One-Minute Book Reviews

January 23, 2012

Complete List of 2012 Newbery, Calcdecott and Other ALA Awards Winners

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Chris Raschka has won the Caldecott Medal for “the most distinguished picture book for children” and Jack Gantos won the Newbery Medal for “the most outstanding contribution to children’s literature,” both awarded today by the American Library Association. Here’s the complete list of the 2012 Newbery, Caldecott and other ALA award winners. As always with literary prizes, part of the news consists of who didn’t win. In naming today’s honorees, librarians snubbed books by three of America’s greatest living illustrators of children’s books: Nancy Ekholm Burkert’s Mouse & Lion, Maurice Sendak’s Bumble-Ardy and Chris Van Allsburg’s Queen of the Falls.

June 6, 2011

In Defense of Meghan Cox Gurdon, Children’s Book Reviewer

Does a reviewer have a right to say that books for adolescents are “ever-more-appalling”?

By Janice Harayda

For years Meghan Cox Gurdon has been reviewing books for children and teenagers for the Wall Street Journal – at first biweekly and, since the launch of the paper’s book review section in late 2010, weekly. Her reviews are consistently intelligent and well-written and almost always favorable.

Cox Gurdon clearly has made it her mission to look for and call attention to high-quality books for children and teenagers on many topics and in a variety of genres. She has praised books as different as Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which won the 2008 Caldecott Medal from the American Library Association, and Ruth Krauss’s reissued classic The Backward Day.

Over the weekend the Wall Street Journal published “Darkness Too Visible,” one of the rare articles by Cox Gurdon that faulted a major trend — the burgeoning array of novels for adolescents that involve violence, abuse or other bleak topics. For this she has been pilloried in blogs and on Twitter at the hashtag #YASaves, which was created  in response her story and has generated more than 15,000 responses, according to the trade newsletter ShelfAwareness. Cox Gurdon has been called “biased” (@KelliTrapnell), “idiotic” (@fvanhorne), “a right-wing nut” (@annejumps), full of “ugliness” (@AprilHenryBooks), and “brittle, ignorant, shrewish” (@Breznian).

What did Cox Gurdon do to earn this torrent of vitriol? She did what critics are supposed to do – to look beyond plot and characterization and consider the deeper themes and issues raised by novels. In “Darkness Too Visible,” she questioned the effects of books like Jackie Morse Kessler’s Rage, a “gruesome but inventive” 2011 book about a girl whose secret practice of cutting herself “turns nightmarish after a sadistic sexual prank.” Cox Gurdon quotes a passage from the novel that says: “She had sliced her arms to ribbons, but the badness remained, staining her insides like cancer. She had gouged her belly until it was a mess of meat and blood, but she still couldn’t breathe.”

It is entirely legitimate for a reviewer to ask, as Cox Gurdon does, how this might affect a vulnerable child or teenager:

“The argument in favor of such novels is that they validate the teen experience, giving voice to tortured adolescents who would otherwise be voiceless. If a teen has been abused, the logic follows, reading about another teen in the same straits will be comforting. If a girl cuts her flesh with a razor to relieve surging feelings of self-loathing, she will find succor in reading about another girl who cuts, mops up the blood with towels and eventually learns to manage her emotional turbulence without a knife.

“Yet it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures. Self-destructive adolescent behaviors are observably infectious and have periods of vogue. That is not to discount the real suffering that some young people endure; it is an argument for taking care.”

Anyone who writes about children’s books regularly knows that Cox Gurdon hasn’t made up this trend: Books, like movies, keep getting more lurid. Or, as she puts it, the publishing industry is serving up “ever-more-appalling offerings for adolescent readers.” If this issue might not concern all adults, it would surely concern some, given how many buy books as gifts for children without having time to look at much more than the cover and flap copy. And Cox Gurdon isn’t saying: Never read young-adult books. She’s saying: Know what’s in those books, and use judgment, as you would with movies.

Contemporary child-rearing experts urge parents to protect their children in ways that would have been unthinkable a couple of generations ago, when psychologists warned of about the dangers of “overprotectiveness.” This shift has resulted from social changes that require more caution, and Cox Gurdon has encouraged adults to apply to their children’s reading the level of care that they bring to all other areas of their lives. Is this so terrible? Thousands of people on Twitter have said, “Yes.” Anyone who believes that adolescents’ reading habits matter as much as their viewing habits may disagree. In her latest article and others, Cox Gurdon has paid young people’s literature the highest compliment:  She has given children’s books the close scrutiny that, in an age of shrinking book-review sections, typically goes only to those for adults. For that, she deserves gratitude.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer, the book columnist for Glamour, and vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. She has written for the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, and many other publications Since 2006 she has edited One-Minute Book Reviews, named one of New Jersey’s best blogs in the April 2011 issue of New Jersey Monthly. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

(c) 2011 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?

