One-Minute Book Reviews

September 12, 2010

Full of Trash but Not Trashy: ‘Here Comes the Garbage Barge!’

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:41 pm
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A children’s book fictionalizes the plight of a garbage barge that couldn’t find a port

Here Comes the Garbage Barge! Story by Jonah Winter. Art by Chris Sickels of Red Nose Studio. Schwartz & Wade/Random House, 36 pp., $17.99. Ages 4 and up.

By Janice Harayda

When is a picture book full of trash but not trashy? One answer is: when it’s Here Comes the Garbage Barge!, a satirical morality tale based on the true story of a floating garbage barge that couldn’t find a port.

In the late 1980s, New York City regularly exported thousands of tons of trash a day that nearby landfills couldn’t accommodate. Trucks hauled much of the garbage to Pennsylvania and West Virginia, but barges carried some of it by sea to other places. In 1987, a barge headed south, heaped with trash from New York City and Islip, Long Island. Its intended port-of-call, a town in North Carolina, refused to allow it to unload. At least six states and Mexico and Belize eventually rejected its rotting cargo. After months at sea, the barge returned to New York and a legal battle that ended when a Brooklyn incinerator burned the garbage and sent its ashes to a landfill in Islip.

Jonah Winter turns this near-surrealistic episode into a lively story that plays fast-and-loose with facts on many levels, some acknowledged in an author’s note and some not. His techniques include exaggerating ethnic, regional, sexual and age-related stereotypes for comic effect. And he has drawn fire for an obviously Italian and mob-connected waste-hauler who says things like: “Here’s da deal: Brooklyn’s gonna take dat garbage and burn it. A judge told ’em dey had to.” (Yes, a gangster who apparently speaks in colons and says “da” and “dat” but not “dem.”) Winter also tries to jazz up his text with italics, exclamation points and capital letters when it needs stronger words.

But Chris Sickels has filled Here Comes the Garbage Barge! with amusing illustrations more inspired than the unexceptional writing. He created the pictures by sculpting human forms from polymer clay and baking them in a kitchen oven, then photographing them on intricate hand-built three-dimensional sets. This technique enables him to create characters who have agile faces with cavernous eye sockets and strong noses (one holds a clipped-on clothespin as the garbage rots) and jutting ears. The humans in many children’s books are cartoonish, but Sickels’s have the force of good caricature. And his garbage barge has a personality of its own, teeming found or created whimsy – a football, a red birdcage, a Rubik’s cube, a shopping cart, computer monitor.

The moral of Here Comes the Garbage Barge! might be stern enough to qualify as eco-propaganda, but the art reflects the spirit of an incident that once provided rich material for late-night comedians. On a back endpaper, Sickels shows the last words of the book on a hand-lettered sign attached to a buoy floating on an “ocean” made from blue drycleaners’ bags: “DON’T MAKE SO MUCH GARBAGE!!!”

Best line/picture: Many. But children may especially enjoy a picture of the Statue of Liberty holding her nose as the barge filled with rotting garbage returns to New York.

Worst line/picture: No. 1: A picture that says “Mexico: Land of Enchantment.” This is confusing. “Land of Enchantment” is the state slogan of New Mexico, not Mexico. No. 2: The cover and title page credit the art to Red Nose Studio, which Sickels runs. Sickels may have left off his name as an act of generosity toward a support staff, but his omission was confusing and unfair to readers, who have a right to know up front who illustrated the book. Many intelligent adults and children will look at the cover above and conclude wrongly that Here Comes the Garbage Barge! was written and illustrated by “Jonah Winter of Red Nose Studio.”

About the author and illustrator: Winter collaborated with his mother, the author and illustrator Jeanette Winter on Diego, a children’s biography of the artist Diego Rivera. He talks about his work in an interview in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Sickels tells how he created the art for Here Comes the Garbage Barge! in this YouTube video.

Furthermore: As of June 2010, Here Comes the Garbage Barge! was a School Library Journal blogger’s top pick for the 2011 Caldecott Medal. You’ll find background on the garbage barge in a New York Daily News story.

