One-Minute Book Reviews

November 22, 2008

Countdown to the 2009 Caldecott and Newbery Medals #2: ‘Zen Ties,’ the Sequel to ‘Zen Shorts’ — A for the Art, C-Minus for the Prose and Poetry

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The American Library Association will hand out its annual Caldecott and Newbery medals for children’s books on Jan. 26, 2009. In the next month or two I’ll be focusing closely — but not exclusively — on books that, deservedly or not, are likely to receive serious consideration for those awards. Posts about these books will be labeled “Countdown to the 2009 Caldecott and Newbery Medals.” You may may also want to read the May 10 review of Pale Male, which I have retroactively tagged as part of this series www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/05/10/.

Stillwater the panda returns and gets a visit from his nephew who speaks only in haiku

Zen Ties. By John J. Muth. Scholastic, 40 pp., $17.99. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

What would you say are the chances that any author would be equally good at prose, poetry and painting? If your answer is “close to zero,” you’ll have no trouble seeing the problem with this sequel to John J. Muth’s bestseller about a giant panda named Stillwater and the three Western children he befriends.

Muth’s beautiful watercolors give his Zen Ties a fresh and modern look. But the stuffy text is a New Age equivalent of one of the Victorian moral tales pushed aside decades ago by the work of pioneers like Margaret Wise Brown and Virginia Lee Burton and more recently by great author-illustrators like Maurice Sendak and Chris Van Allsburg.

In Muth’s new book, Stillwater has abandoned his boxer shorts and donned a red necktie for a visit from his nephew, Koo. You know you’re in for a slog when the gentle panda greets Koo, who speaks only in haiku, with, “Hi, Koo!” The problem with the greeting isn’t that children won’t get the pun — in good story, they wouldn’t need to — but that it’s cute instead of witty and typical of the weak writing in the book.

The becalmed plot befits a tale about a character named Stillwater. On a summer day in a well-kept American town, the panda decides to visit an ailing old lady who frightens children. He takes along four potential victims of that fear: Koo and young Karl, Addy and Michael. The children find that — surprise — Miss Whitaker is nice and helps Michael win a ribbon at a spelling bee. Why anybody would be taking part in a spelling bee in the summer, presumably at school, goes unexplained.

You might wonder if Zen Ties imparted worthy Buddhist teachings that would offset weaknesses in the writing. Not unless child-rearing experts like Penelope Leach and Michael Riera are Buddhists, because Stillwater dispenses advice that might have come straight from their books. And some of Muth’s implicit messages seem bizarrely anti-Buddhist. To entertain Koo, Addy invents a game called “Jump on Stillwater,” which looks sadistic. When she cleans Miss Whitaker’s house, she snaps at Karl, “Karl, hold the dustpan still!” No please, no apology for her rudeness.

Zen Ties does introduce children to haiku through the poems spoken by Koo. But haiku is a quiet verse form close to natural speech, so you wonder if they will even notice. And some of the poems in this book are poor examples of it. Near the end of his visit, Koo says, “Summer fading / new friends’ faces / lighten the way home.” “Lighten” is confusing here. It could mean “make less heavy” or “illuminate,” and because isn’t clear which one Koo intended, children will probably assume that he meant “illuminate.”

The fine watercolors in this book throw the deficiencies of the text into higher relief. And because pictures count for more than words in the Caldecott Awards, Zen Ties is likely be a serious contender for the next medal. You hope the judges will look hard for a book will allow the nation’s highest picture-book award to go to a work that is, on every level, of exceptional quality.

Best line/picture: The endpapers that show Stillwater and his nephew doing side-by-side t’ai chi movements.

Worst line/picture: Quoted above: “lighten the way home.”

Wish I’d written that: Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) wrote in the New York Times Book Review: “I had hopes that Zen Ties might veer closer to the Buddhist sources [than Zen Shorts did] , but the sequel contains no ancient tales at all …The weak story is a real shame, as Muth’s illustrations have the yearning gorgeousness displayed in the first volume.” Read Handler’s full review:
www.nytimes.com/2008/05/11/books/review/Handler-t.html.

Published: February 2008 www2.scholastic.com/browse/book.jsp?id=5114 . Muth won a Caldecott Honor citation for Zen Shorts en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_J._Muth.

Furthermore: I will have more comments on the Caldecott and Newbery awards before and after the American Library Association www.ala.org hands them out at its midwinter meeting in January.

