One-Minute Book Reviews

November 7, 2009

Pat the Picasso – The ‘Touch the Art’ Board Books for Young Children

I haven’t written about board books for a while, in part because the good ones seem to be getting rarer: More and more, these books for babies and toddlers rip-off bestsellers for older children instead of doing what they alone can do. But in today’s Wall Street Journal Megan Cox Gurdon writes about a series that suggests the unique potential of the medium: Julie Appel and Amy Guglielmo’s “Touch the Art” line, which began with Brush Mona Lisa’s Hair. “Each book features well-known images adorned with appealing, touchable gimmicks,” Gurdon writes. The latest is Catch Picasso’s Rooster (Sterling, 21 pp., $12.95), which invites children to stroke things such as a red-feather comb and the cat in Henri Rousseau’s The Tabby. You can read Gurdon’s review here. The publisher’s site has more on other books in the series, including Count Monet’s Lilies.

July 25, 2009

Wanda Gág’s ‘Millions of Cats’ — An American Classic for Children

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Millions of Cats. By Wanda Gág. Putnam, 32 pp., varied prices. Ages 6 and under.

By Janice Harayda

Thirty years ago, an editor asked Maurice Sendak if he thought picture books were better in the past. Yes, he said, “there was Wanda Gág.” More recently, I asked the children’s author Jan Brett which artists had influenced her work, and she gave a similar answer: “Of course, there was Wanda Gág.”

Gág (rhymes with blog) was to picture books what Julia Child was to French cooking – the first American star in a field that has exploded in her wake. And just as Mastering the Art of French Cooking remains a standard-bearer for a generation, so does Gág’s Millions of Cats, first published in 1928.

Gág’s masterpiece is so unassuming by today’s measures that if you came across it on a library shelf, you might overlook it. Except for the cover, all of the illustrations are black-and-white. The book is relatively small, just over half the size of a typical book by Chris Van Allsburg, with a horizontal format. It has only two human characters — an old man and woman with no children – who might have stepped out of the story of Abraham and Sarah.

But Millions of Cats combines tenderness with powerful themes, including the human longing for companionship and the struggle to survive in the natural world, and it does so in a story 3- and 4-year-olds can understand. The old woman believes a cat would ease the couple’s loneliness, and her husband sets out to find one. But each cat he sees is so pretty, he goes home followed by what looks like a feline peace march. The horde inspires the refrain:

Cats here, cats there,

Cats and kittens everywhere,

Hundreds of cats,

Thousands of cats,

Millions and billions and trillions of cats.

The old man and woman can’t keep them all, so the cats compete for survival, except for a frightened and “very homely little cat” that others see as no threat and ignore. That is the cat that the couple come to see as the “the most beautiful cat in the world.”

Gág’s beautiful pen-and-ink drawing flow across gutters and move her story forward in waves instead of boxes that can make a book look flat or inert. Many of her details recall both folktales and her Bohemian ancestry – a kerchief, a tunic, a tidy fieldstone cottage encircled by flowers. And her humor comes not from visual gags but believable emotions, such as the old man’s astonishment on seeing the “millions of cats” for the first time. All of it makes for a book that a child can read again and again with delight. Millions of Cats was the first American picture book that had both popular and literary success, and it’s still one of the worthiest of its honors.

Best line: “Millions and billions and trillions of cats.”

Worst line: Some critics say it’s illogical that the text suggests that the cats “have eaten each other all up” at the end of their fight while the pictures offer no evidence that they have done this. I think that this view is too literal and the fight is a metaphor for the Darwinian struggle for survival. How “logical” was it for all those millions of cats to follow the old man home in the first place?

Published: 1928 (first edition), 1996 (Putnam reprint)

This is a re-post of a reviews that first appeared in 2007.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 13, 2009

Lisa Brown’s ‘How to Be’ — Fun With Animals for Very Young Children

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A witty picture book shows children how to imitate a bear, monkey, turtle, snake, spider, and dog

How to Be. By Lisa Brown. HarperCollins, 32 pp., $16.89. Ages 6 months and up.