October 17, 2010

Carin Berger’s ‘The Little Yellow Leaf’ Honored by Booksellers

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Carin Berger’s The Little Yellow Leaf has had a spot on my “best picture books about fall” list on its publication in 2008, when the New York Times named in one of the Best Illustrated Books of the year. So I’m happy to report that independent booksellers recently have chosen it as one of their 40 favorite children’s books of the past 40 years. Berger’s lovely story about an oak leaf that doesn’t want to leave its branch also works beautifully as a parable about the value of teamwork.

September 18, 2010

A Girl’s Imagination Blooms in the Picture Book ‘My Garden’

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 10:05 pm
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The 2005 Caldecott medalist returns with a tale about the joys of solitude

My Garden. By Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow, 40 pp., $18.99. Ages 3–6.

By Janice Harayda

Kevin Henkes has won deserved praise for Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse and other picture books about a high-spirited mouse and her friends and family. But he also excels at telling quiet stories about the rewards people gain from spending time alone.

Nearly 30 years ago, Henkes made his picture-book debut with All Alone, which offered a boy’s view of things he could do on his own. Henkes returns to the theme of the joys of solitude in a book about a girl whose imagination blooms when she’s alone in the family garden. On the first spread, Henkes’s unnamed heroine helps her mother weed and water and “chase away the rabbits / so that they don’t eat all the lettuce” in their fenced-in garden. Then, until the last spread, the girl is alone on the page, and her imagination soars as she considers what life would be like “if I had a garden …”

Like a well-structured poem, My Garden links its young heroine’s fantasies with a refrain, “In my garden”: “In my garden, the flowers could change color / just by my thinking about it — / pink, blue, green, purple. Even patterns.” “In my garden, the rabbits wouldn’t eat the lettuce / because the rabbits would be chocolate / and I would eat them.” These lines reflect perfectly the thinking of children of a certain age – at once literal and wildly fanciful – and the illustrations are nearly as good. Henkes works in pen-and-ink and watercolor and doesn’t tart up his pictures with glitter, but when his heroine imagines strawberries that “glow like lanterns,” the fruit seems lit from within. And his palette — which runs to colors like pink and lilac and moss green — is soft-focused without being insipid.

Henkes’s pictures lack the depth and stylistic flair of the work of the best living picture-book illustrators, a group that includes Chris Van Allsburg, Maurice Sendak and Quentin Blake. But his words and pictures are so well integrated that My Garden works better than many books by greater artists who have written weak texts or were mismatched with authors who did. His heroine’s mother returns at just the right moment with her hands outstretched to show that people need both time alone and time with others. And if My Garden lacks the high comedy of the books about Lilly, its heroine has sly wit of her own. “What are you doing?” her mother asks on the last page. “Oh, nothing,” her daughter deadpans. “Just working in the garden.”

Best line/picture: “If I planted jelly beans, / I’d grow a great big jelly bean bush.” And there’s a nice echo of the nursery rhyme “Mary, Mary” in: “If I planted seashells, / I’d grow seashells.” The plaid sunflowers are also amusing, and the book has striking endpapers.

Worst line/picture: A hard-liner might argue that Henkes should have killed the italics and used stronger words in “I would eat them” and another line.

Published: February 2010

2011 Caldecott Medal scouting report: My Garden is less original than some books likely to receive serious consideration for the American Library Association’s award, such as Here Comes the Garbage Barge!. But it’s a safe choice, unlikely to cause trouble for any library that acquires it. Henkes won the 2005 Caldecott medal and an earlier Honor Book citation, and the ALA has a tradition of honoring the same authors repeatedly. No one should be surprised if this book wins.

About the author: Henkes won the 2005 Caldecott Medal for Kitten’s First Full Moon. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 18, 2010

‘Red Ted and the Lost Things’ — A Former British Children’s Laureate Returns With a Tale of Finding Your Way Home

A teddy bear, a crocodile and a cat team up in a picture book from a popular author

Red Ted and the Lost Things. By Michael Rosen. Illustrated by Joel Stewart. Candlewick, 40 pp., $16.99. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Few picture-books authors write more honestly about loss than Michael Rosen, the former British children’s laureate. His Michael Rosen’s Sad Book was the rare book for its age group that dealt successfully with multi-layered adult grief — the pain its author felt when his 18-year-old son Eddie died from meningitis.

