One-Minute Book Reviews

April 21, 2014

Margaret Craven’s Novel ‘I Heard the Owl Call My Name’ – O, Canada!

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:22 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

A dying priest makes peace with his fate while serving as a missionary to Indians in British Columbia

I Heard the Owl Call My Name. By Margaret Craven. Dell, 160 pp., $6.99, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In 1965, the American journalist Margaret Craven spent several weeks in a remote Indian village in British Columbia, hoping to find material for a story. There she met Eric Powell, an Anglian priest who ministered to the Kwakiutls, a tribe whose elders were struggling to preserve their traditions as their young people left for government boarding schools or turned from ancient myths and totems to alcoholism, drug abuse and other modern ills.

Craven drew on that experience for her first novel, which became a No. 1 New York Times bestseller soon after its publication in the United States. More than 40 years later, I Heard the Owl Call My Name remains a rarity in North American fiction: a book equally sympathetic to Indians and to the white missionaries who tried to help them, little as they understood tribal customs.

The young priest Mark Brian doesn’t know he has a terminal illness –- unnamed in the novel — when he accepts a posting to the imperiled fishing village of Kingcome, which sits in a river valley below snow-tipped mountains on an inlet in British Columbia. Lonely and beset by hardships such as a ramshackle vicarage and a collision with a brown bear that hibernates under his church, Mark nonetheless faces his challenges with a steady faith, kindness and capacity for hard work. Those virtues win over the skeptical Kwakiutls, among them a tribal matriarch whose previous encounters with outsiders have led her to take the sly revenge of serving mashed turnips to visiting dignitaries because “No white man liked mashed turnips.” The Kwakiutls in turn earn Mark’s admiration for their wisdom, their perseverance amid calamities, and their willingness to help with tasks from steering a boat to building a new vicarage.

I Heard the Owl Call My Name spans nearly two years in the life of the gradually maturing priest, whose parishioners live with ever-present reminders of the death. Mark holds the hand of 46-year-old Kwakiutl woman, lying on a blood-soaked bed, who has what will turn out to be a fatal hemorrhage while giving birth to her sixth child. He trudges through the underbrush with a hunter who, if he wishes to have venison steaks on his table, must look to the woods, not a supermarket. He watches ceremonial dances that honor the customs and memory of Kwakiutl ancestors, many of whom perished in tribal wars generations earlier. Amid so much darkness, he finds comfort not just in his friendships with the Indians but in the natural splendor of the region, which Craven evokes keenly. One year autumn comes softly, with the second blooming of the dogwood trees: “Slowly, as the needles fell, the waters of the inlet grew less clear, and on the river floated the first green leaves of the alders. When the nights cooled, the little berry bush burned crimson under the great, dark cedar, and on one deep green island side, a single cottonwood turned gold.”

This brief, parable-like story lacks the moral, spiritual and literary complexity of such great novels as Death Comes for the Archbishop and Diary of a Country Priest, which may explain why it tends to appear today on young-adult shelves. Some minor characters serve mainly as vehicles for points the author wants to make, particularly about whites’ insensitivity to indigenous tribes. (When a boorish American woman arrives via yacht and asks: “How do you tell the Indians apart?,” Mark replies mildly that he did it “the same way she told her friends apart, because she knew them.”) The priest faces no crisis of the soul and expresses his faith in deeds, not creeds, and in plain-spoken messages of hope. “He was young enough,” Craven writes, “to be a little proud of his first sermon, to which he had given considerable thought: ‘It is better to be a small shrimp in the sea of faith then a dead whale on the beach.’”

But if the novel if the novel has a simple message, it is not a morbid one. Death is so common in Kingcome that Mark comes to see it as natural and at times heroic. The salmon that die soon after spawning in nearby waters provide a central metaphor for his story and suggest its theme. When a Kwakiutl woman laments that the fish perish soon after giving birth, Mark corrects her. A salmon lives a life of courage and adventure, the priest says, and dies after “having spent himself completely for the end for which he was made”: “It is triumph.” So, too, is Mark’s life. It reminds us, as George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch, that “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts” of people “who lived faithfully a hidden life.”

Best line: “Now time had lost its contours.”

