One-Minute Book Reviews

January 27, 2009

Kadir Nelson Celebrates Titans Like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in His 2009 Coretta Scott King Award-Winner, ‘We Are the Ship’

A California author has won two children’s-book prizes for his account of the days when black baseball teams sometimes had to sleep in jails or funeral homes because hotels wouldn’t rent rooms to them

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball. By Kadir Nelson. Foreword by Hank Aaron. Hyperion/Jump at the Sun, 88 pp., $18.99. Ages 8 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Remembering Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and other titans

Quiz time, all of you who see yourself as experts on children’s literature: When was the last time you read a picture book that had a story told through first-person plural narration? Or that used original oil paintings for art instead of watercolors, collages, pen-and-ink drawings, or other more popular picture book media?

If you don’t know, you may have a sense of why Kadir Nelson has just won two major awards for We Are the Ship, an illustrated history of Negro League baseball. Nelson relies entirely on plural narration — a down-to-earth variation on the royal “we” — to tell the story of the black ballplayers who had to compete against themselves in a segregated America. And he illustrates his text with dozens of full-page oil paintings of celebrated players, owners, managers and umpires.

We Are the Ship reflects lapses you wouldn’t expect in an award-winning book, and Kevin Baker described some in his review in the New York Times Book Review. But it brims with vibrant details served up in a relaxed and conversational tone, all woven into stories you might hear from a ballplayer with his feet up on your porch in the off-season.

George “Mule” Suttles isn’t as well known today as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and other Negro League titans. But Nelson shows you his appeal in a few sentences:

“We had a fellow named George ‘Mule’ Suttles, who played for the Newark Eagles. He was a big ’un. We used to say he hit the ball like a mule kicks. Fans would yell, ‘Kick, Mule, kick!’ and he’d take a great big swing like, Babe Ruth. He’d even thrill you when he struck out. Darn near screwed himself into the ground when he struck out.”

Nelson might have prevented some confusion if had he said up front that he was writing in “a collective voice, the voice of every player” instead of describing this postmodern device in an author’s note on page 80 that many children may never read. And some of his language may be anachronistic for a speaker of its day. (Would a player in the early decades of the 20th century have said “kinda,” “Hall of Famer” and “The man was awesome”?) The art is slick enough that paging through this book is a a bit like viewing a collection of high-quality movie stills.

Even so, We Are the Ship is informative and entertaining. Nelson shows the cruelty faced by players who at times had to sleep at the local jail or funeral home because they couldn’t afford rooms on the road or hotels would rent only to whites. But he balances such stories with lighter ones that keep his book from becoming bleak. How much of the fun has gone out of baseball in the era of steroids, big money and free agents? Nelson offers a clue when he reminds us that, in the early days of Negro baseball, Lloyd “Pepper” Basset used to catch some games in a rocking chair.

Best line: Manager Andrew “Rube” Foster sent signals to his pitchers from the dugout instead of having his catchers send them: “He’d puff signals from his pipe or nod his head one way to signal a play. One puff, fastball. Two puffs, curveball. Things like that.”

Worst line: No. 1: “The average major league player’s salary back then [in the 1940s] was $7,000 per month.” Dave Anderson of the New York Times, perhaps the greatest living baseball writer, says in The Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1940s (co-authored with Rudy Marzanot) that it was $7,000 a year, not a month. No. 2: Nelson says that the Depression–era numbers game (which involved betting on random numbers that would appear on stock-market pages or elsewhere): “Back then, it was a 100 percent illegal business; but nowadays it’s known as the lottery, and it’s run by the government.” This line is glib and misleading. The numbers racket and state lotteries have always been separate.

Recommendation? We Are the Ship has the format of a coffee-table book and, although marketed to children, may appeal also to adults.

Published: January 2008. We Are the Ship is the No. 1 children’s baseball book on Amazon.

Furthermore: Nelson lives in southern California. His first name is pronounced Kah-DEER.

