One-Minute Book Reviews

October 11, 2008

‘Katie Loves the Kittens’ – A Picture Book for Children Who Have Been Scolded for Being Too Affectionate With a Pet or New Sibling

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I haven’t seen John Himmelman’s new picture book, Katie Loves the Kittens (Holt, 30 pp., $16.95). But Meghan Cox Gurdon, who is usually right about these things, said in the Wall Street Journal: “On the face of it, this delightful story for children ages 3–8 tells how a small, exuberant dog named Katie must learn to curb her boisterousness in order to earn the trust of three kittens who have just arrived in her household. Subtly, it also works as a parable for any child who has ever been scolded for being too bouncily affectionate with a pet or newborn sibling.” Read Gurdon’s review at and about Himmelman at

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 26, 2008

John Burningham’s ‘John Patrick Norman McHennessy — the boy who was always late’ — A Great Picture Book Returns in Hardcover in Time for Holiday Gift-Giving

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A teacher doesn’t believe a boy’s fanciful stories about why he can’t get to class on time

John Patrick Norman McHennessy — the boy who was always late. By John Burningham. Knopf, 40 pp., $16.99. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

The Man Booker Prize judges snub Netherland. The Secret outsells Pride and Prejudice on Amazon. Oprah picks another book with woo-woo elements – this time, sentient dogs. A Long Way Gone appears on nonfiction lists even though its publisher has never produced any evidence that Ishmael Beah was a child soldier for so much as one day. The tanking economy won’t help any of this.

The publishing industry is a font of bad news, but sometimes it works as it should: John Burningham’s John Patrick Norman McHennessy — the boy who was always late, one of the great picture books of the 1990s, is back in American stores in the handsome hardcover edition it deserves. A boy gets the last word on a teacher who doesn’t believe his explanations for why he is late for class in this exceptionally imaginative and entertaining book, which has a fine subtext about the degree to which schools penalize creative children. And its large format and exciting pictures make it ideal for story hours, reading aloud, and holiday gift-giving.

Best line/picture: All.

Worst line/picture: None.

Published: 1999 (first American edition) and July 2008 (new hardcover edition).

Furthermore: Burningham won the Kate Greenaway medal, Britain’s Caldecott, for Borka: The Adventures of a Goose With No Feathers and Mr. Gumpy’s Outing. He earned other raves for John Patrick Norman McHennessy, some of which you can read here The book doesn’t ascribe a nationality to its young hero, but the name “John Patrick Norman McHennesy” might delight families who are proud of their Irish heritage.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 12, 2008

A Boy Runs for President of the U.S. in the Picture Book ‘President Pennybaker’

A young candidate campaigns in Iowa, New Hampshire and other politically influential states after setting his sights on the White House

President Pennybaker. By Kate Feiffer. Illustrated by Diane Goode. Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

It’s probably safe to say that many adults would find it easier explain to young children how babies are made than how U.S. presidents are made. Libraries and bookstores abound with good picture books on conception, pregnancy and birth. But how many show the importance of putting up posters, taking part in debates and campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire?

Most authors seem to assume that presidential campaigns are too complex a topic for young children and that they may write only about elections that occur in school or neighborhood settings. These writers may be giving too little credit to their potential audience. Child psychologists tell us that children are aware of changes in their environment even if they don’t understand them. So they’ll notice if campaign signs are sprouting on lawns, Dad is wearing a shiny red-white-and-blue lapel button, or Mom is spending a lot of time on the telephone asking people she doesn’t know for money.

Kate Feiffer and Diane Goode cast a national election in terms young children can understand in President Pennybaker, the story of a boy who sets his sights on the White House after his father’s edicts convince him that life is unfair and that he can bring about his own form of social justice. Luke does many things that adult candidates do: He sets up a campaign office, puts up posters and solicits contributions. And as he travels to politically important states like Iowa and New Hampshire, he makes promises he’ll never be able to keep. Campaigning as the candidate of the Birthday Party, Luke vows that under his administration kids will get to eat cake and open gifts every day. After winning by a landslide, he realizes that he’s in over his head and resigns after a week on the job, leaving Oval Office to his hand-picked vice-president — his dog, Lily.

Goode leavens Feiffer’s somewhat abrupt ending with entertaining watercolors that set President Pennybaker mostly in the early 20th century — when voters tooled around in Model Ts – except for a few anachronisms such as television sets and a female governor of California. Her pictures also suggest some of the comedy in Luke’s serious motive for seeking the White House. In real life, when children ask their elders why people run for president, the adults tend to fall back on bromides like, “They want to make the world a better place.” That explanation is far too dull and abstract for many children. Luke’s rationale for his candidacy is likely to be much more appealing to its intended audience: Life is not fair. What 4- or 5-year old couldn’t relate that?