Worst line: “The Indian knows his village and feels for his village as no white man for his country, his town, or even for his own bit of land,” the young priest’s bishop says. In this line and a number of others, the novel romanticizes Canada’s indigenous people even as it sympathizes with their hardships.

Published: 1967 (Clarke, Irwin, Canada); 1973 (Doubleday, U.S.)

You may also want to read: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye, a similarly short book that resembles a parable.

Furthermore: A 1973 movie version of I Heard the Owl Call My Name starred Tom Courtenay as Mark Brian.

Jan is a novelist and an award-winning journalist who spent 11 years as the book critic for the Plain Dealer, Ohio’s largest newspaper. You can follow Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button on this page.

© 2014 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

October 3, 2011

‘Empire of the Summer Moon’ – The True Story of the Last Comanche Chief, His White Mother and the Texans Who Hunted for Them

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:46 am
Tags: , , , , ,

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. By S.C. Gwynne. Scribner, 371 pp., $27.50.

By Janice Harayda

No Indians of the Southern Plains had a more fearsome reputation than the Comanches. Nomadic warriors who liked to attack under a full moon, they inspired terror with their horned buffalo-wool caps and their ability to fire arrows while clinging to the sides of horses. They gang-raped women, speared babies with lances, and tortured male captives, sometimes by burning them to death. After a massacre, an Army captain reported seeing evidence of beheadings and victims whose “fingers, toes, and private parts had been cut off and stuck in their mouths.”

In this worthy finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, S.C. Gwynne denies neither these atrocities nor the many betrayals by whites that helped to foster the warriors’ thirst for vengeance. With journalistic balance and novelistic flair, he tells the story of the fall of the Comanches through the lives of three people who had entwined roles in it: Quanah Parker, their last great chief; his white mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, kidnapped by the tribe as a 9-year-old and removed from it against her will 24 years later by Texas Rangers; and Ranald Mackenzie, a brilliant Indian fighter who attended West Point with Gen. George Armstrong Custer. Of those three lives, only Quanah’s did not end in tragedy, and Empire of the Summer Moon shows the cost of the American ideal of Manifest Destiny both to those who pursued it and to those who obstructed it. Few stereotypes of Indians have proved more tenacious than that of the “noble savage,” but Gwynne shows that among native tribes as among whites, extraordinary courage often went hand-in-hand with comparable ignobility.

Best line: One passage describes what Comanches did after they gang-raped and shot several arrows into Martha Sherman, a white settler who was nine months pregnant: “They scalped her alive by making deep cuts below her ears and, in effect, peeling the top of her head entirely off.”

Worst line: In a rare descent into sentimentality and cliché, Gwynne writes of Cynthia Ann after whites recaptured her: “And maybe she thinks, just for a moment, that all is right in the world.”

Published: May 2010 (Scribner hardcover), May 2011 (Scribner paperback).

Read an excerpt from Empire of the Summer Moon.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Empire of the Summer Moon appeared on this site on Oct. 3, 2011.

Furthermore: Empire of the Summer Moon was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. Cynthia Ann Parker’s capture provided part of the inspiration for in the movie The Searchers.

You may also want to read: The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story From Early America 

You can follow Janice Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda or by clicking on the follow button in the right sidebar. Jan is an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 13, 2009

The True Story of a Girl Captured by Mohawks in 1704 During the Slaughter of Colonists in Deerfield in 1704 – John Demos’s ‘The Unredeemed Captive’

Why did young Eunice Williams stay with Indians who had murdered her mother?

The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story From Early America. By John Demos. Vintage 336 pp., $14.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

In 1704 a French and Indian war party slaughtered dozens of men, women, and children in a predawn attack on Deerfield, Massachusetts. Recent histories have sanitized the incident known as the Deerfield Massacre, calling it “the Raid on Deerfield.”

The term “raid” hardly fits the events described in this memorable true story of Eunice Williams, who lived through the terror that was masterminded by the French but largely carried out by Mohawks and other Indians. Eunice was a 7-year-old Puritan minister’s daughter when she was kidnapped in the attack – oops, sorry, “raid”! – on Deerfield at about 4 a.m. on February 29. Her mother died on a subsequent forced march to Canada, killed by an Indian who “slew her with his hatchet at one stroke,” a son wrote. Her father and siblings were eventually released.

