One-Minute Book Reviews

December 13, 2008

‘How I Learned Geography’ by Uri Shulevitz (Countdown to the Caldecott and Newbery Awards, #4)

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:25 am
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This post is the latest in series about possible candidates for the Caldecott and Newbery medals to be awarded next month

How I Learned Geography. By Uri Shulevitz. Farrar Straus & Giroux, 32 pp., $16.95. Ages 2 and up.

By Janice Harayda

For more than 40 years, Uri Shulevitz has ranked among the finest illustrators in the United States, and How I Learned Geography suggests why. This picture book uses the simple language of a folk tale but gains real depth through evocative watercolors and big themes.

In How I Learned Geography a boy and his parents lose everything they own when war forces them to leave their home and seek safety in a distant land. They have no food or books and live a single room with a dirt floor.

But one day when the father goes to the market for bread, he comes home instead with a map. The boy and his mother are furious – they have nothing to eat. But when the father hangs the map on the wall, “Our cheerless room was flooded with color.” Exotic place names inspire visions of deserts and mountains, temples and cities. The boy’s fantasies allow him to spend “enchanted hours far, far from our hunger and misery” and to forgive his father.

How I Learned Geography grew out of Shulevitz’s boyhood in World War II, when his family fled to Turkestan in Central Asia after a bomb fell into the stairwell of their apartment building in Warsaw. But the book names no cities, which helps to give it a mythic quality. And the tale works equally well as a survival narrative and as a parable about how a rich inner life can help children transcend an impoverished outer life. This book could be a wonderful tool for adults who want to help children explore moral and psychological questions such as: What should you do when you have more than one need and both seem equally important?

Best line/picture: The opening image of Warsaw burning. Shulevitz shows the family fleeing against an abstract red and gray background that suggests danger without using images that could make the book needlessly frightening.

Worst line/picture: The narrator remembers a fantasy inspired by a map: “I came to a city of tall buildings and counted zillions of windows, falling asleep before I could finish.” The pictures show cars from the 1940s or so. Wouldn’t a child of that era have thought “millions” or even “thousands” instead of “zillions”?

Published: April 2008

Furthermore: Shulevitz won a Caldecott Medal for The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship and Caldecott Honor citations for Snow and The Treasure. He also wrote So Sleepy Story, reviewed on this site on Feb. 24, 2007

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear on this site every Saturday. To read other posts in the Countdown to the Caldecott and Newbery awards series, enter the word Countdown without quotation marks in the Search box at right.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 8, 2008

‘Jan the Hungarian’ Predicts the Winners of Major Book Awards – A New Series Starting Tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews

Filed under: Jan the Hungarian Predicts — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:41 pm
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Are you tired of getting blindsided by all those year-end news reports on award-winning books, half of which you have never even heard of, let alone read?

One-Minute Book Reviews wants to help with a new series that will predict which books or authors will win major literary awards in late 2008 or early 2009. Inspired by late Las Vegas bookie Jimmy “Jimmy the Greek” Snyder, Janice Harayda will make her predictions under her nom de guerre of “Jan the Hungarian.” (Yes, she is going to hear about this from the Scottish half of her family, but “Jan the Scot” just doesn’t have the same ring, does it?)

The first post in the series will appear tomorrow when Jan will predict the winner of the next National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction even though she has not read all of eligible books because they have not come out yet. Her predictions will be based not on inside information – because she obviously never has any — but solely on having read the books.

Jan is starting with an NBCC prize because she used to be an NBCC judge … so that should be easy, right? Future posts may involve predictions about winners of the National Book Awards, the Pulitzer Prizes, the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Man Booker Prize for Fiction and Newbery and Caldecott medals. She will not make predictions about all the awards, only about those she thinks will interest you if you are bored at work.

Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing these posts. Thanks for visiting One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 30, 2008

Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read – ‘The Backward Day’ by Ruth Krauss With Art by Marc Simont

“Ruth [Krauss] broke the rules and invented new ones, and her respect for the natural ferocity of children bloomed into poetry that was utterly faithful to what was true in their lives.”
— Maurice Sendak in The Horn Book

The Backward Day. By Ruth Krauss. Illustrated by Marc Simont. New York Review Children’s Collection, 32 pp., $14.95. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Ruth Krauss isn’t as well-known today as Margaret Wise Brown, her contemporary and fellow member of the Writer’s Laboratory at the Bank Street School in New York City. But like Brown, Krauss helped to change the path of children’s literature, partly by incorporating more naturalism into a field dominated by fairy and folk tales. One of her most appealing books is The Backward Day, recently revived in a series of classics from New York Review Children’s Collection.

In a wholly nondidactic way, this brief story reminds us — and children — of the joy of activities that cost nothing. A young boy wakes up one morning and decides that it’s “backward day,” an occasion that some children call “opposite day.” He puts his underwear on over his coat and suit and his socks over his shoes. Then he walks backward down the stairs to the breakfast table, where he turns a chair around. When his parents and younger sister arrive, he tells each of them, “Goodnight.” Without so much as a “Don’t be silly!” they go along with him – and keep going along — until he announces “BACKWARD DAY IS DONE” and everything returns to normal.

Simple as it is, this story speaks to – and vicariously fulfills – children’s yearning for power over others, and does so in a realistic and believable way. Its young hero needs no magic wand or potion to get others to do his bidding, which must make it all the more thrilling to many children. Marc Simont’s appealing drawings of a late 1940s family have an ageless elegance leavened with wit. And in an era of oversized picture books that are way too big for many 3-year-olds to handle comfortably, this is the rare hardcover book that has a scale that’s right for small hands.

Recommendation? This book is smaller than most used for library story hours — it’s about the size of Goodnight Moon — but it could still be a great story hour book for a small group, because it offers so many opportunities for audience participation. Children could turn around at some point during the reading, for example, or the leader could “read” the book upside down.

Best line: “Over his suit, he put on his underwear. He explained to himself, ‘Backward day is backward day.’” This line shows Krauss’s understanding of how children think and reason, a hallmark of her books.

Worst line: None.

Published: 1950 (first edition), 2007 (New York Review reprint)

Furthermore: Krauss also wrote A Very Special House, a Caldecott Honor Book, and A Hole Is to Dig, both illustrated by Maurice Sendak. She won another Caldecott Honor for The Happy Day, which has pictures by Marc Simont.

Other titles in the New York Review Children’s Collection include E. Nesbit’s The House of Arden, Rumer Godden’s An Episode of Sparrows, Lucretia P. Hale’s The Peterkin Papers and Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson’s Wee Gillis.

This is the latest in an occasional series of posts on classic picture books every child should read. Reviews of books for children and teenagers appear on Saturdays on One-Minute Book Reviews. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing these posts.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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