Now Rosen has returned with a lighter story about loss: a tale of a brave red teddy bear who must find his own way home when his young owner accidentally leaves him on a train seat and he ends up in a cavernous lost-and-found department. That premise alone would set this picture book apart from many others in which lost toys are reunited with their owners through children’s diligent search-and-rescue efforts.

But Red Ted and the Lost Things is also unusual for its willingness to acknowledge that some lost objects never return home. Red Ted at first feels confident that his owner, a girl named Stevie, will claim him at the train station. But he realizes he must find his own way home when a crocodile tells him, “I’ve been here a very long time, and no one has ever come to get me.”

So the new friends follow the “Way Out” signs in the train station and begin their journey – an optimistic teddy bear and a pessimistic crocodile, who fall in with a helpful cat who has some of the traits of each. It’s a much quieter trip than the rip-roaring family adventure in We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, a book that includes an unexpected snowstorm. And its pleasures are gentler: Joel Stewart affirms the bond between the animals, despite their differences, by using bright colors only for the three traveling companions and a sepia- wash for the background. And by the time the three find Stevie, this book has become more than a quest narrative: It is a story about the value of teamwork and how people of different of temperaments can work – and, in the end, live – together happily.

Best line/picture: Red Ted and the Lost Things has an inventive spread that consists of one-and-a-half blank pages (with art only at the bottom of the second page), which appears when the characters seem to have run out of ideas for finding their way home.

Worst line/picture: None. But you wonder why Steve calls her mother “Mom” instead of “Mum” when the signs follow the British model (“Way Out” instead of “Exit”).

Published: October 2009

About the author and illustrator: Rosen was the British Children’s Laureate from 2007–2009. He is best known in the U.S. for his acclaimed We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, which he performs in an excellent video. He collaborated on Michael Rosen’s Sad Book with the great illustrator British Quentin Blake. Joel Stewart lives in England and has illustrated Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter. She reviews children’s books on Saturdays on One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 21, 2010

A Grade-by-Grade List of Books Recommended for Summer Reading for Children and Teenagers

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At this time of year, many libraries hand out lists of books recommended for summer reading for children and teenagers in different school grades. If yours doesn’t or if you’d like more ideas, visit the terrific site for the Highland Park, Illinois, Public Library. This site has a list of books recommended for each school grade (such as “Hot Fifth Grade Titles” and “Riveting Sixth Grade Books”) divided into categories such as “Adventure,” “Biography,” “Historical Fiction,” “Sports” and “Mysteries.” And unlike the flyers at many libraries, this master list has a link to one or more reviews of each recommended book so you can quickly learn more about it.

March 26, 2010

Girl With a Gun – Deborah Hopkinson’s Sing-Along Picture Book, ‘Stagecoach Sal,’ Illustrated by Carson Ellis

Stagecoach Sal: Inspired by a True Tale. By Deborah Hopkinson. Pictures by Carson Ellis. Disney/Hyperion, 24 pp., $16.99. Ages 6 and under.

By Janice Harayda
“Based on a true story” often masks weaknesses in a plot. It may mean: “Hey, don’t blame us! It really happened that way.” A case in point is Stagecoach Sal, an attractive picture book “inspired” by the life of the first woman to carry the U.S. mail by stagecoach in California.

Deborah Hopkinson drew on promising historical material for her tale of a rifle-loving girl who thwarts a bandit intent on stealing the mail she carries on her stagecoach. But the plot doesn’t entirely make sense. Young Sal gets a clear warning from her parents before she sets out alone on a stagecoach to deliver mail: “No passengers!” Sal ignores this sensible advice when accosted at a remote spot by a man she recognizes as a famous poetry-spouting bandit. Instead of driving away, she invites the stranger to ride shotgun on her stagecoach. And you’re never sure why, when she has horses and the man seems to have none: Did she have a rebellious streak? Too much faith in her reputation as “a crack shot”? A misplaced desire to help?

Sal distracts the bandit from his desire to rob her by singing songs, Scheherazade-like, as they ride: “Polly Wolly Doodle,” “Sweet Betsy From Pike,” “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” and “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me!” Hopkinson integrates these toe-tappers well into her story. And given the gaps in her plot, the songs – and Carson Ellis’s warm and lively pictures – account for much of the appeal of the book. Stagecoach Sal is no Brave Irene, William Steig’s tale of a girl who plunges into snowstorm to deliver a dress made by her seamstress mother, a book that beautifully evokes its young heroine’s character and struggle. But Hopkinson and Eliis offer an easygoing introduction to several classic folksongs that many children know less well than “Baby Beluga.” And leaky plot ultimately may count for less than the fun of singing at bedtime, “Oh, I went down South / for to see my Sal / singing Polly wolly doodle all the day.”

