One-Minute Book Reviews

November 1, 2009

All the Words to the Baseball Poem ‘Casey at the Bat,’ Free and Online

Okay, parents, here’s my annual reminder: If you want to get the kids interested in poetry, turn off the TV during the seventh-inning stretch and read Ernest L. Thayer’s brief classic baseball poem, “Casey at the Bat.” You’ll find a good, free, legal and complete version on this page of the site for the Academy of American Poets. And you’ll find my review of several picture-book editions of the poem, suitable for children of different ages, here. My review includes Christopher Bing’s Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888, a Caldecott Honor Book.

October 31, 2009

Deborah Heiligman’s ‘Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith’ — A Finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

Deborah Heiligman’s captivating dual biography of the Darwins, Charles and Emma (Holt, 268 pp., $18.95), is one of the best young-adult books I’ve read since launching this site. This finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature lacks the problems of last year’s winner, What I Saw and How I Lied, among them a clash between its third-grade reading level and its sophisticated content. Good as it is, Charles and Emma isn’t a shoo-in: It’s up against books that include Phillip Hoose’s Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 144 pp., $19.95), the true story of a 15-year-old whose refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger helped to integrate the buses in Montgomery, Alabama.  I haven’t been able to put my hands on a copy, but I admired Hoose’s Perfect, Once Removed (Walker, 2007), a memoir of the October when his cousin Don Larsen pitched a perfect World Series game, and I hope to say more about both National Book Award finalists soon.

October 23, 2009

Halloween Poems and Picture-Book Fun for Children

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:57 pm
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Looking for Halloween reading for children under the age of 9 or so? You might want to read these posts:

“Good Halloween Poems for Children”: Where to find short Halloween poems that rhyme, including Robert Graves’s “The Pumpkin,” which begins: “You may not believe it, for hardly could I: / I was cutting a pumpkin to put in a pie …”

“John Ciardi’s Halloween Limerick for Children”: Two books that have the poet’s witty limerick about a haunted house, “The Halloween House.” The first lines are: “I’m told there’s a Green Thing in there. / And the sign on the gate says BEWARE!”

“A Classic Halloween Poem and Jump-Rope Rhyme”: Jump-ropers, remember the one that goes, “Down in the desert / Where the purple grass dies / There sat a witch …”?

“James Stevenson’s ‘That Terrible Halloween Night,’ a Picture Book for Ages 3–8”: A grandfather tells a tale to children who try to scare him on Halloween.

No costume yet? You might enjoy “Literary Halloween Costumes for Children.”

October 16, 2009

PTSD in a Book for 9-Year-Olds? Tomorrow — Two-Time Newbery Medal Finalist Jacqueline Woodson Returns With ‘Peace, Locomotion’

The themes in children’s books have been getting grittier for years, and the trend continues with Peace, Locomotion, the latest book by two-time Newbery Medal finalist Jacqueline Woodson. This novel for 9-to-12-year olds deals in part with a soldier who comes home from a war missing a leg and suffering from signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

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October 10, 2009

Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ in ‘Five on a Hike Together’: ‘I Say — This Has Boiled Up Into Quite an Adventure, Hasn’t It?’

Enid Blyton has been translated into more languages than anyone except Walt Disney Productions, Agatha Christie, Jules Verne and Shakespeare

The Famous Five: Five on a Hike Together. By Enid Blyton. Illustrated by Eileen A. Soper. Hodder Children’s Books, 196 pp., varied prices. Ages 12 and under.

By Janice Harayda

Enid Blyton is the Agatha Christie of children’s literature. Not all of her books are mysteries. But like Christie, she was born in Britain in the 1890s and achieved an unparalleled fame for her suspenseful plot-driven novels that remain popular worldwide with readers and filmmakers. And like Christie, she has drawn fire from critics who have accused her of perpetuating the stereotypes of her era and social class.

