One-Minute Book Reviews

May 7, 2011

The Glass Doghouse – It’s a Man’s World in Animal Stories for Children

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:31 pm
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A study has found that male main characters dominate books about creatures with fur or feathers

By Janice Harayda

Not long ago I noted in a review that no female characters appear in the 2011 Caldecott medalist, A Sick Day for Amos McGee, a book about zoo animals who repay the kindness of their keeper. A new study makes clear that its representation of the sexes isn’t unusual. Alison Flood writes in the Guardian:

“Looking at almost 6,000 children’s books published between 1900 and 2000, the study, led by Janice McCabe, a professor of sociology at Florida State University, found that males are central characters in 57% of children’s books published each year, with just 31% having female central characters. Male animals are central characters in 23% of books per year, the study found, while female animals star in only 7.5%.

“Published in the April issue of Gender & Society, the study … looked at Caldecott award-winning books, the well-known US book series Little Golden Books and [listings in] the Children’s Catalog. Just one Caldecott winner (1985’s Have You Seen My Duckling? following a mother duck on a search for her baby) has had a standalone female character since the award was established in 1938. Books with male animals were more than two-and-a-half times more common across the century than those with female animals, the authors said.

“Although the gender disparity came close to disappearing by the 1990s for human characters in children’s books, with a ratio of 0.9 to 1 for child characters and 1.2 to 1 for adult characters, it remained for animal characters, with a ‘significant disparity’ of nearly two to one. The study found that the 1930s to 1960s, the period between waves of feminist activism, ‘exhibits greater disparities than earlier and later periods.'”

I wish I could say the new study has flaws. But the equality gap in animal stories has existed since I’ve been reviewing children’s books. It’s true that such tales have more female characters than they did before the 1960s, including Maisy, Olivia and Angelina. But many more picture books are published today, so the ratio of male-to-female animals could have remained the same — or gone up — despite the larger number of heroines. And males remain the default setting in tales of characters with fur, fins, or feathers.

A Sick Day for Amos McGee fits the pattern: Every character in it, human or animal, is male, though the theme of the story — you get what you give – applies to both sexes. Do we need a new term,”the glass doghouse,” to describe the imbalance in such books?

January 10, 2011

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

Filed under: Book Awards,Children's Books,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:07 pm
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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.

September 18, 2010

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

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:05 pm
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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!’

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:41 pm
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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.

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