On Monday We Are the Ship won the 2009 Coretta Scott King Award, which the American Library Association gives to “to African American authors and illustrators for outstanding inspirational and educational contributions.” The book also received the Robert F. Sibert Medal for “the most distinguished informational book” for young readers.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

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

June 16, 2008

Tina Brown’s ‘The Diana Chronicles’: Now in Paperback

Diana Spencer was nine years old when her father sent her to a boarding school where she won “perhaps the most endearing airhead award ever: the prize for best-kept guinea pig.” With such sharp observations, Tina Brown comes close to pulling a rabbit out of a diamond tiara in The Diana Chronicles (Broadway, 576 pp., $15.95, paperback). Brown tells us little that hasn’t been said by others about Diana’s character and motivations. And what she says often comes from sources that are unnamed or so dubious that they might not have made it past the fact-checkers at Vanity Fair or The New Yorker, magazines she used to edit. But The Diana Chronicles is far better than earlier biographies by Andrew Morton, Lady Colin Campbell and others – not just because it is livelier and more comprehensive but because Brown finds the middle ground between axe-grinding and hagiography. Click here to read a full review of the book oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/07/09/.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.Janiceharayda.com

January 18, 2008

‘The New York Public Library’s Books of the Century,’ Edited by Elizabeth Diefendorf

Filed under: Essays and Reviews,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:28 am
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Which books did the most to shape the modern world?

Mein Kampf and The Cat in the Hat made the cut. The Godfather and The Polar Express didn’t.

As part of its 1995 centennial, the New York Public Library asked its staff to name the most influential books of the past hundred years. The answers inspired The New York Public Library’s Books of the Century (Oxford University Press, $24.95), edited by Elizabeth Diefendorf and illustrated by Diana Bryan, a collection of 204 one-page descriptions of some of the frequently nominated titles and a companion volume to a popular exhibit. And the result could have been a snorer, given that it includes the United Nations Charter and Albert Einstein’s The Meaning of Relativity.

But Diefendorf has defined “influential” broadly enough to include Carrie, Invisible Man, Winnie-the-Pooh, For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Joy of Cooking. And the descriptions in this 1997 book are generally apt and pithy and at times amusing in retrospect. “The filthiest book I have ever read,” John Gordon of the London Sunday Express wrote of Lolita. “Sheer unrestrained pornography.”

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

October 25, 2007

Why Does This Picture-Book Cover Work? Elizabeth Matthews’s ‘Different Like Coco’

The latest in a series of occasional posts that rate the covers of books recently reviewed on this site

By Janice Harayda

The covers of children’s books often fail for the same reasons that the covers of adult books do: They’re dull, clichéd or too pallid to stand out at a bookstore or library. Or they tell you too little about a book or, worse, aggressively misrepresent the contents. And if they’re about people – instead of one of those riveting topics like Let’s Read and Find Out About Flypaper or My First Book About Dandruff – they may stereotype their subjects as nakedly as all those pink covers on novels marketed to women in their 20s and 30s.

Elizabeth Matthews avoids all those problems on the cover of Different Like Coco (Candlewick, $16.99, ages 4 and up) www.candlewick.com, which combines a pen-and-ink drawing with the artful use of watercolors. This picture-book biography of the fashion designer Coco Chanel sports a witty illustration of its subject in a brown-black dress on a yellow background with the title in an interesting copper-colored script. And it works beautifully for several reasons:

1. It has real “pop.” Put Different Like Coco on any bookstore or library shelf and it will stand out among its shelf-mates because of its strong design. It doesn’t need the special effects that make so many books look more like toys – lots of glitter, metallic images and overengineering in the form of punched-out or see-through spaces.

2. The image of Coco Chanel points to the right, or to the pages instead of the spine. This is so basic that no critic should have to mention it. In most cases you want to focus children’s attention where it will encourage them to open a book (though there are some notable exceptions that succeed). But a striking number of picture books ignore such fundamental design principles.