Blyton is best known for the 21 novels in her “Famous Five” series, most of which have been adapted for television. Each book involves three English siblings, their cousin, and a mutt named Timmy. Five on a Hike Together is the tenth, and it suggests why the novels still appeal to children: Blyton gives her young characters a freedom that if allowed by real-life parents might bring a visit from the Department of Youth and Family Services, if not an arrest.

In Five on a Hike Together the four children and their dog spend several days hiking unchaperoned on moors during a long weekend in October. They are undeterred by their discovery that the heather may shelter a convict who has escaped from a local jail. But they split up when Timmy gets hurt chasing a rabbit down a hole. Julian and Georgina, known as George, set out to find someone who can tend to the dog’s injury, and Dick and Anne go off to look for Blue Pond Farmhouse, where all of them hope to spend the night. Nothing goes quite as expected. Dick and Anne get lost and end up at a ramshackle house where Dick gets a message from the escaped convict, who passes him a cryptic note through a broken window pane. All of the children realize when they reunite the next day that they must take the note to the authorities, but when a policeman scorns their efforts to help, they resolve to decipher the clue on their own. Soon the four are paddling a raft with Timmy on board in search of a treasure that may lie at the bottom of a lake.

Five on a Hike Together has several of Blyton’s hallmarks — a fast pace, well-controlled suspense and little character development. The four children don’t grow so much as carom from one exciting adventure to another, and their appeal lies partly in their enthusiasm for all of it. They are cheerful, intelligent, self-sufficient and generally kind and well-mannered. For all their limits, you can’t help but agree when a policeman tells the children in the last pages, “You’re the kind of kids we want in this country – plucky, sensible, responsible youngsters who use your brains and never give up!”

Best line: No. 1: “I say – this has boiled up into quite an adventure, hasn’t it?” (A comment by Julian, the oldest of the Famous Five.) No. 2: “A wonderful smell came creeping into the little dining-room, followed by the inn-woman carrying a large tray. On it was a steaming tureen of porridge, a bowl of golden syrup, a jug of very thick cream, and a dish of bacon and eggs, all piled high on brown toast. Little mushrooms were on the same dish.” Both lines suggest an appealing quality of the Famous Five: their infectious enthusiasm for their circumstances, whether they are lost on a moor or getting a good breakfast.

Worst line: Blyton wrote most of the “Famous Five” novels during the 1940s and 1950s, and they reflect their era. Julian, for example, tells his cousin Georgina, known as George: “You may look like a boy and behave like a boy, but you’re a girl all the same. And like it or not, girls have got to be taken care of.” George puts Julian in his place by telling him that he’s “domineering” and she doesn’t like being taken care of. But some critics see the series as sexist, though the girls of the “Famous Five” novels show far more courage than many contemporary heroines. Other books by Blyton have been faulted for racial characterizations that are today considered slurs.

Published: 1951 (first edition), 1997 (Hodder reprint).

About the author: Blyton is the fifth most widely translated writer in the world, according to UNESCO’s Index Translationum Statistics. The five most often translated authors are “Walt Disney Productions,” Agatha Christie, Jules Verne, Shakespeare, and Blyton, followed by Lenin, Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steel, Hans Christian Andersen, and Stephen King.

Furthermore: Helena Bonham Carter will star in a forthcoming BBC movie of Blyton’s life.

Children’s book reviews appear on this site on Saturdays.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

October 3, 2009

Kimiko Kajikawa’s ‘Tsunami!’ With Art by Caldecott Medalist Ed Young

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:28 am
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A old farmer sacrifices his rice crop to save his neighbors from a monster wave

Tsunami! By Kimiko Kajikawa. Illustrated by Ed Young. Adapted from Lafcadio Hearn’s story, “A Living God.” Philomel, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

When I was a teenager, I had a summer job with a federal anti-poverty program that once took a group of children on a day trip to Point Pleasant Beach in southern New Jersey. Some of our young charges had never seen the ocean and were terrified by it. I looked after a boy of eight or nine who was so afraid of the water that he would go near it only when I carried him into it.

Since then, I’ve often seen similar scenes at Jersey Shore and elsewhere. Some children are so afraid of the ocean that you see them crying at the water’s edge even when their parents are holding onto them tightly.