By Janice Harayda

Is there a toddler or preschooler who doesn’t love to make animal sounds? San Francisco artist Lisa Brown urges very young children to take their copycat instincts a step further in this witty picture book about a brother and sister who imitate the behavior of six animals — a bear, monkey, turtle, snake, spider, and dog.

Each spread gives simple directions for acting like one of those creatures, illustrated by amusing line drawings that show how the siblings interpret the instructions. And I defy you to keep a straight face when you see how the two respond to last command on the “How to Be a Dog” pages: “Lick someone.” Oh, are parents and grandparents going to have fun watching children follow the instructions in this book! You might have almost as much fun as they’re going to have licking your elbow.

Best line/picture: Apart from the picture of the brother trying to lick his sister? A command on the “How to Be a Monkey” pages: “Eat with your toes.”

Worst line/picture: None unless you’re so heartless that you believe that children should never – not even once – be allowed to eat with their toes.

Recommendation? A good gift for ages newborn to 2 or 3. How to Be might especially appeal to children who like the imitative aspects of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. And it has an intergenerational appeal, because it will allow children to show off for their grandparents their impressive ability to slither on their bellies like a snake.

Furthermore: The bold line drawings and minimalist color palette give this book an unusually fresh look. How to Be would fit in well at Museum of Modern Art gift shop. Yet it’s not one of those pretentious books that please adults more than children. Both groups are likely to enjoy it.

Published: May 2006

This is a repost of a review that appeared on this site on June 30, 2007.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

March 7, 2009

‘The Poky Little Puppy’ — ‘The All-Time Bestselling Children’s Hardcover Book in English’ Is Still Scampering Along in Its Original Golden Books Format

The latest in a series of occasional posts on classic picture books for young children

The Poky Little Puppy: A Little Golden Book Classic. By Janette Sebring Lowrey. Illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren. Random House/Golden Books, 24 pp., $2.99. Ages 5 and under.

By Janice Harayda

The Poky Little Puppy is the all-time bestselling children’s hardcover book in English, the trade journal Publishers Weekly reported in 2001. Whether that report is accurate is debatable — others have made a similar claim for The Tale of Peter Rabbit — but the longevity of the book is remarkable by any measure.

First published in 1942, The Poky Little Puppy was one of the original 12 Little Golden Books that sold for 25 cents. And like other Golden Books that remain in print, this one retains the distinctive design elements of the series: the nearly square format; the patterned golden spine; and the space on the inside front cover for children to write their names after the words: “This Little Golden Book belongs to …” The book also has paper so lightweight that an Amazon reader complained of its flimsiness but that, in fact, has important benefits: It makes the book easy for children to carry and helps to keep the cost to a remarkably low $2.99 in hardcover.

A puppy goes bed "without a single bite of shortcake" in a classic picture book.

If they remember nothing else about The Poky Little Puppy, countless baby boomers recall it as the story of a dawdling puppy who had to go to bed without strawberry shortcake. But this book is also about the joy of exploring the natural world and its bounty: “a fuzzy caterpillar,” “a quick green lizard,” and other creatures.

Five puppies dig a hole under a fence around their yard and set out to enjoy “the wide, wide world.” But a poky little brown-and-white puppy dawdles while his siblings race ahead. And for two days, this works to his advantage: His swifter siblings get home first and are punished for digging the hole under the fence by their mother, who sends them to bed without dessert, so he gets to eat their rice pudding and chocolate custard. On the third day, the poky little puppy pays for his dallying: His quicker siblings get home first again and after finding their mother upset about another hole they have dug under the fence, fill it in. She rewards them with strawberry shortcake, and they leave none for him.