Best line/picture: Ellis’s fine illustrations include nice touches such as a compass at the bottom of one page, a pig tied to a covered wagon on another.

Worst line/picture: Hopkinson says in an afterword that you can hear “some of Sal’s favorite songs” on the Kids’ Pages of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. True, but frustration awaits anyone who reads that “some” as “all.” I couldn’t find “Sweet Betsy From Pike” after many searches of the recommended site using varied spellings of Betsy, quotations from the lyrics and more. Eventually  the lyrics and part of the music on turned up on Wikipedia.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. She satirizes American literary culture, such as is its, on her Fake Book News page on Twitter (@FakeBookNews).

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 27, 2010

‘Tsunami!’ — A Picture Book That Explains a Monster Wave to Children

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:36 pm
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A farmer sacrifices his rice crop to save his neighbors from a monster wave in Kimiko Kajikawa’s recent picture book Tsunami! (Philomel, 32 pp., $16.99, ages 4 and up), illustrated  by Caldecott medalist Ed Young and adapted from a story by Lafcadio Hearn. “Young knows how to evoke devastation without needless gore, and throughout the book he does with it vibrant collage-like images that, unlike his more realistic cover picture, have an abstract-expressionist spirit,” an Oct. 3 review on this site said. “He suggests – instead of showing in bloody detail – the power of a monster wave.” Read the full review here.

February 13, 2010

A Review of the 2010 Caldecott Medal Winner, Jerry Pinkney’s ‘The Lion and the Mouse’

A vibrant interpretation of an Aesop’s fable roars its way to the American Library Association’s highest award for illustration

THE LION AND THE MOUSE. By Jerry Pinkney. Little, Brown, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 6 and under.

By Janice Harayda

Whoever decided that Jerry Pinkney should do a wordless book was a genius. For decades Pinkney has been creating beautiful art that has earned him a place in the first rank of American picture-book illustrators. But some of his books have had words so much weaker than their pictures that they were hard to recommend as highly as their art seemed to demand.

The cover of 'The Lion and the Mouse.'

That’s been true whether Pinkney wrote the books or illustrated someone else’s. And until this year unexciting writing may have deprived him of a Caldecott Medal, which he won last month for The Lion and the Mouse. Caldecott judges aren’t supposed to consider the text of a book unless it interferes with the pictures, but whether or not it “interferes” is a judgment call. And by my lights, the writing in Pinkney’s books sometimes did get in the way. You just don’t want to recommend bad free verse, however attractively packaged, to preschoolers.

Pinkney needed to get words of out of the way of his pictures, and he did it in his near-wordless version of an Aesop’s fable, The Lion and the Mouse. Set in the Serengeti of Kenya and Tanzania, his adaptation teems with creatures lushly rendered in sunny watercolors: monkeys, giraffes, elephants, butterflies, gazelles and what appear to be wildebeest. Pinkney adds a few elements to the original tale of a mouse who repays a lion for saving its life by returning the favor: Most notably, he gives the mouse babies, which adds a dimension to the sparing of its life. But his art stays close to the original story and faithful to its theme: No act of kindness is ever in vain. And “the meek can trump the mighty,” as Pinkney says in an afterword.

Children over the age of 4 or so should grasp easily the plot of all this, though the only words are animal sounds such as the squeaks of mice. Whether children will grasp the moral that is indispensable to any Aesop’s fable is less clear. So some might also want to read a more traditional version or watch a lively one-minute video of “The Lion and the Mouse” based on Tom Lynch’s Fables From Aesop (Viking, 2007). Either way, the revival of this fable shows again why stories become classics: They never shed their truth but allow each generation to interpret them in its own way.

Best line/picture: The cover. Not putting type on the cover was great for two reasons. One is that it suggests that The Lion and the Mouse is wordless. The other is that cover image is so strong, type might have detracted from it. The detail is clear and rich that you can count the lion’s whiskers. Not sure why the lion is looking toward the spine instead of the pages, though, which seems to take your eyes in the wrong direction.

Worst line/picture: None. But you wonder if lions and zebras ever stayed so peacefully side-by-side as on the beautiful front endpaper.

Published: September 2009

Furthermore: Jerry Pinkney won the 2010 Caldecott Medal for The Lion and the Mouse.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can also follow her Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda. She satirizes American literary culture on Twitter at FakeBookNews (@FakeBookNews), which you can preview at www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews. Some of her satirical tweets involve the Newbery and Caldecott awards.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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