So I can’t figure out what the Philomel editors were thinking when they recommended Tsunami! for ages 3–5 on their Web site. Older children might love Caldecott medalist Ed Young’s dramatic mixed-media cover image of a wave powerful enough to sweep up a Japanese temple gate. But if they’re old enough not to be frightened by it, wouldn’t they be too old for a picture book?

As for those 3-to-5 year olds: You wonder about the effect of book that describes not just a monster wave but the destruction of a village and the burning of a rice field, shown on two-page spreads with flames leaping across the gutters as a child screams. 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. He suggests – instead of showing in bloody detail – the power of a monster wave.

Even so, Tsunami! is an odd book. Kimiko Kajikawa tells a dramatic story in this adaptation of a 19th-century tale about an old rice farmer who saves the lives of 400 people in his Japanese village. One autumn day, Ojiisan thinks that something doesn’t feel right, so he stays in his mountaintop cottage with his grandson when everybody else goes to a harvest celebration at a low-lying temple court. His instincts prove correct when the sea turns dark and begins to run away from the land. When he can’t get the attention of villagers who are in danger, Ojiisan sets fire to his rice field, anticipating – correctly — that they will see the flames and rush up the mountain to help put them out. I enjoyed reading this story, and it develops the worthy themes that people are more important than possessions and exceptional events call for exceptional sacrifices. But after living with this book for nearly two weeks, I’m still not sure who it’s for.

Best line/picture: A two-page spread of the rice harvest festival makes lovely use of framing, showing the celebration partly through a temple gate.

Worst line/picture: The picture that goes with “Finally, the sea returned to its ancient bed” is more abstract that than the others and doesn’t convey its meaning as clearly.

Furthermore: Young won the Caldecott Medal for Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Tale from China.

Published: February 2009

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 1, 2009

Saturday – Kimiko Kajikawa’s ‘Tsunami’!, Illustrated by Caldecott Medalist Ed Young

Filed under: Children's Books,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:04 pm
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A wise old rice farmer saves the people of his Japanese village from a monster wave in Kimiko Kajikawa’s new oversized picture book, Tsunami! (Philomel, 32 pp., $16.99, ages 4 and up), illustrated by Caldecott medalist Ed Young and based on a story by Lafcadio Hearn. A review will appear on this site on Saturday.

September 19, 2009

Arthur Yorinks and Richard Egielski Hand in Their ‘Homework’

A pencil and other objects come to life to help a boy write a story for school

Homework. By Arthur Yorinks. Illustrated by Richard Egielski. Walker, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 4 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Household objects that come to life have been inspiring brilliant picture books since the Victorian era, when Randolph Caldecott drew a dish running away with a spoon for Hey Diddle Diddle. And few creative teams might have seemed better qualified to preserve the tradition than Richard Egielski, who won the 1987 Caldecott Medal for his pictures for Hey, Al, and Arthur Yorinks, who wrote the story for that book.

The plot of their latest collaboration certainly had promise: One night while he sleeps, a boy named Tony gets help with his homework from four objects on his desktop – a pencil, an eraser, a ballpoint pen and a fountain pen. The four decide to write a story for him about outer space. And the quartet’s bickering and attempts to improve one another’s work tell children something important about writing – that revision is a vital part of the process.

But the text of Homework begins with back-to-back clunky and ungrammatical sentences and moves on to worse. The eraser calls a pen “a jerk.” The pencil calls the eraser and a pen “nincompoops.” And in the interplanetary tale they concoct, the white captain of a spaceship gets attacked by a giant purple splotch and cries out for help to a black crew member – who runs away as his leader is being eaten and, apparently, killed. What message are children supposed to take away from this? That it’s okay to desert your friends in a crisis as long as you help them with small things like homework? And what will children make of a black character running away as a white one is devoured?