Published: February 2010

Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist and former vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. She has been the book columnist for Glamour and book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at

© Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 7, 2009

Tanya Egan Gibson’s ‘How to Buy a Love of Reading’ — A Satirical Novel That Turns Into a Teen Weepie

Filed under: Humor,Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:34 pm
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A 15-year-old’s parents try to get her to read by hiring an author to write a book for her

How to Buy a Love of Reading:  A Novel. By Tanya Egan Gibson. Dutton, 353 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

Tanya Egan Gibson begins her first novel with a delicious sendup of a Sweet Sixteen party dominated by an ice sculpture of Michelangelo’s David, whose penis is “dripping syphilitically.” Right away Gibson shows that she has two traits vital to a satirist:  a willingness to twist the knife and the ability to find a worthy target — in this case, the lifestyles of the rich and fatuous in Gatsby country, the North Shore of Long Island.

But Gibson quickly loses control of her tone in this story of a teenager whose parents try to overcome her dislike of reading by hiring a live-in author to write a book for her as a 16th-birthday gift. A novel that begins as satire devolves into a teen weepie as its characters go to parties, get drunk, pop Vicodins, sleep around, cram for their SATs and try to deal with their clueless and hypocritical parents.

The problem lies partly in an excess of ambition: Gibson tries to marry satire and tragedy, two forms so difficult to bring together that even so great a satirist as Jane Austen didn’t attempt it. You can’t easily persuade readers to pity characters whose lives you’ve been ridiculing for hundreds of pages. And Gibson has made her task harder by lampooning more than the patricians and parvenus known by Carley Wells, a sweet and overweight 15-year-old, who loves a popular male friend, Hunter Cay. She takes aim at targets such as reality TV, Arthurian romances, English teachers, college counselors and postmodern literary techniques, some incorporated into the plot.

Gibson might have pulled if off if she’d invested her novel with a faster pace and more drama. But How to Buy a Love of Reading is overwritten and lacks a powerful central conflict, both of which slow the story. Carley doesn’t have a strong antagonist but a variety of weaker ones, including her adored Hunter and her parents and the second-rate novelist they hired to write a book for her.

As characters swim through the book, Gibson keeps backtracking to fill in labored details like these about her heroine’s bulimic friend, Amber, whose behavior changed while Hunter was convalescing from an illness:

“Until then, she and Carley had just gone wherever Hunter went, hanging out with his friends — people like his older cousin Ian, last year’s student council president. But in Hunter’s absence Amber had gone back to spending time with people she and Carley had hung out with in middle school before he’d moved to town, people who mostly weren’t invited to the parties but who liked her.”

Gibson has a good eye for the follies of characters like a partygoer who advises another on how to cope with with a dull guest: “Tune her out by counting her pores.” But her inability to tame her material makes you feel a bit like that socialite: After a while, you’re counting the pores of this novel.

Best line: A private college counselor tells a couple that “their daughter needed rebranding if she wanted any shot at the real Ivies or the ‘hidden Ivies’ or even — given Bunny’s inability to break the ninety-fifth percentile on her PSATs — the ‘public Ivies.'”

Worst line: “Her  breasts were like a disaster in the news: a roof falling in under the weight of heavy rain, a double-decker freeway collapsing in an earthquake, a bridge undulating in high winds until its cables snapped.”

To be published: May 14, 2009

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s copy of How to Buy a Love of Reading. Some material in the finished book may differ.

About the author: Gibson lives in Marin County, California.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 8, 2008

Modern-Day Slavery on Long Island, in Florida and Elsewhere

Filed under: News,Nonfiction,Paperbacks — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:06 pm
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Last month a federal judge sentenced an upper-middle-class Long Island woman to 11 years in prison after immigration officials found that she and her husband had kept two Indonesian housekeepers as virtual slaves in their home. The victims testified that they had been “beaten with brooms and umbrellas, slashed with knives and forced to climb stairs and take freezing showers as punishment,” the Associated Press said

The judge called it “eye-opening, to say the least – that things like that go on in our country.” John Bowe makes clear in Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy (Random House, 336 pp., $15, paperback) that such brutality is far from unique. Nobodies is an uneven book that blends strong reporting on the abuse of migrant and other workers with a weaker analysis of why it has occurred. But there is real power in its first section, “Florida,” which deals with the plight of Mexican and Central American orange- and tomato-pickers in Immokalee, Florida, parts of which first appeared in different form in The New Yorker

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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