One-Minute Book Reviews

March 27, 2011

Did ‘A Sick Day for Amos McGee’ Deserve the 2011 Caldecott Medal?

The latest in a series of posts on whether winners of major awards earned their honors

A Sick Day for Amos McGee. Written by Philip C. Stead. Illustrated by Erin E. Stead. Neal Porter/Roaring Brook Press, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 2–5.

By Janice Harayda

Erin Stead won that healthiest of picture-book prizes, the Caldecott Medal, for her illustrations for A Sick Day for Amos McGee. And she might have earned it for her fine draftsmanship alone.

Just as great painters may succeed at landscapes but fail at portraiture, some acclaimed picture-book illustrators can’t draw – and especially can’t draw faces – well. They excel at working with paint, collage, or mixed media instead of a pencil or pen. Or they illustrate stories good enough to mask or offset their deficiencies as draftsmen.

But pencil drawings have provided the spark for many of the best picture books of the past 50 years, including Caldecott winners such as Chris Van Allsburg’s Jumanji and Peter Spiers’s Noah’s Ark. And the medium may attract fewer illustrators as computer-generated art proliferates. So it’s cheering that Erin Stead shows a gift for the form in A Sick Day for Amos McGee, a picture book written by her husband, Philip. She draws with a pencil on softly colored woodblock prints to give warmth and depth to this comic fantasy about animals who repay the kindness of their zookeeper.

A Sick Day for Amos McGee has little in the way of plot. A faithful zookeeper always makes time to visit his animal friends – to play chess with an elephant and sit with a shy penguin – until the day he stays home in bed with a cold and he and his companions reverse their caretaking roles. The creatures help the sniffling Amos by assuming, as children tend to do, that others have needs identical to theirs. The rhino with allergies hands him a handkerchief. The owl who is afraid of the dark – “knowing that Amos was afraid of the dark” – reads him a story.

Philip Stead develops his theme — you get what you give — with an appealing absence of didacticism and pretense. But his writing has less power than that of Caldecott winners such as Where the Wild Things (in which the last line – “and it was still hot” – uplifts all that has preceded it). And A Sick Day for Amos McGee ends on a slightly derivative note when, in an echo of Goodnight Moon, everyone says “goodnight”:

So Amos said goodnight to the elephant.
And good night to the tortoise.
And goodnight to the penguin.
And good night to the owl …

But Erin Stead extends the story with her talent for portraiture and more. Every face in the book — human or animal — shows emotion and personality, whether it’s that of the contemplative elephant, the long-suffering rhinoceros, or the sweetly child-like Amos. And Stead’s use of color heightens the mood she creates for each page. On several spreads, she sets her characters against wide, vertical yellow stripes that could represent wallpaper, beams of sunlight, and more. That several interpretations would make sense helps to show why this book would stand up to many rereadings.

No less appealing are the visual subplots. One involves the reticent penguin who at first holds himself apart from other characters. Then he catches a red balloon that floats within his reach at the zoo. We next see him holding the balloon as he sits at the front of a bus that is taking the animals to the ailing Amos: He’s starting to shed his shyness. On the following spread, he stands tall as he walks at the front of a line of larger animals marching into the sick zookeeper’s bedroom. He has clearly gained confidence from holding a balloon, what psychologists might call a “security object,” and perhaps also from his mission. Only the pictures tell you about the change in the penguin, but they need no help from words.

Was this book worthy of a Caldecott Medal? A qualified yes. Erin Stead gets an A for her art and Philip Stead a B/B+ for his writing. But American Library Association rules say that Caldecott judges should’t consider the text unless it interferes with the pictures. And the writing in this book doesn’t interfere. By the rulebook, A Sick Day for Amos McGee gets an A. The greatest Caldecott Medal winners – which include Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House and Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are – are A+ books in which the words and pictures are equally superlative. But only the most unrealistic adult would expect a child to read nothing but A+ books. And A Sick Day for Amos McGee has literary traits that some of the ALA titans don’t, including that it’s short and gentle enough to make a fine bedtime story for any child who is getting tired of Goodnight Moon.

Sendak once wrote that Randolph Caldecott’s work marks the beginning of the modern picture book. The Victorian illustrator found a new way to juxtapose words and pictures, he noted: “Words are left out – but the picture says it. Pictures are left out — but the word says it.” Long after Caldecott’s death, artists must still to bring those ideals into harmony, and Erin Stead has done it in A Sick Day for Amos McGee.

