One-Minute Book Reviews

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

March 29, 2012

‘The Call of the Wild’ / A Parable for an Uncivilized Age

Filed under: Classics,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:44 am
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An abducted dog faces cruel masters and canine rivals during the Klondike Gold Rush

The Call of the Wild. By Jack London. Library of America, 96 pp., $8.50, paperback. Available in many other editions.

By Janice Harayda

Jack London wrote The Call of the Wild more than a century before Staff Sergeant Robert Bales walked away from his combat outpost in Kandahar province and, the Army says, shot to death 16 Afghan civilians. But his classic novel deals with a question often asked about that well-liked former linebacker who stands accused of slaughtering innocents: What turns a product of civilized society into a killer?

London’s answer is neither “nature” or “nurture” but “both,” a prescient anticipation of the modern scientific view that environmental factors switch genes on or off. He develops his theme in an adventure story told mainly from the point of view of Buck, a half-collie, half-Saint Bernard mix, who has spent the first four years of his life as the “unduly civilized” pet of a California judge. Then a groundskeeper kidnaps him and sells him to the first of a series of cruel owners, who soon attach him to sled-dog teams during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897. In order to survive, Buck must shed more of his civilized instincts with each clash with his brutal masters and with rival dogs who turn savage when starved, beaten, and forced to haul crushing loads in temperatures as low as 50 degrees below zero. By time Buck finds an owner who treats him kindly, the question is: At what point does “the call of the wild” become irreversible, or at least irresistible?

These fictional circumstances are far different those of a sergeant accused of killing 16 civilians on his fourth deployment in a war zone: a man who reportedly had suffered a head injury, lost part of a foot, picked up the bodies of dead Iraqis, seen a comrade’s leg blown off, and faced eviction from his home in Seattle. But Robert Bales’s life and emotional arc have enough parallels with Buck’s that teachers might compare them with profit in junior high or high school classrooms.

As E.L. Doctorow notes in his introduction, The Call of the Wild is a “mordant parable of the thinness of civilization.” It shows how a lifetime of restraints can fall away when circumstances are extreme, and it retains its appeal in part because allows us to see that shedding of civilization at two removes: in the life of a dog and in the vast Yukon wilderness that few of us will ever see. The remoteness of the setting invests The Call of the Wild with a mythic allure. And London shows how a good novelist can lend credibility to the kind of transformations that, when described in newspapers, often defy belief.

Best line: “It was beautiful spring weather, but neither dogs nor humans were aware of it. Each day the sun rose earlier and set later. It was dawn by three in the morning, and the twilight lingered till nine at night. The whole long day was a blaze of sunshine. The ghostly winter silence had given way to the great spring murmur of awakening life. This murmur arose from all the land, fraught with the joy of living.”

Worst line: London’s rendering of the speech of “a French-Canadian half-breed”: “ ‘Tree vair’ good dogs,’ François told Perrault. ‘Dat Buck, heem pool lak hell. I tich heem queek as anyt’ing.’”

Published: 1903 (Macmillan first edition), 1990 (the Library of America stand-alone edition that I read). Many editions exist.

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

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

January 1, 2012

‘War Horse,’ Michael Morpurgo’s Anti-War Novel for Ages 8–12

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:07 pm
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A farm horse adapts to life as a cavalry mount and more in World War I

War Horse. By Michael Morpurgo. Scholastic, 165 pp., $6.99, paperback. Ages 8 and up.

By Janice Harayda

War Horse is narrated by a horse that has mastered the use of the semicolon. If you can accept this, you will probably have no trouble believing the rest of his adventures, which begin when a Devon farmer sells him to a British officer in World War I and which take him to the Western Front, where he serves as a cavalry mount and a hauler of guns and carts full of wounded soldiers and ammunition.

Joey has a white cross on his reddish brown forehead and bears his suffering with the saintliness that the mark implies. He gallops through so many odds-defying escapes that the suspense depends less on whether he will survive than on whether he will again see Albert Narracott, the farmer’s son who misses him back in England.

Michael Morpurgo invests this plot with an anti-war message uncluttered by the ambiguities that combat involves. He gives no sense that some ideals are worth fighting for or that World War I had causes beyond “some old duke that’s been shot somewhere.” After being commandeered by Germans in France, Joey falls under the care of a soldier known as Crazy Old Friedrich, who insists that he is “the only sane man” in his regiment:

“It’s the others who are crazy, but they don’t know it. They fight a war and they don’t know what for. Isn’t that crazy? How can one man kill another and not know why he does it, except that the other man wears a different color uniform and speaks a different language. And it’s me they call crazy!”

Adults may hear a faint echo of Catch-22 and  All Quiet on the Western Front in the observations of Friedrich and others. But preteens who haven’t read those books are likely to find the ideas in War Horse fresh and expressed in terms they can understand. And the historical setting of the novel offers 8-to-12-year-olds an appealing change from the contemporary realism and paranormal fantasy more often pitched to them.

Like Black Beauty, War Horse takes the form of an interior monologue by a beloved English horse whose hardships reveal a purity of spirit. Joey has a gentle nature and treats his companions better than many characters in recent children’s fiction treat their classmates. His friends, human and equine, repay his kindness and support the ageless theme of War Horse: People and animals comfort each other amid the sorrows of war. For all of Joey’s valor in combat, the title of his story has an ironic aspect. War Horse could have been called Peace Horse.

Best line: No. 1: “Within minutes the mist began to clear away and I saw for the first time that I stood in a wide corridor of mud, a wasted, shattered landscape between two vast unending rolls of barbed wire that stretched away into the distance behind me and in front of me. … This was what the soldiers called ‘no-man’s-land.’”