3. The cover represents both the book and its subject accurately and nonstereotypically (without a sea of pink). Chanel designed simple, unfussy clothes with flair. This is a simple, unfussy cover with flair. Matthews’ art reflects the spirit of Chanel’s designs so well that you might guess the subject of her book before you read the title. But the cover isn’t so sophisticated that it will appeal to adults more than children. The comic exaggeration (and that dog) will take care of that.

Some people might argue that Chanel’s arms look anorexic. But in the context of the book, the pencil-slim arms are clearly intended as a stylistic exaggeration and also appear on women with bodies of operatic proportions.

The only other thing might strike you as odd about this cover is that Matthews’s name appears in a much smaller font than you usually see for authors of her caliber. That’s because this is her first book. The general rule in publishing is: The bigger the author, the larger the font for his or her name relative to the font for the title (though less so for children’s books than others). Stephen King’s name, for example, appears on his covers in a larger font than the title of the book. It’s a safe bet that as Matthews’s reputation increases, the size of her name on the cover will, too.

The original review of Different Like Coco appeared on Oct. 21, 2007, www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/21/. You may also want to read a comment in yesterday’s post (Oct. 23) by lisamm, who says perceptive things about this cover, including the Chanel has her head held high.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

October 21, 2007

Elizabeth Matthews Makes a Stylish Debut in Her Picture-Book Biography, ‘Different Like Coco’

Different Like Coco. By Elizabeth Matthews. Candlewick, 40 pp., $16.99. Ages 4 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Elizabeth Matthews makes a few missteps in this sparkling picture-book biography of Coco Chanel that may cost her a shot at a Caldecott Medal. But Different Like Coco marks the arrival of a gifted new author-illustrator who will certainly be in the running in the future if she keeps turning out work of this quality.

Matthews slips a few quasi-anachronisms into her story of the poor but energetic French girl who learned to sew at a convent school, then revolutionized early 20th-century fashion with designs that both reflected and fostered the emancipation of women. Young Coco plays with a roll of toilet paper and uses electric lamps. And while such an impoverished girl could have had those luxuries in the late-19th century, it’s so unlikely that the images are jarring. It’s similarly distracting to read that Coco went to school “in Auvergne” instead of “in the Auvergne.”

But such small problems ultimately may matter about as much as the complaint often made about the creator of Where the Wild Things Are: “Maurice Sendak can’t draw faces.” Who cares when an author’s work has so much else going for it? Matthews has that signal virtue in her field: a lively and distinctive artistic style that children will recognize from one book to the next. In this one she works in pen-and-ink washed with watercolors that are subtle but not – as in so many picture books – insipid. Her characters have snout-like noses, prominent eyelids and mouths that convey a range of expressions, midway between realism and caricature. The images have a different style but an amusing spirit similar to that of some of Jean Fritz’s acclaimed books about the colonial era, including Can’t You Make Them Behave, King George? and Why Don’t You Get a Horse, Sam Adams?

Matthews has also entered a genre that needs writers of her talent. There are far too few good picture-book biographies for children under age 9. Because Matthews has a light touch, she would be an ideal author for picture-book biographies of female pioneers in comedy, such as Lucille Ball. From Different Like Coco to Funny Like Lucy? It could happen, especially if the American Library Association www.ala.org gives Matthews some encouragement when it hands out its awards in January.

Best line/picture: All display a fine ability to draw and sense of color. Different Like Coco also has outstanding endpapers, sayings by Chanel in a white font on a black field, that typify the attention to detail at Candlewick.

Worst line/picture: The electric lamps not only look anachronistic but don’t have seem to have cords or pull chains.