Yes, the tale is a fantasy and the objects return to inanimation after Tony awakens and finds inspiration in their work (suggesting that perhaps he dreamed what they wrote). But the lapses all the more lamentable because Richard Egielski – though his art is flatter than usual – uses a remarkable technique in Homework. Midway through the book, Egielski changes the look of the white Tony so that in his darkened bedroom he appears black and later Asian before he is white again when the lights come on again. He also does this so subtly that you might read the book several times before you even noticed it. This is near-genius not just because it allows boys of varied races to see themselves in the hero but because it reflects a truth: fantasy has an appeal that transcends race. For all the imperfections of Homework, a similar technique could enrich many other picture books.

Best line / picture: The first picture in which the white Tony appears black.

Worst line / picture: The opening sentences, “One night, like almost every night, Tony’s mom yelled, ‘Tony! Do your homework!’ And like almost every night, Tony didn’t do his homework.”

Published: July 2009

Furthermore: Yorinks lives in Brooklyn, NY, and Egielski in Milford, NJ. They have collaborated on nine books. Egielski also illustrated the recent The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

September 11, 2009

Dennis Webster’s ‘Absolutely Wild’ – Good Poems About Animals for Young Children

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:47 pm
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A collection of 16 light-hearted poems, each about a bird, insect or animal

Absolutely Wild. Poems by Dennis Webster. Illustrations by Kim Webster Cunningham. Godine, 32 pp., $17.95. Ages 2 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Ogden Nash once delighted Americans with light verse — often about animals — such as, “If called by a panther / Don’t anther.” Something of his spirit lives in the 16 short, rhyming poems in Absolutely Wild.

Dennis Webster isn’t as playful as Nash – he doesn’t use wrenched rhymes like “panther” and “anther.” But he’s written the best collection of original children’s poems about animals I’ve seen since Jack Prelutsky’s Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant. And his daughter has enhanced the book with handsome hand-colored linoleum-block prints framed by decorative borders, some reminiscent of the Ghanaian cloth known as kente.

Each poem in Absolutely Wild has 4–12 lines, a strong rhyme and meter, and a focus on a colorful bird, insect or animal. The 8-line “The Yak” sets the tone:
A shaggy species is the yak
With hairy front and hairy back.
It isn’t very hard to spot him
With hairy top and hairy bottom.

Most poems are odes or odes-in-spirit that marvel at the qualities of a creature in couplet quatrains or another traditional form. In the 8-line “The Ostrich,” Webster celebrates the bird in hymn stanzas, arranged in their usual pattern of alternating lines of four and three iambic feet:
The ostrich is a splendid bird
Who’s taller than most men.
It seems a little bit absurd
To call his wife a hen.

Absolutely Wild also has poems about an ant, snail, moose, shrew, penguin, vulture, gnu, puffin, seagull, giraffe, porcupine, gibbon, platypus and ptarmigan. And it reflects David R. Godine’s attention to craftsmanship in its endpapers and elsewhere. It would make a fine gift for very young children and a good resource for slightly older ones who are learning in school about creatures you won’t usually find in the parking lot at Shop Rite.

Best line: Every child’s favorite is likely to be that “With hairy top and hairy bottom.”

Worst line: “The platypus is quite unique.”

Caveat lector: The second and fourth lines of “The Ostrich” should be indented, but the template for this blog won’t permit it.

Published: October 2008

Furthermore: Kim Webster Cunningham has posted the poem about a snail and the art for it on her Web site.

Children’s book reviews appear on this site on Saturdays.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

September 5, 2009

‘Officer Buckle and Gloria’ – School-Safety Tips From a Caldecott Medalist

Do the kids need a few more school-safety lessons before their classes begin? Pick up Officer Buckle and Gloria (Putnam, 40 pp., $16.99, ages 7 and under). Peggy Rathmann won the 1996 Caldecott Medal for this picture book, and her art is no match for that of honorees like Maurice Sendak, Chris Van Allsburg and Virginia Lee Burton. But Officer Buckle and Gloria tells the lively story of a high-spirited dog who helps a luckless policeman teach schoolchildren vital safety lessons such as: Don’t stand on swivel chairs, and don’t leave thumbtacks where people could sit. If only it had a page on how to stay safe from swine flu.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

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