Best line/picture: All of Goode’s pictures show her flair for retro details, but Bruce Springsteen fans may especially like the page that shows Luke campaigning on “on the beach at the Jersey shore” in what looks like old Asbury Park.

Worst line/picture: Anachronisms such as the television set are clearly intentional and often amusing but weren’t essential to the story.

Recommendation? A good choice for parents who want to explain to young children why Dad starts swearing every time he sees a certain candidate on television. This book may especially interest schools and libraries in the places where Luke campaigns or whose elected officials are mentioned in it — the cities of Detroit, Cincinnati, New York and Washington, D.C., and the states of Iowa, Maine, Kansas, Colorado, California, New Jersey and New Hampshire.

Editor: Paula Wiseman

Published: August 2008 and Feiffer is a Massachusetts filmmaker who also wrote Henry the Dog With No Tail, illustrated by Jules Feiffer. Goode is a New Jersey artist who won a Caldecott Honor for her art for Cynthia Rylant’s When I Was Young in the Mountains and also illustrated Mind Your Manners, a guide to table manners for young children

Furthermore: Click here to read about other new children’s books about elections, including Rosemary Wells’s Otto Runs for President

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews. To avoid missing these reviews, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 22, 2008

‘Lyle, Lyle Crocodile’ – A Picture Book That Celebrates the Joys of City Life

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An upbeat crocodile savors pleasures such as ice-skating at Rockefeller Center and having a picnic in Central Park

Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile. By Bernard Waber. Houghton Mifflin, 48 pp., $6.95, paperback. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

It’s not easy being green and living in a bathtub in New York City. Just ask any young fan of Lyle, an anthropomorphic crocodile who made his picture-book debut in 1962 in The House on East 88th Street and has reappeared in more than a half-dozen sequels that celebrate the joys of urban life.

Lyle lives with Mr. and Mrs. Primm and their son, Joshua, in a New York City brownstone that has a high stoop, fanlight window, and claw-foot bathtub in which he relaxes. He revels in urban life even as he startles shoppers and irritates a neighbor whose cat he has frightened.

One of Lyle’s endearing traits is an almost pathological optimism. In Lyle, Lyle Crocodile, he is exiled to a zoo after he follows Mrs. Primm to a department store and creates a commotion by putting on an exuberant show with Signor Hector P. Valenti, his former partner in a traveling stage act, who now sells pajamas. Lyle weeps during his first night in a cage but rebounds when visitors arrive and he becomes the biggest star in the zoo. Still, he misses the Primms until a heroic deed enables him to go home and, at last, win over the testy neighbor whose cat he had upset.

Bernard Waber combines strong black lines and blend of bold and subtle watercolors to suggest the depth and variety of New York City. And he brings Lyle’s personality to the fore by alternating full-color pages with black, white and green spreads. Partly because he draws better than he writes, his work ranks several notches below that of Chris Van Allsburg and David Macaulay and others who also have been nurtured by his editor, the esteemed Walter Lorraine of Houghton Mifflin.

But few fictional characters can match Lyle’s infectious enthusiasm for joys of city life – riding taxis, feeding pigeons, ice-skating at Rockefeller Center. Many good children’s books deal with the urban experiences of a specific group – blacks, Hispanics, white girls rich enough to live at the Plaza. And we need those books. We also need books that say: Great cities like New York abound with joys that transcend your race, ethnicity or bank balance. Lyle, Lyle Crocodile does that, and nearly two generations of children have been grateful for it.

Best line/picture: “Lyle could spend hours watching building construction.” The focus on free or low-cost pleasures in this book is all the more appealing when a good seat for a Broadway show costs $100 and even a one-way subway ride will set you back $2.

Worst line/picture: A sign at an information desk says: “On parle francais” and “Aqui se habla español.” Using the tilde on español but not the cedilla on français is sloppy. And the some of the characters’ names are cute rather than witty or apt.

Published: 1965 (first edition)

Caveat lector: Some reviews suggest that the quality of this series falls off with later books, which I haven’t read. I welcome comments from teachers, librarians and others who can speak to this issue. And contrary to what you might expect from its title, Waber has written Lyle, Lyle Crocodile in prose, not poetry.

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 16, 2008

A Captivating Picture Book About a Boy Who Loves Words

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[I’m on vacation today. This review of one of my favorite recent picture books appeared on this site in late 2006, a few weeks after the launch of One-Minute Book Reviews.]