Worst line: “For just a few short moments, we moved forward at the trot as we had done in training.” All moments are short.

Recommendation: The direct, conversational writing style of War Horse lends itself well to reading aloud.

About the author: Morpurgo is a former children’s laureate in England.

Published: 1982 (first UK edition), 1910 (Scholastic paperback edition).

Links for the movie version: Watch the trailer and see an interactive map of the trip Joey takes in the film.

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

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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?

September 3, 2009

‘Catie Copley’ – A Friendly Labrador Retriever Greets Guests at a Boston Hotel in a Children’s Book Inspired by a Real Dog

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:26 am
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Reviews of children’s books normally appear on this site on Saturdays, but I couldn’t post last weekend because of technical problems, so I’m catching up.

Catie Copley. By Deborah Kovacs. Pictures by Jared T. Williams. Godine, 32 pp., $17.95. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Anyone who enjoyed Robert McCloskey’s classic Make Way for Ducklings will find an interesting bit literary cross-referencing in this picture-book inspired by the real-life black Labrador retriever who greets guests at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston. Catie Copley became the “Canine Ambassador” for the hotel after eye problems kept her from her intended work as a guide for the blind. In this book, she performs a different service when her excellent sense of smell helps her find a teddy bear lost by Tess, a young female guest. Before the missing Milo turns up, Catie and Tess visit the Public Garden – the spot McCloskey’s ducklings were trying to reach when a policeman stopped traffic for them.

Deborah Kovacs tells a fast-paced story from Catie’s point of view in serviceable prose with some weak spots. Kovacs says, for example, that “all the hard work in the hotel” goes on in downstairs rooms such as the kitchen and laundry – as though the upstairs maids, valets, and concierges don’t work hard, too. But Jared Williams offsets some of her lapses with engaging watercolors that invest both human and animal characters with warmth. And his dynamic endpapers draw you in to the book with dozens of images of Catie holding a teddy bear in her mouth in different positions.

Best line/picture: Williams’s pictures of Catie are expressive and realistic without anthropomorphizing her, especially the full-face images on the cover and elsewhere.

Worst line/picture: Kovacs’s workmanlike prose runs to lines such this one that might have appeared in a Zagat guide: “The food is great and my bed is comfy.”

Recommendation: Catie Copley or its sequel could be a good gift for a preschooler who has a labrador or plans to visit Boston. It could also help to prepare children for a visit to a fancy hotel.

Published: May 2007. Catie Copley has inspired sequel that came out in March 2009, Catie Copley’s Great Escape, also published by David R. Godine.

Furthermore: Children who enjoy Catie Copley can e-mail Catie at an address listed on the dust jacket.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

June 13, 2009

Lisa Brown’s ‘How to Be’ — Fun With Animals for Very Young Children

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:39 am
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A witty picture book shows children how to imitate a bear, monkey, turtle, snake, spider, and dog

How to Be. By Lisa Brown. HarperCollins, 32 pp., $16.89. Ages 6 months and up.

By Janice Harayda

Is there a toddler or preschooler who doesn’t love to make animal sounds? San Francisco artist Lisa Brown urges very young children to take their copycat instincts a step further in this witty picture book about a brother and sister who imitate the behavior of six animals — a bear, monkey, turtle, snake, spider, and dog.

Each spread gives simple directions for acting like one of those creatures, illustrated by amusing line drawings that show how the siblings interpret the instructions. And I defy you to keep a straight face when you see how the two respond to last command on the “How to Be a Dog” pages: “Lick someone.” Oh, are parents and grandparents going to have fun watching children follow the instructions in this book! You might have almost as much fun as they’re going to have licking your elbow.

Best line/picture: Apart from the picture of the brother trying to lick his sister? A command on the “How to Be a Monkey” pages: “Eat with your toes.”

Worst line/picture: None unless you’re so heartless that you believe that children should never – not even once – be allowed to eat with their toes.

Recommendation? A good gift for ages newborn to 2 or 3. How to Be might especially appeal to children who like the imitative aspects of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. And it has an intergenerational appeal, because it will allow children to show off for their grandparents their impressive ability to slither on their bellies like a snake.

Furthermore: The bold line drawings and minimalist color palette give this book an unusually fresh look. How to Be would fit in well at Museum of Modern Art gift shop. Yet it’s not one of those pretentious books that please adults more than children. Both groups are likely to enjoy it.

Published: May 2006

This is a repost of a review that appeared on this site on June 30, 2007.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 2, 2009

Why Are Animal Stories So Popular Right Now?

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:14 pm
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I’ve been having computer problems this week that have limited my ability to post (but that should end tomorrow or Monday when my Mac returns). So today I’m just going to throw out a question that’s been on my mind: Why are animal stories so popular right now?

I’m thinking of books like Marley & Me, Alex & Me, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, Dewey: The Small-Town Libary Cat Who Touched the World, and the others that have touched a nerve in the past year or two. Stories about animals have been popular in the U.S. for decades: Think of classics like White Fang, Black Beauty, and Charlotte’s Web. But it’s unusual to see as many of these on bestseller lists as have appeared lately.

My theory is that animal stories become more popular in hard times, or when people have less trust in elected officials or other authorities because it’s reassuring to read that you can still count on a dog or cat even if you can’t count on the politicians or bankers. What’s yours?

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

February 1, 2008

Coming Tomorrow — A Review of ‘The Bearskinner’ by Newbery Medalist Laura Amy Schlitz

Laura Amy Schlitz won the 2008 Newbery Medal for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, a book of one- and two-person plays for ages 10 and up. Can Schlitz write for younger children? A review of her recent picture book The Bearskinner, illustrated by Max Grafe, will appear tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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