Published: March 2007 www.candlewick.com

Furthermore: Matthews lives in Rhode Island and attended that incubator of picture-book talent, Rhode Island School of Design.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 9, 2007

Review of Tina Brown’s ‘The Diana Chronicles’

Filed under: Biography,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:57 am
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The former editor of Vanity Fair remembers when The King and I met Rebecca

The Diana Chronicles. By Tina Brown. Doubleday, 542 pp., $27.50.

By Janice Harayda

Diana Spencer was nine years old when her father sent her to a boarding school where, Tina Brown tells us, she won “perhaps the most endearing airhead award ever: the prize for best-kept guinea pig.” Her next school didn’t seem to do much more to develop her mind – the only admissions requirement was “neat handwriting.”

With sharp observations like these, Tina Brown comes close to pulling a rabbit out of a diamond tiara in this biography of the Princess Diana. She tells us little that hasn’t been said by others about Diana’s overall character and motivations. And what she does say often comes from sources that are unnamed or so dubious that they might not have made it past the fact-checkers at Vanity Fair or The New Yorker, magazines she used to edit. But The Diana Chronicles is miles better than earlier biographies by Andrew Morton, Lady Colin Campbell and others – not just because it is livelier and more comprehensive but also because it finds the middle ground between axe-grinding and hagiography.

Each chapter reads like an article in Vanity Fair – sleek, glossy and full of higher gossip. Brown tends to focus on style instead of substance, even when writing about people like prime minister Tony Blair. In a typical passage she says that Cherie Blair hated the couple’s visits to the queen at Balmoral in the Scottish Highlands and ascribes this to an allergy to “the fur and feathers of the stuffed animals and hunting trophies” on the castle walls. She doesn’t mention the larger reason why the prime minister’s wife may have loathed the visits: The Highlands are a hotbed of anti-Blair sentiment and a place where, even at the height of his popularity, her husband could be expect to be booed. Brown writes much more persuasively about the Diana’s relations with the press and shows that these were more complex and less worshipful than is generally assumed, especially after the princess worked with freelancer Morton on Diana: Her True Story instead of one of the newspaper reporters who had covered her regularly.

What did all of it mean to Britain? In her last chapter, Brown says that Tony Blair told her, “Diana taught us a new way to be British.” Brown agrees, calling the change a “gift” that reflected Diana’s “emotional intelligence.” But the rest of her book undercuts this conclusion. Again and again, Brown casts Diana as a woman who was at times warm and compassionate and at other times needy, dishonest, self-absorbed and so flaky that she was an easy mark for New Age charlatans with crystal balls and astrological charts.

No doubt there is truth in both images. But if Diana exemplified “a new way to be British,” it is hard to know which version of her the country absorbed. And it is easy to see why some people might long for the “old way” exemplified by women like Victoria Liddard, who died at the age of 102, just before the Waleses separated. After demonstrating for women’s suffrage in 1912, Liddard was sentenced to two months of hard labor and kept in a cell that contained only a straw mattress on a board. She was undaunted, according to an obituary in the Telegraph. “She kept her spirits up,” the newspaper said, “by singing at the top of her voice through a high cell window.”

Best line: “While the world was thrilling to the spectacle of Diana’s life as a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, her home life was becoming more like something out of Hitchcock. Under a King and I façade lurked a Rebecca–like sinister melodrama.” The Diana Chronicles has many memorable phrases like this one that, given how things turned out, seem less overheated than they might in another biography.

Worst line: “Paul Burrell’s two memoirs, too, have much touching detail to commend them.” Entertainment Weekly summed up the most recent in five words — “smarmy butler dishes more dirt” – and named it one of the five worst books of 2006. And many things that Brown asserts as fact are neither believable nor supported by end notes that would have bolstered their credibility. One example: She tells us while discussing the birth of Prince Harry that the Windsors typically had first a boy and then a girl: “Diana was so reluctant to be different that, even though she knew after her amniocentesis test in 1984 that she was carrying a boy, she had failed to share that information with her husband.” She doesn’t offer a clue to how she knows this.

Editor: Phyllis Grann

Published: June 2007

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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