Best line/picture: Two wordless spreads that tell the story entirely in pictures.

Worst line/picture: I don’t have children, but people who do say that you need to be careful about introducing the concept of “fear of the dark” to toddlers and preschoolers who don’t have it. Some adults might want to skip over the lines that refer to it. And all of the characters in this book are male.

Published: June 2010

Furthermore: The Caldecott Medal goes to the illustrator of a book, not the author. Erin Stead shows in this video the technique she used for A Sick Day for Amos McGee: drawing with pencil on top of woodblock prints. She made other comments about her work to the Wall Street Journal.  One-Minute Book Reviews also reviewed the Caldecott medalists FlotsamWhere The Wild Things Are and The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

About the author and illustrator: The Steads commute between New York City and Ann Arbor, Michigan.

You may also want to read “American Library Association to Little Kids: Women Are Second Best,” a response to the medals gap between male and female Caldecott winners.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and journalist who has been vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. You can also follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 27, 2009

2009 Caldecott Medal Honors an Attractive But Derivative Book — ALA Judges Play It Safe by Choosing the Poetry of ‘The House in the Night’

Beth Krommes used scratchboard and watercolor for 'The House in the Night.'

The House in the Night. By Susan Marie Swanson. Illustrated by Beth Krommes. Houghton Mifflin, 40 pp., $17. Ages 2–5.

By Janice Harayda

This lovely and thoroughly inoffensive 2009 Caldecott award–winner should hearten anybody who sees the American Library Association as a hotbed of Communists who keep trying to sneak into kids’ hands books on dangerous topics like sex education and environmentalism. The House in the Night is pretty as can be but shows the ALA in full retreat from the days when it gave medals to trailblazing books like The Little House, Where the Wild Things Are and Jumanji.

There’s no doubt that as the financial maelstrom rages, many people will welcome this gentle story about the comforts of home in the darkness. As night falls, a young girl receives a key to a tidy house that has glowing lamp. She enters and finds on a bed a book about a dove-like bird that carries her on its wings toward the moon and back to a home “full of light.”

None of the action in this tale has a catalyst that is remotely upsetting or disturbing, such as Max’s getting sent to bed without his supper in Where the Wild Things Are. Susan Marie Swanson found the inspiration for this cumulative story in one of the nursery rhymes collected by the estimable Iona and Peter Opie (“This is the key of the kingdom: / In that kingdom is a city”). And although nursery rhymes can be sadistic, this book minds its manners. Swanson tells her story in short-lined poetry so low keyed, most critics seem to have missed it despite lines like “the house in the night / a home full of light.”

Beth Krommes’s illustrations have a minimalist color palette unusually sophisticated for a picture book. Krommes uses just three colors – black, white and yellow – and watercolor and scratchboard techniques that give the art the look of wood engravings. She also reduces her images to essentials: a cat, a doll, a brush, teddy bears, sweaters in a bedroom drawer. Her “house in the night” is a cottage — the roof appears thatched — that could have come from a benevolent fairy tale. Even the sun has a smiling face with long eyelashes. The girl soars on her bird’s wings over a pastoral landscape that, the cars suggest, belongs to the 1940s.

All of these scenes have a cozy familiarity – too much of it for a Caldecott winner. Everything in this derivative book reminds you of something else. That brush in the bedroom? Goodnight Moon. That color palette? Wanda Gág’s Millions of Cats. The structure of the story? “This Is the House That Jack Built.”

The borrowed elements in The House in the Night generally work well together and add up to a good book. But you expect more than good from the winner of the Caldecott Medal, awarded to “the most distinguished American picture book for children.” You expect greatness, or at least a higher level of originality – the boldness of winners like Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House, which dealt with suburban sprawl decades before it became fashionable, or David Macaulay’s Black and White, which wove together multiple plots in way new to picture books.

The House in the Night leaves you wondering if the Caldecott judges wanted to find the best book, or just to administer a dose of bibliotherapy to a nation that needs it. You also wonder if the committee overreacted to recent criticisms that the ALA awards don’t honor enough poetry by honoring a book some may not recognize as poetry at all. And why are the organization’s judges such suckers for books about reading? This pattern goes back at least to the 1991 Newbery for Maniac Magee. But books about the power of reading aren’t inherently worthier of awards than those about plumbing or red-tailed hawks: Everything depends on the execution.

