Reviews of books for children appear on Saturdays on this site. Tomorrow: Rich Wallace’s new Pepetual Check (Knopf, 128 pp., $15.99), a short novel about two teenage brothers who compete in a Pennsylvania regional chess championship. Perpetual Check seems to have earned its “ages 12 and up” tag mainly for language like “your fat ass” and “He’s a dick.” Otherwise it’s for strong readers ages 8 and up.
April 24, 2009
April 22, 2009
Eco-Propaganda in Children’s Books by Carl Hiaasen and Others — It’s Always Earth Day in Recent Fiction for Young Readers
Meghan Cox Gurdon takes on eco-propaganda in children’s books in “Scary Green Monsters,” a Wall Street Journal essay that makes point similar to one I made more briefly back in January: A lot of trees are dying for books about rainforests. Gurdon writes in an article linked to Earth Day:
“The patriarch of the vogue for green-themed children’s books is surely Carl Hiaasen, the novelist and Miami Herald columnist who shot to eco-stardom in 2002 with Hoot, a novel for middle-schoolers about three children who foil a corporation’s attempt to build a pancake restaurant over a burrow of endangered miniature owls. Hoot won a Newbery Honor Award, and was followed in 2005 by Flush, a tale recounting the adventures of a different group of youthful oddball allies that is seeking to expose a casino-boat operator who’s been flushing raw sewage into harbor water….
“In all Mr. Hiaasen’s books for children, young readers are asked to sympathize with environmentalists who thwart businessmen, even when the good guys take destructive measures such as sinking boats or torching billboards. And the eco-tropes that have worked so well for Mr. Hiaasen — Good nature! Bad capitalist! — are steadily creeping into books across the age range.”
Gurdon also discusses Joan Bauer’s Newbery Honor book, Peeled (Putnam, 2008), Timothee de Fombelle’s Toby Alone (Candlewick, 2009), Katherine Hannigan’s “risibly didactic” Emmaline and Bunny (HarperCollins, 2009), and Joshua Doder’s popular “Grk” books, such as Operation Tortoise (Delacorte, 2009). She notes that children like routine:
“They’re not put off by predictability in stories. They’re accustomed to princesses being pretty, dragons being fearsome, and, it seems, alas, their fictional businessmen being corpulent and amoral. So it’s probably pointless to object to the eco-endlessness on the grounds of artistic feebleness.
“Yet there is something culturally impoverished about insisting that children join in the adult preoccupation with reducing, reusing and recycling. Can they not have a precious decade or so to soar in imaginative literature before we drag them back down to earth?”
(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
March 31, 2009
A Book About Menstruation That Only a Man Could Love — True Stories of Girls’ First Periods Collected in ‘My Little Red Book’
My Little Red Book. By Rachel Kauder Nalebuff. Hachette/Twelve Books, 217 pp., $14.99.
By Janice Harayda
This is a messy collection of 90 true stories about a messy subject, girls’ first periods. There’s certainly a place for a book that might clear up some of the confusion about menstruation that lingers decades after the publication of Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Our Bodies, Ourselves. And Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, a student at Yale, tries to provide one in this anthology packaged like Mao’s Little Red Book (a device that, perhaps inadvertently, implies that women belong to a biological proletariat, a theme that most entries don’t support).
My Little Red Book collects reports from girls and women of many backgrounds — Korean and Comanche, feminist and traditionalist, and Christian and Muslim. It also includes Gloria Steinem’s essay “If Men Could Menstruate” and poems by Maxine Kumin, Jill Bialosky and others. But if its entries are at times interesting, the book as a whole is disorganized and perpetuates the kind of misinformation it seems intended to correct.
The lack of consistency shows up quickly. Kauder Nalebuff says in her first line, “Every woman remembers her first period — where and when it happened, who, if anyone, she told, and even what she was wearing.” This untruth soon takes a hit from novelist Michelle Jaffe, who writes, “I don’t remember my first period. At all.”
The most egregious misinformation comes from the novelist Jacquelyn Mitchard, who tells a daughter who asked if she could play sports when she had her period: “Best thing for it. That way you’ll never get the kind of cripple cramps girls used to get back in the day.” Menstruating girls can play sports, but the rest of that comment is scientifically inaccurate and contradicted in entries by women who describe getting cramps despite participating in vigorous sports. And in some cases Mitchard’s view would amount to blaming the victim. Take that, all you suffering teenagers who have made a priority of studying for your AP English exam or babysitting to save money for college! If only you’d joined that travel soccer league, you’d never have those “cripple cramps.”
