One-Minute Book Reviews

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.

August 25, 2007

‘Miss Nelson Is Missing!’ A Back-to-School Favorite Returns in a Book-and-CD Set

The deliciously vile Viola Swamp is back in a new edition of a book that has sold more than a million copies

Miss Nelson Is Missing! Story by Harry Allard. Pictures by James Marshall. Houghton Mifflin, 32 pp., varied prices. Also available in a book-and-CD edition, $9.95. Ages 3–8.

By Janice Harayda

“More than a million copies sold” is often a publishing-industry code for, “This book is utter trash.” In the case of Miss Nelson Is Missing! it’s proof that a good picture book can find its way even if its illustrator was insufficiently honored in his lifetime by the American Library Association, which tried to make up for it by giving him the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award posthumously.

Harry Allard’s text tells a lively story of pupils who torment a kind teacher until she doesn’t show up and they get a loathsome substitute, Viola Swamp, who teaches them a lesson in “as you sow.” But James Marshall’s pictures send the text into orbit.

Marshall had “an intuitive grasp of how to reduce a visual object to its most basic elements, the type of genius found in the sculptures of Alexander Calder,” former Horn Book editor-in-chief Anita Silvey has rightly observed. But his art is so rich you can’t call it minimalist. Marshall defines Viola Swamp in a half dozen or so boldly drawn features, including a huge potato-shaped nose that is both memorable and symbolic in a genre in which liar’s noses grow. No less striking is her ski-slope chin, defaced by a large mole. It reminds you of Jay Leno’s until, a few pages later, you come across an illustrated reference to sharks and see that the chin foreshadows this.

Many back-to-school books are dreary examples of bibliotherapy, more therapeutic than artistic. In its way, Miss Nelson Is Missing! says the same thing that many of those books do: School can seem good and bad at different times. But it doesn’t bludgeon children with an educationally correct message. It’s pure fun. If you were a soon-to-be-kindergartener, which type of book would you rather read?

Best line/picture: A full-page image of Viola that makes her look at once sinister and, in horizontally striped green-and-yellow socks, comically absurd.

Worst line/picture: The good Miss Nelson has blond hair, and the bad Miss Swamp has black hair. Some people might object to this, because it perpetuates a stereotype. But among the children, bad behavior comes in all hair colors.

Published: 1977 (first edition). August 2007 (book-and-CD edition)

Caveat lector: This review is based on the first edition. I haven’t seen the just-published book-and-CD package.

Furthermore: Marhshall is best known for George and Martha, a book about the friendship between hippos, and its sequels. The American Library Association gave him, besides the Wilder award, a Caldecott Honor for Goldilocks and the Three Bears (Puffin, $6.99, paperback), which he wrote and edited.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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