But Eunice stayed with the Indians, one of whom she married, for puzzling reasons: Was she a prisoner or a willing expatriate? The Yale University historian John Demos explores the question in this fascinating finalist for 1994 National Book Award (inexplicably described on the cover as the winner of the prize).

Enough gaps remain in the record that Demos has to tease out answers, partly by exploring relations between the English, French, and Indians in 18th-century America. (“Some things we have to imagine.”) So The Unredeemed Captive isn’t a Jon Krakauer tale with muskets. But its story matters for more than its complex portrayal of colonial life. Demos doesn’t take the fashionable path of romanticizing American Indians, but he doesn’t spare the Puritans, either. He notes that in our era, “fundamentalism” has become a shorthand term for “radical Islamists, evangelical Christians, ultra-Orthodox Jews, militant Hindus” and others. “By the same token,” he writes, “it’s not a long stretch to characterize the early Puritans, surrounding and including the Williams family, as ‘fundamentalists’ themselves; witness their sense of utter certainty in what they were about, their intolerance of difference and dissent, their zeal for conversion of infidel natives, and their readiness to fight, die, and kill in the cause of advancing their faith.”

Best line: “Who can tell what sorrows pierced our souls?,” a rhetorical question asked by
Rev. John Williams after the massacre.

Worst line: Demos tells much of Eunice’s story in the present tense, which works less well than the past tense he uses to give it context.

Recommendation? An excellent choice for history books clubs and others that like serious nonfiction.

Editor: Ashbel Green

Published: 1994 (Knopf hardcover), 1995 (Vintage paperback).

Read John Demos’s summary of the Deerfield Massacre in American Heritage. Several Deerfield museums have an excellent interactive Web site that shows a representation of the attack and tells more about the people mentioned in this review.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

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

January 16, 2008

Books Give You ‘a Metaphorical Boner,’ Says Sherman Alexie’s ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian’

[Warning: This review quotes lines from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian that may offend some people. I am quoting them partly because many librarians and others expected Alexie to win one of the awards that the American Library Association handed out on Monday, and these words may help to explain why he didn't. Stop reading here to avoid the potentially offensive language.]

Alexie’s first young-adult novel won a National Book Award, but a character uses a racial slur that caused some high school students to walk out when he spoke about it at an Illinois high school

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Novel. By Sherman Alexie. Illustrations by Ellen Forney. Little, Brown, 230 pp., $16.99. Ages 12 and up.

By Janice Harayda

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is as a subtle as an old television Western – say, the episode of Bonanza where Hoss has to explain to a fugitive from an Indian reservation why he can’t live on Cartwright land. Sherman Alexie has mostly avoided criticism for this and has, on the contrary, been rewarded for it with the 2007 National Book Award for young people’s literature.

It isn’t hard to imagine why: Alexie tries to fight some of the stereotypes fostered by the Westerns in this story told by an intelligent and self-mocking 14-year-old boy who transfers to a good high school in town instead of sticking with the wretched educational system on his reservation. Arnold “Junior” Spirit tells us that “in the old days, Indians used to be forgiving of any kind of eccentricity.” That includes homosexuality: “Gay people could do anything. They were like Swiss Army knives!” Alas, the goodwill didn’t last: “Of course, ever since white people showed up and brought their Christianity and their fears of eccentricity, Indians have gradually lost all of their tolerance,” although a few clung to “that old-time Indian spirit.” Arnold believes his grandmother was good in part because she “had no use for all the gay bashing and homophobia in the world, especially among other Indians.”

Alexie is giving you the perspective of a teenager here, not that of a historian. But it’s fair to ask: Isn’t he replacing one stereotype with others by saying that Indians used accept eccentricity and admire gay people but lost “all their tolerance” when white people crashed the party? Don’t such passages romanticize Indians even as other parts of the book show the bleakness of life on a reservation where Arnold had attended 42 funerals by the age of 14?

Critics have praised Alexie for creating a character with a distinctive voice. But it would be more accurate to say that he describes experiences unfamiliar to many teenagers in the sort of voice that has become all too familiar through characters who range from Homer Simpson to Junie B. Jones, the in-your-face heroine of a series of early readers.