Certainly the Caldecott committee snubbed books as award-worthy as this one, including Pale Male and The Little Yellow Leaf. For all its virtues, The House in the Night has nothing so unusual about it that schools and libraries need to have it, the way they do need have the 2008 winner, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which has strong and unique merits. Oddly enough, if the Caldecott judges wanted to help a nation in financial turmoil, they did it, but not in the intended way: They selected a book that no one needs to rush out to buy.

Best line/picture: “the house in the night / a home full of light.”

Worst line/picture: This book depicts cars more than a half century old but a lamp that looks inspired by the latest Pottery Barn catalog.

Published: May 2008

About the authors: Swanson is an award-winning poet in St. Paul, Minnesota. Krommes is an illustrator in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

You may also want to read “American Library Association to Little Kids: Women Are Second Best,” a response to the medals gap between male and female Caldecott winners.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist and former vice-president for Awards of the National Book Critics Circle.

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

July 18, 2008

‘Owl Babies’ — A Picture Book That Sets the Stage for Bedtime

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Two words for parents looking for a bedtime story for very young children: Owl Babies (Candlewick, 32 pp., $5.99, paperback, ages 1–3). In this popular picture book, Martin Waddell tells a lackluster story about the separation anxiety that strikes three fluffy white owlets that are left alone one night when their mother flies off to hunt for food. But Patrick Benson illustrates the tale with captivating ink-and-watercolor pictures that help to make up for the weaknesses of a text that is at times cutesy and overelaborated. Benson also sets the white owls against a very dark background that, more strongly than most picture books, immerses you in a nighttime world and sets the stage for bedtime.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

February 9, 2008

Natalie Babbitt’s Cycle of Stories About an Out-of-Work Pirate, ‘Jack Plank Tells Tales’

The author of Tuck Everlasting returns with a lighter book about a reformed plunderer-of-the-high-seas

Jack Plank Tells Tales. Story and pictures by Natalie Babbitt. Scholastic/Michael Di Capua, 128 pp., $15.95. Ages 7–9 (ages 4 and up for reading aloud).

By Janice Harayda

Jack Plank Tells Tales is the book many parents have been waiting for – a pirate story for children too old for picture books but too young for Treasure Island. It lacks the psychological heft and stylistic perfection of Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting, a modern classic. But it’s several nautical miles beyond many other recent pirate stories, including Peter Pan rip-offs and cheesy movie tie-ins.

Jack Plank is an amiable out-of-work pirate who is cast off the ship Avarice because he lacks a talent for plunder: “You have to yell and make faces and rattle your sword, and once you’ve got people scared, you take things away from them.” So he has to find a new job after he settles into a boarding house on Jamaica in about 1720.

Each day he looks for work, with the proprietor’s 11-year-old daughter as his guide, and finds something wrong with one of his options. He can’t fish because it reminds him of a shipmate’s story of a man who turned into an octopus and can’t work in a sugarcane field because he would have to cross a bridge that brings to mind a sailor’s account of a troll. Each night he entertains the boardinghouse residents with another tale of why he has come up empty-handed, which leads soon to a job that suits him the way a deep harbor suits a galleon.

The stop-and-go narrative makes this book good bedtime reading for children who can handle its two deaths by stabbing even as the lack of a strong forward momentum may make it easier for others to put down. And there’s not much thematic development – this is light entertainment, an amusing cycle of stories billed by the publisher as a novel.

But Babbitt’s engaging pencil drawings – and a handsome jacket and design by Kathleen Westray – help to offset the narrative limits. The refusal of American Library Association www.ala.org to give Tuck Everlasting a Newbery Medal or Honor Book citation may have been the organization’s greatest awards blunder of the past 40 years, compounded by its continual failure to recognize Babbitt with the Margaret A. Edwards award for lifetime achievement. Lois Lowry is a good writer. But why Lowry has won the Edwards award and Babbitt hasn’t is a mystery that this appealing book only deepens.

Best line: Many of the tales in this book develop folkloric motifs such as that of the mummy’s hand, and its story of a girl raised by seagulls has an especially memorable illustration of a feral child.

Worst line: The last: “But it seems to be sure that, as Waddy Spoonton pointed out, it’s never too late to be happy.” This ending is unusually sugary – and clichéd – for Babbitt. And the text doesn’t really prepare you for it.

Published: May 2007 www.scholastic.com

Furthermore: Babbitt won a Newbery Honor Book designation for Kneeknock Rise, a completely inadequate recognition of her body of work from the ALA. As a former vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle, I appreciate the great difficulty of getting literary prizes right. But the ALA is just embarrassing itself on this one.

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

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

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