You may also want to read: A review of the 2008 Caldecott Medal winner, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and a reading group guide to it, posted on this site on Jan. 14, 2008. Click on this link and you will see both below the Orson Scott Card quote www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/14/.

Janice Harayda’s 2008 A-to-Z holiday gift-book list will appear soon. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing her recommendations for children and adults.

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

November 21, 2008

John J. Muth’s ‘Zen Ties’ — Tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews

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John J. Muth won a Caldecott Honor citation and a 41-week stay on the New York Times bestseller list for Zen Shorts (Scholastic, 2005), the first picture book in a series about a gentle larger-than-life panda named Stillwater and three of his young human friends. This year Muth has returned with Zen Ties, a new tale about Stillwater (whose spin-offs include the boxer-shorts-wearing stuffed animal at left, available on Amazon www.amazon.com and elsewhere). A review of Zen Ties will appear tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 28, 2008

Review of Oprah’s Latest Book Club Pick, ‘The Story of Edgar Sawtelle,’ the First Novel by David Wroblewski

Get thee to a kennel! A mute boy named Edgar finds his Ophelia in a dog named Almondine in story set in a hamlet in Wisconsin

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel. By David Wroblewski. Ecco, 562 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

To read, or not to read
The Edgar Sawtelle book
That is the question.
Whether ’tis nobler
In the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of
Outrageous twaddle,
And moralizing, too,
In sections told just from
The point of view of dogs,
One of them a stand-in
For Ophelia herself —
Her name is Almondine —
Because this novel is
A sort of canine Hamlet
That’s set in — of all places —
A hamlet in Wisconsin,
Or nobler to skip
A story you might like
Especially if you miss
The big, fat novels that
James Michener used to write.
To read, perchance to find
That this is your dream book:
Ay, there’s the rub!
Unless you are seeking
The kind of happy ending
That Hamlet doesn’t have
Because the author doesn’t give you
What you don’t find in the play:
A tale where no one dies.
It’s true, the book is not
The play in any way.
No poison-tipped sword looms,
A syringe is used instead.
And as for Rosenkrantz
and Guildenstern, his friend,
Like Ophelia
They have four feet and fur,
Though Hamlet is a boy, mute,
The Edgar of the title,
Who sees his father’s ghost,
A paranormal twist
In Edgar’s earthbound-life.
Morosely, Hamlet said –
Remember? – that conscience
Makes cowards of us all.
Which is not true of Edgar.
But will his morals save him
Or send him to his doom?
No spoilers you’ll find here –
The Bard supplies them all.

[Note: This review is not intended as a strict parody of Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy. If you’ve read Hamlet and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and can do better, why not leave your parody in the comments section on this post? For more on the novel, visit www.edgarsawtelle.com.]

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

August 27, 2008

Reviving Ophelia as a Dog — ‘The Story of Edgar Sawtelle’

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Ophelia has four feet and fur in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

Ophelia has four feet and fur in 'The Story of Edgar Sawtelle'

You know how I wrote yesterday about five books I was planning to read this week while dog-sitting for literary friends? Those books are going to have to wait a day or two. My friends left behind a copy of David Wroblewski’s first novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (Ecco, 562 pp., $29.95) www.edgarsawtelle.com. And although I’ve been reading the over-the-top reviews of this bestseller for weeks, I’d somehow missed that – to oversimplify – this is a canine version of Hamlet in which a) Ophelia is a dog and b) the story is told partly from “Ophelia”’s point of view. Is Wroblewski’s novel closer to Shakespeare or Millie’s Book, the book former first lady Barbara Bush wrote in the voice of a White House spaniel? I will sort this out soon on One-Minute Book Reviews. To avoid missing this and other reviews, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

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

February 2, 2008

A Tale by the Brothers Grimm Returns in ‘The Bearskinner,’ a Picture Book by Newbery Winner Laura Amy Schlitz and Max Grafe

A former soldier struggles to avoid losing his soul to the devil in a parable about faith, hope and charity

The Bearskinner. By Laura Amy Schlitz. Illustrated by Max Grafe. Candlewick, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 4 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Laura Amy Schlitz is the newest supernova in the field of children’s literature. For years, she had a passionate following mainly among the students who listened to her stories at the Park School in Baltimore, where she is the librarian. But her visibility soared after she earned raves for her 2006 novel for ages 10 and up, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair. This year she won 2008 Newbery Medal for her cycle of one- and two-person plays, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, and she would be equally worthy of a major award for The Bearskinner, her retelling of a Faustian tale by the Brothers Grimm.