An inspired partnership results in an ideal gift for preschoolers

Max’s Words. By Kate Banks. Pictures by Boris Kulikov. Farrar, Straus & Giroux / Frances Foster Books. New York, 32 pp., $16. Ages 4–6 (younger for reading aloud).

By Janice Harayda

Sometimes an author comes up with such a wonderful concept for a picture book that the idea might soar even with inferior art. If the illustrator is equal to the task, the result can be magical, as with Max’s Words, the story of a boy who collects words.

Max decides to collect words, cutting them out of newspapers and magazines, when his brothers won’t share their stamps and coins with him. This premise is rich in possibilities, and Kate Banks and Boris Kulikov make more of them in 32 pages than you might imagine possible. Max discovers that when he puts his words together, he can make a story. This leads to a story-within-a-story, about “a big mean green crocodile” that wants to eat a small brown worm. Without becoming preachy, Banks’s text makes a case for the unique power of words: “When Benjamin put his stamps together, he had just a bunch of stamps. When Karl put his coins together, he had just a pile of money. But when Max put his words together, he had a thought.”

Like all good picture-book images, Kulikov’s whimsical illustrations at once reflect the story and send it into another realm. When Max snips the words “alligator” and “crocodile” out a newspaper, we see his scattered cut-outs forming the upper and lower jaws of a reptile. And his story offers a fine antidote to gifts that require plugs, consoles or batteries. Without saying so directly, Max’s Words reminds children that sometimes you have the most fun with activities that cost nothing.

Best line: Quoted above: “But when Max put his words together …”

Worst line: None. But a small picture shows Benjamin assuming an anatomically impossible position while rearranging his stamp collection. This might not matter if such positions were intrinsic to the story or if other characters also assumed them. Neither of these is true, so this image is slightly jarring.

Editor: Frances Foster

Published: August 2006

A new a book or group of books for children or teenagers appears every Saturday in the Children’s Corner on One-Minute Book Reviews. To avoid missing these reviews, please bookmark this site and check back or subscribe to the RSS feed. Children’s Corner reviews may be posted on Friday night.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 9, 2008

Picture Books About Different Kinds of Beaches

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This is a re-post of a review that appeared on August 7, 2007

Heading to the beach with a preschooler? Or hoping to keep alive the memories of an earlier trip to the seashore? Pick up David Wiesner’s Flotsam (Clarion, $17.95 ages 3 and up), an eloquent, wordless picture book that won this year’s Caldecott Medal from the American Library Association Flotsam tells the story of a boy who finds an underwater camera that washes up on a beach and takes him on a magical journey to distant times and places.

Consider Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach (Dragonfly, $6.99, paperback, ages 3 and up) , a Caldecott Honor book, for children who can only dream of a trip to the seashore. It tells the story of Depression-era girl who spends summer nights on a Harlem rooftop she calls “tar beach,” a place that inspires dreams of flying above the George Washington Bridge. As often in her work, Ringgold incorporates motifs from black history and culture. Her heroine’s magical journeys build on the flight-to-freedom theme in African-American literature.

One-Minute Book Reviews is an independent blog created by Janice Harayda, who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor of the Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle A new review of a book for children or teenagers appears every Saturday on this site.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 18, 2008

‘Owl Babies’ — A Picture Book That Sets the Stage for Bedtime

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Two words for parents looking for a bedtime story for very young children: Owl Babies (Candlewick, 32 pp., $5.99, paperback, ages 1–3). In this popular picture book, Martin Waddell tells a lackluster story about the separation anxiety that strikes three fluffy white owlets that are left alone one night when their mother flies off to hunt for food. But Patrick Benson illustrates the tale with captivating ink-and-watercolor pictures that help to make up for the weaknesses of a text that is at times cutesy and overelaborated. Benson also sets the white owls against a very dark background that, more strongly than most picture books, immerses you in a nighttime world and sets the stage for bedtime.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 28, 2008

William Steig’s ‘Spinky Sulks’ – A Tale of One Boy’s Grand Funk

The author of Shrek! also wrote picture book about a boy who can sulk even in a hammock on a beautiful summer day

Spinky Sulks. By William Steig. Sunburst, 32 pp., $4.99, paperback. Ages 3 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Not long ago, I mentioned the “Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read” series on this site to an English professor and mother of two, who asked immediately if I had written about the late William Steig’s priceless Spinky Sulks. I said I hadn’t, partly because the book wasn’t quite old enough: Spinky Sulks came out in 1988, and the “Classics” series typically covers books published at least 25 years ago. And Steig wrote and illustrated so many good picture books that if I had to pick just one, I might choose Brave Irene, the story of an intrepid girl who doesn’t let a blizzard stop her from keeping her promise to her seamstress mother to deliver a dress to a duchess.

