One-Minute Book Reviews

January 14, 2008

A Review of 2008 Sibert Medalist and Caldecott Honor Book ‘The Wall’ by Peter Sís

A gifted artist recalls the days when freedom was as elusive as a yellow submarine in picture book that won the American Library Association’s Robert F. Sibert Medal for the most distinguished “information book” of 2007 today

The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain. By Peter Sís. Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Frances Foster Books, 56 pp., $18. Ages 8 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Peter Sís is a rarity – an artist who smartens up picture books when others dumb them down. He grew up in Czechoslovakia and seems to lack the usual Americans preconceptions about what children’s books “need” to contain. Perhaps partly for this reason, he does highly original work that has won him a MacArthur grant and many others.

A case in point is this memoir of his childhood behind the Iron Curtain, which today won the Robert F. Sibert Medal for the most distinguished “information book” of 2007 and a Caldecott Honor, both from the American Library Association www.ala.org. In The Wall Sís finds the midpoint between picture books and graphic novels by telling his story partly through panels similar to comic strips. This enables him to fit a remarkable amount of information into 56 pages.

Sís uses captioned drawings of himself to depict experiences such as going to Communist schools: “Children are encouraged to report on their families and fellow students. Parents learn to keep their opinions to themselves.” Because many American children would lack a context for such lines, he adds background in creative ways – for example, by using lines of explanatory text as frames for drawings. He enriches all of it through a wealth of visual details. including an image of a yellow submarine to show the joy that erupted when the Beatles visited Prague.

As in some of his earlier work, Sís shows that oppressed people long for freedom even when they are better off than many of their peers. Sís yearned for the artistic freedom stifled when under Communism. He says on his last page: “As long as he can remember, he will continue to draw.”

Best line/picture: A full-page picture of a maze suggests how Czechs changed street signs an effort to thwart the Soviet invasion in 1968, one of many memorable images.

Worst line/picture: Sís includes excerpts from what he calls “My Journals” from 1954–1977 would have benefited from a bit more explanation. Diaries might have been considered subversive if discovered by the Communist authorities. Did he really keep these “journals” or were they created after the fact?

Published: August 2007 www.petersis.com and www.fsgkidsbooks.com

Futhermore: Sís came to the U.S. in the 1980s and lives near New York City.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

November 17, 2007

John Burningham’s ‘Edwardo: The Horriblest Boy in the Whole Wide World’ – More Fun for Preschoolers From One of England’s Best Author-Illustrators

Edwardo: The Horriblest Boy in the Whole Wide World. By John Burningham. Knopf, 32 pp., $12.29. Ages 2 and up. [Note: I'm having computer problems that keep me from showing a better image of the cover of Edwardo, which is much more attractive than it looks here. Jan]

By Janice Harayda

John Burningham is an ideal author-illustrator for preschoolers who are delightful nonconformists. His career began more than 40 years ago when he won the Kate Greenaway Medal, England’s Caldecott, for his first book, Borka: The Adventures of a Goose With No Feathers. Since then his book have won honors as wide-ranging as the German Youth Literature Prize and a Best Book Award from School Library Journal.

Like his countryman Quentin Blake, Burningham has a distinctively witty style of drawing that allows him to find humor in ordinary circumstances. He appeals to the latent anarchist in every preschooler, partly because he tends to depict — and give the last word to — boys and girls who are slightly out-of-step with others. He makes clear that children have vibrant inner lives that adults often misunderstand. But he doesn’t moralize. He dramatizes amusing stories in which young children can see themselves.

Burningham’s latest picture book gives an amusing twist to the theme that children become what adults expect them to be. Edwardo is seen by his elders as loud, rude, mean and dirty – “the horriblest boy in the whole wide world” – until he kicks over a flower pot. A bystander gives him praise instead of the criticism he’s used to hearing. “I see you are starting a little garden, Edwardo,” the man says. “It looks lovely. You should get some more plants.” Edwardo finds that he has a green thumb and, as other adults also begin to treat him more kindly, more talents.

Edwardo: The Horriblest Boy in the Whole Wide World isn’t as effective as some of Burningham’s earlier books, including the wonderful John Patrick Norman McHennessey: The Boy Who Was Always Late. But even the second-tier books from this gifted author are better than most of what you’ll find at bookstores this season. And because Burningham has a deservedly high reputation, many libraries have his books. So here’s a suggestion: If you know preschooler whose motto might as well be, “Why Can’t Everybody Be More Like Me?,” head for the “B” shelves in the picture-book section of your bookstore or library. Leaf through any books you can find by Burningham, and see if they don’t capture something of that child’s spirit.

Best line/picture: Before he reforms, Edwardo dresses has comically spiky hair. This suggests aptly that he’s so bad, he makes even his own hair stand on end.

Worst line: The title. Atypically for Burningham, Edwardo: The Horriblest Boy in the Whole Wide World is more cute than funny. Compare that title with that of John Patrick Norman McHennesseu: The Boy Who Was Always Late, which has a stronger rhythm and is more suggestive. And isn’t clear why Burningham used the nonstandard spelling of Eduardo, which isn’t quite funny enough to be funny. Edwardo seems to deserve either a weirder name or one that, like John Patrick Norman McHennessey’s, carries more weight.

Published: April 2007 www.randomhouse.com/kids

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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