The grave and eloquent opening lines of the book set the tone: “They say that when a man gives up hope, the devil walks at his side. So begins this story: A soldier marched through a dark wood, and he did not march alone.” In this tale a hungry and cold soldier returns from war to find nothing left of his home and the people he loved. At his lowest moment, he accepts an offer from the devil, a man with a goat’s hoof for a left foot: For seven years, the soldier will have unlimited gold. But he must wear a bearskin and may not wash, pray or tell anyone of his dark bargain. If he does, he will lose his soul.

Clad in the skin of a bear he has just killed, the ex-soldier goes off to indulge his desires. After three years, he looks like a monster, and people flee from him. He loathes himself, too, and is thinking of ending his life. But he sees a starving mother and child who give him an idea – he will use Satan’s money to feed the poor. This act of charity leads to others that enable him to outwit the devil, throw off his bearskin and marry a kind woman who has seen the good heart behind the repulsive appearance.

All of this has aspects of both a fairy and morality tale. But Schlitz neither sentimentalizes nor preaches, and Max Grafe’s wonderful illustrations remind you the work of the late Leonard Baskin in their boldness, their restricted color palette and their use of fluid body lines to suggest inner turmoil. Grafe sets the text on yellowing pages that resemble parchment, or perhaps charred tree bark, which locates the story in the distant past and may soften its potentially frightening aspects. And his devil is one of the most original to appear in a picture book in years in years. Grafe casts Lucifer as a handsome devil in the literal sense of the phrase, a man who resembles 1930s matinee idol with slicked-back hair and a flowing green cloak. No ogre with a scar, his devil is a smooth operator – just like a lot of devils in real life.

Best line: The first lines of the book, quoted in the review.

Worst line: “He rode to the gambler’s house on a dapple-gray horse.” The use of “dapple-gray” is confusing. Why not “dappled gray”?

Published: November 2007 www.candlewick.com

Furthermore: Schlitz, a Baltimore librarian, won the 2008 Newbery Medal from the American Library Association www.ala.org, for her book of monologues and dialogues, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village (Candlewick, $19.99), illustrated by Robert Byrd. She lives in Maryland. Grafe is a New York printmaker and illustrator.

© 2008 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.

January 27, 2008

Coming Saturday — A Review of ‘The Bearskinner’ by Laura Amy Schlitz and Max Grafe

Laura Amy Schlitz proved that she could capture the attention of ages 10 and up with her novel A Drowned Maiden’s Hair and her cycle of one- and two-person plays, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, winner of the 2008 Newbery Medal from the American Library Association. But can she write for younger children? On Saturday One-Minute Book Reviews will review her recent picture book, The Bearskinner, a retelling of a tale by the Brothers Grimm, illustrated by Max Grafe.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 19, 2008

Beverly Donofrio and Barbara McClintock’s ‘Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary’

A girl and a mouse share more than a house in an engaging bedtime story

Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary. By Beverly Donofrio. Illustrated by Barbara McClintock. Random House/Schwartz & Wade, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 2–6.

By Janice Harayda

This quiet, lovely bedtime story goes against the grain of almost everything that is fashionable in picture books. That’s partly what makes it so appealing: It won’t lose its appeal when a book with more glitz comes along, because it has no glitz. What it has is heart, lots of it, that shows up most clearly beguiling illustrations by Barbara McClintock.

Mary and the Mouse is a book of opposites. Mary lives in a big house in the early years of the baby boom. The Mouse lives a little house in Mary’s house. They meet by accident and wave to each other every night until they grow up and leave for new homes. When Mary becomes a mother, she and her family live in another big house. When Mouse becomes a mother, she and her family live in another little house inside Mary’s house. The daughters of Mary and the Mouse vary their mothers’ pattern – they smile at each other instead of waving – until one night each of them “did something brave”: They found the courage to say, “Good Night!”

This simple plot serves worthy themes – affections survive separations, children resemble their parents but are unique, and change may not occur in one generation — well-supported by the art. McClintock creates lively human and animal faces that show real expression. And her warm and painterly seem to catch gestures in midair, as motor-drive camera does. Her cover image has Alice-in-Wonderland quality, and it’s pleasure to fall down the rabbit hole – or mouse hole – into this book.