Arnold and his friends call others “dickwad,” “faggot,” “pussy,” “retarded fag” and “major-league assholes.” A character tells a gratuitous racial joke that includes the “n” word and “f” word and that caused some students to walk out of a speech that Alexie gave in at an Illinois high school. Alexie has stood by his use of the joke with a variation on the but-it-really-happened-that-way defense, although whether it “really happened” is irrelevant in fiction: what matters is whether it works in context. And the literary impact of this book is as muddled as its politics.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian reads less like a novel than a sitcom or screenplay called “The Rez.” Alexie describes life-shattering tragedies in the same breezy tone as a date for the Winter Formal, so that the events have the same emotional weight. He leaves subplots dangling.

Many teenagers love this bestseller, anyway. Some may be responding to Ellen Forney’s amusing illustrations, and others may be titillated by its sexual references, such as the 12 uses of the word “boner.” At his new school Arnold befriends a boy who tells him that he should read and draw “because really good books and cartoons give you a boner.” Arnold plays dumb, so Gordy goes on: “Well, I don’t mean boner in the sexual sense. I don’t think you should run through life with a real erect penis. But you should approach each book – you should approach life – with the real possibility that you might get a metaphorical boner at any point.” Arnold doesn’t ask an obvious follow-up question: What if a book pulls a boner instead of giving you one?

Best line: “If the government wants to hide somebody, there’s probably no place more isolated than my reservation, which is located approximately one million miles north of Important and two billion miles west of Happy.”

Worst line: The gratuitous racial and sexual joke that includes the “n” word (which appears the bottom of page 64 in the novel). Apart from that: The last line quoted in the review above. Would any 14-year-old boy say “erect penis” instead of “hard on” when talking with a male friend? Or even have to explain what a boner is?

Published: September 2007.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on Jan. 16, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/16/.

Links: You can hear Sherman Alexie read from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian at www.lb-teens.com, which also has reviews of the book and a list of the honors it has received. You may also want to visit the Alexie site www.fallsapart.com.

Furthermore: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won the 2007 National Book Award for young people’s literature www.nationalbook.org. Alexie lives in Seattle and grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janicehaarayda.com

:

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Sherman Alexie’s ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian’

10 Discussion Questions
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Novel
By Sherman Alexie
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may reproduce it for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that wish to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

Arnold “Junior” Spirit endures taunts that he’s “an apple” – “red on the outside and white on the inside” – when he leaves his reservation to go to better high school in a nearby town. But he knows he can’t let the jeers stop him. At the age of 14, he’s attended 42 funerals, and most of the deaths were alcohol-related. So Arnold tries to fit in at his new school – by going out for basketball, dating a popular white girl and befriending a fellow bookworm – while coping with tragedy at home. And if some Indians continue to see him as a traitor for leaving the reservation, Arnold eventually learns that the world has many kinds of tribes and that more than a few of them have a place for him.

Questions for Young Readers

1. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian shows a different side of American Indian life than do many other books. What did you learn about Indians from it?

2. Why does Alexie call his book the diary of a “part-time” Indian?

3. On his reservation, Alexie’s main character is known as “Junior.” But when he switches to a new high school, Reardan, people call him by his formal name, Arnold. “I felt like two different people inside of one body,” he says. Do you think Junior/Arnold was just talking about his name? Or did he feel split in other ways, too?

4. Arnold misses his best friend, Rowdy, after he starts his new school. But Rowdy doesn’t seem to want to join him there. How do Arnold’s and Rowdy’s views of the reservation – and their own lives – differ? What do you think Alexie is trying to show you through those differences?

5. At his new school, Reardan, Arnold gets to know a book-lover named Gordy, who says that “life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community.” How does this idea relate to Arnold’s life?

6. Arnold tells Gordy that some Indians taunt him: “They call me an apple because they think I’m red on the outside and white on the inside.” What did they mean? Did their comment describe Arnold accurately?

7. What’s the purpose of the humor in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian? Why does Alexie use it when Arnold is clearly angry about a lot of things?

8. Arnold’s math teacher at Wellpinit High School, Mr. P, tells him that the teachers at the school used to beat the Indians with a stick: “That’s how we were taught to teach you. We were supposed to kill the Indian to save the child.” What did he mean?