But if Spinky Sulks hasn’t been around quite long enough to qualify as a classic and doesn’t involve the high drama of Brave Irene, it is the hilarious story of an epic bad mood. Spinky is a boy who can — and does — sulk in a hammock on a beautiful summer day: His bad mood is so extreme, it borders on a parody of a sulking. That’s partly what makes his story so funny: Steig exaggerates enough so that children can see the humor in Spinky’s mood but not so much that he ridicules their feelings.

Spinky resists efforts to cheer him up — including his brother’s, “You were positively right! . . . Philadelphia is the capital of Belgium” — until he finds a way to lift his gloom on his own. In that sense, the book is a bit subversive. Steig doesn’t say so directly, but Spinky figures out how to do something that all parents want their children to learn to do: to tame their emotions in ways that suit their temperaments — even if you won’t find their methods recommended by Penelope Leach.

Published: 1988

Furthermore: Steig, a cartoonist for The New Yorker, also wrote Shrek!. Spinky Sulks has won honors that include New York Times Outstanding Book and American Library Association Notable Book designations. Steig won a Caldecott Medal for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, a Caldecott Honor award for The Amazing Bone and Newbery Honors for Abel’s Island and Dr. De Soto. The site has reading guides to Brave Irene, The Amazing Bone, Doctor De Soto, and Amos & Boris.

Your public library has this book or can get it for you on an interlibrary loan for free or a nominal charge. Most libraries with children’s departments also have other good books by William Steig.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 13, 2008

Is It Time to Say ‘No, Thank You’ to Children’s Books About Manners by Mo Willems, Whoopi Goldberg and Others?

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Picture books about politeness don’t always please

TiME to SAY “PLEASE”! By Mo Willems. Hyperion, 40 pp., $15.99. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

Why are so many children’s books about manners so rude? With a wedding on my calendar this weekend, I looked into several high-profile entries in the field. And I can’t recommend any of the books wholeheartedly except for the gifted Diane Goode’s Mind Your Manners!, which I reviewed a while back.

John Bemelmans Marciano trades on the fame of his grandfather’s Madeline in Madeline Says Merci (Viking, 2001), but he falls far short of the quality of the original in this book of derivative art and painfully strained poetry about being polite. Whoopi Goldberg’s Whoopi’s Big Book of Manners (Hyperion, 2006) has garish pictures by Alexander “Olo” Sroczynski and a muddled text. (Each page describes a breach of manners that’s worse than the one that preceded it — not a bad concept, except that the book says, for example, that speaking with food in your mouth is worse that not saying you’re sorry if you do something bad.) The biggest disappointment comes from Mo Willems, whose Knuffle Bunny has helped to make him one of America’s most popular children’s authors.

TiME to SAY “PLEASE”! is the literary equivalent of a loud, messy person who sits next to you on the bus and drops crumbs on your seat. Your three-year-old may love the loud, messy person and want to lick the crumbs off the arm rests. But is this, dear parent, behavior you wish to encourage?

Willems introduces four basic terms – “Please,” “Thank you,” “Sorry,” and “Excuse Me” – in this sequel to his apparently deathless TiME to PEE! (“a National Parenting Publications Gold Medalist”). As in his book about toilet-training, Willems encloses his text in flags, signs, balloons, masts or other frames hoisted by mice who are so frenetic, they appear to have the rodent counterpart of ADHD.

TiME to SAY “PLEASE”! is a how-to book, so instead of telling a story, it gives advice such as: “If you ever really want something, / really, really want something, / don’t grab it! / Go ask a big person / and please say ‘Please’!” This didactic purpose isn’t a problem in itself, because there are many good instructional books for the very young.

But the format sets up other problems. Children often begin learning about manners at age two or younger. A mother on Amazon says she used TiME to SAY “PLEASE”! with an 18-month-old. But there’s a board game in the back of this book with a spinner that could detach, a potential choking hazard. So the publisher advises against giving the book to children under age 3.

Yet the advice may be too simple for children over the age of 3. The book doesn’t mention “You’re welcome,” for example. And the erratic capitalization and punctuation could confuse a child who is just starting to learn about words and letters. As Willems might put it, it’s TiME to SAY “NO, THANK YOU”!

Best line/picture: The back cover. It says “Thank you!” on two flags held by a mouse, a much less manic image than many others in the book.

Worst line/picture: The capitalization of the title on the front cover. Then there’s, “There are all kinds of reasons to say ‘Please’ … When you want a toy, or to borrow someone else’s truck,” as though a truck were not a toy.

