One-Minute Book Reviews

October 21, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda — The Complete 2008 National Book Awards Shortlist for Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry and Young People’s Literature

Amid the hoopla over the Nobel, I didn’t have a chance to post a link to the list of the recently announced finalists for the National Book Awards for fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature. If you missed the list, you can find it here www.nationalbook.org/nba2008.html.

Some years none of National Book Awards finalists seems a strong candidate for the prize. But the 2008 nonfiction shortlist alone has two worthy books: Jim Sheeler’s Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives and Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. No complaints from here if either wins, though I haven’t seen the other nonfiction finalists, which may be equally good.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 7, 2007

A Boy and His Dog Enjoy Christmas Without Commercialism in Cynthia Rylant’s ‘Henry and Mudge in the Sparkle Days’

The snow sparkles, and so do the words and pictures in this book for beginning readers

Henry and Mudge in the Sparkle Days: The Fifth Book of Their Adventures (Henry and Mudge Ready-to-Read). Words by Cynthia Rylant. Pictures by Suçie Stevenson. Aladdin, 48 pp., $3.99, paperback. Also available in hardcover and audio editions. Ages 4–8.

By Janice Harayda

The books known as “easy readers” are paradoxically among the hardest to write. They need to have simple words yet enough depth to captivate children whose thoughts are more complex than the sentences they are able to read.

Strong pictures help – that’s partly why the Dr. Seuss easy readers are so effective – but children’s books begin with good stories. And writing them for 6-to-8-year-olds is difficult enough that even the gifted Kate DiCamillo has so far come up short in her new “Mercy Watson” series for that age group.

Cynthia Rylant is a master of the art of the easy reader, and in Suçie Stevenson she has found an illustrator whose comic style suits her work the way nutmeg suits eggnog. Henry and Mudge in the Sparkle Days consists of three short stories, each about enjoying a winter pleasure – the first snowfall, a Christmas Eve dinner and a family walk at night followed by a quiet time in front of a fireplace. This sort of material reduces lesser writers and artists to utter sappiness.

But Rylant and Stevenson invest it with high drama, whether Mudge is destroying Henry’s snow angels or crying in a bedroom because he “hadn’t been invited to the fancy Christmas Eve dinner because he was a dog.” Their story has real warmth and emotion, rooted in family members’ love for one another and their pet.

These virtues alone might earn Henry and Mudge in the Sparkle Days a spot on a young child’s reading list. But there is something else: Rylant achieves her effects without pandering to children. All of the stories focus on simple pleasures of home and family, not on expensive gifts. Stevenson’s Christmas Eve scenes show a tree strung with popcorn, a house decorated with greenery and two discreetly wrapped presents (which may or may not be for Henry and Mudge). Henry and Mudge in the Sparkle Days www.henryandmudge.com is about a holiday without what’s usually called “commercialism.” But it doesn’t moralize or engage in self-congratulation. It dramatizes, with clarity and wit, its theme that Christmas is about the people (and animals) you love. And that makes it a book worth rereading in any season.

Best line/picture: Stevenson’s picture of Henry in a snow gear, including a ski mask, is a hoot. Henry has his arms outstretched as if to say, “What am I doing in all of this stuff?” The picture fits the text perfectly, because on the next page we learn that Mudge “barked and barked and barked at the strange creature.”

Worst line/picture: None

Furthermore: Rylant’s 30 Henry and Mudge books include Henry and Mudge and a Very Merry Christmas (Aladdin, $3.99, paperback), which I haven’t seen http://www.henryandmudge.com. But School Library Journal said that “Rylant’s words and Stevenson’s pictures work together to create a charming and funny holiday title” that children and adults will enjoy all year long. Rylant www.en.wikipedia/wiki/Cynthia_Rylant also wrote Missing May, which won the Newbery Medal from the American Library Association www.ala.org.

Published: 1997 www.simonsayskids.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

www.janiceharayda.com

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