It's A First!
I've been reviewing children's picture books on Amazon.com since December 1, 2003. A little more than 2 years now. In that time I've given heartily positive and equally heartily negative reviews to all kinds of works of kiddie lit. So you would think that I would have gotten a nasty e-mail before now chewing me out. I haven't. After all this time, no matter how mean I was to Rainbow Fish or insulted the honor of Inkspell no die-hard fan has gotten so angry as to shoot off a mad missive to my e-mail address. I mean, it's right there on my Amazon profile clear as crystal, people! Is everyone in the world a calm sane soul like myself?
Well we finally have the answer and boy is it negative. Yes, the votes are in and the winner? Looks like the namby pamby A Prayer For a Child was the one that broke the camel's back. You're all familiar with this book, aren't you guys? Written by Rachel Field it won the 1945 Caldecott Award for best picture book of the year. It is, in my humble opinion, crap on a Precious Moments level. Of course many people adore it. I understand this. Many people like those 1960s velvet paintings of big-eyed children crying too. That doesn't mean I'm gonna give 'em positive reviews though. Especially if they go about winning awards. Well, one fan of Field's work was suitably appalled at my reaction. She told me in no uncertain terms that the world needed more books like this one and that the classic picture books were best. She asked me what kinds of books I would read to my children (my non-existent but very opinionated children) and speculated that it would have to be something on the level of Captain Underpants. *gasp* The lowest of the low, undoubtedly in her opinion. Obviously she hasn't seen the charms of Walter the Farting Dog. Now THAT would've been insulting.
After finishing her e-mail by saying that she was going to look at my other reviews because, "I'm sure I won't like them" (a mixed message at best) she ended the missive. I was suitably impressed and let her know as much. I mean, this woman had to go through the review to my Amazon page, locate my e-mail address, and then systematically type out that letter. THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is dedication. I suspect many others have tried in the past and failed to do what she accomplished simply because it was too much work. So I recommended GOOD Christian picture book fare (specifically Noah's Ark as illustrated by Peter Spier because I knew it had also garnered a Caldecott) and wished her a lovely day.
To celebrate this first chewing out by a member of the public (I once had an author take me to task too, but after responding to him he was so embarrassed that he sent me a review copy of his newest book... which sucked) I will now print out the original review. Is it harsh? Oh my, yes. Is the author dead and has she been for years and years and years? Also yes. Say what you will about me, I only tear to shreds the kids who are either so famous that what I say doesn't matter or the ones who are dead and do not care a jot. Mind you, it was written in November of 2004 when my writing skills were still being honed. It is not my best work but it is possibly one of my most visceral. Eh voila!
I think it all comes down to what you really want out of your Caldecott Medal winning picture books. If you want smart, tightly written, even (dare I say?) amusing stories then you'd probably migrate towards "My Friend Rabbit" or even "Mei Li". If, on the other hand, you're looking for a book that is basically a novelization of those treacly "Precious Moments" figurines, "Prayer For a Child" is for you. Let me say right here and now that I have absolutely no problem with a well-written Christian children's picture book. But to my mind, even the most hastily slapped together "Veggie Tales" novelization has more intrinsic value than this 1942 award winner. And I think we can safely ascribe the blame to one person and one person alone. Illustrator Elizabeth Orton Jones.
In this story, we read a poem intended for every red-blooded Christian American child. The prayer asks for blessings upon their toys, their bed, and their friends. It gives honor to the child's father and mother and is pretty much your standard bedtime fare. So that's fine. Then we get into the pictures. The book itself was written in 1942, a time when children's books were sometimes downright gritty. "Prayer For a Child" is not gritty. "Prayer For a Child" is downright cutesy-pie. Our heroine is an adorable little blonde child dressed in footie pajamas (complete with a flap in the back). She has adorable little white friends and lives in an adorable little room with adorable little angel dolls. That's pretty much all you can say about her. Illustrator Jones didn't pepper this book with much in the way of surprises. She did, to her credit, include a section about blessing children everywhere in which the accompanying illustration shows adorable children from around the globe. But the pictures themselves are poorly done. The shot of the girl as she attempts to lie on her bed is downright bizarre in terms of perspective. Half her body lies happily on the bed while her lower half seems to be standing upright, mid-step. Yet the bed fills the entire frame. This is just one of a myriad of problems in this story.
If you want a good Christian bed-time book to lull your child to sleep with, pick one of the one's currently on the market today. Christian lit. has probably produced thousands of books that make for worthier reading than the sugar-coated "Prayer For a Child". It does not look good, it does not read particularly well. I do not recommend it. Not a jot.