Best line/picture: As an adult, Mary lives in a beautiful glass-and-fieldstone home in the spirit of Philip Johnson’s Glass House. This is refreshing. You could easily get the idea from recent picture books that all American children live in a) trailers; b) suburban colonials; or c) brownstones. Architectural diversity almost doesn’t exist in them.

Worst line/picture: None.

Published: August 2007 www.randomhouse.com/kids

Furthermore: This is the first book for children by Beverly Donofrio www.beverlydonofrio.com, who lives in Mexico and wrote Riding in Cars With Boys. Barbara McClintock wrote and illustrated the children’s book Adèle & Simon. She lives in Connecticut.

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

November 24, 2007

Jack Prelutsky’s Rhyming Animal Poems for Young Children


“Behold the bold UMBRELLAPHANT
That’s not the least afraid
To forage in the broiling sun
For it is in the shade.”

Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant: And Other Poems. By Jack Prelutsky. Illustrations by Carin Berger. Greenwillow, 32 pp., $17.89. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

For more than six months, a review of Jack Prelutsky’s collection of sports poems has appeared repeatedly among the top 10 posts on this site. I wish the distinction were going to a worthier book than Good Sports, which has uninspired rhymes, clichéd language and art that’s mismatched with the text.

Prelutksy’s 2006 Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant is in every way superior to it. This sparkling collection of poems about imaginary animals pays its respects to Lewis Carroll’s “The Crocodile.” (“How doth the little crocodile / Improve his shining tale, / And pour the waters of the Nile / On every golden scale!”) Because “The Crocodile” was a parody of an Isaac Watts poem, you might call “Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant” a parody of a parody.

But Prelusky’s book isn’t a parody so much as an homage. Like “The Crocodile,” most poems in “Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant” use the ballad stanzas known as common meter or “hymn” stanzas, or alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter with rhyming first and third lines. And Prelusky stays close enough to Carroll’s work that his book could have become a tired imitation of it.

Instead the poems in Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant have a freshness all their own, paired with sparkling mixed-media illustrations by Carin Berger. Each poem describes a creature that is part animal and part familiar object – an elephant with an umbrella for a trunk in the “The Umbrellaphant,” an octopus with an alarm clock for a head in “The Clocktopus.” This device could have been too clever by a half. It isn’t, partly because Prelutsky keeps most poems as simple and descriptive as “The Panthermometer,” about a panther with a thermometer for a tail: “Here comes a PATHERMOMETER / A cat we fondly hail, / For we can tell the temperature / By looking at its tail.”

Will preschoolers will get the puns and other wordplay in poems like “The Lynx of Chain”? Wrong question. Like Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant is nonsense verse, a form that uses whimisical or incomprehensible words to comic effect. And not the least of the virtues of this book is that it may help to prepare children to appreciate Carroll and other masters of that vanishing art.

Best poem: Many, including the lines from “The Panthermometer” and “Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant” quoted above.

Worst line: The poem “The Circular Sawtoise” describes a creature that combines a tortoise and a circular saw and borders too clever, in part because of the pronunction of “sawtoise.” When you first see the title of the poem, you mentally pronounce it as “saw-toys.” You have to study the picture to realize that it’s “saw-tis” in “tortoise.”

Published: September 2006 www.harpercollinschildrens.com and www.jackprelusky.com

Caveat lector: The second and fourth lines should be indented four spaces in the lines quoted from the title poem, “Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant,” but this template won’t let me do that.

Furthermore: This book is also available on an unabridged audio CD, which I haven’t seen. To read the review of Good Sports, click here: www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/05/12/. read Lewis Carroll’s “The Crocodile,” click here: www.poetry-archive.com/c/the_crocodile.html

Children’s book reviews appear on Saturdays on One-Minute Book Reviews.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

November 22, 2007

Jack Prelutsky’s Rhyming Animal Poems — Coming Saturday

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:55 pm
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Jack Prelutsky www.jackprelutsky.com pays homage to Lewis Carroll’s “The Crocodile” in Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant: And Other Poems (HarperCollins, $16.99), a collection of rhyming poems about imaginary animals for ages 3 and up. A review of the book will appear on One-Minute Book Reviews on Saturday, Nov. 24. Reviews of children’s books appear every Saturday on this site, and posts about books for adults may also appear. To avoid missing these reviews, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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