9. Alexie uses a racial slur (the “n” word) and strong language (the “f” word) in a joke on page 64. He repeated the words in a talk at an Illinois high school, and some students walked out. Alexie apologized to anyone he had offended but stood by his use of the words in his novel “because that was what was said. And to blunt the hatred of that insult blunts the incredible obstacles my character had to face,” a newspaper reported. (“Author Defends Using Slur, but Apologizes to Students,” by Melissa Jenco, Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, IL, October 6, 2007.) Do you agree with Alexie that in order to make his point, he had to use words that would offend some people? How do these words relate to the rest of the novel?

10. What did you think of Ellen Forney’s pictures for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian? What is their purpose in the book? Do they provide a mirror for the text, reflecting back only what you read on the page? Or do they expand it? How?

10. Arnold falls in love with Penelope, a beautiful white student. In Greek mythology, Penelope married Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s The Odyssey. If you’ve read about Penelope in that book or others, how does she resemble the student in this novel?

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Novel. By Sherman Alexie. Illustrated by Ellen Forney. Little, Brown, 229 pp., $16.99. Ages 12 and up.

Published: September 2007. A review of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Jan. 16, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/01/16/. A paperback edition is scheduled to appear in September 2008.

Links: You can hear Sherman Alexie read from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian at www.lb-teens.com, which also has reviews of the book and a list of the honors it has received. You may also want to visit the Alexie site www.fallsapart.com.

Furthermore: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won the 2007 National Book Award for young people’s literature. Alexie lives in Seattle and grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

Janice Harayda www.janiceharayda.com is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books that is not influenced by marketing concerns.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

:

January 15, 2008

Why Did the American Library Association Snub Sherman Alexie?

Did Alexie’s young-adult novel finish out of the medals because it uses the word “boner” 12 times? Or because a character tells a vicious racial joke that includes the “n” word?

By Janice Harayda

Sherman Alexie never really had a shot at winning the 2008 Newbery Medal, which honors the most distinguished work of literature for children (specifically, for those under the age of 14). The material in his The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is too mature for many children in that age group.

But Alexie was a favorite for the American Library Association’s Michael L. Printz Award for young people’s literature, which honors a book for an older audience and went to Geraldine McCaughrean’s The White Darkness. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won a 2007 National Book Award www.nationalbook.org. And it was mentioned repeatedly in the Mock Newbery contests held by libraries in the weeks before yesterday’s awards ceremony.

So a lot of people were surprised when The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian finished out of the medals at the ALA’s midwinter meeting yesterday, receiving neither a major prize nor an honor-book designation. Did the novel lose because it uses the word “boner” 12 times? Or because a character tells a vicious racial and sexual joke that includes the “n” word and caused some students to walk out of a speech that Alexie gave at an Illinois high school in October?

Tomorrow One Minute Book Reviews will review The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian www.lb-teens.com, including comments on parts that might given pause to the ALA. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing this review. One-Minute Book Reviews normally reviews books for children and teenagers on Saturdays but may depart from this policy when books make news. Its reviews of books for adults will resume on Thursday.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

November 16, 2007

I Belong to the ‘Tribe of Chronic Masturbators,’ Says the Hero of ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,’ Winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

By Janice Harayda

Remember how upset some librarians got when the word “scrotum” appeared on the first page of the 2007 Newbery Medal winner www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/02/19/? I wonder what they’re going say to when they find out that the hero of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian says that he belongs to “the tribe of chronic masturbators.”

Alexie’s novel won National Book Award for Young People’s Literature on Wednesday, so it’s safe to say that it will also receive consideration for the Newbery that the American Library Association www.ala.org will hand out in January. I’ll review the book in the next week or so (along with Daughter of York, originally scheduled for this week).

Until then librarians who want to check out that “good part” can do it by going to the listing for the novel on Amazon www.amazon.com and using the “Search Inside This Book” tool to search for “tribe of chronic masturbators,” which appears on page 217. [Note: All you teenage boys who found this site by searching for “scrotum” or “masturbation,” go back to your Social Studies. That page number was a public service for librarians.]

Oh, am I going to have fun reviewing this book! Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed if you’d like to read my comments.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 2, 2007

Lynn Curlee Puts His Own Spin on the World’s Tallest Buildings in ‘Skyscraper,’ a Picture Book for 8-to-12-Year-Olds

Skyscraper. By Lynn Curlee. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, 40 pp., $17.99. Ages 8-12.