Consider reading instead: Diane Goode’s Mind Your Manners! (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2005), a witty sendup of a 19th-century etiquette primer picture book by a Caldecott Honor artist is better than the others in this review and speaks to a broader age range

Published: June 2005

Furthermore: Willems wrote Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!, a Caldecott Honor Book, and Knuffle Bunny I haven’t read either and would welcome comments from anyone who has and could compare them to TiME to SAY “PLEASE”!, which may be inferior to Willems’s other books.

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© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 7, 2008

Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read — Jeff Brown and Tomi Ungerer’s ‘Flat Stanley’

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Stanley was different before different was the new normal

Flat Stanley. By Jeff Brown. Pictures by Tomi Ungerer. HarperCollins, 44 pp., varied prices and editions. Ages 4 and up (for reading aloud).

Flat Stanley. By Jeff Brown. Pictures by Scott Nash. HarperTrophy, 65 pp., $4.99, paperback. Ages 4 and up (for reading aloud), ages 6–9 (for independent readers).

By Janice Harayda

Long before bookstores and libraries abounded with books about children of all shapes and sizes, there was Flat Stanley, an ordinary boy who woke up one morning and found that he was flat. Stanley is flat — “four feet fall, about a foot wide, and half an inch thick” – because a bulletin board fell on him while he was sleeping.

He wasn’t hurt, so nobody is particularly troubled by this – least of all Stanley. “When Stanley got used to being flat, he enjoyed it.” Stanley finds that he can slide under closed doors and slip through the bars of a sidewalk grate to retrieve his mother’s favorite ring, which fell into a shaft. He can fly like a kite on the end of a string held by his younger brother, Arthur. And when thieves keep breaking into an art museum, he becomes a hero after helping the authorities with their plan to catch the robbers, which requires him to dress up like a shepherdess and be displayed in a frame. But after becoming a celebrity, Stanley starts getting teased by children who make fun of his flatness. He cries in bed at night because he wants to return to normal. And he doesn’t know how he can, until his sympathetic brother comes up with a creative idea that works.

The first edition of Flat Stanley has wonderful drawings by the French-born artist Tomi Ungerer who, on every page, raises Jeff Brown’s humor to a higher level. Few living artists can make visual satire work as well for young children as Ungerer, a winner of the the highest international prize for children’s-book illustration, the Hans Christian Andersen Award. Most children won’t know that he is gently tweaking 18th-century pastoral paintings of the school of Fragonard when they see Stanley, affixed to a wall, in ringlets and a dress with a shepherdess’s crook in hand. They don’t need to know it, because the picture is so funny in itself. Brown occasionally pitches his humor more to adults than to children, but Ungerer never makes that mistake.

Scott Nash’s cartoonish pictures for the chapter book don’t come close to Ungerer’s – it’s the difference between table wine and champagne. But the chapter book, which reproduces Brown’s text almost word-for-word, has its place. Because of the incident involving the museum thieves, some parents might hesitate to read Flat Stanley to preschoolers who are still worried about monsters under the bed. They might prefer to wait until children can read it on their own and, not incidentally, go to sleep without spraying down the bedroom with a water bottle labeled “Monster Repellent.” In that case, they can use the chapter book (which has sequels I haven’t seen).

Flat Stanley has a message that is expressed most directly by Stanley’s mother: “It is wrong to dislike people for their shapes. Or their religion, for that matter, or the color of their skin.” But the book wears this idea so lightly – and tells such a good story – that it stands far above the many recent, dreary books that bludgeon children with worthy ideas at the expense of plot, characterization and decent art. Stanley may be flat, but his story is anything but.

Best line/picture: All of Tomi Ungerer’s pictures of Stanley in his flat incarnation, especially that image of him in a shepherdess’s costume.

Worst line/picture: Stanley’s father announces that the newspaper says a painting, a Toulouse-Lautrec, has been stolen from the Famous Museum of Art. “That probably made it easy to steal,” his wife replies. “Being too loose, I mean.” This is one of the few lines that appears in the picture book but not in the chapter book. I didn’t mind the pun, because it fits in with the playful humor throughout the text and illustrations. But the reference isn’t explained and would no doubt sail over the heads of most preschoolers.

Published: 1964 (picture book by Jeff Brown with pictures by Tomi Ungerer) and 2003, (chapter book by Jeff Brown with pictures by Scott Nash) More information appears on

Furthermore: Tomi Ungerer’s site This site is in French (and doesn’t have pictures of Stanley), but it has a button on the home page that you can click on for an English or German translation.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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