The Poky Little Puppy might have trouble finding a publisher today. Some of its themes conflict with the orthodoxies of child-rearing of 21st century, when psychologists instruct adults not to label children “poky” or “shy” or to withhold food as punishment (or even to use the word “punishment” instead of “discipline”). But this book has endured in part because it is not bibliotherapy but a good story. The talking animals tell children right away that this is a fantasy, not a slice of life.

No doubt many parents have used The Poky Little Puppy to teach the consequences of dallying or ignoring boundaries. But the book works as a straight adventure story. Gustave Tenggren’s gentle pictures soften the blow of the loss of the shortcake. And the puppy radiates such sweetness that no one could think him intentionally wayward – which is just what many children want their parents to think when they miss the school bus.

Best line: The first line: “Five little puppies dug a hole under the fence and went for a walk in the wide, wide world.” And the next-to-last: “So the poky little puppy had to go to bed without a single bite of shortcake, and he felt very sorry for himself.” And it’s great that a child can claim the book emotionally by writing his or her name in the space provided on the inside cover. Many recent picture books are so pretty they discourage children from writing their names in them, and that’s part of the problem with them.

Worst line: None. But see the caution below.

Caveat lector: Avoid gussied-up editions of this book — such as the one Random House describes as “upscale” – that cost more than $2.99. Part of the appeal of the Golden Books has always lay in their small, predictable format.

Read 20 early Golden Books free online at the Antique Book Library.

Published: 1942 (first edition) and many subsequent reprints.

Other classic picture books reviewed on One-Minute Book Reviews include Horton Hatches the Egg, Millions of Cats, Madeline, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Where the Wild Things Are, The Backward Day, The Story of Ferdinand and Flat Stanley.

One-Minute Book Reviews will announce the winners of the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books for children or adults on Monday, March 16, 2009. A list of the finalists appeared on Feb. 27 and passages from books on the list on Feb. 26.

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

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.

www.janiceharayda.com

February 23, 2008

Ezra Jack Keats’s Trailblazing Picture Book for Ages 5 and Under, ‘The Snowy Day’

A Caldecott medalist often called “the book that broke the color barrier” in mainstream children’s publishing

Winter still has enough muscle here in New Jersey that the library was closed for snow yesterday. So I couldn’t put my hands on a trailblazing book about the kind of weather we’re having now, Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day (Puffin, 40 pp., $6.99, paperback, and other editions). And because I haven’t read it, I’ll have to quote an excellent reference book and hope that teachers, librarians or others will jump in with comments.

“Keats illustrated nearly a dozen books before writing his first, The Snowy Day, which won the 1963 Caldecott Medal,” former children’s librarian Mary Mehlman Burns writes in The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators (Houghton Mifflin, 2002), edited by Anita Silvey. “A celebration of color, texture, design, and childhood wonder, The Snowy Day is significant in that it was one of the first picture books in which a minority child is seen as Everychild. Years before, Keats had come across photos of a young boy, and he recalled that ‘his expressive face, his body attitudes, the way he wore his clothes, totally captivated me.’ The boy was to become Peter, who, in his red snowsuit, discovers the joys of dragging sticks and making tracks in the snow. After its publication, Keats found out that the photos had come from a 1940 Life magazine – he had retained the images for over 20 years.

“With solid and patterned paper as wedges of color, Keats www.ezra-jack-keats.org used collage to create endearing characters and energetic cityscapes, not only in The Snowy Day (1962) but also in Whistle for Willie (1964) and Peter’s Chair (1964).”