The causes of menstrual cramps have always been poorly understood in part because they have been little studied — that’s an implicit point of Steinem’s essay. But research suggests they are caused by contractions related to the release of prostaglandins and other substances when the uterus sheds its lining each month. Cramps intensify when clots pass through the cervix. That’s especially true if the cervical canal is narrow or woman has a “tough cervix,” one that doesn’t dilate easily, which is why it’s an old wives’ tale that a woman who has severe cramps will have an easier childbirth. A tough cervix can make both periods and childbirth more difficult.
Some research suggests that sports may help to ease cramps for some women, but it is cruel and misleading to imply that they are a cure-all for a condition that can involve many factors. And My Little Red Book offers little hope to girls and women who suffer from them. It has appendices such as a list of Web sites and a glossary of slang terms for menstruation — from warhorses like “falling off the roof” to the newer “rebooting the ovarian operating system” — but nothing on relief from pain or other physical symptoms. This book would have benefited from an afterword by a doctor or at least from the inclusion of a phrase such as “prescription-strength Advil.”
The sex of the editor of a book is usually irrelevant, but it’s perhaps worth noting that this one was edited by a man, the respected Jonathan Karp, who writes in the foreword to the advance reader’s edition: “When literary agent Susan Ginsburg asked me if I wanted to read a book about first periods, I assumed the subject of the work was punctuation.” Female editors may well have wanted to buy My Little Red Book and have been outbid by Karp. Even so, you wonder if some might have had the same reaction to this book that more than a few female readers may have: This is a book about menstruation that only a man could love.
Best line: The entire poem “The Wrath of the Gods, 1970” by the gifted poet and editor Jill Bialosky. And Gloria Steinem’s modern classic “If Men Could Menstruate,” first published in Ms. in 1978, which argues with tongue-in-cheek that if men could menstruate and women could not, menstruation would become “an enviable, boast-worthy” event: “Men would brag about how long and how much.”
Worst line: Mitchard’s line about how you’ll never have cramps if you play sports, quoted above.
Editor: Jonathan Karp
Published: February 2009
Furthermore: My Little Red Book comes from an adult division of Hachette but has, throughout the book, cutesy taglines for authors and other writing that appears pitched to adolescents, such as, “Is Jacquelyn Mitchard the chillest mom ever, or what?”
Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s copy. Some material may differ in the finished book. Kauder Nalebuff’s last name is not hyphenated on the ARC cover but is hyphenated in images of the cover of the finished book.
(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
March 14, 2009
The middle school years are treacherous for reading in general and poetry-reading in particular. Up to a certain age, children enjoy poetry and may even prefer stories that rhyme. But by the time they reach middle school, they are often starting to lose interest. What books have poems that will hold their attention? Here are two possibilities:
Sad Underwear and Other Complications: More Poems for Children and Their Parents (Aladdin, 80 pp., $6.99, paperback, ages 9-12), by Judith Viorst. Illustrated by Richard Hull. The short and mostly rhyming poems in this book have the irreverent — and, at times rueful — wit that you expect from Viorst, author of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Some of the poems in Sad Underwear deal with near-universal childhood woes like mosquito bites and lost sneakers. Others describe the trials of a certain sort of worldly wise preteen or teenager. (“I’m freaking! I’m freaking! / My mom’s gone antiquing. / And guess who she’s dragging along?”) Sad Underwear has more than a few poems sophisticated enough to engage adults. But its picture-book format may limit its appeal mainly to younger middle-schoolers.www.simonsays.com/content/book.cfm?tab=1&pid=411400.
Classic Poems to Read Aloud (Kingfisher, 258 pp., $8.95, paperback, ages 9 to adult), compiled by James Berry. Illustrated by James Mayhew. Should you still read aloud with children in the fifth grade and beyond? Absolutely, if you read poems of the quality of the 138 in this book. The great virtue of Classics to Read Aloud is that it doesn’t patronize children. It has easy poems like Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussycat” and Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” And it has many that are more complex: Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” Robert Frost’s “After Apple-Picking” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare to a summer’s day?”). It also excerpts from epics such as “The Iliad” and “Hiawatha” (bereft of the famous lines, “By the shores of Gitchee Gumee, / By the shining Big-Sea-Water”) So children won’t outgrow Classics to Read Aloud. Neither will their parents. If you keep promising yourself that you’ll look up “that poem in Four Weddings and a Funeral,” you can stop now. Berry reproduces W. H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” on page 186.
You’ll find suggested books of sports poetry for middle-school students on the site for the Horn Book, the leading children’s literature journal
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
February 21, 2009
I’m tied up this weekend with the candidates for the Third Annual Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books, the shortlist for which will be posted Thursday, and nonliterary activities that I’m describing on www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.
