklyn incinerator burned the garbage and sent its ashes to a landfill in Islip.

Jonah Winter turns this near-surrealistic episode into a lively story that plays fast-and-loose with facts on many levels, some acknowledged in an author’s note and some not. His techniques include exaggerating ethnic, regional, sexual and age-related stereotypes for comic effect. And he has drawn fire for an obviously Italian and mob-connected waste-hauler who says things like: “Here’s da deal: Brooklyn’s gonna take dat garbage and burn it. A judge told ’em dey had to.” (Yes, a gangster who apparently speaks in colons and says “da” and “dat” but not “dem.”) Winter also tries to jazz up his text with italics, exclamation points and capital letters when it needs stronger words.

But Chris Sickels has filled Here Comes the Garbage Barge! with amusing illustrations more inspired than the unexceptional writing. He created the pictures by sculpting human forms from polymer clay and baking them in a kitchen oven, then photographing them on intricate hand-built three-dimensional sets. This technique enables him to create characters who have agile faces with cavernous eye sockets and strong noses (one holds a clipped-on clothespin as the garbage rots) and jutting ears. The humans in many children’s books are cartoonish, but Sickels’s have the force of good caricature. And his garbage barge has a personality of its own, teeming found or created whimsy – a football, a red birdcage, a Rubik’s cube, a shopping cart, computer monitor.

The moral of Here Comes the Garbage Barge! might be stern enough to qualify as eco-propaganda, but the art reflects the spirit of an incident that once provided rich material for late-night comedians. On a back endpaper, Sickels shows the last words of the book on a hand-lettered sign attached to a buoy floating on an “ocean” made from blue drycleaners’ bags: “DON’T MAKE SO MUCH GARBAGE!!!”

Best line/picture: Many. But children may especially enjoy a picture of the Statue of Liberty holding her nose as the barge filled with rotting garbage returns to New York.

Worst line/picture: No. 1: A picture that says “Mexico: Land of Enchantment.” This is confusing. “Land of Enchantment” is the state slogan of New Mexico, not Mexico. No. 2: The cover and title page credit the art to Red Nose Studio, which Sickels runs. Sickels may have left off his name as an act of generosity toward a support staff, but his omission was confusing and unfair to readers, who have a right to know up front who illustrated the book. Many intelligent adults and children will look at the cover above and conclude wrongly that Here Comes the Garbage Barge! was written and illustrated by “Jonah Winter of Red Nose Studio.”

About the author and illustrator: Winter collaborated with his mother, the author and illustrator Jeanette Winter on Diego, a children’s biography of the artist Diego Rivera. He talks about his work in an interview in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Sickels tells how he created the art for Here Comes the Garbage Barge! in this YouTube video.

Furthermore: As of June 2010, Here Comes the Garbage Barge! was a School Library Journal blogger’s top pick for the 2011 Caldecott Medal. You’ll find background on the garbage barge in a New York Daily News story.

Published: February 2010

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist and former vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. She has been the book columnist for Glamour and book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at

© Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 4, 2010

2011 Newbery and Caldecott Medal Predictions From School Library Journal

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Who has the best record of predicting the winners of the American Library Association’s Newbery and Caldecott Medals? For my money, it’s Elizabeth Bird, a children’s librarian for the New York Public Library who writes the popular Fuze #8 blog for School Library Journal. Bird has posted her annual midterm report on books she considers frontrunners for the awards here and should have another roundup of the 2011 candidates near the end of the year.

July 2, 2010

Dana Reinhardt’s Young Adult Novel, ‘The Things a Brother Knows’ – Mature Subjects, Third-Grade Reading Level

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A 17-year-old wonders why his older brother acts strangely after serving with the Marines in a combat zone

The Things a Brother Knows. By Dana Reinhardt. Wendy Lamb/Random House Children’s Books, 256 pp., $16.99. Publisher’s suggested ages: 14 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Not long ago, the Canadian novelist Joan Clark argued that North American publishers should drop the “young adult” label and replace it, as their British counterparts have, with two new categories: “under 12” (to be shelved in the children’s section of bookstores) and “over 12” (to shelved in the adult section). Clark makes a strong case that the confusing YA classification can keep both adults and children away from books they might like.

You could hardly find a better example of the problems with the genre than The Things a Brother Knows. This novel deals with a complex topic: A 17-year-old named Levi struggles to make sense of the troubling behavior a brother who, after serving with the Marines, shows PTSD-like symptoms that threaten to estrange the siblings. Dana Reinhardt gives this subject a relatively mature treatment that involves jokes about porn and masturbation, occasional strong language, and serious moral and psychological questions: What do we owe veterans? What price do families pay for their members’ military service? And is it OK to do bad things such as hacking into a brother’s computer because you want to help him?

For all this, Reinhardt writes at a third-grade reading level, according the Flesch-Kincaid readability statistics that come with the Microsoft Word spell-checker. And her earnest prose, if smooth as the surface of an iPod, is too dumbed-down for many of the age-14-and-up readers to whom its publisher recommends it, who may have read the stylistically more challenging Harry Potter and J.R.R. Tolkien tales years ago. The book might have more appeal for 11- and 12-year-olds, but its drab cover won’t help its cause with preteens who have sped through adventure stories like those in Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series.

Like no small number of young adult novels, The Things a Brother Knows makes you wonder: Who is this book for? Reinhardt says in a letter to readers that Levi, on his quest to understand his brother, “goes in a boy and comes out a man.” If that’s true of her main character, it’s not true her novel as a whole, which is suspended between boyhood and manhood, a case of arrested literary development.

Best line: “We’d been to Israel twice already, in the psychotic heat of summer.”

Worst line: No. 1: “He doesn’t leave his fucking room, Mr. Hopper.” No. 2: “I’m pretty sure there’s nothing in the world uglier than the sight of your own father’s pubic hair.” No. 3: “I meant that ‘little private Levi time’ thing as a euphemism. Masturbating. Get it?”

Published: September 2010

Editor: Wendy Lamb, who edited the 2010 Newbery Medal winner, Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me.

Caveat lector: This book was based on an advance reader’s copy. Some material in the finished book, including the cover, may differ.

Furthermore: Jacqueline Woodson’s Peace, Locomotion also deals with the effect on a family of a son who returns from a war with symptoms resembling those of PTSD.

You may also want to read: Joan Clark’s essay on the problems with the young-adult label.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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