A generation of readers – black and white – is grateful to The Snowy Day, sometimes called “the book that broke the color barrier” in picture books from mainstream publishers. One of the latest editions is a DVD-and-book gift set that Viking published in September and includes Whistle for Willie.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
http://www.janiceharayda.com

December 15, 2007

Good Gift Books for Children and Teenagers — What to Wrap Up for Everyone From Babies and Toddlers Through College-Bound High School Students

Season’s readings for ages 1-to-16 and up

Source: http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

New books don’t always make the best gifts for children and teenagers. These suggestions include 2007 books and classics that young readers have enjoyed for years or generations

By Janice Harayda

Ages 1–2
Nobody does board books better than Helen Oxenbury, who has twice won the Kate Greenaway Medal, Britain’s equivalent of the Caldecott. Oxenbury’s great gift is her ability to create faces that are simple yet expressive and never dull or cloying, which is just what young children need. You see her skill clearly in her engaging series of board books about babies at play, which includes Clap Hands, All Fall Down, Say Goodnight and Tickle, Tickle. (Simon & Schuster, about $6.99 each) www.simonsayskids.com. Any infant or toddler would be lucky to have one of these as a first book.

Ages 3–5
Children’s poet Jack Prelutsky pays homage to Lewis Carroll’s “The Crocodile” in Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant: And Other Poems (HarperCollins/Greenwillow, 32 pp., $16.99, 3 and up) www.jackprelutsky.com, a collection of brief rhyming poems about imaginary animals. But this picture book stands on its own with amusing poems about fanciful creatures such as an “umbrellaphant” (an elephant with an umbrella for a trunk) and sparkling illustrations by Carin Berger.

Ages 6–8
Elizabeth Matthews makes a stylish debut in Different Like Coco (Candlewick, 40 pp., $16.99, ages 6–8) www.candlewick.com, a witty and spirited picture-book biography of Coco Chanel. Matthews focuses on the early years of the designer who learned to sew at a convent school, then revolutionized 20th century fashion with clothes that reflected and fostered the emancipation of women. The result makes clear that Chanel owed her success not just to hard work but to boldness and staying true to herself and her artistic vision.

Ages 9–12
Brian Selznick has had one of the year’s biggest hits for tweens of both sexes in The Invention of Hugo Cabret: A Novel in Words and Pictures (Scholastic, 533 pp., $22.99) www.scholastic.com, a cross between a picture book and a chapter book. Selznick’s novel involves a 12-year-old orphan and thief who lives in a Paris train station and, in the days of silent movies, tries to complete work on a mechanical man started by his father. The beautiful packaging of this book helps to offset the so-so writing and unresolved moral issues it raises (including that Hugo rationalizes his thievery and mostly gets away with it) www.theinventionofhugocabret.com.

Ages 13-15
Three-time Caldecott Medal winner David Wiesner says in The Art of Reading (Dutton, $19.99) that as teenager he was captivated by Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (Roc, $7.99, paperback) us.penguingroup.com. And that modern classic might still delight a teenager who likes science fiction (with or without a companion gift of the Stanley Kubrick’s great movie version). Or consider Mindy Schneider’s Not a Happy Camper (Grove, $24) www.not-a-happy-camper.com, an adult book being cross-marketed to teens. Schneider remembers her eight weeks at an off-the-wall kosher summer camp at the age of 13 in this light and lively memoir. (Sample experience: A bunkhouse burned down when a group of boys put candles under their beds to see if they could warm them up by nightfall.) This book is about wanting to fit in and never quite achieving it — in others, about the essence of being a teenager.

Ages 16 and up
Finally, a book for the college-bound, especially for the sort of high school student who might like to join a sorority or other all-female group: Marjorie Hart’s charming Summer at Tiffany (Morrow, $14.94) www.harpercollins.com, a book for adults that many teenagers might also enjoy. In this warm and upbeat memoir, Hart looks back on the summer of 1945, when she and a sorority sister at the University of Iowa became the first female pages at Tiffany’s, the Fifth Avenue jewelry store. They arrived just in time to watch the city erupt with joy when the Japanese surrender ended World War II and to have a much larger experience than they had expected. Hart’s account of all of it has none of the cynicism that infects so many books for teenagers, and that’s partly what makes it so refreshing.

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews. You can read others by clicking on the “Children’s Books” and “Young Adult” categories under the “Top Posts” list at right.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

 

October 26, 2007

Steve Martin and Roz Chast Make Fun of Religious, Cultural and Physical Differences in a New Alphabet Book for Preschoolers — Is Your Two-Year-Old Ready for Ethnic Humor?

Maybe they should have called it “S” Is for Sucker

The Alphabet From A to Y: With Bonus Letter Z! Words by Steve Martin. Pictures by Roz Chast. Doubleday/Flying Dolphin, 64 pp., $17.95. Suggested ages: “Young Children” (Doubleday), “Baby/Preschool” (Powell’s), 9-to-12 (Amazon).

By Janice Harayda

Hey, kids! You’re never too young to laugh at people who are different from you! And if you’re an adult who wants to help, Steve Martin and Roz Chast are there for you! They use rhyming couplets to show 2-to-4-year-olds – the usual audience for alphabet books — just how easy it is to make fun of religious, cultural and physical differences!

Looking for the perfect Hannukah gift for a toddler? How about a book that explains the letter “K” by showing an ape-like woman (“King Kong’s aunt Frances”) saying, “Kids! Kome Back! Have Some Kosher Kasha!” Or need something to wrap up for Diwali? Why not a book that shows a funny-looking guy in a turban staring at a woman “indecent in her undies”? Those 2-year-olds have to learn about perverts sometime! And what could be better for kids celebrating the Day of the Dead than a book that introduces the letter “I” with a poster of “The Incans”? (Will those kids ever be surprised to learn that the plural of “Inca” is “Incans” and not “Inca” or “Incas”!) Martin and Chast even show how simple it can be to make fun of disabilities! And nuns! The “H” page says: “Henrietta the hare wore a habit in heaven, / Her hairdo hid hunchbacks: one hundred and seven.” And Martin and Chast aren’t talking about Quasimodo but people who look just like your Uncle Ed except with disabilities! Yes, they could easily have said “halfbacks” instead of “hunchbacks”! But they must have decided that people with disabilities are funnier than athletes!

Sure, you might see all of this as tasteless — not to mention, a little mature for kids who may be poring over Once Upon a Potty. So why didn’t the people at Doubleday pitch this book to the group who would enjoy it most, the adult fans of Chast’s New Yorker cartoons? Could it be that they figured out that they could make more money by selling it as a children’s book? Maybe they should have called it “S” Is for Sucker.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 30, 2007

Fun for Toddlers and Preschoolers Who Like to Make Animal Sounds: Lisa Brown’s ‘How to Be’

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A witty picture book shows children how to imitate a bear, monkey, turtle, snake, spider, and dog

How to Be. By Lisa Brown. HarperCollins, 32 pp., $16.89. Ages 2–4.

By Janice Harayda

Is there a toddler or preschooler who doesn’t love to make animal sounds? San Francisco artist Lisa Brown urges 2-to-4-year-olds to take their copycat instincts a step further in this witty picture book about a brother and sister who imitate the behavior of six animals — a bear, monkey, turtle, snake, spider, and dog.

Each spread gives simple directions for acting like one of those creatures, illustrated by amusing line drawings that show how the siblings interpret the instructions. And I defy you to keep a straight face when you see how the two respond to last command on the “How to Be a Dog” pages: “Lick someone.” Oh, are parents and grandparents going to have fun watching children follow the instructions in this book! You might have almost as much fun as they’re going to have licking your elbow.

Best line/picture: Apart from the picture of the brother trying to lick his sister? A command on the “How to Be a Monkey” pages: “Eat with your toes.”

Worst line/picture: None unless you’re so heartless that you believe that children should never – not even once – be allowed to eat with their toes.

Recommendation? A good gift for 2- and 3-year olds. It might especially appeal to children who like the imitative aspects of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. And it has an intergenerational appeal, because it will allow children to show off for their grandparents their impressive ability to slither on their bellies like a snake.

Furthermore: The bold line drawings and minimalist color palette give this book an unusually fresh look. How to Be would fit in well at Museum of Modern Art gift shop. Yet it’s not one of those pretentious books that please adults more than children. Both groups are likely to enjoy it.

Published: May 2006

Links: You can see a spread from this book by going to the HarperCollins children’s site www.harpercollinschildrens.com, searching for How to Be, and clicking on “Look Inside.” Amazon.com hasn’t enabled the “Search Inside the Book” tool (which lets you look inside other books) for this one.

A new review of a book for children or teenagers appears every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews. You can read earlier reviews by clicking on “Children’s Books” in the “Categories” column at right.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

June 8, 2007

Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read #2: ‘Madeline’

In an old house in Paris
that was covered with vines
lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.

— The opening lines of Madeline

Madeline. Story and Pictures by Ludwig Bemelmans. Viking, 48 pp., $7.99, paperback. Also available in other editions. Ages 2 & up.

By Janice Harayda

One of the most delightful characters in children’s literature was born, figuratively speaking, in a saloon. Ludwig Bemelmans (1898–1962) may have gotten the idea for Madeline after a bicycle accident sent him to a French hospital, where a girl in the next room had just had her appendix out. But he wrote the first lines of his most famous book on the back of a menu at Pete’s Tavern in New York: “In an old house in Paris / that was covered with vines …”

Those words set the tone for this brief narrative poem that uses rhyming couplets and a loose anapestic meter to tell the story a fearless girl who attends a convent school near the Cathedral of Notre-Dame and other French landmarks. Madeline is the smallest and bravest of the girls in the care of a nun called Miss (not Sister) Clavel: “To the tiger in the zoo / Madeline just said, ‘Pooh-pooh.’” She makes such a fine adventure of having her appendix out – the central drama of the book – that by the last page her schoolmates are clamoring to have surgery, too.

Madeline was published in 1939 and is one the few picture books of its day that has never fallen from favor. But it has more going for it than nostalgia or its intergenerational appeal. The amusing line drawings are simple yet dynamic. Bemelmans suggests an entire world through his images of 12 girls who are always identically dressed, whether they wear broad-brimmed hats while visiting the Eiffel Tower or muffs while ice-skating near Montmartre. Like Helen Oxenbury’s pictures for We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, his illustrations alternate between color and black- and-white (plus a sunny yellow in Madeline). This technique helps to quicken the pace, so that the 48 pages of text hold the attention of preschoolers used to shorter books. And there’s another reason why Madeline and its five sequels work so well, astutely suggested by Anna Quindlen in her introduction to Mad About Madeline: The Complete Tales (Viking, $35), which contains all the books in the series:

“For those of us who believe that children feel secure with structure, part of the enduring charm of the books must surely be that Madeline’s confidence and fearlessness are set within a backdrop of utter safety,” Quindlen writes. Miss Clavel is “concerned but competent.” If Madeline’s life is regimented, it has an order and predictability that many children long for at a time when the family dinner is becoming a cultural artifact. Madeline and her schoolmates all eat their meals, brush their teeth, and go to bed at the same time. A caged tiger may bare its teeth at the zoo. But as Quindlen rightly notes, “life is safe” in that “old house in Paris / that was covered with vines.”

Best line: The first three, quoted at the top of this review.

Worst line: None. But some parents may prefer to skip two lines on the last page: “Good night, little girls! Thank the Lord you are well!”

Published: 1939 (first Simon & Schuster edition), 2000 (Viking paperback reprint).

Furthermore: A naturalized American citizen, Bemelmans was born in the Austrian Tyrol and moved to the U.S. as a teenager. Madeline www.madeline.com was a Caldecott Honor book, and its first sequel, Madeline’s Rescue, won the Caldecott Medal. More often associated with O. Henry than with Bemelmans, Pete’s Tavern still serves meals at the corner of 18th Street and Irving Place in Manhattan.

You may also want to read: Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read #1, Millions of Cats by Wanda Gág, reviewed on this site on Jan. 5, 2007 https://oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/01/05.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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