So instead of a review, I’m giving you an interesting quote from the January/February issue of The Horn Book Magazine about the literary tastes of middle-school students. Dean Schneider, who teaches seventh and eighth grade at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee, writes:
“Middle-school readers hate open-ended endings. They are sure that The Giver ends the way it does because Lois Lowry got tired or ran out of ideas. They often reject historical fiction as ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘too sad.’ Students are capable of dismissing a whole Holocaust unit in two words: ‘Too sad.’ An eighth-grade girl I’m currently tutoring panned Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever as ‘so sad; everyone died.’
“But the flip side of the middle-school personality is their unalloyed enthusiasm when they latch onto something they like. They loved Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief when I decided to try it as a class novel two years ago. It became so popular with both boys and girls that I lost control of the book. Everyone raced through the reading and finished way ahead of schedule. They clamored for the sequel, The Sea of Monsters, which was then still in hardcover; I could afford only a few copies, so students kept a list on the board of who got it next. When I scored a couple of advance galleys of the third entry, The Titan’s Curse, they were beside themselves with excitement.”
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
January 9, 2009
December 5, 2008
Coming tomorrow: A review of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains, a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, which involves a 13-year-old slave who lives in New York during the Revolutionary War and devises a dangerous plan to escape from her cruel Loyalist owners. The review is the latest in the “Countdown to the Caldecott and Newbery Medals” series on this site, which looks at possible candidates for the American Library Association prizes to be handed out on Jan. 26.
October 18, 2008
UPDATE on Dec. 3, 2009: Online booksellers in the US have sold out of this one, but it is available under its original title of Sports Stories from UK booksellers including the Book Depository, which offers free shipping to the US.
Score!: Sports Stories. By Alan Durant. Roaring Brook, 264 pp., $6.95, paperback. First published as Sports Stories. Ages: See discussion below.
By Janice Harayda
Score! is an answer to the prayers of many adults who are looking for a gift for a child who likes sports. This outstanding book has 21 stories about young male and female athletes, written by authors from Homer and Matt Christopher. And it covers many popular sports, including soccer, tennis, football, baseball, basketball, swimming, wrestling, bicycling, ice hockey, horseback riding, and track and field.
That breadth alone might set Score! apart from other anthologies. But the book also contains an appealing variety of writing styles – formal and informal, serious and humorous, realistic and futuristic. An overconfident White Sox rookie writes hilariously inane and ungrammatical letters to a friend in Ring Lardner’s classic You Know Me Al. A young swimmer tries to qualify for the Rome Olympics after the death of her boyfriend in an excerpt from In Lane Three, Alex Archer by Tessa Duder, a former world-class swimmer for New Zealand. And a soccer contest 200 years in the future has undertones of wii and other digital games in Malorie Blackman’s “Contact.”
Alan Durant provides helpful introductions for some of his selections, including an excerpt from National Velvet. He writes that Enid Bagnold’s 1935 novel is “the most famous horse racing story in fiction” and inspired a movie that starred Elizabeth Taylor as the teenage horsewoman who disguises herself as a male jockey to enter the Grand National. Then he mentions an unusual aspect of the excerpt: “What makes this description of the race so memorable is the way it is viewed not from the perspective of the competitor, Violet, but from that of the horse’s trainer, Mi, who struggles to follow the race among the crowds of spectators.”
Most of the stories in Score! have a strong plot and would lend themselves to reading aloud. This virtue adds to their appeal in an age when fiction for children, as for adults, is becoming more fragmented and elliptical. Before television, the great radio broadcasters knew that had to use words to draw pictures of games for their listeners, and the best writers in this book do that and more for their young readers.
Best line: In The Iliad Ulysses asks Athena to help him in a foot race, and the goddess obliges by tripping his rival Ajax: “He fell headfirst into a pile of cattle dung, while Ulysses ran on to win the race.” What a brilliant way to get kids interested in Homer: Choose a scene that has somebody falling head first into a dung heap.
Worst line: A couple of stories deal with English sports in a way that may baffle some children. I love P.G. Wodehouse but have no idea what he means in a line about cricket match from his Mike at Wrykyn: “Burgess’s yorker was nearly too much for the latter in the first over, but he contrived to shop it away, and the pair gradually settled down.”
Recommendation? The publisher recommends Score! for ages 9–12. But some of the tales may also appeal to teenagers. The Lardner story, for example, was written for adults and first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post.
Caveat lector: This review was based on the hardcover edition, which has illustrations by David Kearney.
Publisher: 2008 (Roaring Brook paperback), 2000 (Kingfisher hardcover entitled Sports Stories).
Furthermore: Durant lives in England and wrote the “Leggs United” soccer series for children.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.