By Janice Harayda

Lately I’ve been looking into some of the potential candidates for the Newbery and Caldecott medals that the American Library Association www.ala.org will hand out in January. As usual, it’s been both inspiring and disheartening.

Some publishers are clearly putting enormous care into turning out wonderful children’s books. At the same time, they are continuing to pander nakedly to the all-important school and library markets, sometimes undermining the accuracy or credibility of an otherwise worthy book.

A recent casualty is Lynn Curlee’s Skyscraper, a beautifully produced social history of the world’s tallest buildings, which has an elegant Art Deco design and color palette. This book might seem to have little in common with Brian Selznick’s novel in words and pictures, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. But like Selznick, Curlee has created a book for 8-to-12-year-olds that plays successfully with form. Skyscraper is a picture book with chapters (though they aren’t identified as such but are introduced by quotations from famous architects such as I.M. Pei and Robert Venturi).

A typical spread consists of a right-hand page with a color illustration of a skyscraper and a left-hand page with at least 250 words of text, more than in many chapter books. It’s a fresh treatment of its subject that brims with interesting material. Did you know that the Flatiron Building on Fifth Avenue, “the first great New York skyscraper,” looks like “the prow of a ship steaming up the avenue”?

But Skyscraper also shows how egregiously publishers can pander to the prevailing ideologies at many schools and libraries. Curlee writes that up to 3,400 people worked on the construction of the Empire State Building at the same time: “A number of these men were Native Americans, who had a reputation for working fearlessly at great heights.”

That might have been fine if the book had also mentioned a few of the other ethnic groups who worked on the first skyscrapers in far greater numbers than Native Americas, such as the Italian stonemasons who learned their trade in their homeland before applying their skills in America. It doesn’t. And through such omissions, this book insults the many Italian and other immigants who risked their lives to create the glorious skylines of Chicago, New York and other cities early in the 20th century. The message it sends to their young descendants is clear: “Your ancestors’ contributions aren’t as interesting or important as those of Native Americans.” But why would the Mohawks’ famous skywalking be less interesting to 9-year-olds than work on the great stone gargoyles that adorn so many skyscrapers?

It gets worse when Curlee describes the events of Sept. 11, 2001. On that day, he says, “a band of radical terrorists hijacked commercial airliners and attacked the United States, using the comandeered aircraft as lethal guided missiles.” That “radical terrorists” is absurd on two counts. First, the word “radical” tells you nothing — in a sense, every terrorist act is “radical.” And in the case of Sept. 11, the terrorists were the opposite of the usual definition of a “radical” — they were Islamic fundamentalists or reactionaries. Why doesn’t Skyscraper say this? Apparently because to do so might have offended some Muslims and made the book a tougher sell to schools and libraries. Instead we have a book that could leave some children with the idea that the attacks on the World Trade Center were carried out by, say, a remnant of the radical Weather Underground of the 1960s.

Obviously children’s picture books need to present their material at an appropriate level for their readers and omit some of the nuances of books for adults. But many children’s authors have shown that this doesn’t have to involve spinning history in a way that slights or denies the role — good or bad — that different ethnic groups have played in it, whether they are Italian stonemasons or Islamic fundamentalists. Those authors are the ones who deserve awards from librarians and others.

Best line: One of the strengths of Skyscraper is that it looks beyond architecture and situates buildings in a human context, as in this passage: “Immense buildings cause controversy because they do not belong just to their owners. Once they are built, everyone must live with them. They totally transform the neighborhoods in which they are raised. Since they consume enormous amounts of energy and cause congestion, there are very real questions about their worth. Who should make the decisions about building structures that affect everyone? Just how do skyscrapers benefit society? How do skyscrapers contribute or detract from the conditions of life in a city? What form should our cities take? How densely should huge buildings be packed together? How big is too big?”

Worst line: Curlee’s account of Sept. 11, quoted in the review.

Published: March 2007 www.simonsayskids.com

Furthermore: Curlee www.curleeart.com won a Sibert Honor Award for his Brooklyn Bridge. He also wrote Ballpark: The Story of America’s Baseball Fields and other books for children.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

The Rubric Theme. Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 357 other followers

%d bloggers like this: